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How to Improve Your Overhead Press

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calendar-iconJuly 25, 2020

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It may be difficult to determine which exercises you should incorporate into a new training routine. It all depends on your personal goals and what your body can handle at the moment. 

You might want to develop strong shoulders and arms, but you’re not exactly sure which exercises are the most safe or effective. The overhead press is a popular choice for bodybuilders and athletes who are looking to build a big upper body. Although it looks like a fairly simple exercise, there are plenty of mistakes that most people make in terms of their overhead press from, which can result in some serious injuries.

That is why it is crucial to know the basics of maintaining good technique when doing this exercise, so that you will stay safe and see the muscle growth that you are looking for. Several helpful tips for improving your overhead press form will be discussed later on, as well as some interesting variations to try out once you are comfortable with the basic exercise. 

First, however, let’s talk about what exactly an overhead press is, and how it can actually benefit your whole body...

What is an Overhead Press?

An overhead press is a compound exercise that works your full body. Your shoulders and arms are pushing the weight above your head, while your legs, core and back help keep you balanced so you don’t fall over and hurt yourself. It is a compound exercise because it does not just work your shoulders, despite the fact that overhead presses are predominantly used to get bigger and stronger shoulder muscles. If you are new to weightlifting, you may be wondering what exactly a compound exercise is. 

Compound exercises are “exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time”, according to Healthline. For example, as mentioned above, the overhead press requires you to engage your whole body, so that you can push the weight over your head and hold it there without dropping it or losing your balance. There are a few great benefits to doing compound exercises that Healthline mentions, with the biggest one being that they are very time-efficient exercises.

By doing specific exercises that target multiple body parts at once, you save yourself time by working on several muscles at once, and you may build more strength. Not only are you getting stronger, but you are also improving your coordination by having different body parts work together. Healthline also reports that compound exercises have the potential to burn more calories, improve your flexibility, increase muscle mass, and elevate your heart rate more than isolation (or single muscle) exercises do. 

Overhead presses are a good exercise choice to be used by beginners who are starting strength training. Incorporating 2-3 sets of 15 overhead presses with light dumbbells can be a useful way to become accustomed to how general weightlifting works, and also gain an understanding of how essential it is to have proper form. Without it, you risk seriously hurting yourself and setting yourself months back on your journey to gain more muscle. The mechanics of the overhead press are a primary example of an exercise where you must have correct form, since you are holding a weight (whether that be dumbbells, barbells, a bar, or something else) directly above your head.
Even though doing an overhead press may seem daunting at first, it becomes easier if you continue to incorporate it into your workout routine, and if you start by using a lighter weight (or even an empty bar). First, stand in front of the bar and place it (or whatever else you may be using for weight) on your front shoulders. StrongLifts recommends that you keep your heels hip-width apart, your feet flat on the floor, and your grip a little wider than your shoulders. Keeping it too wide will make pushing the bar above your head more difficult than it has to be. Lean back by pushing your hips forward, says Nerd Fitness, in order to raise your chest towards the ceiling, and try to tuck your chin into your upper chest so that the bar does not hit it as you push it upwards. Then, press it upwards over your head and keep it as close to you as possible, while keeping your core and legs tight to help keep you stabilized. Once the bar has passed over your forehead, shift your torso forward to move your body back under the bar. Lock your elbows, hips and knees as you hold the bar (or other weight) over your head, and shrug your shoulders slightly towards the ceiling.

Here is a basic rundown of what each body part should be doing as you perform an overhead press, according to StrongLifts:

