How to Overhead Press Properly: Technique, Mistakes, and Variations

Master the overhead press to build strong and dynamic shoulders.

The overhead press is a foundational strength and muscle hypertrophy movement that can be used by strength, power, and fitness athletes to enhance upper body size, strength, and performance.

In this article, we will discuss the overhead press, specifically:

  • Overhead Press Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Overhead Press
  • Muscles Worked by the Overhead Press
  • Who Should Do the Overhead Press
  • Overhead Press Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Overhead Press Variations and Alternatives

How to Perform the Overhead Press: Step-By-Step Guide

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the overhead press using the barbell. Further below we will discuss a wide variety of variations and alternatives to the overhead press.

1.
Set-Up

Start by taking a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip on the barbell. Your grip should be firm with you hands closed tightly around the bar.

The bar should be resting on the upper shoulders, not the chest, with the elbows pushed slightly forwards to create a shelf. The feet should be hip width, or narrower, with the legs rigid and core contracted.

Coach’s Tip: The elbows should be under the wrists in the set up, or slightly in front.

2.
Squeeze and Press

When ready, contract the body starting from the toes to the glutes, and up the spine. Once you have complete rigidity in the body and core, press aggressively through the palms of the hands and into the barbell.

Slightly pull your head back out of the bar path to allow the barbell to be pressed in a vertical plane, rather than having to go forward.

Coach’s Tip: Do not let the barbell travel away from the body.

3.
Head Through and Press

Once the barbell has passed the head, move your head back underneath the barbell to finish of the lift in a vertical manner. Use the triceps and shoulders to lockout the lift and stabilize in the overhead position.

The lift should finish with the barbell supported overhead, position slightly behind the head.

3 Benefits of the Overhead Press

Below are three (3) reasons why the overhead press is beneficial for lifters and athletes of all types.

1. Upper Body Pressing Strength

The overhead press is a standard upper body strength exercise in which lifters can add serious pressing strength and mass. By using a barbell, you allow for high amounts of loading to be moved which can have a board application to increased shoulder, chest, and triceps performance. Strongman, powerlifters, weightlifters, and fitness enthusiasts alike can benefit from including overhead presses within training programs

2. Improved Shoulder and Triceps Hypertrophy

The overhead press can be done in moderate to high volumes to increase muscle mass of the shoulders and triceps. Like other movements using a barbell, the overhead press can often be done in higher volumes with higher amounts of external loading; both of which are a recipe for muscle growth.

3. Application to Overhead Lifts

The overhead press is a foundational movement pattern necessary for more complex overhead lifts like the push press and jerk. In addition, lifters who perform strict bodyweight exercises like handstand push ups can also benefit from the shoulder and triceps strengthening benefits of the overhead press.

Muscles Worked – Overhead Press

The below muscles groups are trained during the barbell overhead press variation. Many of the same muscle groups are also targeted when performing the overhead press with kettlebells and dumbbells.

  • Shoulders
  • Triceps
  • Upper Pectorals (Chest)
  • Scapular Stabilizers

Who Should Perform the Overhead Press?

Below are a few groups of athletes that can benefit from including overhead presses within their training programs.

Strength and Power Athletes

The overhead press is a foundational strength lift for most strength and power athletes. Strength athletes and powerlifters can utilize the overhead press within training programs to support bench press strength, enhance upper body pressing strength, and develop the shoulders, upper pectorals, and triceps.

Olympic weightlifters can integrate overhead pressing within training sessions to increase shoulder and triceps lockout strength, improve body mass, and address any overhead and general pressing strength deficiencies.

Powerlifting Meet
Photo By Jordan Jovkov / Shutterstock

Competitive CrossFit and Fitness Athletes

Competitive CrossFit and fitness athletes will benefit from performing overhead presses as it can enhance performance in other overhead lifts such as push presses, jerks, snatches, and handstand push ups.

