Build More Muscle With Seated Overhead Press

Here is a guide of how to build shoulder muscles with seated overhead presses!

Want to optimize your barbell overhead press for building muscle? Here are four form fixes to get the most training effect while minimizing fatigue and injury risk of the shoulders.

1) Do your shoulder press seated instead of standing

Bodybuilding pros have been doing seated dumbbell presses for generations. Arnold and his golden era of bodybuilding peers did seated barbell shoulder pressing too. Standing creates too much opportunity to involve leg drive. Great if you’re training for strongman, but not as useful for the bodybuilder who seeks pure shoulder muscle mass. Standing also creates opportunity to lean back and excessively arch to cheat weight you otherwise can’t control. 

2) Set your bench at 75-80 degrees instead of perpendicular 90

Try standing and lifting your arm straight above your head. If you need to arch your lower back or lean back to get into this position before adding weight, should you be forcing this with heavy weight while standing or seated in a 90 degree bench? If you can’t get into this position without compensating, we need to adjust the exercise to reduce injury risk.

Decline the bench one setting from vertical. This should allow all but the most compromised shoulders to press weight into a vertical stack directly above the shoulder joint, without compensating. A small pivot away from 90 degree vertical won’t change the recruitment of your front and middle delts. They’re doing most of the work along with your triceps in any vertical pressing position. 

Meanwhile don’t arch in the bench so aggressively you could drive a Smart car between your lower back and the seat. A natural lumbar arch is healthy, but your butt should be set back in the seat while pressing. Otherwise just go incline bench press with better back support and lose the ego. Lift weight you can control with strict form and get stronger, instead of faking strength to impress random gym members. Do you want to show off(and look foolish to people who know better) or get results?

3) Get the bar under your chin at the bottom

Grab the bar just outside shoulder width and tuck your elbows forward to point directly in front of you. Retire the half range of motion wide grip barbell press that fails to get lower than your nose. It’s showing off with weight you can’t lift through full range of motion. Cherry picked images of pros from the 80’s doing it doesn’t prove it’s better. Those guys did a hell of a lot of things to be pros including, but far from limited to, elite genetics.

Forward tucked elbows allow the bar to pass in front of your face, instead of forcing restricted range of motion or aggressive arching to get your head out of the path of the bar. If you’re determined to use a wider grip and less range of motion, press with dumbbells. Even then tuck your elbow forward slightly for better scapular movement and long term shoulder health. 

If you tuck your elbows toward the midline of your body instead of flaring them you gain more discomfort-free range of motion. Greater range of motion means more mechanical tension on the muscle fibres active through that range. While it may force you to use less load, the added training effect on your delts and triceps more than compensates. As your strict press gets stronger, you’ll eventually do full reps with the weight you were half repping previously. 

4) Lockout at the top

Not only does locking out at the top ensure you’re working through full range of motion, the brief rest point may allow more training volume within the same set. Mechanical tension is most important for growing muscle. People confuse the idea of constant tension with mechanical tension. The overall mechanical tension that a muscle experiences creates growth. No research supports the idea that the tension must be constant within a set. Pausing and rest points don’t prevent optimal muscle growth and may well enhance it.

Overhead Barbell Shoulder Press

How to setup a seated overhead press

  • Set an incline bench to the first setting shy of 90 degree vertical.
  • Set the racked barbell at roughly shoulder height. 
  • Sit with your butt back in the seat, upper back against the bench with a natural lower back arch.
  • Begin each rep with the bar below your chin.
  • Grip the bar just outside shoulder width. 
  • Tuck your elbows forward toward the midline of your body.
  • Your elbows will flare outward as you press the bar above your head.
  • Allow the bar to pass close to your face then lockout directly above your head, with shoulder, elbow, and wrist firmly stacked.
  • Begin to tuck your elbows as you lower the weight until the bar is again under your chin and elbows point forward.
  • Repeat reps with minimal or slight pausing at the bottom.

Old school bodybuilding says you grow muscle with sets of 8-12. Research later showed you can build muscle at any rep range as long as you get within a few reps of failure. Lower reps to near failure requires longer rest breaks(and longer workouts) and puts added stress on joints. Taking most of your sets to near failure at rep ranges of 15-25 or more is only for the most masochistic lifters. The old school lifters had it figured out, leading us back to the classic wisdom of the 8-12 rep range as effective for getting a lot of intense training volume and mechanical tension on muscles while being time efficient. 

After warming up with dynamic shoulder mobility work and tools like face pulls and bottom up kettlebell presses, pyramid to your working weight with 3 warmup sets before 3 working sets of 8-12 reps. Round out your shoulder training with accessory presses, laterals, and direct rear delt work. 

Here’s a video guide to help further illustrate how to perform this exercise:

Seated barbell overhead press may be the missing ingredient for breakthrough shoulder training results. 

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Andrew Coates is a trainer who is focused on strength development for everyday people and young athletes. He is the cohost and writer of The Fitness Devil podcast.