Mastering the Art of the Overhead Press

Learn how to perform the Overhead Press the right way with from tips from strength coach Lee Boyce.

The Overhead Press is a secret weapon of the exercise world. Although it can be detrimental to your health in some situations, if done properly the Overhead Press goes far in creating shoulder stability and strengthening the pressing muscles.

First, let's go over how to do the Overhead Press correctly.

Overhead Press Form

Step 1: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a barbell with a shoulder-width grip and your forearms vertical. The bar should be at the base of your neck and an inch or two in front of your body.

Overhead Press

Step 2: Keeping your core tight, drive the bar overhead until your arms are straight. Your upper arms should finish next to your ears.

Overhead Press

Step 3: Lower the bar in control to the starting position.

In the video below, you can see the exercise in action and learn how to set up using a rack or stand. If you don't have access to a rack or stand, try cleaning the weight up to your shoulders.

Overhead Press Mistakes

Using a grip that's too narrow

Whether you're using a barbell or dumbbells, it's important to start and finish with the correct grip. A grip that's too narrow on the bar, or a finishing position that's too narrow with dumbbells, can lead to muscle and tendon impingement within the shoulder joint. Long story short: When pressing, be sure to have your hands start and finish directly above your shoulders.

The bar shifts in front of you

Overhead Press

Left - Correct / Right - Incorrect

The Overhead Press can potentially place stress on the spine—especially the lower back, or the lumbar spine. Any pushing or pulling movement done vertically (like a Squat, Deadlift, Clean or Standing Press) requires the bar to travel in the same fashion—namely, vertically. When viewing a lift from the side, you should see the bar traveling in a straight line.

Applying this to the Overhead Press, the arms should be beside the ears—not in front of them—in the finished position. The head travels through the "window" created by the arms. This position loads the weight over the spine correctly so the spine doesn't have to bear any unnecessary force that could cause a back injury.

Arching your lower back

Overhead Press

This is too much arching

The number one mistake on an Overhead Press is arching your lower back. The fix might be as simple as learning to take a deep breath in and tightening your core before each rep. You can also consider using a weight belt as the weight gets heavier.

However, this is often caused by a mobility problem in the shoulders or upper back, which makes it impossible to lift directly overhead without compensating. If that's the case, you'll need to put in extra time to improve your upper-back and shoulder mobility.

Until that's fixed, opt for the Landmine Shoulder Press, which is a great alternative that is safe for the back and shoulders.

Overhead Press Tips

Here are tips to get the most out of every rep of the Overhead Press.

Determine your sticking point

Are you stronger when locking out the weight at the top or off the shoulders? Do you hit the wall at the halfway point? If you're having lockout problems, notice that the triceps play a key role in finishing off the press movement. Especially since the elbows are moving away from the body, working on the long head of the triceps should be added to the program. The best exercise for long-head activation is the French Press.

Do more pulling

If your issues come from the bottom up, they may have more to do with deltoid strength and shoulder stability. Typical bodybuilding shoulder exercises like Lateral Raises and Front Raises are great tools to hit the delts. But when it comes to shoulder stability, believe it or not, shoulder-specific exercises are not the way to go.

The answer is to do more pulling. Shoulder stability issues usually have to do with weakness in the rotator cuff musculature. All four of the rotator cuff muscles originate at the shoulder blade. More pressing only does so much to help those muscles, since their role in pushing movements is to stay stable. Training the upper back through pull movements actually helps make the rotator cuff muscles contract through a full range of motion and get stronger in the process.

Here are my top five pulling exercises for shoulder stability.

Overhead Press Workout

Now that you know how to perform the exercise properly, here's a sample workout that includes the Overhead Press. This is a challenging workout that will safely build shoulder strength and size.

Perform grouped exercises as a superset (i.e., 3A and 3B), resting for two minutes between sets.

1) Arm Circles - 3x10 each direction

2) Dynamic Pec Stretch - 2x5 each side

3A) Barbell Overhead Press - 4x10

3B) Face Pulls - 4x10

4A) Dumbbell Seated Neutral Grip Shoulder Press - 4x10

4B) Inverted Rows - 4x10

You should notice your pressing efforts become stronger and more stable in later sets due to back activation needed to set your shoulders.


How the Military Press Benefits Athletes

Are You Making These 3 Shoulder Press Mistakes?

Build Strong Rear Delts With Bent-Over Lateral Raises