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Smith machine shoulder press: How this amazing overhead press variation builds military-grade delts

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 8th November 2020

There are countless Smith machine exercises that'll build an aesthetic physique with the proper form and enough training intensity. However, no movement compares to the Smith machine shoulder press for getting ahead of the game in the v-taper department.

Mastering the Smith-machine overhead press can easily be the difference between a building a broad upper body and being stuck with a child-like frame for the rest of your adult life.

sporty woman training her shoulders

Barbell shoulder presses are inherently limiting. As you've probably realised by now, it's nearly impossible to unrack the bar without assistance if you're even remotely strong. Plus, even if you do have a spotter, their lift-off has to be inch-perfect. Otherwise—there are no two ways about it—your rotator cuffs are getting wrecked.

Sure, you could do free weight presses standing. But do you really want to cut the weight—and your potential gains— in half because you thought that doing the shoulder press Smith machine style was for weaklings?

No, I think not...

Smith machine shoulder press exercise details

  • Main muscles: Shoulders, triceps
  • Supporting muscles: Upper chest, traps, abs
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Beginner
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, adjustable weight bench
  • Recommended gear: Wrist wraps, resistance bands, elbow sleeves
  • Exercise purpose: Build broader shoulders and improve your v-taper

How to do a Smith machine overhead press

  1. Wheel an adjustable bench into the middle of a Smith machine and set the backrest to a 90-degree angle.
  2. Sit on the bench and extend your arms overhead. Whatever position your hands are in is where you should set the bar.
  3. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip and tuck your elbows in at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Inhale, brace your core and then push the bar upwards to unrack it, exhaling once you've locked the bar out.
  5. Take another big deep breath in and lower the barbell until it descends just below your chin.
  6. Press the barbell back up and exhale once you've lockout out the rep—or, if you're using constant tension, when the weight has cleared your head.
  7. Repeat for 3-6 sets of 6-15 reps.

Smith machine shoulder press mistakes

Bringing the bar too low

Man training his shoulders using the smith machine

The shoulder is a ball and socket joint—it doesn't move straight up and down like your knees or elbows. As such, it's depressingly easy to injure yourself. And lowering the bar too deeply on a Smith machine press is probably the fastest way to do just that.

Try this with the empty bar: lower the barbell to your upper chest and then look at your wrist and elbow positions.

One of two things happened.

Either, you maintained proper wrist and elbow position and—as a result—couldn't actually bring the bar to your chest.

Or, you bravely followed my instructions (hopefully with an empty bar) and realised that your elbows had slipped backwards as you lowered the weight.

Because a Smith machine only moves straight up and down, the only way that you can bring the bar lower—past a cerian point—is by allowing your elbows to travel backwards.

This sloppy pressing technique puts in an insane amount of pressure on your rotator cuffs because it effectively removes your front delts—the prime movers in a Smith front press—from the equation.

If you've ever done rotator cuff exercises, you'll know that your supraspinatus and infraspinatus can't handle much weight. Heck, even a couple of kilos feels challenging if you've never trained them directly.

So what do you think happens when you add 50kg, 30kg—even just 20kg to your rotator cuffs while they're in that compromised position?

I'll tell you: Snap. Crackle. Pop.

Using a vertical bench

young man performing a shoulder press

I think it's fair to say that the meathead brain deals in absolutes.

20g of protein is just right, but 19g is too little. 100kg on the bench is manageable, but 102.5kg feels heavy. Cardio is fine while cutting but outlawed while bulking—you get the idea.

Well, the same fixation on so-called "golden standards" holds true for the Smith machine military press—you gotta do it at a 90-degree angle.

Or so it seems...

The truth is that a 100% vertical Smith machine front press is impossible. Just because the backrest angle is set to 90 degrees doesn't mean that your pressing angle is actually a legit 90 degrees

If you're sticking your chest out to maintain proper upper back tightness (which you should be), then the supposedly "optimal" 90-degree pressing angle has already been slashed to around 75 degrees.

Ironically, a high-incline angle is likely optimal for Smith machine military presses because it enables you to overload your delts with the heaviest weights possible—all while keeping your rotator cuff out of harm's way. Plus, you get to sneak in some extra upper chest work. So what's not to love?

Letting the bar drift forwards

man training his upper body inside the gym

Earlier, I said that lowering the bar too deeply during a seated Smith machine press is the fastest way to sabotage your shoulders.

I take that back: it's only the second quickest shoulder-snapping method.

Letting the bar drift forwards on the front machine press is the number one deltoid dismantler. It's akin to shoulder pressing a barbell and then trying to lower it in the front raise position.

In fact, that's basically what you are doing when you allow the bar to drift forwards. Not only are you limiting the amount of weight that you can lift by placing your delts and triceps in incredibly weak pressing positions—thus reducing your muscle growth— but you're also shifting the tension and stress onto your rotator cuffs.

After all, they're your stabiliser muscles. If your delts and triceps won't lift the weight, then your rotator cuffs will.