  • Stance: Keep your heels hip-width apart, your feet flat on the floor and be sure to point them slightly out.
  • Legs: Keep your knees and hips locked from start to finish. Bending them makes the press easier and is considered cheating; you’ll only get the full benefits of the exercise if you keep your legs straight.
  • Grip: Maintain a full, firm grip on the bar the entire time. Make sure the bar is in the base of your palms, close to your wrists, and remember to squeeze the bar as you push it overhead, so you don’t risk dropping it on your head. Have a narrow grip just outside your shoulders, since this will give you more strength in your press and allow you to effectively use heavier weights.
  • Wrists: Make sure your elbows and wrists are in a straight line in relation to the bar, and do not let your wrists bend back, as this can lead to injury.
  • Elbows: Your elbows should be almost under the bar from the side view, and about 45° in from the front. Do not let them flare out.
  • Forearms: They should be vertical to the floor from all angles, and should be perpendicular to the floor from the side and front view.
  • Upper-arms: Keep your upper-arms vertical instead of parallel to the floor. You do not want to push the bar away from you; you want to push it directly over your head.
  • Shoulders: Hold the bar on your front shoulder muscles, and shrug your shoulders to the ceiling.
  • Chest: It is important to lift your chest by arching your upper-back.
  • Upper back: Arch your upper-back to lift your chest up, and be careful not to squeeze your shoulder-blades.
  • Traps: Shrug your traps at the top of the press in order to lockout the bar.
  • Head: Keep your head neutral, and always look forward. Don’t look upwards as you press or else you will lose your balance and fall.
  • Lower back: Keep your lower back neutral. Don’t over-arch and hyper-extend your lower spine, since this can disrupt your balance and cause you to fall over.
  • Torso: Make sure to lean back slightly at the bottom, and then move your torso forward at the top of the press. This will help you maintain proper balance and get the bar over your head safely.
  • Pushing the Bar Up: It is very important that you press the bar in a vertical line, and stay close to the bar by moving your torso forward at the top.
  • Lockout: In order to safely lockout the bar at the top of the overhead press, hold the bar over your shoulders, shrug your shoulders to the ceiling, and lock your elbows.
  • Bringing the Bar Down: As you lower the bar to your shoulders, do it at a controlled pace, but not too slowly. More importantly, make sure you do not flare your elbows as you bring the bar down.
  • Breathing: Inhale at the bottom before you press the bar. Hold your breath at the top of the press, and then exhale at the bottom.
  • Bar Path: Once again, it is essential that you press the bar in a vertical line from your shoulders over your head, directly above your shoulders.
  • Between Reps: In between reps, make sure to exhale, raise your chest, and put your forearms vertical. Once you are ready for the next rep, take a big breath, and then press again.

Both StrongLifts and Nerd Fitness have excellent comprehensive guides that explain the process of doing an overhead press in full detail. They have in-depth pictures and video tutorials that can give you a visual idea of how to perform the basic motions, so be sure to check them out if you are still unsure about the mechanics of this exercise. 

Before discussing the tips and tricks that you can use to improve your form and strength while doing an overhead press, it may be helpful to further analyze the specific muscles that are engaged during the exercise, and how they work in unison to allow you to do it properly.

What Muscles Overhead Press Works

Although the overhead press primarily builds muscle in the shoulders and arms, the overhead press is an excellent exercise for engaging your entire body. As your shoulders and arms hold the weight above your head, your core, legs, and back muscles keep you stable so you don’t fall over. Understanding how each muscle involved in doing an overhead press can help you adapt your technique and have better form as you work out. Here is how the overhead press engages various muscles throughout your body

Shoulders: Your shoulder muscles, which include your front, side and back deltoid, receive the most benefit as you do the overhead press. Pushing the bar overhead develops these three muscles evenly, according to StrongLifts, and helps them gain a lot of definition and strength as you lift heavier weight. Of course, be sure to start with lighter weights so your shoulders have an opportunity to adapt to the movements of the overhead press.

Arms: As you straighten your elbows to press the weight overhead, you are working the muscles on the back of your arms, which are your triceps. Your forearm muscles also work to hold the bar.

Rotator Cuffs: Your rotator cuff muscles are the small muscles that cover your shoulder blades; they keep your shoulders stable and prevent dislocations. Strengthening your rotator cuffs protects your shoulders as you balance the bar over your head, which is important to keep in mind as you progress with this exercise. Build up to heavier weights slowly so that your rotator cuffs have time to grow and become stronger.

