The Ultimate Shoulder Exercise for Size & Strength
The overhead press is well renowned as a strength and size builder, not just for the shoulder but for the chest, back, and core muscles too.
There is no denying that it an impressive-looking exercise however, often those who are eager end up hurting themselves by overloading the bar.
If you are unfamiliar with the overhead press, use the recommended exercise guide found in this article to allow you to gradually work up to a full overhead press.
This article will also highlight an array of overhead press variations as well as providing detail on how to effectively perform the press.
Overhead Press Technique
To perform the overhead press, start by setting up a bar on a rack at shoulder height. Assuming a hip-width stance, use a shoulder-width grip on the bar and unrack.
Before pressing the bar, squeeze the core muscles and the glutes to prevent the trunk and hips from moving. Push hard and drive the bar upward keeping it close to the face.
Fully extend the elbows and finish with the bar directly overhead. Maintain a high chest and core brace as you reverse the movement and drop the bar back down to the upper chest.
Building up to Overhead Press
If you are a beginner or have never performed the overhead press previously, consider using the dumbbell seated overhead press first.
For the dumbbell seated overhead press, start by setting a bench upright so that the upper back is firmly against the bench to prevent overarching.
Using the seated version will reduce the demand on the core (1) and therefore allow you to focus more intently on the pressing movement.
Dumbbells are an excellent tool when learning new exercises as they allow for greater control and a fuller range of motion.
Practicing the seated dumbbell overhead press will allow the nervous system to adapt and get to grips with the movement patterns required for the overhead press.
Additionally, it will build a base level of strength first to suitably prepare you for progressing onto the barbell overhead press.
After mastering the seated dumbbell overhead press, progress onto a standing dumbbell overhead press which will increase the need for stability and demand on the core muscles (2).
Once you feel competent with the standing dumbbell overhead press, it’s time to move onto the barbell overhead press.
Overhead Press Coaching Points
When performing the overhead press, keep the following 4 coaching points in mind to allow you to complete reps efficiently.
1) Use a Shoulder-Width Grip
Using a grip that is too wide can adversely impact your pressing ability and cause you to lift less weight.
Ideally, you should use a shoulder-width grip on the bar and look to keep the elbows tucked in so that they are directly under the wrists. This will put you in the most optimal position to press from.
2) Keep the Wrists Mobile
To allow for a solid press, it is important that both wrists are mobile so that they can flex backward slightly when holding the bar.
If you can get the wrists in the correct position, the pressing motion will be much smoother. Good general mobility will also allow the elbows to slightly flare out during the upward drive.
3) Shoulder Blade Engagement
Prior to driving the bar up and overhead, ensure that you squeeze tightly between the shoulder blades.
When pressing the bar upward, focus on powerfully engaging the shoulder muscles to initiate the movement. Also on the way back down, maintain tension through the shoulders to promote safety.
4) Adjust Head Position
The bar should start in contact with the upper chest. This means that when you press the bar, you will have to shift the head back to allow the bar to move straight up.
Failing to do this may result in the bar catching you in the chin or the nose which is evidently something that you want to avoid.
5) Lift the Chest
Throughout the duration of the rep, it is crucial that the chest is lifted and kept high. This will keep the upper back strong and stable thus facilitating a more efficient press.
Letting the chest drop can decrease shoulder stability and therefore may heighten the risk of experiencing a serious shoulder injury – especially if using a heavy load.
Overhead Press Variations
There are a number of overhead press variations which you may wish to use for a number of different reasons.
For example, if you find the barbell overhead press too challenging you may wish to regress by selecting a slightly easier variation like the dumbbell overhead press.
Dumbbell Overhead Press
The movement patterns of the barbell and dumbbell overhead press are the same. However, using dumbbells will work both sides individually and therefore will work the shoulders in a slightly different way.
Although this variation is excellent for beginners as they get to grips with the overhead press, those who are accomplished with the overhead press can still benefit from it.
When it comes to the barbell press, imbalances can easily be masked. The dumbbell press will give a greater indication to whether one side is stronger than the other.
