How to Overhead Press to Build Upper-Body Strength and Muscle

Learn the correct technique, advantages, and alternative versions to attempt for the overhead press with this guide.

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The overhead press, also called the shoulder press or military press, may seem like a straightforward compound exercise – involving multiple joints and muscles – to master. However, it’s deceptively easy to execute it with incorrect form.

To fully leverage the advantages of this weightlifting maneuver, it’s advisable to acquire the correct technique early on and avoid developing bad habits. At Tom’s Guide, we have several tips to enhance the muscle and strength-building benefits of the overhead press and its various versions.

This popular upper-body weightlifting exercise, along with snatch, jerk, and clean and press, is one of the lifts that requires lifting heavy weights above your head. If you’re a beginner or seeking to improve your technique, get your hands on the best adjustable dumbbells and let’s start pressing on.

Benefits of Overhead press 

The overhead press is a compound exercise that frequently appears in functional training workouts and is one of the big four lifts that targets multiple upper body muscles while also strengthening the core. You can integrate this exercise into your upper-body routine or incorporate it into high-intensity training programs such as CrossFit or metabolic conditioning (MetCon) workouts that alternate between high and low intensities to enhance muscular endurance.

Like the bench press, the overhead press recruits the upper pectoral muscles in your chest, anterior deltoids (the front part of the shoulders), and triceps while also strengthening your upper traps. When executed with proper form, this exercise can increase maximal strength output by simply pressing a weight from your chest to overhead.

The overhead press is adaptable to all fitness levels, but if you’ve had a shoulder injury, especially your rotator cuff, we suggest exercising caution and consulting your physician before attempting a new workout regimen.

How to overhead press

Basic concept of the overhead press involves extending your arms and pressing a barbell from your chest to an overhead position. However, the exercise is not as straightforward as it may seem. Your core muscles come into play to stabilize your torso, while your shoulders and arms work together to lift the weight overhead. The overhead press engages your entire body and can even strengthen your hips and legs.

Despite its apparent simplicity, the overhead press is a foundational lift that requires a surprising amount of technical expertise. Therefore, let’s examine the exercise using an example of using a barbell to break it down.

  • To perform the overhead press, you can either start by racking your barbell to collarbone height or perform a clean from the floor. (You can learn how to do clean and presses here).
  • Stand with your feet positioned hip-width apart and grasp the bar with an underhand grip, placing your hands shoulder-width apart at your chest.
  • Engage your core muscles and move your elbows slightly forward.
  • Take a deep breath, then exhale as you lift the weight overhead and lock your arms out at the top.
  • Keep your knees slightly bent, pull your shoulder blades together, and avoid arching your lower back.
  • Lower the barbell steadily and with control to the starting position to complete one repetition.

Tips for You:

When lifting the weight overhead, it’s important to create a shelf for it by pulling your shoulders down. Push your head slightly through your arms while keeping both biceps close to your ears. To visualize this, imagine placing the bar on an imaginary shelf behind you.

It’s best to practice the overhead press with just the bar before adding weight. If you’re new to the exercise, keep in mind that most barbells weigh between 15 to 20kg (33-44 lbs). Therefore, you can also start with resistance bands, dumbbells, or kettlebells to build strength first.

Experiment with different stances and grips to find what works best for you. A wider stance can take some pressure off your core and transfer it to your shoulders, while a narrower stance can provide more stability. Additionally, everyone has different levels of shoulder flexibility, so try out various grips until you find the most comfortable one.

Overhead Press: Barbell overhead press vs dumbbell overhead press vs kettlebell

Using free weights can be beneficial, particularly for beginners who want to focus on one side at a time. It’s perfect for honing technique, addressing muscle imbalances, or building balance, coordination, and power.

While the barbell overhead press is a great main lift in an upper-body workout, it can be tough on your nervous system due to the heavy loading and explosive nature. Using dumbbell and kettlebell variations as assistance lifts or replacements for the barbell overhead press can help you scale weight easily.

Both dumbbell and kettlebell variations are quite similar, with the main difference being the hand positioning. Using either dumbbells or kettlebells can offer a greater degree of movement in the shoulder joint, and you can choose between a palms away grip or a neutral grip with palms facing each other. If the barbell is too heavy, start with one or two dumbbells or kettlebells to build strength and perfect your form.

Standing vs Seated

While the seated overhead press may require more strength and core stability, it recruits fewer muscles compared to the standing overhead press. However, you can still focus on the shoulders by sitting with your lower back supported by an upright bench and concentrating on form and control.

Apart from the traditional standing and seated overhead press, there are various other variations that you can try. For instance, some individuals prefer the kneeling press (both knees on the ground), while others opt for the half-kneeling press (one knee on the ground), which ultimately depends on individual preferences.

Try three overhead press variations

Z Press

Z press is a great exercise for targeting your triceps, anterior deltoids, pectoral muscles, and core. However, it also requires a lot of stability and control from your shoulders, making your rotator cuff muscles work harder. If you want to try the Z press, it’s important to focus on perfect form. Here’s what happened to my shoulders when I did the Z press every day for a week, and how you can do it too with optimal form.

ARNOLD PRESS

Arnold press targets all three deltoid muscles – the frontal, lateral, and rear deltoids. This unique exercise, created by Arnold Schwarzenegger, engages more of the frontal muscles by rotating your palms from an inward-facing to outward-facing position as you lift the weight, allowing for more muscle activation and growth. Learn how to perform an Arnold press correctly and discover the effects of doing 50 reps every day for a week.

PUSH PRESS

Push press is a type of standing overhead press that involves a slight assistance from your legs. While lifting the weight overhead, you will bend your knees slightly and utilize the power generated from your lower body to drive the weight up in a single motion. This technique is particularly helpful for lifting heavier weights and is referred to as a push press. However, a strict press without using your legs can help improve your upper-body strength, core engagement, and power.

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