Overhead Press Is Very Important
The bench press gets all of the fame, the squat gets all of the glory and the deadlift gets all of the attention. With all three of these major lifts taking up the spotlight, the overhead press gets left out.
In my opinion, the overhead press is very important.
It is a complex compound lift that utilizes multiple muscle groups (shoulders, arms, core, back, glutes). It is also a great assistance exercise to the bench press and has a lot of supplementary benefits for o building muscle size, definition, stability, mobility, and strength.
If you want boulder shoulders and a big bench press, you need to overhead press.
You will find this exercise in most bodybuilding, strongman, and powerlifting programming. Mastering this exercise will put you on the fast track to achieving your goals (whether bodybuilding, powerlifting or strongman).
Unlike the other lifts, the overhead press relies on good stability, muscle recruitment and technique. It is not uncommon for people to see very slow progress in this lift. Most beginners attempt it and after a few weeks of not seeing much progress, abandon it for another exercise.
I have been powerlifting for 10 years now and I still hit overhead press plateaus every couple of months. However, unlike other powerlifters, I am always able to break through my plateaus in a relatively short period of time and continue on the path to increasing my 1RPM. I utilize a few simple, yet effective techniques that I have amassed from various different strength training coaches, online articles, and youtube videos.
If you are stuck in the overhead press plateau or would simply like to become more efficient in the lift, I would encourage you to try some of my techniques listed below.
How To Increase Your Overhead Press
0. Proper Form
Proper form is vital to any lift. Using the wrong form will prevent you from properly utilizing all of the necessary muscles needed to generate maximum power for the lift. It is also critical to ensure that you do not leak power in your kinetic chain and prevent injury. Since the overhead press is a push movement, proper form is especially critical since most people tend to abandon form to just complete the rep. Tightening up this area will lead to progression guaranteed.
For form pay attention and administer the right technique for the following:
Proper Hand Placement
Most people tend to press with their hands beyond shoulder width apart. Although this position might feel comfortable from the bench press, it is inefficient. When you press with a wide grip, you tend to flare out your shoulders and only use your front and lateral deltoids to press up the weight. By doing this you are eliminating any help from your lats, triceps, forearms, biceps and rear deltoids. This means a sufficient amount of muscle recruitment is being underutilized. If you continue doing this you will only be able to lift as much as your front and side deltoids are limited to.
The proper hand placement is slightly narrower than shoulder width. This is the optimal position to tuck in your elbows and easily recruit your deltoids, triceps, and lats. Imagine shooting a basketball. If your elbows are flared you solely rely on your shoulders. If you keep your elbows tucked you can use many more muscles. Keeping a narrower grip also allows you to use less energy un-racking the bar and holding the barbell in place. By keeping everything narrow and tucked you create a powerful spring-loaded shelf which you can easily gain power from.
Proper Feet Placement
Just as important as the width of your hands, so is the width of your feet.
Your body is only as strong as the weakest link and if your feet are too wide or too narrow, you are limiting yourself. Too wide or too narrow feet create stability issues and cause your stabilizing muscles in your legs and core to keep you sturdy.
Think of a chair, if the legs are not sturdy then anything placed upon it has to spend energy stabilizing itself rather than solely relying on the sturdiness of the chair.
To find the proper width, pretend like you are about to do a standing box jump.
Whatever width you place your feet before you bend your knees for the jump is the ideal position. This position is called a power position because it is the perfect stance for your generate the most amount of power to push up through your body or down through your feet.
When you press, it is key that you maintain this stance and hold it in place so that you create a powerful base for your kinetic chain.
Proper Follow-Through Technique
Midway to the lockout is the hardest part of the lift for most. It is when you are exerting the most amount of force upward but need to lock out the weight.
In order to lock out the weight in the overhead press, your elbows must be locked and your head must come through your shoulders.
The timing and precision by which you execute this lockout could mean the difference between completing the lift or failing 75–80% into the lift.
Most people fail to treat the follow-through lockout portion as part of one fluid movement. They do this by, using as much strength to press the weight up to a certain height, hold the weight in the air and then proceed to pull their head through.
By treating the lift as two separate parts you subconsciously pause the momentum of the lift to start the second part of the lift. This break in momentum can slow down the inertia of the barbell and make the lift much harder.
You need to treat the lift as one fluid movement.
Similar to the deadlift, the overhead press is a burst of energy and force that utilizes the head (hips in the deadlift) as the force to complete the lockout. As soon as the barbell passes your nose, start to move your head forward, push your shoulders out and lock your elbows.
If done correctly, this will give you the perfect cue to flare out your elbows are the correct time to avoid stalling mid-way through the lift.
Take And Hold A Deep Breath
Similar to lining up your legs and hands in the power position, your core needs to be stabilized to keep your kinetic chain tight and strong.
Taking and holding a deep breath is vital to bracing your core and keeping all of the stabilizing muscles (lower back, core, lats, chest) tight. Holding a deep breadth also provides you with plenty of oxygen as you need it through the lift. You do not want to run out of air mid-way through a lift.
Think about building a wall of bricks, if the middle of your wall was replaced with a half-empty beanbag chair, the whole integrity and strength of the wall would become compromised no matter how firm and strong the top and bottom are.
The best way that I do this is to take a deep breath right before I unrack. I hold that breadth in my gut, bracing my core and do not exhale until I have locked out my first rep.
I make sure that any rep I perform is with a full belly of air.
Similar to the squat this provides stability to prevent my lower back from caving inwards and putting unnecessary pressure on my lumbar.
The big gasp of breadth will also provide you will an excess of oxygen to your lungs to drive the weight up and through.
1. Grip The Bar Tight
When we execute a lift, grip is usually one of the last things on our mind. We think about grip as maintaining a firm hold on the barbell to prevent it from dropping.
