Perfect the Push Press for Muscle and Strength Gains

The push press is a popular weightlifting movement that both improves strength and enhances performance.

If you want to start lifting heavier weights overhead, look no further than the push press. The push press is a variation of the overhead press that brings the lower body to the party to help take your shoulder training up a notch

Yes, you heard that right — your leg days can pay off in a new way. By utilizing quad and glute gains alongside your upper body to drive the bar overhead to a smooth lockout, you can realize new gains in both strength and size. The push press is the ultimate training tool for improving timing and power utilization in overhead movements, Olympic lifting, and general performance training. 

In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the push press, including:

How to Do the Push Press

The push press is an overhead press variant that uses the legs to create power. To begin the lift, the legs bend to an athletic dip position, followed by a speedy extension of the body to drive the weight overhead. A successful completion of the lift ends with the bar overhead, with both the arms and legs straight. 

Step 1 — Setting Up 


To set up the lift, bring the barbell to the shoulders in front as you would for a barbell overhead press. Find a relaxed, open grip on the bar in both hands to allow for the elbows to come through. Keep your torso tall and your upper back engaged. The feet should be hip-width apart, and the legs should be straight. 

Coach’s Tip: Your vision should be fixed at eye level, straight ahead. The center of gravity should be mid foot, centered over the ankle bones. 

Step 2 — Dip the Legs


Once set, dip the legs to a quarter squat position. The hips should travel straight downward a few inches as the knees point out over the toes. Perform the dip with the chest up tall. The dip is incorporated in the beginning of the movement to get set in the correct position for producing leg power.

Coach’s Tip: In the dip, the elbows should not drop downward at all.

Step 3 — Drive Up

After the dip, explosively change direction and use your legs to impart force into the barbell. Your ankles, knees, and hips should extend fully as the bar flies off of the shoulders. Tilt your head back so the barbell can move vertically. As you press the barbell overhead, transition from a loose grip to a firm hold.

Coach’s Tip: When driving the bar overhead, avoid pressing the weight out in front. Make sure to drive straight upward to maintain your balance.

Step 4 — Finish With the Arms 


After the barbell passes eye level, push your head “back through” to its original position. The elbows extend fully at the same time as the heels make contact with the ground. At the completion of the lift, your arms and legs should be fully locked out. 

Coach’s Tip: Continue to “reach” against the barbell once it is locked out overhead to practice your isometric strength development.

Step 5 — Catch the Bar


A re-racking motion of the bar to the shoulders may be necessary to connect repetitions of the push press. As the bar returns to the shoulders from overhead, prepare to receive the bar with a bend in the legs. When the shoulders contact the bar, the legs should bend to a quarter squat position, then return back to standing to safely reset for the next repetition. 

Coach’s Tip: Do not start bending the knees in the re-rack until the weight touches the shoulders. Once the bar makes contact, dip your legs fluidly to absorb the impact of the bar.

Benefits of the Push Press

The push press is a productive training tool. The lift allows for tons of power and speed, but it can only be achieved through dedication to the proper technique. Improvements in push press execution translate widely to other overhead movements, as well as to functional activities like CrossFit or traditional sports.

Increased Acceleration

With practice, the ability to accelerate your movement under load can be improved. Incorporating acceleration to a standard press allows for an increase in both total weight used and power generated that goes beyond the limits of what your shoulders and arms can produce on their own. Acceleration ability obtained through practice of the push press often leads to gains in other areas of fitness. 

Leg Strength Development

High amounts of power can be generated in the push press through force production from the legs. Repeated practice of the push press can improve the lifter’s ability to fully utilize the tremendous power of their lower body. As leg strength in the push press develops, not only will power output increase, but it will also be used more efficiently. 

Improved Weightlifting Technique

The push press is often used by Olympic lifters as an accessory exercise for the jerk. The dip and drive motion of the push press exactly mirrors the loading phase of the power or split jerk. The push press is a unique way to reinforce good weightlifting technique without having to rely too heavily on the competition lift itself. 

Overhead Stability

When compared to strict variations of overhead pressing, the push press allows for much more weight to be lifted overhead — this naturally requires more significant shoulder strength and stability. Practicing the push press over time will result in improved ability to support heavier loads overhead with more confidence and control.

