Article written by Matt Mills
The overhead press is something that gets overlooked in the average gym-goer’s training, in favor of the more popular bench press. Everyone knows Monday is national bench press day at any local gym, but how many people do you really see in the rack doing strict overhead presses? The overhead press is a far better test of overall strength compared to the bench press, and I’m a Powerlifter saying that. If you are a Powerlifter, and your bench presses haven’t moved in a while, I guarantee you need to start working on your overhead. Want to improve your pull ups? Yes overhead pressing is the answer. The overhead press was even in Olympic Weightlifting alongside the clean and jerk, and snatch. When I say overhead press, I mean strict with no leg drive, to be clear. The overhead press was brought into the Olympics in 1928 as it was thought to be a better test of strength compared to the clean and jerk, and snatch. The crazy thing in my opinion is that the weight still had to be cleaned to the shoulders before it was pressed. For any of you that compete in weightlifting you can imagine how difficult it would be to perform 3 moderately heavy cleans to later perform 3 more max weight cleans for the jerk.
Unfortunately the overhead press was taking out of the Olympics in 1972 for a few reasons. Many lifters would excessively lean back turning the press into a standing bench press so there was tremendous stress on their lower backs.
However with the popularity of weightlifting there was a huge push to increase the overhead press. The first man to ever press 400lb was deemed the strongest man of his time Paul Anderson.
With the rise of Strong(wo)man and Crossfit, the overhead press is making a big comeback. Unfortunately in Powerlifting you do not see the overhead press as I used to a few years ago. Although in Strong(wo)man you never see a true strict press in competition, there is no doubt that any competitor should be working on their strict press. We are seeing in many Strong(wo)man competitions, two pressing events, and if strongman is your sport then I recommend pressing as much as twice a week. For Crossfit, you have the Crossfit Total which I absolutely love for bringing back the overhead press back into popularity. With that being said, overhead pressing is not as simple as just pressing the bar over your head, there are many common mistakes that will hold you press, back so let’s start from the beginning.
I’m assuming most of you will be pressing out of a rack so save the cleans for when you have to jerk the weight overhead. The position you press out of will not be the same as you will perform the jerk out of. This is probably the most common mistake I have seen when working with weightlifters, and Crossfitters. Most will come out of the rack with the bar on their shoulders, in the tips of their fingertips, and with the elbows high. When it comes to the jerk this is the ideal position to be in as you are going to essentially “jump” the bar off your shoulders. However, when it comes to a strict press, you will be starting from a very weak position, and making your triceps do the work to get the weight moving off your shoulders. Instead approach the bar, and get it deep in the palm of your hands. You want your wrist to be perfectly straight so the bar should not be too high toward your fingers as this will cause your wrist to bend once you take the weight off the rack, same as the bench press. It’s important to use wrist wraps here, because you want your wrist and the bar to be in a perfect straight line. Once the bar and wrists are in the proper position, the elbows should also be directly under the bar and wrists. With these 3 points in line you are ready to initiate the press.
Before you press, take a huge breath of air in and hold it in your belly. If you use a belt then push out against it like I outlined here. To protect your lower back and prevent yourself from leaning back too much, squeeze your glutes as hard as possible. The quads should also be contracted so you don’t cheat and use any knee bend. As you press, you want to think about pushing yourself away from the bar, not the bar away from you. This will keep your lats tight through the lift so you remain stable. You will have to slightly lean back for the initial press, but like I said, do not get excessive and risk injuring your lower back. As soon as the bar clears your head, push your head and chest through until you lock the bar out so it should be directly in line with your shoulders. A common mistake is to lean back too much and miss the press out in front, placing too much stress on the anterior deltoids. Once the bar is directly over the top of your head, the triceps can come in to help finish the lift.
If you were to video yourself or have someone stand to your side, once the bar is locked out in the proper position the bar, wrists, elbows, and shoulders should be in a perfect straight line. Also, do not just lock the weight out and quickly bring it back down. Always hold the top every the press for at least a second, and do not just think hold, continue to press the weight as high as possible. In Strongman, there is always a down command where you have to hold the weight under control. When performing reps on the overhead press breathing becomes more important. Before initiating the press like I outlined above, take a huge breath in and push against your belt if you have one. Once you lock the weight out, breath out, and before you descend, quickly breathe out and take another big breath of air in and hold it until you get to the top again. The reason for this is you will not be able to get as much air in you when the bar is coming down and you certainly do not want to try to breathe in again once the bar touches. Once you breathe out, you will relax to some degree, so this is why you will breathe out and quickly back in once you are at lock out.