Traps: You must shrug your shoulders at the top of each rep to avoid shoulder impingement, or inflammation that comes from connective tissue repeatedly rubbing against your rotator cuff. Shrugging tilts your shoulder-blade to the side, which then creates sufficient space for your rotator cuff tendons to move properly. The overhead press also helps build your traps (or trapezius muscles), which are located on the sides of your neck, says StrongLifts. Making your traps stronger and bigger will eventually give your neck the appearance of a bodybuilder.

Abs: Your core muscles stabilize your body while your shoulders and arms press the weight overhead, which prevents you from collapsing under the bar. The overhead press makes your abdominal muscles, obliques and lower back stronger over time. If you have a weak core, then you will have trouble staying balanced while you hold the weight over your head. Therefore, start with light dumbbells at first, and see how strong your abs are before increasing the weight.

Legs: Your legs balance your body while your shoulders and arms press the weight overhead, which works your hips, thighs, calves and ankles. Although the Overhead Press won’t benefit your legs as much as squats because they don’t move, they are necessary for stability and isometric work, which involves creating tension in your muscles without moving.

How to Improve Overhead Press Form and Strength

One of the biggest things that beginners tend to forget when trying a new exercise is the need to have proper form. They focus solely on lifting more and more weight, while overlooking the fact that without good form, you will not progress in your weight training. Incorrect technique puts you in huge danger, so knowing the correct way to do overhead press will prevent injury and let you keep growing at the rate you want. Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind the next time you try doing overhead press:

Use Your Full Range of Motion

It is crucial it is to utilize your full range of motion when doing an overhead press, as without it, you will not get the full benefit of the exercise. In our article “Exercise Technique: How to Perform Exercises for Optimal Muscle Growth”, we mention how there are two main movements your muscles go through when lifting weights: the eccentric and concentric movements. Concentric movements occur as your muscle is shortening, such as when you press the weight overhead in an overhead press. Eccentric movements, on the other hand, happen as your muscle is lengthening, such as when you lower the weight back down to your shoulders during an overhead press.  The eccentric portion of the exercise is especially important for building strong muscles, as our article says:

Research shows that lengthening the time spent in the eccentric portion of the exercise has been linked to increased muscle growth. This is partially because your muscles are able to sustain more weight during the eccentric portion of an exercise, so you can actually use greater resistance by isolating this part of the exercise.

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Therefore, focusing on the part of the overhead press where you lower the weight back down is very important for building muscle. You should not rush through your reps and lower the bar quickly. Rather, do it at a slower pace, so that your muscles feel the full benefit of the exercise. Be sure to fully straighten your arms above your head as you lift the weight overhead, then slowly lower it back to your shoulders. Getting that full range of motion provides “maximum stimulation of the muscle being worked, which is the stimulus for muscle growth”, according to our article.

Combine It With Other Exercises

Jeff Nippard, in his video guide to doing overhead press, discusses how the overhead press only really works the anterior deltoid muscles, or the front part of your shoulders. The sides and back of your shoulders do not receive as much of a benefit, so he recommends incorporating other shoulder exercises into your workout, like lateral press for example.

Of course, remember to not overdo it at first, especially if you are new to weightlifting. Gradually incorporate different shoulder exercises into your workouts, and do each exercise as you are supposed to in order to avoid injury. Building strength in the rest of your shoulders will make it easier for you to progress on your overhead press.

Try Doing It Standing Up First

Athlean X recommends that no matter what, you should always try doing the overhead press standing up first. He says that you simply get more of a workout by doing it standing up, as you have more kinetic energy flowing from your feet up to your arms as you press the weight overhead. Indeed, the overhead press is no longer a full-body workout if you do it while seated, since most of the pressure is now taken off of your legs, lower back and abs. If you want the complete benefit of the overhead press, then you should definitely try doing it standing up first. 

It is totally okay if you are physically incapable of doing the exercise standing up, and attempting to do so while you cannot is only going to set you back. However, even if you can’t do three sets of overhead press while standing up, doing at least one if you can will provide you with much greater benefits than if you sit the whole time. Being seated, especially on an inclined bench, makes you want to lean back into the bench to get a little more power out of your push. 

