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The Overhead Press: A Definitive Guide

How to Do an Overhead Press Properly
One of the most divisive lifts is the overhead press.

Simply stated, an OHP is when you push weight straight up, over your head.

Gymgoers frequently argue over whether the OHP is really a “functional strength” move.

How often do you lift weights over your head in the real world?

I’ve done it a few times (not all garage doors are powered!) but I can see their point.

But the benefits of overhead presses are more than just being able to push up a garage door.

If you want to know why you should do OHPs, read the following section.

If you already know you want to perform this exercise then skip ahead a little to where I explain how to safely press weights over your head!

Why Should You Do Overhead Presses?

The overhead press is a whole-body workout that trains balance and flexibility as well as strength.

Overhead Press how and why proper form shoulder exercise

Plus, there’s something exhilarating about lifting a heavy weight above your head! Photo by Lance Cpl. Tayler P. Schwamb

It can be considered an accessory movement for bench pressing. Adding OHPs to your “push” day will strengthen muscles underworked by traditional pushing movements.

But that’s not the only benefit of OHPs.

Standing up while holding a heavy weight above your head is a great way to test and train your balance, similar to lunges. Your entire body gets recruited to hold you up straight and stable.

Also, OHPs move your shoulders in ways not typically moved.

You’ll get more complete shoulder development by overhead pressing and will help strengthen your rotator cuffs, which can help prevent injury.

Also, there is some overlap between pressing and pushing, so you might see higher bench press numbers if you add overhead presses. In fact, some people use bench presses as an accessory to their OHP!

Finally, lifting something heavy straight up is darn impressive.

Wouldn’t you like to be able to say that you can hold more than your bodyweight overhead?

What Muscles Do Overhead Presses Work?

Overhead presses, especially when performed standing, engage almost your entire body. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.

When standing, your legs have to help hold you in place, giving them an isometric workout.Shoulder and rotator cuff muscles worked out by overhead military press

Your core muscles, from the abs to the lower back, have to hold your torso in position as well. These stabilizer muscles are engaged so you don’t flop over.

The arms and upper back get more of a workout than your stabilizer muscles because they are much more engaged in pushing the weight.

So, while your biceps help to stabilize your elbow during the movement, your triceps and traps are directly activated as you push the weight.

The most active muscle, however, is the anterior deltoid. Your lateral and posterior delts help but it’s the anterior delts which do the most work.

As mentioned before, your rotator cuff muscles are heavily involved as well. These muscles are the infraspinatus, subscapularis, supraspinatus, and teres minor.

Those muscles are some of the most commonly injured, so strengthening them is a Good Thing(tm).

Want to target your legs instead? Learn how to do killer squats!

How to Do an Overhead Press

The idea behind an OHP is simple:

Grab a heavy object, lift it above your head, then lower it back down.

Everkinetic seated overhead shoulder dumbbell press illustration how to

But there are many ways to do this, and not all are good for your shoulders.

Standing or Sitting

Your first choice is whether or not you want to stand while doing this exercise.

I highly recommend standing up. Doing so engages more muscles and makes the workout much more effective, even if it’s a bit harder to do.

Being hard to do and doing it anyway is the only way to progress when working out.

Though, if you have a medical reason for sitting down, then go ahead and sit. Do what’s safe first, tough second.

Barbell, Dumbbells, or Kettlebells?

Next, you need to decide which tools to use.

You can do the overhead press with a barbell, one dumbbell, two dumbbells, one kettlebell, or two kettlebells. It’s surprisingly versatile!

Both barbells and dumbbells/kettlebells have pros and cons.

Barbells:

Lifting with a barbell allows you to lift more weight than with dumbbells. You can also progress in smaller increments.

Also, both arms have to push evenly unless you want to flip the barbell to your side, which can encourage even growth.

However, overhead barbell presses also require you to lean back then forward when pressing and also puts your wrists at a less comfortable angle.

EZ Curl bars can mitigate this last point, though they may weigh differently from your barbell.

Dumbbells or Kettlebells:

Pressing dumbbells or kettlebells allows your wrists to stay in a more natural orientation, making the movement more comfortable.

Also, weights are less stable when held with one hand, so your stabilizer muscles will have to put in more effort.

On the other hand, neither dumbbells nor kettlebells go as high in weight as barbells.

So, I would recommend pressing with a barbell for maximum weight and pressing with one-handed weights to make sure your stabilizer muscles are adequately trained.

Steps to do an Overhead Press

  1. Start with the weight on your anterior deltoids. You’ll be standing straight up with dumbbells or slightly leaned back with a barbell (tuck your chin in, too). Hold the bar with your palms forward, thumbs wrapped around the bar, and with your hands just wider than your shoulders. Dumbbells can be held in the hammer grip.
  2. Press straight up while keeping your wrists straight.
  3. (Barbell only) Lean forward once the bar is past your head so your body is in a vertical line under the weight.
  4. When your arms go as high as they can go, continue the movement by shrugging your shoulders upward.
  5. Hold the weight at the top of the movement for a moment.
  6. Slowly lower the weight.
  7. (Barbell only) Lean backward so the bar doesn’t whack you in the face.
  8. Pause when the bar reaches your chest again. That’s one rep!

Safety Tips

Though the overhead press is a powerful exercise that can get you large, strong shoulders, it’s also easier to injure yourself compared to simpler exercises such as the bench press.

