There are lots of compelling fitness-related reasons to do the overhead press and rest assured that we’ll come to those in a moment, but first let’s address the obvious – it looks incredibly impressive. However, that can be a downside too, because people attempt the move when they’re not ready for it, or use too heavy a weight in an effort to impress.
To make sure you don’t fall foul of the first, we’ve got the exercise you should start with that will help you to build up to the full move. And to make sure you don’t go too heavy too soon, try this little test. Just press an empty bar a few times and you’ll realise that even without extra weight it gets the muscles burning. It really doesn’t take much weight at all to challenge yourself.
The overhead press is often called the shoulder press, but while all three heads of your shoulders are indeed working with the lift, they’re far from the only muscles used. Your abs, your lower back and the muscles surrounding your shoulder blades are all involved in pressing the weight overhead, and if you progress to a standing version of the exercise your glutes, hamstrings and quads are also enlisted to add stability.
Read on for expert advice on how to perform the overhead press, along with assistance exercises that will help you to build strength in the muscles used in the movement.
Working Up To The Overhead Press
If you are new to the overhead press, you should start with the seated dumbbell shoulder press. Using an upright bench will provide stability during the movement to stop you overarching your lower back and allow you to concentrate on keeping tension through your shoulders when pressing the weight. Using dumbbells allows for greater control and range of movement, both of which are ideal for learning new movement patterns of an exercise and can allow you to add weight quickly.
Overhead Press Form Guide
Stand with your body upright and core muscles braced, looking straight ahead. Hold the bar on your upper chest, gripping it with hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Press the bar directly overhead. Don't tilt your hips forward during the move.
How To Perfect The Overhead Press
Use this advice from strength coach Andy McKenzie (opens in new tab) to master the movement.
Take a shoulder-width grip
“The wider apart your hands are on the bar, the weaker you will be and the less weight you will be able to lift. Aim for a grip with hands no wider than shoulder-width apart and keep your elbows directly underneath your wrists to keep you in the strongest mechanical position possible for the lift.”
Mobile wrists are key
“For the strongest press possible you need to have mobile wrists so that they can extend back towards your body,” says McKenzie. “The better the starting position of your wrists, the more able you are to initiate the move with a strong push. Better mobility will also allow your elbows to flare out slightly towards the sides as you press upwards.”
Squeeze your shoulder blades
“At the start of each rep focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together, then focus on using your shoulders to initiate the lift and get the bar moving. Lower the bar under control, ensuring that your shoulders are fully engaged and managing the weight with good form.”
Adjust your head position
“The bar starts across your upper chest below your chin, so your head must tilt backwards slightly as you push the bar up in the straightest line possible to avoid hitting your chin and nose. As you press the bar up, tilt your head backwards so that the bar just misses your nose on the way up.”
Keep your chest up
“You need to keep your chest up during each rep to maintain a strong and stable upper back, which in turn allows better and smoother movement patterns of all the muscles and joints involved in the lift – especially the shoulders, which are one of the most easily damaged joints in the body.”
Overhead Press Variations
By using dumbbells you’ll work each side of the body unilaterally, which should ensure that you don’t have any strength imbalances. So even if you’re accomplished at the overhead press you should sub in dumbbells from time to time just to check that both sides are working equally when lifting the bar, rather than one doing the bulk of the work. The dumbbell press can also be beneficial for your joint health because it enlists smaller stabilising muscles to control the weight.
Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height with your palms facing forwards. Press the weight directly overhead, keeping your elbows below your wrists.
It’s sometimes confused with simply doing an overhead press with strict form, but the military press actually differs from the standard overhead press in that you bring your feet close together, in the manner of a soldier standing at attention. This means your glutes and core have to work extra hard during the exercise to maintain the stable base required for the lift. Since you’re losing a bit of your lower-body stability with this variation, it’s important to put less weight on the barbell than you would for a standard overhead press.
The push press allows you to recruit your lower body to help you press the weight overhead, so it’s a great variation for people struggling with the full overhead press. There’s also nothing wrong with switching to it halfway through a set of overhead presses if you become fatigued. Start with the bar on your upper chest, then drop into a quarter squat and drive back up, using the momentum to help you thrust the bar above you.
The thruster is similar to a push press, but you lower into a full squat before driving back up and pressing the barbell overhead. It’s a winning combination of the front squat and the overhead press, creating an exercise that challenges muscles all over the body. With so many major muscle groups involved, the thruster also gets your heart pumping hard, making it a great addition to a HIIT workout. However, if you are doing it as part of a circuit, be mindful of your form. There’s no point in losing your shape just to fly through the reps quicker – you’ll risk injury and reduce the benefits of the move.
This variation is a good way to make sure that your movement patterns are on point when you press, because the way the kettlebell sits on the back of your wrists encourages you to lift it straight overhead rather than to the side or behind you and putting undue strain on your shoulders.
Hold a kettlebell at shoulder height with your elbow underneath your hand, then press it directly overhead, rotating your arm 90° so your palm is facing forwards at the top of the move.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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