The overhead press is a staple movement in many strength sports. Strongmen need to press awkward implements overhead. Weightlifters end the competition lifts overhead and at one point, the press was a competition lift.
The weekend warrior can benefit hugely from performing the overhead press. The full-body strength it develops is like no other upper-body exercise. So, if you’re wondering how to press big weights overhead, you’ve come to the right place. This is how you perform the overhead press for maximum poundage.
How To Do The Overhead Press
While it may seem simple to press a barbell overhead, many people get it wrong. So, if you want to press the biggest numbers you ever have over your head, then follow these guidelines.
For your grip width, slightly outside shoulder width is your power position. This allows your forearms to form a straight line under the barbell to impart as much force into the bar as possible. Regarding your thumb, pressing with a thumbless grip or not comes down to personal preference.
I've used both for extended periods. A thumbless grip allows you to keep the elbows in front (more on this soon) to maintain a tight position. Having the thumb around allows for a bit more security in the hands. Play around with both and pick what feels comfortable to you.
Your stance should be approximately where your feet would be when deadlifting. This is where you are most powerful. Your legs should be completely locked out and your butt squeezed tight. Don’t stand with soft knees. You will bleed power and your overhead press will struggle.
The rack position for the overhead press is much different than a traditional front rack position. This means you don’t need a whole lot of mobility to get there. If possible, the bar should rest on your collar bone. To do this, you need to puff your chest out like you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger at the beach.
If you cannot find this position, that is fine. Hold the barbell under your chin. Your elbows should be pointed forward with your triceps “resting” on your lats. To do this, you need to flare your lats out to create a shelf for your arms.
This is your power position to press from. Keep your legs, trunk, and upper back tight so you are a solid pillar.
To initiate the press, pull your head back and out of the way so the bar can be pressed in a straight line. Once you reach your forehead, start pressing backward behind your head. This is often not mentioned and will limit the amount of weight you lift. By pressing backward as soon as possible, you keep the barbell directly over your body and line of force.
As you do this, push your head forward. You will end the press with your ears in line or slightly in front of your biceps. To lower the bar, pull your head back and slowly lower it back to the starting position. It’s important to keep full-body tension and not get loose.
If you relax in the rack position after lowering the bar, you will struggle to press the next rep.
Common Overhead Press Mistakes
These are the most common overhead press mistakes that I’ve personally encountered and seen.
Pressing Around Your Head
This is often a beginner mistake. When you are learning the technique with light weights, it’s easy to press the bar forward and then around your head. Once it gets heavier, this is impossible and is a habit that needs to be avoided early.
Often, it’s a symptom of not having a big puffed chest and not moving the head back as they press. Doing this will usually fix the issue.
Elbows Flared To The Side
This is another beginner mistake as beginner lifters haven’t learned how to create tension yet. So, the elbows flare out to the side with the arms relaxed. You will not press any appreciable weight from this position.
Leaning Back Too Far
The reason the overhead press was removed as a competition lift in Olympic Weightlifting is for this reason. Weightlifters were essentially performing a standing bench press. While you may be able to hoist some serious poundage like this, your back suffers for the cause.
Having A Narrow Stance
While the overhead press is often coined the military press, the military press is synonymous with having the feet together. This doesn't do well for your balance and your pressing numbers won't be great either.
Gripping The Bar Too Close Or Too Wide
Gripping the bar with a grip that’s too narrow will mean the bar can’t rest on your collar bone and instead, will rest on your hands against your shoulders. This isn’t good for anyone. Having your grip too wide means your elbows aren’t under your hands so can’t transfer the maximum amount of force through to the bar.
Losing Tension On The Eccentric
The overhead press is not like a push press where you can essentially drop the bar back to the rack position. You need to maintain tension back to the starting position to set up the next rep effectively. Failing this will significantly hamper your ability to press the next rep.
Letting The Elbows Roll Behind The Bar
This is a mistake made when the barbell sits below the collar bone. You are putting yourself in an extremely disadvantageous position like this. The elbows should always be in front and sitting on the lats.
Having The Wrists Bend Back Too Far
The bar should sit directly on the meat of your hand. This places the bar directly on the wrist so you can impart the most force into the barbell. Having the wrists bent back too far places the bar behind your arm causing you to leak force during the press.
Benefits Of The Overhead Press
Greatest Test Of Upper Body Strength
The bench press isn’t the greatest test of upper body strength. It’s the overhead press. Many big bench pressers can’t even press 185 lbs over their head. It takes tremendous full-body strength to be able to strict press appreciable weight overhead.
Activates All Three Heads Of The Shoulder
The overhead press activates all three heads of the shoulder . While this is mainly the front and side deltoids, the rear deltoid does get a little bit of love. Conversely, exercises like the bench press barely activate the side and rear delts.
So, if you want to build boulders for shoulders, then the overhead press and other associated shoulder exercises are a must.