Now we all know by now how much I love accessory work and hammering weak points, so let’s get into the best exercise to improve your overhead press. Like I have said before, you cannot just stick with the basic movement and expect to get stronger continuously. Training like this will keep your strengths strong and your weak points weak.
Two of my favorites I have already outlined in a previous article here. The Z-press is perfect for correcting form as you will have no choice but to press the bar in a perfect straight line. If anything is out of line you will simply fall back, as many of you know if you have tried this exercise at a heavy weight. If you are a Strongman competitor, try Z-presses with a log or an axle. I have even done these with a circus dumbbell for added difficulty. If lock out is your weak point, then the overhead Dicks press is for you. With increased time under tension (TUT) on the triceps you will add some serious muscle to them to increase your lock out strength.
Kneeling Landmine Press
The overhead press involves a lot of core strength, and I have seen many people miss a lift due to an imbalance. The kneeling landmine press takes care of both of these problems. You will feel your obliques work to stabilize the spine as well as the individual arm work harder with the balance of the bar at this angle. On a side note, most of us have one arm stronger than the other, so when the weight gets heavy, one arm will be able to press the weight up much faster while the other lags behind. Do not continue to press with the stronger arm as the weight is now shifting to the weaker side. Slow the stronger arm down and let the weaker arm catch up. You will be far more likely to press the weight with both arms in line. One arm will always be stronger than the other but you want to balance this out as best as you can. Another benefit of the kneeling landmine press is that you have everything in line in order to press. If the wrist and elbow are not in a straight line, the weight will fall right out of your hands. Simply take a bar, and use a landmine attachment if you have one. If you don’t have access to one, then take the bar and anchor to anything that will keep it in place. Get down on both knees, and when you bring the bar in place you have to stay extremely tight when the weight gets heavy. Give them a try, but they are very humbling the first time.
I won’t get into much detail here, but to press heavy weights you need to have extremely strong triceps, and there is no better exercise then dips. As much as I love ring dips I would not recommend then as accessory work to overhead pressing. The pectorals come in to a much greater degree with the rings. I should also say that these should be done without kipping. We’re going for tricep strength, not just to do as many reps as fast as possible. Ideally these should be done weighted when you are strong enough, so make it a goal to get better at dips and your overhead will go through the roof. Now I know many of you may not be able to perform dips due to a shoulder injury but try this trick I learned from Strength Coach Josh Bryant: If you have a sling shot simply perform dips with it on. It will take the pressure of the joints at the bottom of the movement but allow you to perform a full range of motion. Now for many of you that are trained this will be fairly easy, so load the weight up on these. This is a great way to strengthen the triceps as again they come in more to lock the arms out at the top.
If you want to press big weights you have to have big shoulders, so use this exercise from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Back in Arnold’s time strength was still an important part of bodybuilding, and the overhead press was a staple. The Arnold Press is essentially a seated dumbbell press beginning with the elbows in front with your palms facing you. Simply press the dumbbells overhead and rotate your hands in the opposite direction so your palms will be facing out at lockout. The Arnold press is one of my favorites because it will add muscle to the front delts like no other exercise because of TUT. The rotating of the dumbbells will have you staying at the bottom position slightly longer than a standard dumbbell press. This will help increase your strength out of the bottom on the overhead press. If you want a good shoulder finisher try this at the end of your training: Take the heaviest dumbbells you can do lateral raises with and do them to absolute failure for about 15-20 reps, once you can do no more then bring them up and perform Arnold presses to failure.
Pull ups may not directly strengthen the muscles that aid in the overhead press, but if your opposing muscles are weak, it will only hold you back. Most competitive Strongmen I know press twice a week, and some even more. If you do not perform the opposite movement this will lead to an imbalance, and very soon an injury. Shoulder injuries are very common in the sports of Strongman, Crossfit, and Powerlifting, and most can be avoided through proper programming. A good rule to follow is for the pressing you do make sure you pull, or row 2/3 more. Performing this much back work will ensure healthy shoulders as well as a stable base to press from.