However, your rotator cuffs are just not equipped to handle that much direct tension. And the end result of forcing these fragile stabilisers to handle such heavy weight isn't pretty. At best, you're looking at a sprained shoulder and a few weeks off the gym. At worst, you're looking at shoulder surgery or permanent rotator cuff damage.

Recommended training gear for Smith machine shoulder presses

"If, as I press, my wrist bends, I get an energy leak at the wrist. And so what a wrist wrap does is it casts the wrist so the wrist stays straight."
Matt Reynolds
Barbell Logic CEO

1. Wrist wraps

man wrapping his wrists before a workout

I don't like spending a lot of money on training accessories because I think that most of them are overpriced rubbish!

However, I'll make an exception for my RDX Wrist Wraps.

They help me to shoulder press more weight by stabilising my wrist, which is doubly beneficial because I've already got wrist pain from years of benching without any joint protection. And I'm really chuffed at the price I got them for too.

aqf wrist wraps

I used to train with the Plate Fitness Wrist Wraps.

They're proper comfy, and they haven't shown any signs of wear and tear, either. However, they don't give me quite as much wrist support as my Beast Gear Wrist Wraps.

So that's what I'm sticking with for all my pressing exercise for the time being.

2. Resistance bands

topelek resistance bands

My shoulders are knacked from benching with crap from back in my twenties.

However, performing rotator cuff exercises twice a week with these simple TOPELEK Resistance Bands has gone a long way to easing the pain.

I wouldn't say that my shoulders are like new. But warming up with these bands before I lift has done me a world of good because I can bring the bar deeper (and stimulate more growth) without irritating my rotator cuffs.

a red bestope resistance band

Obviously, not everyone wants a full set of resistance bands. So if you just want a tool for improving your shoulder health, then I can definitely recommend this simple BESTOPE Resistance band.

This snap-resistant band is easy to attach to the Smith machine frame for warm-ups. And it's not one of those bands that loses its elasticity after a few months, so I don't see myself buying any new resistance bands for a long time.

Plus, it's made from environmentally-friendly latex, so there really isn't any downsides that I can think of.

"I strongly recommend [elbow sleeves] even if you don't have any injuries or pains. You'll get some nice compression and warmth, and I feel you'll get much better elbows recovery, especially if you're doing gruelling compound exercises and going heavy."
Alex Leonidas
From Alpha Destiny

3. Elbow sleeves

man training with his ironbull elbow sleeve

Elbow sleeves are popular among powerlifters who want to protect their joints during heavy pressing exercises. But elbow sleeves have actually been around for 50 or 60 years—and they weren't used for strength training.

They were used to reduce the swelling from blood vessel disorders because of their natural compression. But bodybuilders are now using them, in the same way, to recover faster, because elbow sleeves can help to reduce DOMS by promoting blood flow to damaged muscle tissue.

I've got the Iron Bull Strength Elbow Sleeves, and I have no complaints.

These sleeves are designed specifically for people who lift. They're popular among those who've tried elbow sleeves in the past and enjoyed the benefits, but who want something more robust.

man working out with his urban lifter elbow sleeves

Unlike most other sleeves, Iron Bull's Performance Elbow Sleeves are contoured to fit the human elbow. This special fit means that you get support and freedom of movement, which is especially important when you're trying to build muscle like me. Very happy with the price I paid too.

I've also tried these Gymreapers Elbow Sleeves.

They gave my elbows remarkable support, and I've got no doubt that they'll last for donkey's years with the double stitching. However, they felt a fair bit more restrictive than the Iron Bull sleeves, which definitely made it harder to get a full range of motion. For the price, though, I can't complain.

Smith machine shoulder press muscles worked

Front delts

Muscular crossfit athlete exercising with kettle bell

Performing the barbell shoulder press Smith machine style will dependably add mass to your front delts because you can lift way more weight than you can on the free weight version [1] [2].

Lateral delts

side-view of a bodybuilder flexing his arms and shoulder

Performing the Smith machine seated press with a wide grip while flaring your elbows out will reliably recruit more muscle fibres from the lateral head of your delts.

However, doing so also places extra stress on your rotator cuffs. As such, I recommend reserving shoulder presses for front delts. You can still blast your side delts with lateral raises later on in the workout.

Rear delts

close-up of a man flexing his arm muscles

The rear delts are highly active during the Smith machine front shoulder press. However, since they're not the prime mover—only a stabiliser—they won't grow a lot from this exercise.

So what I like to do is to superset shoulder press with rows, an exercise in which the rear delts get hammered. These "supersets" are actually called antagonistic paired sets because they work opposing muscle groups in quick succession.

Naturally, this setup saves you a ton of training time. And it's ultra-convenient to execute, too, since you can perform both exercises on the Smith press machine. Plus, you get a wicked upper body pump.

But—best of all—since presses and rows work opposing muscle groups, you can enjoy all of these benefits without sacrificing your strength. Unless, of course, you have the cardiovascular conditioning of an off-season powerlifter. In which case you might need to extend your rest periods by an extra minute.


man flexing his arms

The triceps get a ton of stimulation from the seated Smith machine shoulder press. Without their explosive assistance, you wouldn't even be able to lock out the weight. So they really are crucial to any of the Smith press exercises [3].

