The gain in popularity of the overhead press prior to the 1972 Olympics was partly due to the exercise being an Olympic lift. Unfortunately there were too many areas where the form could suffer and the competitors could lift more weight, which made it increasingly hard to judge.
This included swinging the hips forward and putting the back in quite an extreme arched position, with heels being allowed to lift off the platform in competitions approaching the 1972 games. With so much variation making it too hard to judge, the overhead press was dropped from the Olympic lifts after the 1972 Olympics.
It seems like around this time the bench press took over in terms of popularity and measure of strength, which hasn’t really changed up until today. The clearest way to see the difference in popularity of these lifts is if you were to walk into any commercial gym and compare how many people were performing the overhead press to how many were performing the bench press.
With so few people now performing the overhead press it can be difficult for anyone just starting to attempt the exercise to see how to perform it properly. This is why this article was written, to show how important and beneficial the exercise can be, but also to cover the steps to follow to perform the lift safely and effectively.
Muscles used in the overhead press
Why is the overhead press so important?
Together with the 3 big lifts (Deadlift, Squat and Bench Press), the overhead press is the most effective compound exercise you can include in your workouts for overall muscle development and strength gains.
It is always preferable to use ‘bumper plates‘ for the weight at each end of the bar, purely because they won’t damage if you need to pull out of a lift attempt with the weight moving through such a high range of motion.
Although there are different variations of the overhead press such as using dumbbells or using a smith machine, in terms of getting the most amount of muscle recruitment there is really nothing better than the standing overhead barbell press.
Is the Overhead Press Safe?
The overhead press is actually one of the safer mass building exercises, safer than squats, deadlifts or the bench press. You will often already have the bar positioned at the starting position on a rack so there’s no need to move a heavy weight to the starting position.
There’s also no danger of being pinned under the bar like with the bench press or the squat. If you have access to a power rack then it can be worth setting the bar supports at a level just below where the bar rests at the starting position, so if it does move behind your head on the press then the bar won’t have far to drop.
Depending on your experience of performing standing exercises there may be an adjustment period where you get used to balancing yourself when the weight is pressed above your head. A few weeks of training with lighter weights and additional core strength training will help with this and soon have you lifting much heavier weights.
5 Reasons to add the overhead press to your workouts
- It’s a full body exercise – The Overhead Press will work your entire core, shoulders, upper-chest, arms and even your legs to help stabilize the weight as you press it overhead.
- Builds muscle – The overhead press has been an effective exercise for building strength and muscle since .
- Healthy Shoulders – The Bench Press works your front shoulders more than your back shoulders. The Overhead Press works all shoulder heads equally. Alternating the Overhead Press with the Bench Press minimizes risks of shoulder injuries caused by muscle imbalances.
- Improves your bench press strength – A bench press plateau will often develop at the lowest part of the lift, where your shoulders take over a lot of the work. Increasing your shoulder strength can help you break through this and increase your bench press.
- Builds core strength – Holding any free weight around shoulder height while standing will cause you to engage your core muscles, with back squats, military presses and front squats being the most effective mass building exercises.
How to perform the overhead press
Preparing for the lift
- Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and forearms nearly vertical
- Look forward, keeping your head neutral
- Position the bar at the top of your chest, close to the clavicle
- Your wrists should stay in-line with your forearms to prevent wrist injury
- Keep your elbows slightly in front of you to prevent the bar from rolling forwards (much lower than the parallel position you may use for front squats)
- Squeeze glutes to reduce the pressure on your lower back
- Keep your feet shoulder width apart
Performing the lift
- Move your head back slightly to create a clear path for the bar to move through
- Drive through your heels as you press the bar straight up
- Bring your head back forward so your torso and head are in a straight line
- Press the bar until your arms are just short of lockout to prevent possible hyperextension of the elbow joint
- Keep your upper back muscles tight to prevent the weight from moving behind you
- Make sure your abs, glutes and lower back are all contracted to keep the weight stable
5 Tips to Improve Your Overhead Press Technique
- Elbows Forward, Chest Up – You’ll forget to reposition yourself between reps at first. Start each rep with elbows in front of the bar & chest up.
- Bar High – The higher the bar on your chest, the shorter the distance it has to travel. Put the bar close to your clavicle.
- Rotator cuff exercises – If you injure your shoulders there will be no more strength gains for a while. Always make sure you warm up your shoulders and rotator cuffs properly before your workout and even between sets.
- Vary your workouts – If you are performing overhead barbell presses every workout then this may lead to your gains slowing or even stopping. Add variety by performing the dumbbell or kettlebell variations for a few weeks before switching back to the barbell.
- Improve on your assistance exercises – Although the primary target of the overhead barbell press is the anterior deltoids, the rest of your shoulders are used for stability on the press and your biceps, triceps and forearms for the actual press.
Side lateral raises, close grip bench press and reverse barbell curls will all help to increase your strength in the overhead pres.
Overhead press variations
Due to the offset nature of kettlebells it can take a bit of getting used to if you want to perform this variation of overhead press.
Although most workout plans will include this as a press that you do for one shoulder at a time, this tends to put more emphasis on total upper body training.
To better isolate your shoulders it’s best to perform the kettlebell press with a weight in each hand, much the same way as you would for the dumbbell press. This lift is also best performed from a standing position.
This variation can be performed either seated or standing, but usually much more weight can be lifted when seated due to the increased stability. Whereas you can lift a barbell from a high position on a rack, heavy dumbbells will need to be lifted from the ground to your shoulders before even starting the exercise.
This can often require a spotter and is another disadvantage of performing the dumbbell press over the barbell overhead press.
This particular variation is called the “Military Press” because this movement used to be the general indicator or test of one’s strength in the military.
The Military Press is the most effective variation of the overhead press if you are looking to build overall strength and size due to the amount of weight you can lift and the range of motion.
Also known as clean and press, lift used in Olympic Weightlifting, consists of a clean, then pressing with no lower body movement, such as in the Push press.
Discontinued after 1972 Olympics due to inconsistent judging criteria (such as should the lifter be allowed to bend backwards slightly when pressing, should a leg drive be allowed).
The Push Press is a variation on the Military Press, but instead of bending your knees and using lower body power you keep your lower body as still as possible and use just the power of your shoulders and triceps to drive the weight up above your head.
You most likely be able to lift less weight but the form will be stricter, so this is best saved for anyone looking to increase their muscular development and who isn’t as concerned with increasing their explosive strength.
Most commonly performed when seated and using a smith machine. This is due to the lift putting your shoulders in a more vulnerable position, with the smith machine preventing the bar from moving horizontally and causing possible injury.