Pack on Muscle with the Overhead Press

Article by Andy Tsang, Personal Trainer, The Varsity Gym

Overhead Press

The overhead press in recent years has been turned into a rouge exercise of sorts and the bench press took over as the king of upper body pressing exercises.  I for one think that the overhead press is often overlooked and should still be regarded as one of the staple lifts. Are you guilty of the following?

“ I can’t press, every time I press it hurts my shoulders”
“My elbow hurts if I press”
“I do lat raises I don’t need to overhead press”
“My shoulders are huge I don’t need to overhead press plus I’m strong as fook!”

The Overhead Press

The King of Upper Body Pressing Exercises?

Ok, the first few statements you want to tell them to grow a pair and the last statement, I personally want to jump off a top turnbuckle and with the built up momentum dropkick him in the chin.  As I keep emphasizing, the majority of the time it’s down to technique and possibly muscular weakness that doesn’t allow one to perform the overhead press optimally and not one of the many excuses.
Way back in the day, the overhead press (which is regarded the oldest upper body exercise ever) was the standard test of upper body strength.  From the old strongmen like Sandow, Saxon to the more popular era of Arnold, it is one of the best ways of developing upper body strength and muscularity. The shift from the overhead, to the bench press as a primary upper body pressing exercise was relatively recent.  Much of the fame of the bench press came possibly came from powerlifting’s rise in popularity and bodybuilders alike.  It could also be due to people using these lifts more and that is why sports like powerlifting became more popular.  Either way there is an obvious connection.

The overhead press or press rather stems from the old version of the Olympics.  Until 1972, the Olympics included three lifts: press, snatch, and clean and jerk.  But as people chased bigger and bigger numbers the lift became sloppier and sloppier.  It basically looked like a standing bench press, with all sorts of bent spines trying to push the weight overhead.  With judging become harder and injuries becoming more common they decided to take the press out of competition.

There is no denying though if you were to look at the some of the numbers of the press it’s pretty damn good.  They had guys like superheavy weight Vasily Alexeev clean and press numbers like 230 kgs just before it was banned from competition.  Regardless of the fact he was a heavyweight, he took 230 kgs from the floor, and pushed it over his head!

Back in the day there was not really much difference between the sports of powelifting, Olympic lifting, strongman and bodybuilding.  It really was a hybrid of all of them.  These guys were strong, fast, lean and powerful.  Old books like Randy Roach’s Muscles, Smoke and Mirrors talked about how old school bodybuilders were basically hybrid bodybuilder-powerlifters.    The Olympic lifts relied heavily on skill as well but with the press being kicked out of competition, it basically cut all ties with bodybuilding and Olympic lifting and people started doing things like the seated press instead.  Before 1972 if someone was to say to you how strong do you think you are, you would immediately take the heaviest thing you could find and hoist it over your head and say:

“There’s your dinner buddy.”

Nowadays people will look at your bench instead and this could be one of the reasons why the Olympic lifts and its accessory lifts like the high pull, snatch pull etc have been fizzled out by bodybuilders and powerlifters alike since it required technique, just like the press and jerks etc.
The press though through recent famous strength coaches like Christian Thibaudeau and Mark Rippetoe have helped revive this lift.  Even though people have kept in exercises like the seated press as an alternative, it does not have the effect of the standing press.  Sure it may target the deltoids more directly – well that’s the idea – but it will never have the muscle building potential as the standing press.  ALL pressing muscles will come into action on the standing press.  If your core and hips are weak too, you will not be able to press with good form since they will act as your stabilisers.

Here are some points for you when you are trying to improve upon the overhead press.

Starting position

Your shoulders should be in what some people call the rack position.  Now where you want to be is slightly wider than shoulder width position.  With everyone’s leverages different, it’s hard to say where when I can’t see it for my own eye.  Take home message is, if it’s too narrow it will put the joint in very risky position and if your too wide it will put too much strain on the wrists and elbows.  The elbows should be slightly pushed up in front of the wrists, the lats should be squeezed tight and chest up.  The best head position should be up and back, meaning you should look like your looking up slightly and trying to make a fat chin otherwise known as ‘neck packing’.  Core muscles should be held tight and feet should be about shoulder width apart.  If you put your feet too wide you will have a tendency to lean back too much and if they are too close you will lose stability.  Bar should be resting about shoulder height on your shoulders with no straining on the clavicles.

The Press

With the strict press you as you push up what you are wanting to do is to move your centre of gravity under the bar as quickly as possible to allow for as much transfer of force as possible into the bar.  The centre of gravity will usually relate back to bar path and the ball of your foot on the vertical plane.  As the bar is moving upwards over your face you want to start to move your body under the bar almost like you are trying to shift your body so the bar line is the same as your ear line and this will keep you centre of gravity.

In the starting position for the press:
• Knees, hips, and lumbar and thoracic spine arc all locked in extension
• The bar rests on the deltoids or chest, depending on individual flexibility and body shape
• Elbows are in front of the bar
• The bar is directly over the mid-foot

At the top of the press:
• Knees, hips, lumbar and thoracic spine, and elbows are all locked in extension
• Scapulas are elevated (i.e., “active shoulders”)
• The bar, the scapulas, and the mid-foot will be vertically aligned

Any weakness in posture, shoulders will most definitely be highlighted in this exercise and it will be up to you to strengthen these muscles up as opposed to being a big girls blouse and taking the press out of your programme because it’s hard.  For the ones that have never used this exercise before I encourage you to start incorporating it if you want to have a proper set of shoulders instead of looking like a coat hanger.  Right, now since we are all on the same wavelength here is a programme for you to try out.

Push Press            6 x 2 40% of max with 45 secs between sets
Standing press        5 x 4-6

Followed by this circuit

5-8 sets depending on how you feel, 60 – 90 secs rest in between

KB Overhead Press    10
Body Weight Rows    15
Close Grip Pull Ups    5
Reverse Flys        10


Starting Strength 2nd edition – Mark Rippetoe, Lon Kilgore – The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding’s Forgotten Muscle Builder
Metroflex Gym Powerbuilding Basics – Josh Bryant Ms, Brian Dobson

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