This explains why it may be beneficial for more advanced individuals to perform the dumbbell variation on occasion, to check and see if strength levels are well balanced.
A final benefit associated with the dumbbell overhead press is that dumbbell requires a greater degree of stability than barbells.
As a result, smaller stabilizing muscles in the shoulder must contract to control the weight. Regularly performing the dumbbell variation may, therefore, lead to healthier shoulders.
Often the overhead press and military press are confused and seen as the same exercise, however, they are distinct.
The difference between these exercises is the width of the stance. The overhead press uses a hip-width stance wjhereas the military press brings the feet close – like a soldier standing at attention.
This small change has a big impact on the dynamic of the exercise. Although the pressing motion remains unchanged, stability becomes more of a factor due to the narrow base of support.
As a consequence, glute and core muscles must powerfully engage to facilitate stability, balance, and control.
As a result of the increased demand for stability, it may be necessary to use a slightly lighter weight than you use for the conventional overhead press.
In the overhead press, the lower extremities do not move however, the push press recruits the muscles in the legs to assist in the press.
This makes it an excellent exercise for those who are finding it challenging to complete the overhead press.
It can also effectively be used when reaching muscular failure in the overhead press. It’s fine to switch to push press mid-set to allow you to complete a few more reps and apply maximal stress to the shoulders.
To perform the push press, start in the same position as the overhead press. Dip the hips and bend the knees so that you drop into a quarter squat before powerfully extending.
The momentum generated from the extension of the knees and hips should then translate into pressing the bar directly overhead (3).
There are great similarities between the thruster and the push press. However, for the thruster, you drop into a full squat rather than a quarter squat, before pressing overhead.
Considering that the thruster incorporates both a full front squat and overhead press, it is the most challenging full-body variation in the list.
With such a vast array of muscle groups being involved, the thruster will rapidly raise the heart rate which makes it a superb exercise to utilize in HIIT training or circuits.
If you do decide to use the thruster in this way be conscious of your form as fatigue builds. Fatigue can adversely interfere with form thus increasing the risk of sustaining an injury.
As with the dumbbell overhead press, the kettlebell variation is a superb exercise that can be used to reinforce the movement patterns of the overhead press.
Because of the way the kettlebell is positioned, stability may be more of a challenge with this variation (4).
Focus intently on pressing straight up in order to maintain shoulder integrity and reduce the risk of injury. Pressing out to the side or letting the weight shift backward can place undue strain on the shoulders.
To perform the kettlebell variation, bring the kettlebells up to the shoulders and check that the elbows are directly under the wrists.
Keep the chest up and core braced as you press the kettlebell directly upward. As you press, rotate the arm 90 degrees so that the palms are facing forwards at the top position.
All serious lifters and athletes should be performing overhead work on a regular basis. For comprehensive, full-body development, the overhead press and variations of the overhead press should play a key role.
1 – Saeterbakken, Atle Hole; Fimland, Marius Steiro (2012-05). “Muscle activity of the core during bilateral, unilateral, seated and standing resistance exercise”. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 112 (5): 1671–1678. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2141-7. ISSN 1439-6327. PMID 21877146.
2 – Saeterbakken, Atle H.; Fimland, Marius S. (2013-07). “Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27 (7): 1824–1831. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b873. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 23096062.
3 – Soriano, Marcos A.; Suchomel, Timothy J.; Comfort, Paul (2019). “Weightlifting Overhead Pressing Derivatives: A Review of the Literature”. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.). 49 (6): 867–885. doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01096-8. ISSN 0112-1642. PMC 6548056. PMID 30924081.
4 – DICUS, JEREMY R.; HOLMSTRUP, MICHAEL E.; SHULER, KYLE T.; RICE, TYLER T.; RAYBUCK, SHAWN D.; SIDDONS, CHELSEA A. (June 1, 2018). “Stability of Resistance Training Implement alters EMG Activity during the Overhead Press”. International Journal of Exercise Science. 11 (1): 708–716. ISSN 1939-795X. PMC 6033506. PMID 29997723.