Muscles Worked by the Push Press

The push press is an advanced version of the overhead press that requires total body contribution to be successful. Incorporation of the lower body into the lift allows for high amounts of power to be produced against heavy loads. A chain reaction quickly transfers the power from the lower body to the arms and shoulders, where technical precision and strong muscular engagement are paramount.

Quadriceps

The quadriceps facilitate the dipping motion of the legs, then generate upward speed on the bar with forceful contraction. As one of the strongest muscles in the body, the quads do a lot of the proverbial — and literal — legwork in each repetition of the push press.

Glutes

The glutes generate a ton of power towards the end of the drive phase. As the legs dip and then reverse, the glutes powerfully contract to create extra vertical force on the bar. The glutes also come strongly into play to control the rate of the dip and drive

Shoulders

The shoulders are responsible for finishing the lift. After the leg drive is complete, the load must quickly transfer to the arms and shoulders, where the upward trajectory of the barbell continues to full extension. Without strong shoulders and triceps, a successful push press simply isn’t possible.

Core

A strong core is crucial for a successful push press, as the upright position of the torso underneath the weight is achieved by three-dimensional bracing. If the core lapses in tension at any time, the lift will most likely lose its power and be pressed out in front, rather than straight overhead. 

Who Should Do the Push Press 

Push presses should be performed by anyone looking to improve their overhead mobility and total body strength. It’s a purposeful exercise that can be done by individuals looking to make improvements in their weightlifting technique or general resistance training performance. 

Olympic Weightlifters

The push press is a supplementary exercise for the jerk in Olympic weightlifting. Since the powerful dipping motion of the push press exactly mirrors that of the jerk, repetitions of the push press are highly valuable as a training tool. By practicing a smooth, full extension in the push press, those interested in Olympic lifting can refine their timing and rhythm.

Traditional Athletes 

Many athletes have goals of maximizing power output in their sport through general strength training. Power is generated by moving weight with force and intent at a high speeds. Athletes who practice push presses develop an improved ability to produce power through their legs, which often transfers directly onto the field for improved performance. 

CrossFitters

CrossFit training includes a variety of different strength movements involving total body power, such as the thruster, burpee, or sled push. The Olympic lifts and their variations are also commonly done both in practice and competition. The strength and technique gains acquired from push pressing are likely to have a lot of carryover to many aspects of CrossFit.

Push Press Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

The push press is a versatile exercise that can be used for many different training purposes. Depending on why you’re incorporating the push press into your routine, there are multiple different ways to apply the exercise to your training plan to suit your needs. 

For Speed and Power

Speed in the push press can be maximized by using relatively lighter weights. Bringing the weight down allows for the barbell to be moved faster through the lift, reinforcing your capability to move explosively. By starting light and adding weight slowly while still maintaining as much speed as possible, your ability to perform at maximum effort should increase over time.

To develop speed in the push press, start with three to five sets of one to three repetitions with a light to moderate load, focusing on performing each rep as cleanly and explosively as possible.

For Maximum Strength

When practicing the push press to increase maximum strength, heavier loads should be moved for fewer repetitions. 

Compared to the traditional strict overhead press, the total body involvement of the push press allows for a far higher amount of weight to be moved. Repeated practice with more plates on the bar increases the amount of time spent under tension, which warrants improvements in strength

To increase strength in the push press, perform sets of one to three reps with around 80 to 85 percent of your one-rep max. Aim to increase total sets performed over time, as volume is a main driver of strength development. 

For Technique Development

The technique of the push press is intricate. Incorporating total body power into overhead barbell movements is difficult to master, especially when the specific technique is not familiar. The push press is a great movement to start with when working to improve techniques of Olympic weightlifting because the timing and technical style is relevant to other types of barbell work.

To improve your technique in the push press or jerk, stick to very light weights and build up a high number of sets. Perform sets of three to five repetitions with as light as just the barbell to refine your technique. 

For Muscle Growth

While the push press is primarily a performance-based exercise, it still can be used for muscular development. If you’re looking to pack on some size while still practicing the push press, it’s wise to increase your reps and avoid going for overly heavy attempts.