Individuals who have difficulties locking out lifts, pressing themselves in push-ups and handstands, and instability in the overhead position may find that the overhead press can be a valuable accessory exercise to add muscle, strength, and refine overhead technique.

Sports Athletes

The overhead press can be used to increase general upper body strength and muscle mass with athletes who may be lacking body mass or have limitations in strength. It is important to note that some athletes, such as baseball and softball players may need to limit the amount of overhead pressing they do to minimize overall fatigue of the shoulder muscles.

General Fitness and Desk Bound Individuals

LIke the bent over row, pull ups, and bench press, overhead press is an important exercise to round out a sound upper body training program. The overhead press is a vertical pressing movement, and therefore can help balance out horizontal pressing and pulling movements.

Overhead Press Bar Path
Overhead Press Bar Path / Good + Poor Form

It is important to also note that some individuals may have poor shoulder mobility that should be addressed before loading an overhead movement. Adding loading (stability) to a poor range of motion (mobility) can result in further mobility restrictions and potential injury to joints and connective tissues.

Overhead Press Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Below are three (3) primary sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the overhead press specific to their training goals. Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming.

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The overhead press can be used to increase shoulder and triceps muscle mass. Start with the below programming recommendations to increase muscle hypertrophy and set a foundation for more advanced strength programs.

  • 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps with moderate to heavy loads to increase muscle hypertrophy of the shoulders and triceps muscles

Strength Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The overhead press is an exercise that can build pressing strength that has broad application to overhead lifts and other pressing movements, like the bench press.

  • 4-5 sets of 3-5 reps with moderate to heavy loads

3 Overhead Press Variations

Below are three (3) overhead press variations to build shoulder strength and hypertrophy and improve overhead performance.

1. Accommodating Resistance Overhead Press

Adding bands or chains to a barbell and performing overhead presses can be a great way to increase the rate of force development, increase strength through the entire strength curve, and overload the lockout aspect of the press.

2. Overhead Pin Press

The overhead pin press is a partial range of motion variation that has a lifter press a load from a slightly higher starting position than the chest. This exercise emphasizes concentric strength at a given range of motion or area of weakness. Generally speaking, the higher the pressing starting position, the greater emphasis on the triceps.

3. Partial Overhead Press

This overhead press variation is similar to the pin press with the exception that the lifter often focuses on the lock out aspect of the lift and developing strength and tension throughout a shortened range of motion. This movement is very similar to the pin press, however does not always utilize a deadstop concentric contraction at the onset of the repetition.

3 Overhead Press Alternatives

Below are three (3) overhead press alternatives that can be used to improve upper body strength and hypertrophy.

1. Push Press

The push press is an exercise that increases upper body strength and total body explosiveness. Lifters can use this overhead press alternative if they cannot perform overhead presses due to upper body failure and/or to overload the shoulders and triceps with greater loading.

Lastly, the push press is a more dynamic and athletic movement that integrates the shoulders, hips, and legs; all of which can result in improved athletic performance.

1.
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.

2.
Smooth Dip

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.

3.
Aggressive Drive

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.

4.
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).

2. Landmine Shoulder Press

The landmine shoulder press is a pressing movement that involved a barbell landmine. In using a landmine, a lifter can strengthen scapular control and stability and promote shoulder health (when done correctly). This is a great movement for lifters who may also be lacking proper overhead mechanics yet are still looking to target the shoulders and pressing motion.

3. Z Press

The Z Press is a seated overhead press that targets similar muscle groups as the standard overhead press, however increases shoulder and core stability needs. By performing this movement seated, shoulder and thoracic mobility are challenged to a higher degree. This is a great exercise to also reinforce proper positioning and posture in the press.

More Upper Body Hypertrophy Training Articles

Here are a few more articles you can read to develop a stronger, more muscular upper body.

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

1 thought on “How to Overhead Press Properly: Technique, Mistakes, and Variations”

  1. In step one we see the lifter with two different grip widths , But there is no caption to signify the difference between them

    can you elaborate?

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