So, make sure to go slow, and start at a lower weight than you think you need to start at.

You don’t want to overstress your rotator cuffs the first time you press! That’ll put you out of commission for a long time.

Here are some more mistakes you might make. It can help to have someone else check your form, too.

Common Mistakes

Angling Your Wrists

If your wrists aren’t in a straight line from your arm out, then you put extra stress on that part of your body.

Make sure your wrists are straight, even if the grip is a little less comfortable, to maintain healthy wrists.

Not Dropping Your Bar Far Enough

Maintaining a full range of motion is important in getting all you can out of an exercise.

People tend to cut corners when overhead pressing by not dropping all the way down.

The bar should come to a rest atop your chest, next to your anterior deltoid.

Flaring Your Elbows

Overhead presses are good for your shoulders…

When done with proper form.

Flaring your elbows to the side rotates your shoulders into a position where they can’t as safely handle the weight.

So, keep your elbows pointed forward.

Arching Your Back

When overhead pressing with a barbell, you need to lean back unless you like bopping yourself in the chin with a bar.

However, this should not involve curving your back backward.

Arching your back like this doesn’t allow your spine to efficiently load the weight and stresses your lumbar.

Squeeze your glutes to engage them and keep your back straight as you lean ever so slightly.

Not Keeping Your Elbows Behind the Bar

When doing an OHP, you want to keep your elbows behind the bar. And by that, I mean close to your body.

If you let your elbows move in front of the bar then you will likely allow the bar to move back toward you. This will lead to the next common mistake, which is:

Not Maintaining a Vertical Line

At all points during the overhead press, the bar should be directly above your feet.

From bar, through your body, down to the floor, should be a straight vertical line. Angling forward or backward reduces the effectiveness of the workout and can increase the chances of injury.

Leaning backward to get your head out of the way is a small sacrifice made because of biomechanics.

Otherwise, you should maintain this line.

Variations

The overhead press is an effective workout but, like any major compound lift, there are ways to change it up.

Try these variations for an even more complete workout, though the standard OHP should be your mainstay.

Arnold Press

Named after that wonderful fitness guru, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Arnold Press is an OHP performed with dumbbells that increases the range of motion.

Start in the bottom position with your palms supinated, which means that they face you.

As your press, rotate your arms so the palms are pronated–faced away from you–at the top of the movement.

Simply reverse the twist during the eccentric phase of the movement.

Behind-the-Neck Press

A behind-the-neck press starts with the weight on your traps instead of in front of your deltoids.

This changes up the muscles used slightly but be warned: It’s easier to injure yourself with this variant.

Go light and slow!

Handstand Pushup

A handstand pushup is like an overhead press, except where you press yourself instead of a weight!

This is an advanced bodyweight move and could be an article all by itself. Don’t try it out unless you’ve practiced inversions before.

Get into a handstand.

It’s much easier to position yourself so your feet are against the wall, for stability.

Lower yourself until your head touches the ground then push yourself back up.

You can increase the range of motion by putting your hands on objects so your head can drop even lower, but this is extremely advanced.

I did do this move against my dorm room door quite a bit, though!

Military Press

The military press is very similar to the overhead press.

In fact, some people consider them to be the same thing! There is a difference, though.

That difference is in the legs and feet.

Instead of a natural stance, keep your legs and heels together.

This tests your balance even more than a normal OHP, and can also be used to target your triceps!

Push Press

In my opinion, the push press is not correctly named, though I’m not sure what to call it.

It’s like an overhead press except with some leg movement to help the initial push.

You start with the weight in the same position as a normal OHP, but don’t push with your arms yet.

Instead, bend your knees and drop your hips straight down. Not into a full squat, but part way.

Then, push yourself back up with your legs.

Continue that momentum to help push the bar off your chest. Do the rest of the movement as normal.

Push presses involve the legs even more than in a normal OHP but at the expense of arm engagement.

Conclusion

The overhead press is a full-body move that focuses on the shoulders and, to a lesser extent, the arms.

It’s not one of the big three but it’s a great auxiliary workout to the bench press.

OHPs are not easy, and they test your balance more than most other compound lifts, but the results are worth it.

Strong shoulders and a healthy rotator cuff are your rewards for practicing the overhead press!

Kettlebell overhead press crossfit strength training exercise

FAQs

Can you OHP on a Smith Machine?

You can, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Half the reason to do overhead presses is to exercise those ancillary stabilizer muscles.

Smith machines do all of the stabilization for you, so that cuts out a major part of the OHP dream.

Can you OHP after a clean?

Yes, you can. In fact, it’s a great way to get the bar into the starting position for an OHP!

Clean and Press used to be an Olympic Lift.

However, judges had trouble evaluating whether or not the powerlifter was using proper technique, so it was removed in 1972.

Should you mix bench presses and overhead presses?

You can, but not everyone does so well.

There are three ways to integrate bench presses with overhead presses:

  1. Alternate between the two exercises every set
  2. Focus on one exercise and finish off the day with the other exercise, accepting that you’ll be fatigued for the second press
  3. Do high-intensity bench presses and high-volume OHPs, then swap next push day

You’ll have to figure out for yourself which one works best for you.

However, no matter which method you use, you’ll get stronger, healthier shoulders!

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