Upper chest

ripped bodybuilder flexing his huge muscles

Performing the Seated Smith machine military press (with strict form) is a surprisingly effective exercise for improving a lagging upper chest—especially for those topmost muscle fibres near your collarbone.

Just make sure to really arch your thoracic spine (upper back) so that you can actually engage your pecs. Otherwise, the exercise will turn into a weird shoulder-press-front raise hybrid.

Smith machine shoulder press benefits

Skin-splitting pump

man training his shoulder

Many Smith machine shoulder exercises give me a decent delt pump. However, none of them set my shoulders on fire like the constant tension Smith machine overhead press.

By bringing the bar to your chin and then stopping just shy of lockout, you keep the tension firmly on your front delts while preventing your triceps from taking over the role as the prime mover.

Plus, since you're doing Smith machine presses, you can build muscle faster by training to failure. Because you know that even if you miss a rep, you can quickly get yourself out of trouble by re-racking the barbell with a simple turn of the wrist.

Powerful delts

bodybuilder flexing his upper body

Bringing up your rear delts might well make your shoulder look rounder. However, if you want to develop attention-demanding deltoids, then you need to focus on adding mass to your front delts.

And in my opinion, no exercise adds mass faster than the Smith machine military press. Why?

Because you can channel 100% of your attention into hammering your front delts.

You don't have to waste energy by reaching behind you to unrack and re-rack the barbell; you don't have to lighten the weight to accommodate your stabiliser muscles, and you can train to failure and test your strength with complete peace of mind—because you know that the safety hooks have always got your back.

Healthier rotator cuffs

happy couple on the beach

Obviously, any kind of overhead press done properly will strengthen your rotators cuffs by adding stability to the shoulder joint [4].

However, the Smith machine press, in particular, will actually make your shoulders healthier since you don't have to strain your rotator cuffs by reaching behind your back to unrack the bar.

That's why you always need a lift-off when you perform the barbell version. Because you're effectively unracking the bar from the same position as the bottom of a behind the neck press, which is a known shoulder sabotager.

Smith machine shoulder press alternatives

Smith machine behind the neck press

young woman working out at a modern gym

If unlike me, you have healthy shoulders because you didn't go bench press crazy in your early 20s, then the Smith machine behind the neck shoulder press is a decent exercise for adding mass to your delts.

However, it also comes with a risk—you could blow out your rotator cuffs. And that risk isn't one that's worth taking in my opinion.

Sure, you get a fantastic delt pump. But you can get the same benefits from lateral raises—and without any of the downsides. Plus, the BTNP is a much worse mass-builder than the regular Smith machine barbell press.

Smith machine upright row

As with the behind the neck press, the Smith machine upright row has a bit of a reputation as a rotator cuff wrecker. But even with my dodgy shoulders, I can still do upright rows pain-free. So I think that it's notoriety is a little bit unjustified.

Smith machine lateral raise

If your gym doesn't have a dedicated side delt machine, then the Smith machine lateral raise is a smashing alternative. It's really gentle on the elbows and wrists, but it absolutely blasts your shoulders. You might get some weird looks, but nobody ever built a great physique by following the crowd. So I say give it a try!

Smith machine rear delt row

If there was ever a mass builder for your posterior delts, then the Smith machine rear delt row would be it. This movement overloads your rear delts while removing your lats and traps from the equation.

Sadly, it's often overlooked in favour of reverse flys because the setup isn't quite as simple as grabbing two dumbbells and a bench. But stick at it, and your shoulders will quickly start to look more three-dimensional.


Is the Smith machine shoulder press effective?

back-view of a bodybuilder training his shoulders

Yes, the Smith machine shoulder press is a very effective exercise for adding mass to your deltoids because it enables you to lift heavy weights [5].

What's the difference between a Smith machine shoulder press and a barbell press?

Muscular man lifting a heavy barbell over his head

The main difference between the Smith press and the barbell shoulder press is that when you perform the seated shoulder press Smith machine style, you don't have to stabilise the weight. Also, unracking the bar is much easier on Smith machines because the hooks are in front of you rather than behind you [6] [7].

Is it possible to do a standing Smith machine military press?

sporty woman training her shoulders

Unless you're very short, then you won't be able to perform a standing Smith machine shoulder press.

What's the most optimal rep range for the Smith-machine overhead press?

thinking women with question mark on white background

The Smith-machine overhead press is naturally suited to both high and low repetitions. If your focus is strength, then perform 5-8 reps per set. However, if muscle growth is your main goal, then sets of 8-12 are likely optimal because they allow you to accumulate training volume faster.

What's a good Smith machine shoulder workout?

Body Builder Putting Weights On Bar In Gym

Here's a simple yet effective Smith machine shoulder workout for building muscle:

1: Smith machine shoulder press — 4 x 8-12 reps

2: Upright row — 4 x 10-15 reps

3: Rear delt row — 3 x 12-15 reps

4: Lateral raises — 3 x 15-20 reps

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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