The overhead press is one of the more technical barbell movements athletes can perform. This runs especially true for those who don’t find this movement to come incredibly easy for them. After all, in order to have a strong overhead press, you need to have plenty of training attributes align. Some of the most basic attributes that make up a great barbell overhead press include,
- Foundational Strength
- Pristine Form
- Pure, Grindy Grit
We’ve written 10 commandment articles in the past on the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and thought it was time to show the shoulders some love. This article is not intended to be a “do as we say” article — no — this piece is intended to serve as a list of guidelines or a checklist to provide potentially new training ideas, overhead press reminders, and help you build stronger shoulders.
1. Thou Shalt Stack the Joints Properly
The first, and probably most important aspect of a strong overhead press, is stacking the joints properly throughout the movement. If you’re new to lifting, then stacking the joints is the concept of maintaining optimal joint alignment in order to produce the most power possible. This is essential for a big press, as our body’s natural levers will be heavily indicative of success in the press, especially as we press heavier weight.
For anyone having trouble conceptualizing the idea of stacking the joints, think about holding a your laptop directly overhead for 5-minutes (this will replicate a successful press). What will be easier? Holding it directly over you in a position where the wrist, shoulder, hips, and feet are all in one line, or in a position that is in front or behind you with only the delts accommodating the load? When you maintain alignment of multiple joints that is what we mean by stacking the joints, so in this case, it’s taking the barbell from the rack position and pressing it overhead in an efficient manner.
Stacking the joints is important in every compound movement, but this concept should receive a little extra attention during the overhead press. Why? Well, you’re moving a barbell through a large range of motion with the prime mover being one of the body’s most mobile joints — the shoulders.
2. Thou Shalt Squeeze Thy Glutes
This commandment isn’t directly related to the shoulders per se, but it is directly related to success in the press. The glutes play a fundamental role in the overhead press for two major reasons.
- First, they help protect the lumbar spine from moving into excessive hyperextension, which is often caused by the body leaning back to compensate for heavier weight.
- Second, they enhance our ability to produce power by displacing force from the ground up.
With the glutes tight and the hips in slight external rotation, we can improve our strength through the bar. In order to press big weight, the body needs to be rooted into the ground firmly. Consider the glutes the bridge between the upper and lower body, they are important and without them no one is getting anywhere.
3. Thou Shalt Use Thy Proper Grip
Grip is more than where you place your hands on the barbell, it’s also how you’re placing them on the barbell. In respects to grip width, generally a grip just outside of shoulder width will work best for a majority of athletes. If you grip too narrow, then you can risk potential impingement and internal rotation issues with the shoulder. If you grip too wide, you’re selling your triceps and delts short, which are prime movers in the press.
When gripping the barbell, it’s typically recommended for beginners to wrap the thumb fully around the barbell. This ensures that if a press goes awry, then the barbell will not be lost in front or behind the body, as there is full control over it. Once you feel that you’ve accomplished the press and its form, then you can move to a thumbless (or “suicide”) grip, as this often feels more comfortable for many athletes. This concept leads us to our next point.
Regardless if you wrap your thumb or use a suicide grip, the next grip consideration that has to be accounted for is where the bar lies in the hands. Instead of gripping the barbell with a fully parallel grip, think about positioning it in accordance with the lines of the palm. This position will promote the wrist’s ability to stack over the elbow joint at both the starting and finishing position of the press.
Another important characteristic to consider is the grip in the rack position. Similar to the bench press, the cue “bend the bar” when in the rack position of the overhead press can be extremely useful. This concept entails thinking about bending the bar before you begin the press, and this will help contract triceps and stack the lats tightly with one another. Why is this so important for the overhead press?
A strong press starts with a strong starting position. Think of the lats and triceps as essentially being a stable base to begin the press from, and yes, this is somewhat similar to how they are in the bench press. Before beginning the press, if you mentally think to yourself “bend the bar”, then there’s a good chance that you’ll naturally contract the lats. For beginners, this can be especially important, as creating a solid foundation to press from is often one of the toughest concepts to nail.
Note, the cue “bend the bar” should not create a downward movement of the barbell in the rack position. For example, don’t physically bend the barbell to a point where you’re lowering your starting position and having the elbows start behind the bar. If you do this cue correctly, then the elbows should fall slightly in front of the barbell and the barbell will not be resting on the upper chest/clavicular area — it will more than likely be floating around the chin or just below.
4. Thou Shalt Use the Hips
In the words of the great strength coach Mark Rippetoe — “hip draaiiivee”. There’s no denying that you need the hips for a strong overhead press. And no, we’re not talking about the hip drive used in the low-bar back squat, we’re talking about the quick rebounding action of the hips in the overhead press. With a locked out knee joint and contracted core, the hips can be a vital part of success when initiating and completing a strong press.
Check out the video below for an in-depth explanation on what this looks like and entails.
If using the hips is brand new for you in the overhead press, then ease into this concept. Start by locking the knees, tightening the core, and practicing the quick rebound with an empty barbell for multiple reps.
5. Thou Shalt Use Wrist Wraps Wisely
This topic can be a little subjective, but let’s talk about strength gear and when its best hypothetical uses will be for the overhead press. Wrist wraps are awesome tools for the overhead press because they help the wrist remain stable, which can then translate to a stronger press. Basically, wrist wraps will help take any wavering of the wrist out of the equation for the press, which can be a detrimental form fault when moving heavy weight.
