There’s no denying that a well-developed set of shoulders is an essential element to an overall impressive physique that turns heads. There’s nothing worse than flat and disproportionate shoulders as it no doubt throws off an otherwise aesthetic upper torso.
And while a basic shoulder press using a barbell or dumbbells should be a staple deltoid exercise, it’s not the only option to get those delts looking jacked. In fact, there are several fantastic shoulder press alternatives that can either replace or be used alongside the shoulder press to maximize your muscularity and prevent boredom.
Best Shoulder Press Alternatives
In this part, we’ve listed our chosen shoulder press alternatives with instructions and video examples or links to instructions. By no means are we implying that they’re replacements for the basic shoulder press. Then again, it really depends on your goals.
Not to mention, many of these alternatives in this guide could be considered variations of the shoulder press.
1. Handstand push-up
We can’t think of a more challenging bodyweight-only barbell press alternative than the handstand push-up.
It involves exactly what it implies, pressing against your bodyweight in the handstand or upside-down position.
If you can do a freestanding handstand push-up without the assistance of a wall, you’ll also benefit from working your core muscles and improving total body stabilization.
However, if you need to use a wall, then you can, and this is also a great progression into the freestanding version if you plan to ever get to that level of fitness. Either one can work great though for building muscular deltoids.
Learn how to do the freestanding handstand push-up here.
2. Pike push-up
The pike push-up is one I personally use a lot when I don’t have access to weights (and even when I do) and it’s plenty difficult and also an excellent shoulder builder. Not to mention, I’ll admittedly probably never learn to do a handstand.
This variation is performed by getting into a quadruped position (like a push-up) but lifting your booty to form an inverted V which shifts a lot more weight onto the pushing muscles like the delts, chest, and triceps compared to a standard push-up.
Here’s a nice tutorial for the basic pike push-up.
If you want to make the pike even harder, you can place your feet on a box, bench, or something similar.
3. Landmine press
The landmine setup is an amazingly beneficial training tool for building muscle, increasing strength, developing total body functionality and stability, improving athleticism and coordination, and more.
It’s also a great option for those with shoulder mobility issues.
You can do a kneeling press, standing press, two-arm press, one-arm press, and other possible variations, and it’s a good option for changing things up but it’s still different from doing other pressing movements due to the nature of the movement.
The landmine press is the perfect overhead press alternative.
4. Machine press
Machines are an excellent option for training any muscle. That’s because many take the stability out of the movement and allow you to focus solely on working against resistance. This means you can really load up the weight and train heavy for muscle strength-building benefits.
Depending on what your gym has, there are several variations of shoulder press type machines. Some of them place you in a fixed position and some are designed to offer a freer range of movement.
Either way, machines can be used very effectively as an alternative to free weight presses.
5. Prowler push-up
Prowler push-ups are an interesting push-up variation that involves a more pronounced stretch or eccentric component. Not to mention, it’s more realistic for many compared to other more advanced push-up variations that target the shoulders.
During the movement, the body should move forward rather than just down, which stretches the front delts really well so you get the eccentric overload; a necessary aspect of stimulating muscle growth.
Then, of course, you also benefit from the concentric phase when you press your body backward.
To do it:
- Get on your hands and toes and place your feet together. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart from each other.
- Lift your knees off the ground and move your body forward until you feel a decent stretch in your front delts. Fight to maintain shoulder stability and avoid going too far forward beyond what’s comfortable for you.
- At the same time that you shift forward, bring one knee toward your elbow as if you were Spiderman climbing a wall.
- Push yourself back while also bringing the leg back next to the other, and stop when your butt is near your heels.
- Repeat the movement but this time bring your other knee forward.
Your knees should remain bent and a few inches off the ground throughout the entire exercise.
6. Band press
While it could be considered a variation, the resistance band press allows you to challenge the muscles, build strength, and improve stability and functionality but without the need for weights of any kind. Therefore, it makes for a great alternative.
All you need is somewhere to anchor it and you can adjust the resistance by moving closer to (makes the movement easier) or farther away from (makes the movement harder) the origin point.
Some squat racks have attachments to secure bands for a variety of exercises but you could also wrap the bands under a bench, on a vertical object (e.g, rack bars, trees) to do forward-leaning presses, etc, or whichever way you find works best.
7. Single-arm angled Smith machine press
The Smith machine press is just one of those exercises that feels good if your mobility will allow you to do it. The fixed path of the bar movement allows you to focus on the press rather than balancing or stabilizing any weight so you’re free to pile on the weight.
But a variation that many people have not tried is the single-arm Smith machine press.