However, the grip has a secondary function which is extremely important to the success of lifting heaving weights.
Gripping the barbell tightly also sends a neurological signal throughout our central nervous system that we are about to utilize the body for a maximum exertion of force and energy.
This signal fires throughout the body and acts to tighten up muscles, increase blood flow and prepares the central nervous system for overloading. The tighter the grip, the stronger the signal through the body.
As you set-up for the overhead press, tighten up your lats and get positioned in all other places first. When it is time for you to grip the bar, grab on as tightly and possible. Squeeze the barbell as hard as you can for a second or two and then start the lift. Continue to apply pressure through the entire lift. You will notice:
- More muscle recruitment
- Easier liftoff
- Easier lockout
- Weights feel slightly lighter
- Increased stability of the barbell throughout the lift
I started incorporating this cue every time I get into position, and have immediately seen improvements in my deadlift. Not only do the weights feel lighter but, mentally I am more confident in the lift.
My body transforms into a solid kinetic chain. Gripping tight is not the last part of my set-up and has become my primary cue for connecting my mind and body for maximum effectiveness in the lift.
2. Increased Frequency & Volume
Once your form and breathing have been fixed and you are properly recruiting all of the key muscles in the overhead press, the next area is to build up frequency and volume.
Frequency is the number of times per week you do the lift.
Volume is how many reps and sets you do.
There is a saying, “if you want to become good at something, do it more”. Performing the overhead multiple times a week and with larger sets and reps will build:
- Muscle Tolerance to Heavy Weights
- Condition the Central Nervous System
- Build Muscle
- Increase Endurance
All of these help the key muscles you use become stronger and more efficient. Stronger muscles lift more weight and efficient muscles use less energy. More energy and capacity to handle heavy weights means you can lift more in the overhead press.
There is no magic formula for frequency or volume but there are some good sub-maximal training programs on the web. My numbers are:
Frequency (How many Times Per Week): 2
Volume (How many Reps and Sets Per Workout): 5 sets x 7 reps at 60–70% of 1RPM
3. Dynamic Effort
For most people, the hardest part of the lift is off the clavicle (starting position) to the midway point.
The reason this is the hardest part because the barbell is stationary and a large amount of force must be generated to generate momentum.
Most people go through this portion very slowly because the weight is heavy. However, I have found that accelerating during this portion of the lift can help build the necessary momentum to make the rest of the lift easier.
Completing the lift faster means less stress on your muscles for less time and less energy consumption.
If you go to slow, you will run out of energy to complete the lift by the time you raise the barbell to your knees.
Speed and accelerating off the floor is vital to solving this.
The best way to build speed and acceleration is to dedicate a day each week to concentrate on Dynamic Effort.
Dynamic Effort is a concept coined by Louie Simmons. The basic concept is to do a large number of reps and sets at 60–70% of your 1RPM and focus on speed, form and explosive power. Each rep should be fast, powerful and clean.
Do this for a few weeks and you will notice that your overhead speed and explosive power have increased substantially. This will in-turn make you feel like you are stronger and lift heavier weight.
4. Central Nervous System (CNS) Overloading
One of the reasons we fail in 90–100% of our 1RPM is because we are not used to the weight.
Most people do sub-maximal training and do not test their maxes frequently. As such, when you do start to lift heavy weight, the feeling is foreign to you and you have not memory/context of how the weight feels. Your central nervous system freaks out and tells your brain that this is too heavy.
These thoughts can significantly hamper the true amount of weight you can lift. As much as people do not want to admit it, lifting is at least 50% mental.
The amount of weight your body can actually lift vs the amount of weight your body will allow you to lift is at least 20–30 pounds. For the overhead press, this is especially apparent because the shoulders are relatively small muscles and the movement and is an isolation exercise.
To help get your body used to heavy weights and your max, you have to lift heavy weights.
By heavy I mean greater than or equal to your 1RPM. You shouldn’t lift these weights through the full range of motion in the overhead press. Instead, use a rack and do lockout reps.
This way your body gets used to holding the weight, how it feels and you build confidence. When it comes time to lift the weight, it will be heavy but your body won’t freak out as much and you might even get some signals to the brain convincing you that you can lift this weight.
5. Programming That Encourages Overloading
In conjunction with overloading the central nervous system, it is essential to keep increasing the weight (if possible). Because overhead presses are one of few exercises where it takes a while for weights to become light, people have a tendency to stay at a particular weight until they feel comfortable or until it starts to feel light.
By doing this, you are causing yourself to plateau and it will take months or years for a weight that is 70%+ of your 1RPM to feel light or comfortable.
Try to adopt programs that progress the weight if you hit the previous goal.
By doing this you will push your central nervous system to adapt to heavier and heavier weights and your type one muscle fibers will be shocked into growing to handle the heavier weights. Naturally, you will start to feel the lower weights become lighter and easier because they simply are not as heavy as your increasing 1RPM.
I used to be stuck at 135 for 5–7 reps because I convinced myself that I would not increase until I could do it for 10 reps. I was convinced that my 1RPM was 155. However, when I started a new program that kept pushing me, I realized that I could lift much more than I thought I was capable of.
After a few weeks, 135 started to feel much lighter and became part of my warm-up rather than my top set.
I hope these tips and techniques help your overhead press. They are really simple things but when done correctly add up to give you small power gains. When you add up the power gains it can start to translate to progressively adding more weight to the bar.
What Are Your Best Overhead Press Tips?
What I’ve shared above are learnings from my own experiences. However, I am always in search of better or more effective ways to increase my overhead press. I would love to hear what lessons/techniques you have learned or if you have any corrections to my points. Feel free to comment below with some examples. Please share so we can all learn and grow.