Shoulder Exercises

4 Ways to Use Alternating Overhead Presses

Adding weight to your presses isn’t the only way to dial up the intensity. Here’s how alternating presses can trigger new growth while increasing safety.

by CSCS
seated dumbbell overhead shoulder press

The great thing about high-volume days is that you break down a ton of muscle and leave your muscles feeling full and ferocious. More reps means more total time under tension (TUT), which can lead to more growth in the long run. But there’s another way to increase TUT and your shoulders are a perfect muscle group to illustrate this point.

The overhead press is the undisputed king of delt-building. The overload afforded by this move – whether with dumbbells or a barbell – creates the kind of wide, capped deltoids whose appearance alone can convey authority and strength. The problem is that shoulders are fickle. With so many small muscles surrounding these versatile joints, it can sometimes be a gamble to just go for the gusto and hoist heavy loads overhead.

Many lifters find that more moderate weight loads are more beneficial for their overall shoulder health, even if the gains in size and strength are somewhat delayed. While pure strength is maximized in low rep ranges, you can still grow appreciable mass in your delts by keeping to those moderate loads and simply increasing the TUT by alternating sides. And there are several ways you can do this.

Method 1: Alternate simultaneously

This is probably the most familiar approach for many lifters. Think about alternating curls, where one dumbbell is going up while one is going down at the same time. This is effective but the pace is a bit too brisk to significantly increase the muscular time under tension.

Method 2: Alternate with pause at bottom

To slow things down, lift both dumbbells to shoulder level and go through one full rep with one side, leaving your non-working arm in the “down” position. Once you get the dumbbell back to the start, then press on the other side. In this configuration, one dumbbell will always be in the “down” position, the muscle at a stretch for longer than it would be during a traditional set.

Method 3: Alternate with pause at top

Press both dumbbells to full extension. From here, go through a full rep on one side, keeping one arm in the fully extended position. As the working arm comes back to full extension, switch sides and repeat for reps. With this approach, one side will always be held at the peak, contracted position for longer than a traditional set.

Method 4: Mix it up

Using methods 2 or 3, you can increase the intensity by doing multiple reps for the same side before switching. You can do five reps, for example, before switching sides and doing five for the other, working your way toward 15 total reps for each side. With either method, you’re increasing the delts’ time at stretch or extension, increasing the stress to the muscle, paving the way to greater gains.

No matter which method you choose, you should still follow a few basic rules of shoulder training.

>> Don’t train cold. A shoulder injury can sideline you for weeks, leaving you to search for comfort in the arms of your local donut shop proprietor. Use a progressive, dynamic warm-up to elevate body temperature and lubricate joints, then try a few light sets of presses before using serious weight.

>> Press first. You should still include your usual diet of lateral raises for some targeted, isolation work. But your presses, which require the most strength, should still come first.

>> Swap. If you’re new to unilateral training, make this your exclusive method of pressing for a few workouts to get accustomed to the additional challenge. If you’re more experienced, you can perform heavy, bilateral presses first before moving on to alternating presses. If you fall into the latter category, make sure you temper your volume to 6-8 total sets of presses – 3-4 bilateral, 3-4 alternating.

>> Be smart. The advantage of alternating presses is that they offer increased time under tension without an increase in weight. So keep your weight loads moderate and your reps in the 10-15 range.

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