How To Perform The Overhead Press
One of my favorite exercises to develop a strong upper body is the overhead press (aka “shoulder press”). It’s one of the best exercises to develop the shoulders, giving you the appearance of fuller shoulders that look awesome in a tank top! It also makes you stronger in other pressing movements, like the bench press.
Guys, overhead presses help build those coveted “boulder shoulders” (that amazing-looking cap on the shoulders). And guys and gals: having well-developed shoulders can give your torso a “V-shape,” and therefore the appearance of a trimmer waist.
Who doesn’t want that?
Watch the video above to see how I do it, and then read the remainder of this article for precise instructions on how to perform this exercise.
The overhead press is an exercise that primarily works the deltoidsAdd a Tooltip Text, although the tricepsAdd a Tooltip Text and trapeziusAdd a Tooltip Text muscles are also involved in the movement.
If performing this with a loaded, Olympic barbellAdd a Tooltip Text, you will need a way to pick it up and get it into position for the lift. While some people are able to cleanAdd a Tooltip Text the bar, I recommend setting it in the pins of a squat rackAdd a Tooltip Text or power cageAdd a Tooltip Text (set at a level just above your chest).
You can also do this exercise at home with less elaborate equipment, such as resistance bandsAdd a Tooltip Text or dumbbells. As you advance, however, I recommend performing this exercise in a gym. The more equipment options you have, the more variations you can introduce into your training.
Although the instructions below are written for a standing overhead press, the exercise can also be performed seated. If you prefer to do the latter, you will need a sturdy chair with an upright back that can support both your weight + the weight you’re lifting.
All individuals can perform this exercise—beginner through advanced, all levels.
Description of action:
The following description for the barbell assumes a full-sized, Olympic barbell is being used. If you are using a smaller barbell (like the one in the video), ignore step #1. If you’re using dumbbells or resistance bands, ignore step #2 as well.
- Barbell: set the barbell in the pins of a squat rack or power cage, so that the bar is positioned at or above the upper part of your chest.
- Barbell (full-sized or smaller): Stand straight (no slouching!) with your feet approx. shoulder-width apart. Grasp the barbell using an overhand (palms downward) grip, with your hands spaced just outside the width of the shoulders.
- Barbell: unrack the bar and step away from the pins.
- All Weights: hold the weights in the starting position: just under your chin/in front of your claviclesAdd a Tooltip Text. If you’re using dumbbells or bands, you have the option of holding the weights/handles with your palms facing outward (traditional), or facing each other (parallel grip).
- All Weights: Press the weight(s) straight up and over your head using a controlled motion. If you are using a barbell, it should pass close to your face as you raise it. At the top of the movement your arms should be straight (i.e., no bend in the elbows).
- All Weights: Slowly lower the weight(s) back down to the starting position under the chin, without dropping your arms/shoulders at the bottom. Repeat.
Throughout the exercise, your eyes should be forward, your chest should be lifted, and your abdominals braced (as if you’re preparing to take a punch to the midsection). A strong position = a strong press!
Do this for three setsAdd a Tooltip Text of 6 to 12 repetitionsAdd a Tooltip Text. You’ll want to make sure you rest for at least one minute between sets, sometimes more, depending on the weight you’re pressing. You may need more time to recover between sets if you’re lifting very heavy weights.
- A common newbie error is pushing the weights forward, as if doing an incline press. Be sure to press the weight(s) over your head, and not in front of it.
- Barbell: if you have any doubt about your ability to complete the set, it’s a good idea to place the safety rails in a power cage just under the pin settings. That way, if you fail to make the lift, the safety rails will protect the floor from getting smashed by the barbell. (Not all gyms like it when weights hit the floor!).
- Avoid using the legs and knees to press the weight(s) up. Unless you’re sitting down to perform the exercise, your knees should stay straight.
- Avoid snapping the weight(s) up; instead use a controlled motion to raise and lower the bar.
- Do not arch your back as you press the weight(s).
- Barbell: when using a barbell with additional plates, make sure the collarsAdd a Tooltip Text are fixed at either end.
- Barbell: always lower the bar to your chest, not behind your neck. Behind-the-neck pressing will increase your risk of injury.
As with any exercise, it’s always wise to start light. And if you have any pre-existing shoulder injury (such as a previously injured rotator cuff), get clearance from your doc first.
Variations On The Overhead Press:
As mentioned above, the exercise can be done seated or standing. Many gyms also have dedicated (usually seated) stations for doing barbell presses.
- Some gyms also have plate-loadedAdd a Tooltip Text or selectorizedAdd a Tooltip Text overhead press machines. I’m a big advocate of body weight work, but if you want more variety or prefer the stability factor in machine work, you may choose to use the machine.
- If you’re using dumbbells, resistance bands or certain machines, you can do the exercise one arm at a time.
- The Arnold press is another popular variation of the overhead press for dumbbell users.
- Additional variations that involve the swiss barAdd a Tooltip Text, kettlebellsAdd a Tooltip Text, and barbells with bands will most likely be found in gyms. If you need variety in this press, it’s certainly available!
There seems to be a lot to consider here, but if you really think about it, all you are doing is pushing a weight above your head, right? Simple, effective, and beautiful. I’ve seen fantastic results in the shape and strength of my shoulders because of this press. As such, I consider it a staple of any good strength training program.
Get to pressing!