The overhead press is one of the most technical compound barbell movements one can perform in the gym. To no surprise, this movement is also one of the most difficult barbell movements for beginner and intermediate athletes to conquer. There’s a technical prowess that comes with the strict barbell overhead press, and without careful attention to form, one can miss opportunities to displace power and strength efficiently.
Unfortunately, when it comes to mistakes with the barbell overhead press, it can be tough to pinpoint exactly what could be going wrong. With nearly every part of the body playing a direct or indirect role in a strong press, sometimes the best thing to do with to work with mistakes from the ground up.
- Feet and Glutes — Lack of rooting and tension.
- Bar Path — Too far ahead or behind the body.
- Wrist and Elbow Position — Bent wrists with flared elbows.
In this article, we’re going to break down three common overhead press mistakes and how to fix them. We’ll start with the feet and glutes and work our way up the body.
1. Feet and Glutes
What’s Wrong: It may not be apparent at first, but the feet and glutes play an important role in a strong overhead press. The feet play a vital role in anchoring the body to the ground, and contracted glutes keep the hips aligned with the upper body to support force production. When the feet are not rooted and are moving during the press, and when the glutes lack a contraction, then a press can feel unstable and become inefficient.
Why It’s Problematic: An inefficient press can lead to a few things. First, and the most obvious outcome is a press that lacks strength across multiple joints. An overhead press is a like a chain, and when one link is weak, then another will have to pick up the slack and work harder to compensate. Second, a lack of mindfulness for the feet and glutes can lead to poor movement mechanics over time along with imbalances.
Lastly, compensation for this mistake could lead to potential injury down the road when working at heavier weights. Imagine training a movement improperly for a long duration, then attempting a 3-RM with form that was thought to be correct. A mistake like happy feet in the press may not be apparent at lighter weights, but it’s an issue that will rear its head when mechanical proficiency should be at its highest.
Practice perfection to be perfection.
The Fix: Rooting and contraction. Ideally, the feet should be in a tripod foot positioning. This is where the base of the lateral and medial metatarsals and heel are all making equal contact with the ground in a gripping fashion. In terms of angle and width, there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all position, but generally speaking, a hip width stance works well for a majority of athletes, and a slight external rotation of the feet typically fares the best (think 10-20 degrees).
The slight external rotation in the feet is also useful for contraction of the glutes. Think about the squat and conventional deadlift, and how the feet are positioned. Besides having a slightly turned out position to accommodate for hip capsule comfort, this also naturally helps with the contraction of the glutes, which usually results in externally rotated feet.
2. Bar Path
What’s Wrong: Out of all the barbell compound movements, bar path in the overhead press is arguably the most crucial to understand and conquer. Bar path in the overhead press is how the barbell moves from the front rack position to an overhead position in relationship to the body’s center of gravity. For the overhead press, a great bar will present itself with stacked joints in the lockout position, which is the idea of the joints being in line to create an efficient body position.
Why It’s Problematic: Poor bar path is problematic for multiple reasons. For starters, a bar path that is too far in front or behind an athlete’s center of gravity will cause athletes to lose their balance, which will take away from the ability to be strong under the bar.
Additionally, a press that is too far forward will cause the anterior deltoids (a smaller muscle group) to work harder, which can result in missed reps due to their ability to only handle so much load. When a press is too far behind behind, the posterior deltoids will encounter a similar issue.
The Fix: Trial and error, and documenting the press from a side-view. To quickly check if you have a good path, film your press from a side-view, or have a coach watch. Ideally, the press will finish overhead between the mid-foot and heel. If the bar is too forward or behind, then there are two main ways to approach the issue.
First, assess mechanics from the start of the press to the overhead position. Watch how each joint moves in relationship to one another. For example, start with the hip joint, then shoulder, elbow, wrist, and so forth. Create a line from the side, then watch how each joint moves. If you notice the bar finishing too far forward, then pay attention to joints and areas on the body that may be overcompensating. For example, the lower back hyperextending, or the elbows flaring or winding up behind the bar.
Second, pay attention to the overall mobility of the shoulder joint. Mobility can be an issue with barbell overhead pressing, which can translate to poor movement mechanics. For example, if an athlete has excessively tight lats and can’t open the shoulders for a press, then bar path will more than likely take a hit. In this case, it’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole. Pay attention to internal rotation of the chest and overall lat mobility.
3. Wrists and Elbows
The Issue: The wrists and elbows are the two areas on the body directly supporting the weight in hand and guiding the barbell throughout the press. If either of these are not aligned with the barbell and the upward momentum, then you risk losing power.
Why It’s Problematic: The wrists play two important roles in a strong overhead press. First, they support the gripping style that best serves a strong overhead press, AKA the bulldog grip (more on that below). Second, they play an important role in stacking of the joints, and in this case, it’s ensuring their position is over the elbows. If either of these factors are out of tune with the wrists, then a press can become less balanced, inefficient, and uncomfortable.
Elbows that are flared and out of line with the wrists will result in two potential problems. First, they’ll take away from an athlete’s ability to fully displace into the bar. Second, they can lead to potential injuries like impingement at the shoulder due to things like internally rotating the glenohumeral joint throughout a weight bearing position.
The Fix: The best hand position in the overhead press to use is something called the bulldog grip, which is a gripping style that replicates how a bulldog’s front feet are positioned. To do this grip style, place the hands on the barbell in a normal grip, then turn them slightly out so the lines of the palm match up with the barbell.
Once the bulldog grip is understood and achieved, the next step to fixing wrist position is to watch their position throughout the press. Ideally, the bar will sit in the meat of the hands in a relatively neutral position, similar to the bench press. The knuckles will be in roughly a 130 degree angle with the back of the wrist. In terms of width, generally a grip width of shoulder width is best.
Similar to the bench press, the elbows should be under the barbell in the rack position and throughout the press, not behind or in front. Any form of flare will result in poor pressing mechanics. If grip width is not the problem with flaring elbows, then the next best thing to do is to scale back the weight and to perform high-rep sets to engrave proper mechanics in the body.
In reality, there are multiple areas where an overhead press can go wrong, and these are only three common mistakes. There are multiple performance attributes that need to be aligned to nail perfect overhead presses. If you find that you’re making one of the above three mistakes, then spend some extra time assessing and rebuilding the press. A couple of the best ways to fix faulty form are to record and analyze videos and to work with a coach to tighten up mechanics.
It’s also worth noting that a mistake can sometimes be an indication of a weakness or imbalance, so utilize this information to assess the overhead press as a whole, and not just in one specific area. Commit to strengthening the entire body and good form will often follow.
Featured image via Shutterstock / Andy Gin