Do Not Lean Back Too Much If You Are Seated

Athlean X also says that a very common mistake that individuals make when doing a seated variation of the overhead press is leaning back excessively. He says that not only does this encourage leaning back to cheat and get extra power out of your push, but it also could lead to long-term health issues, especially in your neck. You could cause severe muscle breakdown or even strain your traps by leaning your head back into the bench to act as a counterforce to your push. This is also the case with your shoulder blades, where excessive leaning can lead to breakdown and even injury, especially in those who are using heavier weights while doing a seated overhead press. 

Be sure to not rely on the bench behind you as a means to get more power. Pretend that you are standing up and remind yourself to maintain that good form while sitting down. If it is difficult to do this, then sit on the floor instead and do your reps, without anything behind you to lean on. Focus on the rotation you feel in your shoulder blades, says Athlean X. That is what you should feel when sitting down; if you do not, then you are doing incorrectly and risk muscle breakdown. If all else fails, then Athlean X recommends getting up off your feet and doing the exercise standing up. Proper technique will help you get much stronger in the long run over cheating and pressing back into a bench, so keep this in mind next time you try a seated overhead press.

Common Mistakes with Overhead Press

It is absolutely essential for you to know how to do an overhead press properly, especially if you are using a lot of weight. Holding the bar incorrectly can result in serious injury, as you could lose your balance and fall over. There is an even greater risk of injury because you are holding something directly over your head, and dropping a bar with several plates on it on your head could very easily end in a concussion. Therefore, learning about some of the most common mistakes made by most people when they start doing overhead press will help you avoid them in the future. Practicing correct technique when lifting weights is not only crucial for your personal safety, but also for your growth in strength and muscle mass.

Cheating by using your legs

You must keep your knees and hips locked. Using your legs while pushing the bar above your head is a push press, not an overhead press, according to StrongLifts. If you cannot do full and correct reps of overhead press without using your legs, then you should use less weight the next time you do the exercise. Cheating does not get you anywhere; it only wastes your time and prevents you from getting stronger. Remember that your shoulders should be doing most of the work when pressing the bar over your head, not your legs.

Not keeping your core stabilized

An unstable foundation is never good. Forgetting to engage your core while overhead pressing can lead to excessive arching in the back. Bending your back too much will result in you either falling over, or suffering from a lower back injury, most commonly a herniated disc. Take a deep breath before you begin exercising, and keep your lower back neutral when you move yourself under the bar. Tightening your core and shoulder blades while you do the exercise will help you stay safe and improve your technique, which will allow you to get stronger.

Bending your wrists

Bent wrists may cause injury from the pressure of the bar, and is ineffective for getting the full benefits of overhead presses. Instead, be sure to hold the bar close to your wrists and keep them straight, so that the bar rests on top of your forearm bones. This prevents you from hurting your wrists and allows you to press the weight easier, since your forearms can now press into the bar directly. 

Keeping your elbows back

Having your elbows be too far back while you do an overhead press can cause you to push the bar away from your face, instead of directly above your head like you are supposed to. Moving your elbows forward corrects this issue, and also lets your forearms push straight into the bar.

Variations of an Overhead Press

There are a few great variations of the traditional overhead press available for you to try. Some of them are sufficient substitutes for the overhead press if you are unable to maintain your balance, like the Seated Overhead Military Press. Others, like the Military Press, provide a more challenging twist to the overhead press, and should only be attempted after gaining some experience doing the normal overhead press first. If the overhead press was not working for you, then read about some of these variations and give them a try:

Military Press

The military press is a tougher version of the traditional overhead press. You stand in a military-like, narrow stance, where your heels are together and your toes are pointed outward, according to StrongLifts. You also do not lean back by moving your hips forward, which can make it a little more difficult to balance. It will be harder to lift more weight and maintain good form doing the military press, so you should stick with the overhead press until you are fully comfortable with it.

Push Press

The push press is an exercise where instead of just using your shoulders to push the bar over your head, you “dip down and then use your hips to help drive the bar overhead”, says Nerd Fitness. Keep in mind that although this variation does let you use more weight, you are also taking some of the workload away from your shoulders. Your legs are now playing a much larger role in the press, so if you are mainly looking to get stronger shoulder muscles, then the push press might not help you progress as quickly.