For hypertrophy, perform three to four sets of four to six reps with a moderate weight, limiting rest to no more than two minutes if possible.

Push Press Variations

Because the core movement pattern of the push press is highly versatile, there are plenty of variations available to spice up your training. Depending on your training situation, you may need to exchange the default lift for one of its cousins. Try out these variations of the push press in your routine to better supplement your specific training goals

Kettlebell Push Press

A standard push press can be performed while holding one or two kettlebells in the front rack position. While this lacks the loadability and maximal strength development of the barbell version, using kettlebells provides a different form of stimulation and can be useful if on a deload or working around an injury

Snatch Grip Push Press

In the snatch grip push press, the barbell rests on the back in the start position with a wide snatch grip. The dip and drive motion, however, is identical to the traditional push press. This variation of the push press applies to movements such as the snatch, overhead squat, or snatch balance by refining overhead stability with the relevant grip.

Paused Push Press 

In the paused variation of the push press, the athlete halts at the bottom of the dip. It is more difficult to produce power in the drive after a pause because there is no momentum acting on the barbell, and no elastic reflex in the legs or hips. 

By pausing at the point where you would normally change direction, you’re forced to spend more time developing strength in the proper technical positions, while also learning to create absolute power from a static start. 

Push Press Alternatives

The push press is a difficult exercise to master. Luckily, there are many alternative exercises that can be used to help learn the movement pattern. These exercises can either be used in lieu of the push press, or as complementary exercises to the push press itself. 

Strict Press 

The strict press is an overhead press that involves only upper body strength. The bar is pressed from shoulders to overhead without any assistance from the glutes, quads, or calves. 

[Related: The Ten Commandments of the Overhead Press]

This variation can be beneficial for individuals who want to improve their overhead strength by isolating the upper body. It can also be practiced when first introducing the push press as a digestible primer for moving a barbell overhead. 

Thruster

The thruster combines a standard push press with the leg stimulation of a front squat to create a full-body stimulus. By performing a squat with the barbell and driving directly into the push press, you can get some additional leg training in and enhance total body coordination all at once. 

Push Jerk 

The push jerk is a variation of an overhead press that is similar to the push press. The lift involves a dip and drive, but rather than a full extension overhead to straight legs, the legs return to a high squat in the catch. It is a powerful, abrupt movement that allows you to tangle with much heavier weights and level up your balance and coordination as well.

Wrapping Up

Now that you have all the information you need on the push press, it’s time to get to work. The best way to get value out of a movement like the push press is to practice the technique extensively. Consistent practice of the push press will not only increase your power output, but will help you understand how to use your newfound power more methodically. 

The benefits of the push press do not stop at just the exercise itself. Once you achieve mastery of the movement, there is nearly endless potential for what you can accomplish in the gym. Producing power with the barbell is a valuable skill, and the push press is one of the best ways to get your game up.

Frequently Asked Questions

The push press is a complex movement. Even after everything has been laid out, you may still be missing a few important details. See below for further information on what you can do if something still does not feel right. 

What if I’m limited by my front rack mobility?

If you find that you’re limited in your front rack mobility, just know that you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common limitations that individuals face when practicing weightlifting. With the right mobility exercises and consistent practice of the front rack position over time, the front rack position can be significantly improved. If you’re struggling to fully grip the barbell, it is possible that your lats or another muscle in your upper back are tight or restrictive.

What if the push press is painful on my wrists?

Early practice of push press can warrant high pressure on the wrists. In this case, it’s best to keep the weight load low enough where repetitions can be practiced with no pain. If the stress on the wrists become too intense, try changing the medium to a dumbbell or medicine ball push press or adding a pair of wrist wraps.

I’m having trouble pressing my arms fully straight overhead. What can I do to improve this?

Completion of the push press ends with straight arms overhead. However, full extension of the elbows is not always as easy as it sounds. Shoulder mobility often limits overhead extension, so make sure to open the shoulders through a good warm-up. Additionally, underdeveloped triceps can contribute to a weak lockout. Tricep training can have a beneficial influence on push press extension.

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