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How to Overhead Press

Posted Jul 13 2010 12:00am

The overhead press; a.k.a. press, shoulder press, barbell press, military press, standing press; is quite possibly the best upper body exercise known to man. Sure, the bench press gets all the glory, but this is only because it is easier to lift more weight benching than pressing.

In many ways, the overhead press is actually more effective than the bench press at building upper body muscle mass. With the overhead press we are standing up rather than laying down, which already means a better workout for the back, legs, and core. And seriously, massive, powerful shoulders are far more impressive than a puffy chest.


The overhead press can cause injury if you are not careful. If you don’t adhere to the following tips, you could end up with pain in your lower back, wrists, shoulders, and core.

Tips for pressing:

  • Proper Posture – Stand up straight, with the barbell racked on your upper chest and shoulders, as in the catch position for a clean. To get it up there, you can lift the bar off a rack, clean it into position, or have a partner hand it to you if absolutely necessary. Keep your chin level and your chest up.
  • Stance - Your feet should be no wider than shoulder-width, and your knees should stay locked. (Bending the knees turns an overhead press into a push press.)
  • Grip - Your hands should be just outside shoulder width and the bar should be resting on your palm, not on your fingers.
  • Elbows - So you don’t drop the bar your elbows should be up and pointing forward as much as possible. This is a standard for the shoulder catch position.
  • Flex Your Posterior – Essentially what I’m saying is to squeeze your buttocks. You will have been stability if your glutes and hips are contracted throughout the lift. This will also help you keep your back straight.

The shoulder press itself should be one smooth motion from bottom to top. For speed, strength, and power, always try to increase the acceleration of the bar through full extension. Bodybuilders tend to increase time under tension by lifting to a count of 3 or whatever, but I don’t much support that lifting style.

  • Get the bar up into your shoulder catch position.
  • You may have to quickly tilt your head back slightly to get the bar past your chin and nose. Continue looking forward.
  • Press the barbell straight up over your head until your arms are straight.
  • Breathe out during the second half of that rep.
  • If you had to tilt your head back bring it forward again as soon as the bar gets past your nose.
  • Pause half a second with the bar directly over your hips and ankles. Squeeze your shoulders, traps, and back in order to stabilize the weight at full extension.
  • Lower back down into the shoulder catch.
  • Breathe in as the bar goes down.
  • Prepare to press again.
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Although you can lift more weight with the bench press, the overhead press has many benefits over the bench press.

  • Full Body Workout – Since you are standing, your legs and core take a beating. While your core and legs hold the weight, your shoulders, upper chest and arms press the weight overhead.
  • Builds Muscle – Being a compound movement that allows you to lift moderately heavy weight overhead, presses are an effective full body muscle building exercise. Abs, back, glutes, shoulders, chest, and triceps are all hit hard by barbell pressing.
  • Full Shoulder Workout – While the bench press works the front of your shoulders more than your medial and real shoulders, the overhead press works all 3 shoulder heads equally.
  • Shoulder Safety – Including an equal number of overhead presses as bench presses in your routine, is vital to avoiding muscular imbalance in the shoulder area. The rotator cuff muscles will also be better protected.
  • You Don’t Need a Spotter – When you are unable to press the bar overhead, simply lower it back to the shoulder catch position and either put it on the floor or put it back in the rack. With the press, you will never get stuck under the bar like you could with a missed bench press.
  • Push Press – Use leg drive to push the weight up.
  • Military Press – Use a really close stance.
  • Push Jerk – Use leg drive to push the weight up, but also dip under the weight and catch it above your head. Stand up straight like an overhead squat.
  • Overhead Pin Press – In a rack, set the bar on pins at whatever height you desire. Press the bar to lockout and then return it to rest on the pins.
  • Overhead Press with Bands – The standard overhead press with bands attached to further develop acceleration.
  • Dumbbell Press – Use dumbbells instead of a barbell.
  • Alternating Dumbbell Press – One rep with the left arm, one rep with the right arm, repeat.
  • Arnold Press – Dumbbell press where the weights start together, in front of your face, and rotate out and up to finish the rep.
  • Going Too Heavy – When you try this exercise for the first time, it is important to start light and develop proper technique. Starting with a broom handle or PVC pipe is always best, and then you can almost immediately graduate to a standard Olympic bar. Even women.

    Furthermore, when you choose to go lighter (35-50% of 1 rep max) you can work on speed and power by lifting the bar super fast for a set of 3-5 reps.

  • Smashing Yourself in the Chin or Nose – This is why we quickly tilt our head back just slightly when beginning the press.
  • Keeping Your Body Back – You don’t want your body behind the bar at full extension. As the bar passes your forehead, it is a good idea to shift your torso slightly forward in order to get directly under the bar.
  • Looking Down – Never look down during this exercise. There is never a reason to look down when you are holding a barbell in front of your body.
  • Grip Too Wide or Narrow – A grip slightly wider than shoulder grip is perfect. Gripping the bar too wide or too narrow can really make the exercise more difficult and will increase the risk of injury. Overhead press is not like bench press: you don’t need to vary the grip.
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