Are you dedicated to your overhead press? Making sure you’re getting in upper body compound exercises that aren’t just the bench press? Are you sure your form is beautiful—tight core, tight quads, tight glutes? That’s awesome! And yet, has your overhead press stopped moving up in weight, or (even more dreaded) started moving down in weight, no matter how much work you put in? Significantly less awesome.
Fortunately, there are quite a few ways to bust through your overhead press plateau. From rest and recovery (sorry!) to power cleans, there is a wide array of plateau-busting methods to try. Just make sure to be patient with yourself: forcing your shoulders to do things they’re not ready for is an easy recipe for injury that will definitely keep you from getting through your stagnant press.
[Learn more: The 10 Commandments of the Overhead Press]
1. Rest And Recover
No matter how much we hate to hear it, sometimes even the most amount of sweat and grit underneath a bar won’t get your numbers to move up. Sometimes, it’s about taking a step back and letting your shoulders take a break. The overhead press might not be quite as taxing on your central nervous system as something like the deadlift, but it sure does take a toll, especially when you’re trying to move heavy weight.
Shifting your programming to either move significantly less weight—think 50-60% of your max—for a couple of weeks can actually help you come back stronger than before. Or, taking off from big shoulder lifts entirely can be beneficial, depending on how your body is feeling: chronic shoulder pain is common, and though we too often tell ourselves to push through it, a few weeks of shoulder rest (and then coming back to it gradually) can work wonders and destroy plateaus.
2. Make Sure You’re Warming Up Your Shoulders
Similar to the ways lifters often neglect rest and quality recovery, making sure to do shoulder-specific warmups before even approaching the bar is of utmost importance. This is where resistance bands can be your best friends. Of course, there are many different kinds of resistance bands, but fortunately, you can use any to help activate your shoulder muscles.
One great option is the band pull apart: grasp a light-to-moderate resistance in both hands, with your palms facing away from you. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with a tall chest and extend your hands in front of you. With the resistance band in the starting position discussed above, pull your hands apart until you feel your traps and posterior deltoids activate. Repeat 8-10 times.
Then you can try this alternative: Bring your hands to above your head (stop if there’s pain at any point, of course), and repeat the activation motions with your hands very slightly behind your head (arms straight up toward the ceiling). Repeat this sequence three times. Usually, I’ll repeat this activation not just as part of my warm-up, but between heavy sets as well, to make sure my muscles stay prepared for what I’m about to do to them.
[Learn more: 10 Exercises for Stronger, Healthier Scaps]
3. Tricep Push-Ups With Push-Up Bars
Tricep push-ups are performed with your hands positioned slightly inside your shoulders, and your elbows stay in line with your rib cage throughout the motion. Though triceps are in the name, push-ups (perhaps especially of the tricep variety) are known to activate and even rehabilitate shoulder muscles.(1)
Want to get even more activation out of your anterior deltoids and shoulder stabilizers? Try using push-up bars: you’ll be able to get a little deeper in your push-ups. And, perhaps even more importantly, the added grip challenge of using push-up bars will trigger your forearm muscles to tighten: in turn, your shoulder stabilizer muscles will work even harder (in the best way possible).(1) All of this can lead to a better overhead press.
Establish Hand Placement
Assume a normal push-up position and place the hand narrower than your normal grip. A good rule of thumb is to go shoulder width or narrower and base hand placement on what’s most comfortable.
Coach’s Tip: Using a diamond push-up setup works fine, but often times, this grip can be uncomfortable.
Begin the Descent
Once you’ve established your grip and push-up position, begin the descent by gripping the floor and keeping the elbows tucked.
Remember that the goal is to target the pecs and triceps, so think about loading these areas the most during the eccentric.
Press Up and Squeeze
After you’ve hit the full eccentric, squeeze the pecs and triceps and press through the floor to return to your starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Remember to consistently grip the floor and be mindful of where you’re shifting force to!
Just starting out with tricep pushups? Try three sets of five, first without push-up bars, then with them.
When you’re easily banging out ten to fifteen reps per set, it might be time to add a plate to your back or chains to your hips: just make sure you’re keeping your entire body in a stiff plank throughout the movement, always!
4. Muscle Cleans
Cleans? Aren’t those pulls? Why yes. Yes, they are. And they’re going to help you dramatically improve one of the most important pushes you can do for overall body strength.
A muscle clean is a modification of a power clean that I always recommend to clients looking to improve both deadlift and overhead press strength. When done properly, the muscle clean will work wonders for your traps and shoulder stabilizers, both crucial parts of your overhead press.
[Learn more: The Differences Between the Muscle Clean and Power Clean]
To perform a muscle clean, set yourself up (with very light weight to start!) almost as you would a deadlift: the bar close to your shins, your hands outside your legs but not much wider. When you go down to grasp the bar, keep soft knees: bend at the hips, pushing your butt back, until your hamstrings catch. Only then do you let your knees help you sink the rest of the way down to the bar. Tighten your core and your quads, and try to snap the bar in half with your hands to activate your forearms and your traps.