What’s the advantage of this you ask? Well, what you cannot do with the two-arm version is position your body at an angle.
By angling your body toward the bar, many exercisers find it to feel more natural and just better overall.
Some things to keep in mind are to stay tight and avoid going too far down as this can cause injury.
We recommend you watch this short master lesson on performing the exercise safely and effectively courtesy of legendary trainer Charles Glass.
8. Bottoms up kettlebell press
For balance, coordination, function, and overall fitness, few methods can beat proper kettlebell training. The shape of the weight provides a challenge that other training tools don’t due to the weight and handle design.
The bottoms up kettlebell press is a good example of this. Rather than pressing the kettlebell by holding the handle while the weight hangs below, you have to balance the weight above the handle and press it at that!
Consequently, you will probably have to start lighter than you’d expect to get the grip and movement down if you’re new to doing it. We recommend only those with some resistance training experience do this shoulder press alternative.
You should also know how to do the kettlebell swing to get into position and sometimes reset.
To do it:
- Grip the kettlebell with one hand and swing it into position at shoulder level. Keep your elbow in front of you.
- Take a second to gather yourself.
- While keeping the kettlebell close to your center of mass, press it directly overhead while fighting to maintain balance.
- Lower the weight while keeping your elbow in and close to your body and repeat for the desired number of reps before switching arms.
Unlike most other common movements, this exercise may not always go perfectly as you’ll have to maintain balance and stability to do it. So you may mess up sometimes. But that’s ok, swing the kettlebell down between your legs and back up to try again.
You can perform swings for each rep or just do presses by lowering the weight to shoulder level each time.
Overhead presses work the deltoids which is a fancy name for the shoulder muscles. Let’s talk about the three deltoid heads, how they function and what they bring to the table aesthetically.
Deltoids anterior – Draw a line from your elbow crease straight up to the shoulder. It’s the anterior head that you’ll mark because it faces the front part of your body. This head contributes to actions where the arm moves forward.
Deltoids Lateral – Raise your arms up laterally away from your body as if you were trying to make the letter “T”. The deltoids lateral or outer head allows us to perform this action between 15 and 100 degrees. From an appearance perspective, the outer head gives shape and width to the deltoids.
Deltoids Posterior – You hardly see the deltoids posterior unless looking through a mirror because it’s out of sight in the rear of your body. However, it’s a very important head that functions to pull the scapula back and support weight loads (e.g., stabilizing a bar on the traps during squats).
The rear delts are usually neglected or abandoned because we don’t notice them. But you need strong posterior deltoids for front to back muscle balance and aesthetics too.
What Makes For A Good Shoulder Press Alternative Exercise?
A viable shoulder press alternative should firstly be some form of a press, and it should also work the same muscles as the shoulder press. That means the front, side, and a little of the rear deltoids.
Of course, where your arms are positioned during the press alternative will determine which of the three deltoid heads you emphasize most.
For example, if you hold your arms in front of your body like many of these best shoulder press alternatives, you’ll emphasize more of the front deltoid.
But if your arms are positioned sideways to your body with elbows pointing out, then you’ll hit a lot of the side deltoid but you’ll probably be activating all three heads more equally than the previous example.
There are several different ways to press but you should find which works best for you. The most important thing is that you ensure all deltoid heads are trained equally by including some isolation movements such as lateral raises and rear delt focused exercises.
Is the shoulder press the best overall deltoid exercise?
Not necessarily, hence why we use a variety of movements in training. Each serves its purpose and you could say many exercises are advantageous in their own way.
Can alternative exercises replace the shoulder press?
They can depending on your goals and/or structural health. However, the basic barbell or dumbbell shoulder press are proven effective for building bigger and stronger shoulders.
- Alternatives to the Must-Do Exercises
- Box Jump Alternatives
- Crunches and Sit-Up Alternatives
- Medicine Ball Slam Alternatives
- Triceps Pushdown Alternatives
- Seated Cable Row Alternatives
- Romanian Deadlift Alternatives
- Cable Crossover Alternatives
- Hip Thrust Alternatives
- Alternatives to Lunges for Bad Knees
- Back Extension Alternatives
- Leg Extension Alternatives
- Leg Curl Alternatives
- Best Bench Press Alternatives
If you were looking for effective shoulder press alternatives then you’ve come to the right place. Whether you have access to equipment or not, there’s something for everyone. Maybe you’re bored of basic presses or want to mix things up and possibly even discover a new favorite shoulder exercise (I know I did).
Just make sure to use caution before jumping into a movement to keep safe and make gains!
Also check out our article on the 15 best overhead barbell press variations.