A Simple Shoulder-Saving Exercise Every Climber Should Do!

As overhead athletes who do a disproportionate amount of pulling down, it’s important for climbers to keep the shoulders strong and well balanced.

When I was in my late twenties I suffered from a few different shoulder injuries ranging from supraspinatus impingement, bicipital tendinopathy, bursitis (you don’t want this one…10/10 pain! ouch!!!) as well as posterior impingement and a possible labral tear from a shoulder subluxation.

My shoulders have been through hell and back but now that I’m in my thirties and I can say that my shoulders have never felt better!

What finally fixed them? A lot of tissue work and learning the barbell overhead press!

For anyone interested, below is a video of my press attemps in a competition in October 2016 showing 80lb/86lb/90lb presses. My current best press is 95lbs.


A correctly performed overhead press is the single most useful strength training exercise for shoulder health in climbers.

What is so awesome about pressing?

Unlike other pressing variations it does not isolate one muscle or one joint, it uses the full kinetic chain to transmit force from the ground all the way up to the hands to press the bar overhead.

Since a correct press is done in a standing position it works all the muscles in the body.

Everything between the bar in the hands and the feet balancing against the floor participates in the exercise. Legs, abs, and back muscles, as well as the obvious shoulder and arm muscles, all work together in a correctly performed press.


The press is a functional, full range of motion, multi-joint movement that can be progressively loaded over time to strengthen the shoulders. In other words, more bang for your buck!


Overview of the shoulder muscles involved in the press from StartingStrength.com

Why use barbells over dumbbells or kettlebells?

  1. At a certain point dumbbells and kettlebells become too large and too awkward to press.
  2. Using a barbell with two arms allows you to lift more weight. If strength is our goal (which it is) then more weight is always better than less weight.

Why is a heavy barbell press more ideal than other press variants or band exercises?

Since more muscles are involved in performing the press we can use more weight and therefore get stronger.

How strong can you really get from an exercise that isolates the rotator cuff? It’s self-limiting.

“There is no single muscle group in the entire human body that works in isolation as its normal function. Not even your tongue. It therefore makes no sense to train muscles in a way in which they do not function. Physical Therapists may be able to isolate your rotator cuff muscles, but you may have noticed that this motion is not a normal part of your day.

If the cuff muscles work during a press (they do), and if they are aided in their function by all the other muscles in the shoulder (they are), then as the progressively heavier press makes the shoulder stronger, it makes the rotator cuff muscles stronger too. It is much better to strengthen the cuff muscles while their shoulder-muscle friends help lock out a press, than when they are made to work all alone, all by their skinny little selves in the PT clinic.” -Mark Rippetoe (Starting Strength Article, The Overhead Press)

Band and single arm exercises become inefficient because they are too difficult or awkward to progress for very long and because they force the rotator cuff to work in a way that it does not normally function.  

If you start pressing correctly with a light weight and add a little weight each time you train, you will get progressively stronger and all the muscles you use in the press get stronger, not just the rotator cuff.  

Why is pressing so ideal for climbing?

  1. Pressing is a true antagonistic movement to all the pulling we do in climbing.
  2. As mentioned above it trains the entire body much like climbing.
  3. It keeps the shoulder balanced by training all the muscles around the shoulder including the rotator cuff.

The Press as explained in Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. Notice how the bar stays balanced over the middle of the foot. 

If there is one exercise you do for the health of your shoulders make it the standing barbell overhead press!

***You must learn how to do this exercise with proper form, if you’re doing it correctly it shouldn’t hurt your elbows or shoulders!***



Invest in this book if you re serious about getting stronger!

Some useful videos on pressing:

Starting Strength: The Press

The Press with Brett Carter

The Press with Mark Rippetoe

Grip Width on The Press

Wrist Position on The Press

3 responses to “A Simple Shoulder-Saving Exercise Every Climber Should Do!

  1. Pingback: This Week in Climbing #46 (December 11, 2016) - The Undercling·

  2. Good post. When I had a poorly elbow (ulna nerve prob masquerading as golfer’s elbow) overhead press was the exercise my physio recommended.

  3. Pingback: Natasha Barnes - Barbell Overhead Press - Training for Rock Climbing - TrainingBeta·

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