With an explosive motion that starts in your hips and evolves into a shrug variation, hike the bar up, up, up, not pulling with your elbows, until the bar is high enough for you to slip your body under. “Catch” it on your deltoids with your fingers underneath the bar, palms facing the ceiling, elbows high and facing the wall in front of you: your knees will catch most of the weight, with your chest still tall.
Rinse and repeat (once you get the weight significantly high, don’t feel the need to go far above 6 reps per set). This pull will bulletproof your upper back (it’s an expression: don’t test the theory) and leave your posterior deltoids wondering how a pull could attack them like this. All of that will add up to leave your overhead press plateau in the dust.
[Learn more: 5 Benefits of Muscle Cleans]
5. Push Press
Last but definitely not least, we have the overhead press’s explosive first cousin: the push press. This move can be done to finish off a muscle clean (only once you’re extremely comfortable with the hand, wrist, and elbow positioning of the clean), or it can be done on its lonesome. Either way, it is a fearsome lift that demands respect and will destroy overhead press doldrums.
To perform the push press, make sure the bar is racked at about shoulder level, but not so high above your shoulders that you have to get up on your tiptoes to re-rack the bar (you won’t want to, trust me). With your hands positioned slightly outside your delts, and your feet slightly wider than your hips, keep your core, glutes, and quads tight. Un-rack the bar with it resting around your collarbone. Bend your knees to build momentum, and explode back up, using the force from your lower body to explode the bar above your head. Be cautious and deliberate bringing the bar back down so it doesn’t slam onto your body (in fact, that eccentric resistance is where you’ll build a lot of muscle), and repeat. Again, this move is about power, so don’t make yourself go higher than six reps per set.
Assume an Upright Front Rack Position
Start by assuming the same front rack positioning you would take in a jerk or front squat.
To do this, grab the barbell with a full grip (not fingertips) slightly wider than shoulder width. Squeeze the barbell and press the barbell close to your body as it sits on top of the shoulders. The chest, chin, and elbows should remain pressed upwards in front of the barbell to combat forward movement (rolling) of the barbell.
Coach’s Tip: Think about pushing you chest up through the bar to keep the weight of the barbell from collapsing your upright position.
The dip phase of the push press is identical to that of the split, power, and push jerk. The lifter must assume a perfectly upright torso position (think about keeping the body up against a wall as you dip) as dip downwards 4-6 inches. The dip should be balanced throughout the foot with the knees and hips bending together, so that the glutes stay directly above the heels.
The dip does not need to be extremely fast, however it should be smooth and fluid to allow the lifter to remain in control of the positioning during the deep and seamlessly change directions into the drive phase.
Coach’s Tip: You must remain in this locked and upright position throughout the dip – loading of the legs) phase. Any forward or backwards collapsing will negatively impact steps 3-4.
Once you have completed the dip, you should aggressively change directions by pushing you torso and chest upwards through the barbell and using the legs forcefully drive yourself upwards. The arms and elbows should stay locked in the original set up position until the barbell as been pushed off the shoulders (by using the power and strength of the legs and hips).
As you stand up, think about pushing the chest and shoulders up through the barbell.
Coach’s Tip: The key to the drive up phase is to master the tempo and depth of the dip. The better you can assume an upright and stable position in the dip while adding on some downwards acceleration in the dip will allow you to use the stretch reflexes of the muscles and joints of the lower body to further enhance push press performance.
Strong Lockout Position
Assuming you have stayed upright in steps 2 ad 3, this final press out phases should begin with the barbell just about face level. You need to push through the barbell with all of your upper body strength (without bending the knee) to assume a locked out overhead position.
Once overhead, the barbell should be placed slightly behind the head, over the back of the neck. This will allow you to use the bigger muscles of the bar (traps and upper back) to help support the load.
Coach’s Tip: To ensure the completion of the final lockout phase, all three previous steps must occur in sync. If you are having issues with the final lockout position, be sure to review steps 1-3 and/or address more triceps specific exercises (close grip bench, dips, etc).
The beauty here is that you’re overloading your upper body with an assist from your lower body: your upper body will gain the musculature and confidence you need to get back into your overhead press with skill and precision.
[Nail your form: Check out our complete guide to the push press!]
With these tools in your proverbial lifting belt (and do feel free to wear your belt while heavy pressing!), your overhead press plateau won’t stand a chance. Keep your shoulders healthy and protected throughout all of this training, and happy lifting!
Featured image via Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock
1. Lunden JB, et al. Shoulder kinematics during the wall push-up plus exercise. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2010 Mar;19(2):216-23.