Carries Over To The Bench Press
Very rarely will an increase in the overhead press not lead to an increase in bench press numbers. As the bench press heavily involves the shoulders and triceps, it makes sense that an exercise that places the greatest stress on the shoulders and triceps carries over so well to the bench press.
Stronger Overhead Press Equals Bigger Split Jerk
For those of you who are Weightlifters, turns out the overhead press is highly related to your split jerk . Meaning the more you can press overhead, generally, the more you’ll be able to split jerk. Safe to say, raw upper body strength is vitally important to Weightlifting performance.
Overhead Press Muscles Worked
The overhead press works the deltoids (the front, side, and rear heads of the shoulder), serratus anterior, upper traps, and the triceps .
Overhead Press Standards
The gold standard in the lifting world is a bodyweight press. But I’m going to give you far more detailed overhead press standards from my favorite lifting book of all time, Dinosaur Training by Brooks Kubik.
These standards are based on Olympic Weightlifting legend John Davis who lifted in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Yep, there were no excuses back in those days. No one worrying if their lift was an RPE 7 or 8. These guys were hardcore.
So here are the standards based on his best clean and press in training. This is based on his 1.55x bodyweight press (342 pounds at 221 lbs body weight).
Aiming for these numbers isn't for the faint-hearted. It will take some serious dedication to reach anywhere close to this impressive feat of strength.
Overhead Press vs. Shoulder Press vs. Military Press
The overhead press, shoulder press, and military press are all interchangeable terms. If you want to be a real lifting purist, the overhead press is just called the press. Sometimes, the military press can be used to describe your stance width with military referring to having the feet together. Other than that, use whatever term you like.
How To Increase Your Overhead Press
I love the overhead press and I’ve tried many different methods to increase my numbers. Here is what I’ve learned that I want to pass on to you.
Press More Often
This is the number one piece of advice if you want to get better at the overhead press. It’s not like the squat or deadlift where you can train the exercise once a week, do some accessories, and call it a day.
The overhead press demands more of your attention than any other lift. I suspect this is because of the smaller muscles involved in the exercise so they can recover more often and you don’t have the systemic fatigue that you’d experience from big lifts like the deadlift.
When I say press more often, I’m talking anywhere from 3-4 times per week. At least two of those should be strict pressing the barbell. The other session(s) can be any of the variations I will detail at the end of this article.
This is one of the old-time strongman secrets. This is known as ultra-abbreviated training or one lift a day. Again, Brooks Kubik's Dinosaur Training has plenty of these routines. But the idea is that you pour all of your energy into one or two lifts for a training block.
You can hyper-specialize in the overhead press by only performing the press and maybe a lower body movement like the squat. You can make some tremendous gains doing this.
Lift Heavy Often
The overhead press responds well to lifting heavy often. It is probably one of the only lifts that does in my experience. My favorite set and rep scheme for the overhead press is 5 x 5/4/3/2/1 where the last rep is max or close to max.
From there, you either call it a day, do some back-off sets, or do some more singles at the heavy loads.
Don’t Neglect Your Triceps
Your triceps strength is going to be one of the limiting factors in your overhead press strength. Heavy close grip incline benches and then performing high rep triceps exercises like pushdowns and overhead extensions will provide you with a wide variety of room to build your triceps.
Overhead Press Program For Strength
As I mentioned, my favorite set and rep scheme is the 5/4/3/2/1 for building the overhead press. That doesn't mean you can only use this protocol. I just found this to work the best for me. If you're strict pressing twice a week, one session can be 8 x 5/4/3/2/1/1/1/1 while the other session can be 8 x 5/4/3/2/1/6/6/6.
This lets you get a lot of heavy reps as well as some heavier back-off sets. Your higher rep training can be done with pressing variations. Here is an example program for building crazy overhead strength.
A1) Overhead Press
1 x 5
1 x 4
1 x 3
1 x 2
1 x 1
3 x 1
B1) Triceps Pushdown
4 x 20
A1) Overhead Press
1 x 5
1 x 4
1 x 3
1 x 2
1 x 1
3 x 6
B1) Overhead Triceps Extension
4 x 15
A1) 1-Arm DB Overhead Press
4 x 10/side
B1) Lateral Raise
4 x 12
C1) Rear Delt Fly
4 x 15
A1) Overhead Press From Pins (Nose Height)
5 x 2
B1) Lying Triceps Extension
4 x 10
Overhead Press For Big Shoulders
The rules are slightly different when overhead pressing for big shoulders. You need more volume and generally more variety to maximally stimulate each muscle head of the shoulder. That means more isolation movements as accessories.
Further, because you are likely training the rest of your body to grow, you won’t be able to train your shoulders at the same frequency as you still need to press for chest movements. Here is an example of a two-day program for big shoulders.