Seated Overhead Military Press 

The seated overhead military press exercise variation of the overhead press involves sitting on a comfortable surface in an upright position, and on one side pressing one dumbbell up over your head, all while keeping your elbows wide at your sides. Then, you repeat the exercise for the other arm. This seated version of the overhead press can “help you focus more on isolating your shoulders, instead of overcompensating with your legs”, according to Women’s Health

Clean & Press

The Clean & Press version of the overhead press involves first picking the bar up off the ground, which is called a Power Clean, before then pushing it over your head. StrongLifts claims that the Clean & Press works more muscles because it is basically two exercises in one. However, it can also cause inexperienced lifters to both round their backs as they lift the bar off the ground, and lean back more as they press the bar overhead, since they already used a lot of effort to get it off the ground. Since both of these mistakes may lead to lower back injuries like herniated discs, it is crucial to understand and practice proper overhead press form before attempting the Clean & Press.

Dumbbell Overhead Press (Neutral Grip and One Arm Dumbbell Press)

There are two main variations of the overhead press with dumbbells: Neutral Grip Press and One Arm Dumbbell Press. The Neutral Grip Press involves holding them “so that the weight of the dumbbell is facing forward in front of you so that your hands are facing each other”, according to Nerd Fitness. Not only can this improve your performance on the standing barbell press, but some people also find holding the dumbbells forwards (instead of sideways like barbells) is easier on their wrists. 

The One Arm Dumbbell Press simply has you raise one arm overhead at a time, instead of both at once. Nerd Fitness claims that this version will improve your core stability and provide you an extra challenge.

Behind-the-Neck Press

The Behind-the-Neck Press is a challenging (and in some ways dangerous) variation of the overhead press. Instead of pushing the bar from your shoulders, you are pushing it from the back of your neck. Most individuals do not have the flexibility for this exercise, as it puts your shoulders at the very end of the range of motion, and can easily hurt your rotator cuffs, per StrongLifts. It is not recommended to try this one if you do not feel fully comfortable with your overhead press form, or if your shoulders are not very flexible.

Takeaways

Although doing an overhead press for the first time can seem daunting to those who are inexperienced with lifting weights, following the instructions mentioned in this article will help you learn how to do this exercise safely and effectively. Here are some of the most important things to remember for the next time you incorporate overhead presses into your workout: 

  • The overhead press is a compound exercise that works many different muscles of your body at once. It is an excellent exercise to try if you are just getting into weightlifting, as it will help you better understand the importance of performing exercises safely and properly.
  • Your entire body is forced to work and be engaged as you do overhead presses, including your shoulders, arms, legs, core, traps, and rotator cuffs. This makes overhead press quite a popular exercise for athletes and bodybuilders.
  • There are a few common mistakes that people tend to make when first doing this exercise, including bending their wrists, using their legs, not keeping their core stabilized, and keeping their elbows too far back. These errors can result in you either doing ineffective reps or getting hurt, so it is essential to know the proper technique for an overhead press. 
  • Several variations of the overhead press are effective as alternatives to a traditional overhead press, such as the Military Press, Push Press, Seated Overhead Military Press, Clean & Press, Dumbbell Overhead Press (Neutral Grip and One Arm Dumbbell Press), and Behind-the-Neck Press. Some of these variations, such as the Seated Overhead Military Press, can be a safer and easier option for women or beginners. Others, like the Behind-the-Neck Press, are much more advanced and should only be tried when you are comfortable with the basic overhead press.

To learn more about different exercises and other weight training topics, be sure to visit https://www.myworkouts.io/edu.

Resources

https://stronglifts.com/overhead-press/

https://youtu.be/Gu1t7X2yq4M

https://youtu.be/_RlRDWO2jfg

https://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/strength-training-101-the-overhead-press/

https://blogs.webmd.com/food-fitness/20200123/5-simple-ways-to-start-strength-training

https://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/a29785503/seated-overhead-military-press/

https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/how-to-perform-exercises-for-optimal-muscle-growth/1432

https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/compound-exercises

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Date Created: July 25, 2020

Last Updated: July 25, 2020