I have been procrastinating somewhat when it comes to writing this article. To officially crown an upper body lift as being superior really is a matter of opinion to a large degree. I will be providing what I feel is evidence to support my own case, but in reality the result of this Vs battle to end all upper body Vs battles could go in any direction depending on the criteria of the evaluator. The bench press vs the pull-up vs the shoulder press, right here, right now.
Keep in mind I’m not talking about any of these exercises as far as them being muscle specific building exercises. I have done numerous comparisons in that regard and all of the links to those articles are below. I’m strictly looking at which exercise is the one exercise you should do, if you were to only do one, to develop your upper body to it’s fullest as far as muscle mass is concerned. Of course doing all of them is ultimately the way that all of us go about it and that is in fact the right way, but that’s a pretty boring article: Bench, Pull-up And Overhead Press Your Way To A Big And Strong Upper Body. You wouldn’t even need to read any further.
Starting with the bench press, as that’s where 99.9 percent of us begin our weight training career in some friends basement or high school gym, simply because the movement is so easy and satisfying to complete. As a test of strength between two people, I can’t think of a more commonly used method. Make no mistake, as it is also a great upper body movement using almost every muscle in either a direct or assistance manner. The primary muscles involved are the chest, triceps and front delts. The movement itself is as straight forward as lowering the weight to your chest and pressing it back up, and this to some degree involves the rear delts, serratus and some lats as well for stabilization.
The pull-up on the other hand is not something many of us gravitate towards when we begin lifting. This is because that even though it’s a body weight exercise, it’s also really hard to do. If you don’t weigh a lot you tend to do more of these and if you’re heavy you avoid embarrassing yourself by doing only four or five reps. When done with proper form and through a full range of motion, this exercise builds plenty of muscle. Your lats will get plenty of work as well as your traps, rear and front delts and your forearms and biceps. The other benefit that is often forgotten is that a well-executed pull-up involves stretching the back, chest and shoulders in the bottom position of each rep. For this alone the pull-up deserves consideration as the king of upper body lifts.
I’m going to spoil this, however, and declare the winner to be the lift I haven’t even discussed yet and that is the shoulder press. So far we are basically talking about two lifts that favor either the front or back of the upper body. If you wanted a winner between the two lifts discussed so far, arguably the pull-up would be the lift I would favor simply because the muscles of the back are so much larger than the muscles of the chest, meaning more mass will be built based on growth potential alone. I’ve wandered off topic though because I was crowning the winner and have yet to discuss why.
To perform the overhead press an overhand grip is used with hands that are roughly shoulder width apart. The bar is then pushed in a straight line upwards by extending the elbows and full extension is reached with the bar directly above the head.
The muscles that most associate with this exercise are the deltoids, the triceps and the upper chest, and this is true although it doesn’t tell the entire story. In order to get to what is really happening during this movement we need to look deeper. The first part of the exercise involves the abduction of the gleno-humeral (GH) joint, until your upper arm is about parallel to the ground. From that point to the full extension of the elbows, there will be adduction of the GH joint as the arms are brought back towards the midline of the body. Throughout the entire movement, the GH joint is externally rotated, and the scapula will drive the GH joint movement by superiorly rotating as the arms are extended above the head.
This means that in this one seemingly simple press there is abduction, adduction, external rotation of the GH joint, extension of the elbow and superior rotation of the scapula. That is a very diverse set of actions that your body must undertake to complete this exercise.
The muscles involved in this complex series of actions are many as well. In the abduction phase there is the lateral deltoid, the supraspinatus and the biceps brachii. In the adduction phase there are the front and rear deltoids, teres major, latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major and the corbrachialis. The infraspinatis, teres minor and rear deltoid are involved in the external rotation. The triceps brachii are involved in the elbow extension and the superior rotation of the scapula involves the muscles of the trapezius and serratus anterior.
Did you catch all of that? The reason for this is that the shoulder is in fact an extremely delicate and vulnerable joint. So many muscles must be used to drive the weight upwards while keeping the integrity of the joint stable.
The shoulder press will indeed develop your shoulders into boulders as well as your upper chest, but it will also develop a good portion of the much sought after v-shaped back that we all work so hard for. This is because of the significant contribution to the lift from the lats, traps and scapular muscles. Not to mention the muscles of your core will be needed to provide the power or your body would just fold over and collapse. Your abdominals and erector spinae will be taxed heavily as will your serratus anterior, which is the very aesthetically pleasing set of muscles that outline the exterior of your ribcage.
All of this means that if for some reason you are forced to choose only one upper body exercise to perform for now and forever, then the choice is simple. Furthermore, if you are seriously pressed for time and you can only get into the gym once or twice in the next week then choosing exercises with the greatest possible upside is paramount. For the rest of the time, just make sure that the overhead shoulder press takes a prominent place in your training. Until next time,
This article was written and researched by Matt Taylor
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