There are lots of compelling fitness-related reasons to do the overhead press and rest assured that we’ll come to those in a moment, but first let’s address the obvious – it looks incredibly impressive. However, that can be a downside too, because people attempt the move when they’re not ready for it, or use too heavy a weight in an effort to impress.
To make sure you don’t fall foul of the first, we’ve got the exercise you should start with that will help you to build up to the full move. And to make sure you don’t go too heavy too soon, try this little test. Just press an empty bar a few times and you’ll realise that even without extra weight it gets the muscles burning. It really doesn’t take much weight at all to challenge yourself.
The overhead press is often called the shoulder press, but while all three heads of your shoulders are indeed working with the lift, they’re far from the only muscles used. Your abs, your lower back and the muscles surrounding your shoulder blades are all involved in pressing the weight overhead, and if you progress to a standing version of the exercise your glutes, hamstrings and quads are also enlisted to add stability.
Read on for expert advice on how to perform the overhead press, along with assistance exercises that will help you to build strength in the muscles used in the movement.
Working Up To The Overhead Press
If you are new to the overhead press, you should start with the seated dumbbell shoulder press. Using an upright bench will provide stability during the movement to stop you overarching your lower back and allow you to concentrate on keeping tension through your shoulders when pressing the weight. Using dumbbells allows for greater control and range of movement, both of which are ideal for learning new movement patterns of an exercise and can allow you to add weight quickly.
Overhead Press Form Guide
Stand with your body upright and core muscles braced, looking straight ahead. Hold the bar on your upper chest, gripping it with hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Press the bar directly overhead. Don’t tilt your hips forward during the move.
How To Perfect The Overhead Press
Use this advice from strength coach Andy McKenzie to master the movement.
Take a shoulder-width grip
“The wider apart your hands are on the bar, the weaker you will be and the less weight you will be able to lift. Aim for a grip with hands no wider than shoulder-width apart and keep your elbows directly underneath your wrists to keep you in the strongest mechanical position possible for the lift.”
Mobile wrists are key
“For the strongest press possible you need to have mobile wrists so that they can extend back towards your body,” says McKenzie. “The better the starting position of your wrists, the more able you are to initiate the move with a strong push. Better mobility will also allow your elbows to flare out slightly towards the sides as you press upwards.”
Squeeze your shoulder blades
“At the start of each rep focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together, then focus on using your shoulders to initiate the lift and get the bar moving. Lower the bar under control, ensuring that your shoulders are fully engaged and managing the weight with good form.”
Adjust your head position
“The bar starts across your upper chest below your chin, so your head must tilt backwards slightly as you push the bar up in the straightest line possible to avoid hitting your chin and nose. As you press the bar up, tilt your head backwards so that the bar just misses your nose on the way up.”
Keep your chest up
“You need to keep your chest up during each rep to maintain a strong and stable upper back, which in turn allows better and smoother movement patterns of all the muscles and joints involved in the lift – especially the shoulders, which are one of the most easily damaged joints in the body.”
Overhead Press Assistance Moves
Add these exercises to your workouts to target the key muscles groups involved in a overhead press so you can lift more weight.
Why This is a useful exercise to use when you become fatigued doing conventional overhead presses. It’s also good for developing the dynamic press movement used in a jerk.
How Start in a conventional overhead press position, then dip into a quarter squat. Straighten your legs and use the momentum to press the weight directly overhead.
Why It’s an accessible exercise that will also be beneficial for joint health because it requires you to use your smaller stabilising muscles to control the weight. Because it’s a unilateral movement, you’ll also get balanced muscle growth.
How Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height and press them overhead, keeping your elbows directly below your wrists.
Why An ideal move for ensuring that you have good movement patterns. The way the bell sits on the back of your wrist encourages you to press the weight directly up rather than deviating and stressing your shoulders.
How Hold a kettlebell with the weight on the back of your wrist at shoulder height. Press the weight directly overhead and rotate your wrists slightly so your palm faces forwards as you complete the press.
Additional reporting by Adam Wakefield (@AdamWakefieldPT)