Overhead Press Behind Seated Smith

Start Position
End Position

Starting position:

  1. Place a seat with back support or a bench in the middle of the smith machine below the bar with room to sit in front of the bar.
  2. Sit with both feet flat on the floor.
  3. Adjust the bar on a latch so the bar is positioned behind your head at the level of your ears when you are in a seated position.
  4. Grasp the bar with a closed grip. Grip should be two times wider than shoulder width.

Upward movement/concentric phase:

  1. Lift the bar off the latches by rotating the bar.
  2. Push the bar upward overhead. (Do not lock elbows or extend them completely.)

Downward movement/eccentric phase:

    1. In a controlled fashion, slowly lower the bar until it reaches the level of the top of your ear.
    2. You may have to accommodate to the head slightly tilting backward as the bar is lifted and lowered, however, keep looking straight ahead throughout the entire movement.
Do not hold your breath. Exhale during the concentric phase and inhale during the eccentric/lowering phase.


Exercise Data

  • Primary Muscles: Middle deltoids
  • Synergists: Triceps brachii, anconeus, pectoralis major, coracobrachialis, trapezius, levator scapulae, serratus anterior, biceps brachii
  • Stabilizers: Wrist flexors and rotator cuff muscles
  • Type: Strength, hypertrophy, muscular endurance
  • Mechanics: Elbow extension, shoulder flexion and upward rotation and elevation of the scapula
  • Equipment: Smith machine
  • Lever: 3rd class lever
  • Level: Intermediate to advanced
  • FAQ'S & FACTS ABOUT Overhead Press Behind Seated Smith

    What Is A Smith Machine Seated Overhead Press (Behind-the-head)?

    An overhead press, performed behind the head, is a compound resistance exercise, which targets the middle deltoid. This exercise is performed on a Smith machine. It is performed seated and with the bar lifted behind the head.

    The concentric portion of the lift is elbow extension, shoulder flexion and upward rotation and elevation of the scapula as the bar is pressed upward. The eccentric portion is elbow flexion, shoulder extension and scapular depression/downward rotation as the bar is lowered.

    The purpose of the overhead press, performed behind the head and on a Smith machine, is to strengthen the middle deltoid while also promoting the hypertrophy (increases in size) of the middle deltoid.

    Why Do A Smith Machine Seated Overhead Press (Behind-the-head)

    Overhead presses on a Smith machine provide a variation in the overhead press that stresses the middle deltoids, promoting increases in their size and strength. When performing behind-the-head presses, the middle deltoids are activated as the elbows flare out to the sides.

    Individuals with healthy shoulder joints can greatly benefit from performing overhead presses with the bar lifted behind the head. The behind-the-head overhead press is a staple exercise for developing the deltoids. Activating the middle deltoids can significantly contribute to overall deltoid aesthetics. Performing this exercise in a seated position allows the lifter to further isolate the movement to their upper body.

    Performing overhead presses on a Smith machine minimizes the activation of stabilizing muscles (i.e. rotator cuff muscles) as the range of motion is controlled. This may allow the lifter to lift heavier weight compared to what they can lift with a free-weight barbell. The Smith machine latches also provide a level of safety and may allow a lifter to press without a spotter.

    In addition to serving as an exercise that enhances the aesthetics of the deltoids, overhead presses on a Smith machine also complement athletic performance as the lifter’s overhead and pushing mechanics are optimized.

    Anatomy Of A Smith Machine Seated Overhead Press

    The deltoid is a thick, multipennate muscle that forms a curtain around the shoulder. It is the primary muscle involved with arm abduction. When developed, the deltoids give the shoulder their round shape. The external rotation and flexion of the shoulder in this exercise causes the elbows to flare out to the sides, activating the middle fibers of the deltoid. The origin of the deltoid is located at the insertion of the trapezius, lateral third of the clavicle and the acromion spine of the scapula. Its insertion is located at the deltoid tuberosity of the humerus.

    The triceps brachii, the primary elbow extensor, is located on the back of the upper arm, originating at the shoulder and inserting in the elbow joint. It consists of three heads, the long, medial and lateral head. The medial head lies beneath the long and lateral head. The long head origin is located at the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula (shoulder blade). The original of the lateral head is located at the posterior shaft of the humerus. The medial head origin is located at the radial groove of the posterior humeral shaft. The long and lateral heads make up the “horseshoe” portion of the triceps. All three heads merge, sharing insertion into the olecranon process of the ulna, located at the elbow joint.

    The anconeus is a short, triangular muscle located at the elbow joint. It is the triceps brachii’s synergist with elbow extension. Its origin is located at the lateral epicondyle of the humerus, inserting at the lateral aspect of the olecranon process of the ulna.

    The pectoralis major assists the deltoid with shoulder flexion. The pectoralis major originates at the sternal end the clavicle, sternum and rib cartilage (ribs 1-6) with fibers converging at the insertion located at the greater tubercle of the humerus. The coracobrachialis assists the pectoralis major with shoulder flexion. It is a small muscle originating at the coracoid process of the scapula and inserting half way down the shaft of the humerus. The biceps brachii also assists with shoulder flexion during this exercise. The biceps brachii is a weak shoulder flexor, however.