Yes, wrist wraps have their use in the press, and should be used, but they should be used wisely. Similar to lifting belts, they are a strength tool that will support lifting form, yet when leaned on too much can limit one’s natural growth. For example, it’s generally a good idea for beginners to avoid using wrist wraps all of the time, as this can limit one’s natural wrist, forearm, form growth. This concept is similar to how a lifting belt can take away from a newbie’s bracing and core development during squats and deadlifts.
If you’re a veteran lifter, then wrist wraps can be used much more often. More than likely, there’s been a foundation built and wrist wraps are not only tools for performance, but tools for longevity, as heavier weights can take a beating on some athlete’s wrists. Thus, wrapping the wrist is a useful way to prolong any form of irritation to these joints while not impacting the rest of an athlete’s lifting.
6. Thou Shalt Pop Thy Head Through the Keyhole
A common cue that’s used for the overhead press is, “push your head through the keyhole”. This is the action of bringing the head slightly forward once the barbell has passed the eyes and is close to lockout. Note, this point will relate back to the “stacking the joints” point made above. In respects to form and joint alignment, this portion of the overhead press’s form is huge. Pushing the head through the arms allows for the shoulders to remain tight and protract, and to stack the barbell over the major joints when in full lockout.
For anyone having trouble visualizing this, think about the stress the upper back and traps endure when you press something overhead in front of you. A pressing action in front or behind the body is not efficient whatsoever, and the keyhole cue above will help prevent this during the press.
If you’re having trouble with this part of the press, then on your next press day film yourself from the side. Once you’ve done this, watch where the barbell is finishing and where your head placement is. Draw an imaginary line from the ground to the barbell. When done correctly, the barbell should be held over the the mid-foot to the heel area, and the head should be inline or slightly in front of the shoulders.
7. Thou Shalt Not Ignore Thy Dumbbell Brethren
Dumbbell haters — stop right there. The dumbbell overhead press has a ton of benefit and carryover when trying to progress the barbell overhead press. Outside of being a direct movement variation, the dumbbell provides some benefits that the barbell simply can’t. Consider the barbell king and the dumbbell queen, as they both need and complement each other when the goal is a strong overhead press.
In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, authors compared the standing and seated barbell and dumbbell overhead press (1). They assessed each exercise’s EMG ratings and ability to improve a participants 1-RM for each variation. Upon the conclusion of the study, authors suggested that the standing dumbbell overhead press was the better exercise to facilitate higher EMG ratings in the delts, but the barbell was superior for improving 1-RM strength.
- Dumbbell Press = Useful for delt hypertrophy, general strength, deloading from a barbell, and improving stability in the overhead press.
- Barbell Press = Great for maximal strength, power, and hypertrophy.
One press is not better than the other in this case, it all depends on the context in which you’re using them. Dumbbells are a great accessory movement for the barbell overhead press, and can be useful when trying to deload and take a break from the barbell. The barbell press can be loaded heavier, so it will typically be seen as being more superior when it comes to maximal strength for most athletes, but the dumbbells can hold their own when it comes to shoulder growth.
[Read more in our complete guide to the dumbbell overhead press!]
8. Thou Shalt Train With All Forms of Reps
This point probably doesn’t need a ton of explanation. When performing the overhead press regularly, don’t be afraid to train in all of the rep ranges. The overhead press is just like the squat, bench press, and deadlift and can benefit with various reps and intensities. In fact, the overhead press may be one of the most variable in this respect to all of the compound lifts.
Out of every barbell movement, the overhead press is one of the toughest movements to progress. This is why utilizing every rep range is critical for success. Some athletes will benefit with higher intensities, while others will progress fastest with volume. Train the overhead press like you would the squat, bench press, and deadlift, aka utilize periodization and strategic loading to make gains. And don’t be afraid to try different volumes and intensities that might not always be seen as “traditional”.
9. Thou Shalt Grip the Floor
The feet are often an unsung hero in the gym. Think of the feet as the basement of a house. Without the basement providing a strong and firm foundation, the house is much more likely to fall due to external forces.
Like all compound movements, the feet should maintain a firm tripod positioning in the overhead press. This means that the big toe, baby toe, and heel are all making contact and actively gripping the floor. Doing this will allow you to translate power from the ground up, as you’ll be rooted with a foundation to promote full body stability. A useful cue for helping to remember this is to think about “screwing the feet” into the floor similar to how you would during a squat and deadlift.
10. Thou Shalt Press More & Check Thy Ego
What’s the best way to improve the overhead press? Overhead press more.
At times, it can be extremely frustrating when the overhead press stalls. It’s not like a squat or deadlift that can be somewhat easily grinded out with the major muscles on the body. And don’t get us wrong, there is definitely a lot of grinding that takes place during heavy overhead presses, but sometimes that grinding is a sign to check the ego and scale back the intensity and increase volume.
Instead of jumping to the next best overhead press plateau buster, try simply pressing more often. The bench press is a lift that typically experiences the best gains when volume is increased, and your overhead press may fall into the same boat.
The overhead press can be finicky at times to progress, but with consistent effort and work it’s not impossible. Out of every static compound barbell movement, the overhead press is typically seen as one of the most technical. It requires the body to move heavy weight through a large range of motion with multiple joints at play and an unstable base. Hopefully some of these tips will help improve your overhead press!
1. MS, S. (2019). Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses. – PubMed – NCBI . Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Retrieved 19 March 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23096062