A1) Rear Delt Fly
4 x 15
B1) Overhead Press
1 x 5
4 x 8-10
C1) Lateral Raise
3 x 12
A1) 1-Arm DB Press
4 x 12
B1) Rear Delt Fly
4 x 20
C1) Lateral Raise
3 x 15
Overhead Press Variations
You’re not stuck with only performing the strict barbell overhead press. There are so many variations you can use to kickstart your pressing gains and attack weak points.
Dumbbell Overhead Press
The dumbbell overhead press has its limitations. However, it allows you to get a slightly larger range of motion and address any muscle imbalances you may have. Because you need to press two separate dumbbells, each arm must work equally whereas one arm can work more than the other when pressing a barbell.
Further, dumbbells add a stability component that barbells don’t provide. But you are often limited by loading due to this greater need for stability and also by the ability to get them to the shoulders.
When performing the dumbbell overhead press, don’t have your elbows directly out to the side. This is a poor and weak way to press. Your elbows should be slightly forward at approximately 30° from the side as this places your arm in line with your shoulder blade making it safer and more effective.
1-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press
I absolutely love the 1-arm dumbbell press. It is my favorite overhead press variation. You can load it much heavier than the traditional dumbbell press as you can use both hands to get it into position. Also, you will develop insane strength in the trunk as you need to remain stable while pressing a heavy dumbbell on one side.
You can have your non-pressing arm extended to the side to act as a counterbalance while pressing.
Seated Barbell Overhead Press
I'm not a huge fan of the seated barbell overhead press as it is difficult to set up well unless you have a seated overhead press rack and a spotter to help you un-rack the bar. Nevertheless, it can be a handy variation to isolate your upper body to a greater extent than standing.
You don’t have your legs as a base so you are solely relying on your trunk strength to keep you upright. The same overhead press technique is used when seated or standing.
Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press
The seated dumbbell overhead press is a more common seated variation. Again, you are limited by how much weight you can kick up from your leg to the rack position. Because you are usually leaning back against a bench, you totally isolate the shoulders and triceps making it a good shoulder accessory exercise.
If you want a detailed guide about how the push press differs from the overhead press, check out my push press vs. overhead press article. Briefly, the push press involves leg drive while the overhead press is strict meaning there is no involvement from the legs.
That is why you can push press much more than you can overhead press. Many novice lifters can't push press much more than the strict press because they can't effectively use the legs to transfer momentum to the bar.
To get the most out of your push press, your dip and drive must be completely straight. Meaning you are lowering your tailbone straight down. Not pushing your hips back like you would when squatting.
Behind The Neck Press
There is always conjecture around whether or not you should behind the neck press. Most will argue the exercise will tear up your shoulders. This just isn’t true. If you have the requisite mobility, behind the neck pressing is perfectly fine.
The secret is to only lower the bar as far as your mobility allows and to work on your passive range of motion (shoulder external rotation and thoracic extension) so you can find these positions .
You’ll find pressing from the behind the neck position will actually improve your mobility over time.
Those with extremely kyphotic postures (rounded back) or those that can’t raise their arms fully overhead should avoid this exercise due to the wear and tear it can cause on the shoulders being in a bad position.
For those using the behind the neck press, use a grip width that is comfortable for you. One variation is the snatch grip behind the neck press but I haven’t found that to carry over at all to my overhead press and can be uncomfortable.
A clean or deadlift grip is often too narrow and a grip close to the rings has felt the most comfortable for me when pressing from behind the neck.
Seated Behind The Neck Press From Pins
I got this variation from legendary strength coach Ed Cosner. I prefer this seated variation over any other behind the neck press variation for multiple reasons:
The moral of the story? Do this exercise religiously for strong healthy shoulders.
Overhead Press From Pins
I'm a big fan of exercises from the pins. The raw strength you need from the dead stop position will humble you especially if you are used to bouncing reps. You can set your pins up at any height for the overhead press from pins. Personally, I like using the pins from the nose, forehead, and above the head height.
I feel these allow you to handle the most load to carry over to your overhead press. It’s a great way to build your triceps too.
The Z press is named after Strongman Zydrunas Savickas (hence the Z press) as he created this exercise and made it famous. It involves you sitting on the floor and pressing overhead. You will find this will light your hip flexors up the first time you try these as you try to stabilize yourself.
This will force you to develop a strong trunk and back to carry over to your standing overhead press so you have even greater support. You also heavily isolate the shoulders and triceps. It’s best to set up pins when doing these so you can easily bring the bar to the rack position.
Also, don’t keep your legs together. Sit in a straddle position with your legs out approximately 45° on each side. This will provide you with better balance.
Overhead Machine Press
Finally, you have various overhead press machines. I’m not a huge fan of these as the way they are built is just plain uncomfortable when pressing. Also, there are so many good barbell and dumbbell pressing variations you don’t need machines to get big and strong.
However, maybe you have access to a good machine or you enjoy triple drop sets as you press the entire stack. Because the machine is fixed, it is best used for pumping very high reps as you are purely isolating the shoulders and triceps and a lot of fatigue won’t cause you to fall over or lose the implement.
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