    The trapezius is the most superficial muscle of the posterior thorax. It is a flat and triangular-shaped muscle. The upper fibers of the trapezius elevate the scapula during this exercise. The origin of the trapezius is located at the occipital bone of the posterior skull, the ligamentum nuchae located behind the neck, and at the spines of C7 and all thoracic vertebrae. Its continuous insertion points are located along the acromion and spine of the scapula and lateral third of the clavicle.
The levator scapulae assists the upper fibers of the trapezius with scapular elevation. It is a strap-like muscle deep to the trapezius located at the back and side of the neck. Its origin is located at the transverse processes of C1-C4. Its insertion is located at the medial border of the scapula, superior to the spine.

    The serratus anterior is responsible for upward rotation of eh scapula during this exercise, aiding in arm abduction. It is a fan-shaped muscle that lies deep to the scapula. It also runs deep to pectoral muscles on the lateral rib cage. When well-defined, you can see the serrated/sawtooth appearance of this muscle below the axilla. Its origin is located at rib 1 through 8 (sometimes 9) by a series of muscle slips. Its insertion is located at the vertebral border of the scapula, covering the entire anterior surface.

    The wrist flexors and rotator cuff muscles play an essential role in stabilizing the wrists and shoulder joint, respectively, during this exercise.

    Variations Of A Smith Machine Seated Overhead Press

    Seated overhead press (in front of the head) on a Smith machine, seated overhead barbell press, standing overhead barbell press, overhead dumbbell press, overhead press machine.

    How To Improve Your Smith Machine Seated Overhead Press

    The Smith machine requires less activation of the shoulder’s stabilizing muscles, therefore, it is important to strategically alternate between free-weight versions of this exercise (i.e. barbell overhead press, dumbbell overhead press) and the Smith machine. Performing the free-weight variations of the overhead press activates these stabilizing muscles (i.e. rotator cuff muscles) and optimizes shoulder strength performance.

    Strategically incorporating exercises that strengthen the wrists and, in particular, the rotator cuff muscles into your training regimen will promote optimal performance and safety with overhead press exercises.

    Focus on the concentric portion of the contraction, concentrating on “squeezing” as bar reaches its highest level overhead.

    Emphasis on eccentric contractions, prolonging the eccentric portion of the contraction, may also be incorporated in a training program focused on increasing strength. This should be implemented accordingly and with adequate muscle recovery as eccentric contractions cause substantial damage to muscle tissue.

    It’s important to note that your repetition and set volume will depend on your goals (e.g. strength, hypertrophy, muscular endurance). It is also important to allow adequate recovery days in between triceps and chest training to allow muscles to repair.

    Common Mistakes When Doing Smith Machine Seated Overhead Presses

    Initiating the lift with the bar too low can place the shoulder in a compromising position (increasing the risk of injury) as the bar is lifted. The same principle applies if the bar is lowered too low on the eccentric portion of the lift.

    Preventing the bar from going to low not only prevents injury, but also optimizes the activation of the middle deltoids when the bar is pressed behind the head.1

    Having a narrow grip with this lift can compromise the range of motion and may increase the risk for injury. Because the Smith machine controls the range of motion within its tracking, the lifter must use a wider grip in order to execute the press safely and successfully.

    Avoiding overhead presses behind the head because they are dangerous is a common misconception. Lifting the bar behind your head places the shoulder in an externally rotated position. If you have a history of shoulder injury or perform the exercise incorrectly, this position can increase the risk of injury and may opt for dumbbell overhead presses or in-front-of-the-face overhead presses. Behind-the-head overhead presses are recognized as a safe exercise for men and women with a healthy shoulder girdle, uncompromised shoulder range of motion (ROM) and an uninjured and stable trunk when adhering to proper technique.2

    1. Paoli A, Marcolin G, Petrone N. (2010). Influence of different ranges of motion on selective recruitment of shoulder muscles in the sitting military press: an electromyographic study. JSCR. 24(6):1578-83.

    2. McKean MR and Burkett BJ. (2015). Overhead shoulder press – in-front of the head or behind the head? Journal of Sport and Health Science. 4(3):250-257.

    Injuries Or Ailments & Their Effects Regarding Smith Machine Seated Overhead Presses

    If proper technique is not adhered to the likelihood of injury increases. If the lifter has a compromised range of motion with the shoulder joint, this exercise can increase the risk of injury and/or exacerbate a previous injury. It is also important that the lifter has proper trunk stability to perform this exercise to prevent back or neck injury.

    If proper technique and recovery are not adhered to, impingement syndrome, rotator cuff injuries, and glenoid labrum tears may result. Therefore, it’s best to avoid overhead press exercises when addressing impingement syndrome/rotator cuff injury unless advised by a physical therapist.