Overhead Press: Our Comprehensive Guide

September 4, 2019 by  
Filed under Weight Lifting

Are you looking for a great exercise that will help you build your shoulders? Try the overhead press! It’s a staple of bodybuilding and weightlifting for one simple reason—it’s extremely effective when done safely. It can help sculpt those boulder shoulders and it even recruits other upper body muscles at the same time, such as the pecs and triceps. Next time you’re at the gym, consider adding it to your routine.

Benefits of the Overhead Press

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The overhead press targets all of the “heads” of the deltoids—posterior, anterior, and medial—as well as the pectoral muscles. It can also work your traps, especially if you squeeze at the top.


Like any good compound exercise, the overhead press can target other muscles incidentally as well, like the triceps and forearm muscles. In other words, it’s a great all-around shoulder exercise that will hit several major muscles all at once.


In fact, there are many benefits to doing the overhead press over trying to target each individual shoulder muscle with less efficient isolation exercises:

  • The movement is very basic and easy to learn
  • It targets almost all of the “pushing” muscles of the upper body
  • It is a great cross-training exercise if you’re looking to improve other pushing movements like bench press, dips, or handstand push-ups
  • It allows you to simplify your workout and cut out isolation movements such as lateral raises
  • It allows you to lift more total weight since you’re using more muscles; there is some evidence that lifting heavy can increase testosterone levels

The overhead press is a standard weightlifting exercise, and chances are it will be part of any basic weightlifting routine that you adopt. There are also many different variations of the exercise, so you can mix things up if you’re not ready to do the standard barbell version of the movement.

How Much Should I Lift?

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man lifts barbell via overhead press

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When you get started weightlifting and you’ve never done a movement before—or even if you’re just really rusty—it’s important to start slow and keep weight low. Don’t let your ego dictate how much you put on the bar, or you could injure yourself!

Keep It Slow and Steady

Since the overhead press is a harder exercise and recruits smaller muscles, don’t expect to lift a lot, especially at first. Your overhead press 1-rep max will probably be around 70% of your bench press 1-rep max, or maybe even less. Like any exercise, don’t lift your maximum every time. You should lift about 60 to 80% of your max, depending on how many total reps you’re doing.


In most cases, don’t concern yourself with lifting to failure. You should be able to do all of the reps that are required in your routine without completely exhausting yourself. For example, if you’re doing a 5x5, you should be able to do all of those 5 sets of 5 reps with good form. If you can’t, then you’re lifting too much weight. Take some plates off the bar and work up to it some more. The weight should challenge you a little bit, but you shouldn’t be grunting and screaming during every rep.


Of course, the very first time you do the movement, use an empty bar. Don’t load any weight at all until you have the correct form down. It’s much harder to fix bad form once you’ve created a habit out of it and started adding weight. You could also injure yourself if you lift lots of weight without the correct form. Err on the side of caution and get someone who knows about weightlifting to show you how to do an overhead press correctly. Also, remember to keep your core tight while doing the movement to prevent any awkward twisting of your lower back.

Over-Training

Man makes overhead press

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Be mindful not to over-train when adding this exercise to your routine. You may be doing other exercises that recruit some of the same muscles—such as the bench press or the dip—so you’ll need to take this into consideration. If you’re feeling too sore, cut back a little on the weight, the number of reps, or the frequency.


You could also cut out a few sets per week of a similar exercise and replace it with an overhead press. For example, one day of the week you could do an overhead press instead of a bench press and this may help your muscles get a more well-rounded workout.

The Overhead Press: A Step-by-Step Guide

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How do you do an overhead press, though? It’s actually an extremely simple exercise, and you probably already perform this motion occasionally in your everyday life. It’s really just a matter of lifting weight safely over your head, using mostly force from your shoulders and pecs.

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You can do an overhead press seated or standing, and there are several other variations. If you want to challenge the stabilizing muscles in your core, you’ll want to do a standing press.


For some people, especially when they’re first starting, doing a standing press may be a bit too hard. If you find yourself wobbling from side to side, then you may not be ready yet. In that case, you can start by doing an overhead press with dumbbells in a seated or kneeling position. Work on your core muscles until you’re ready to attempt the traditional overhead press.


Here’s how you do an overhead press:

1

Stand Holding the Barbell Against Your Upper Pecs

You’ll want your hands positioned a bit wider than your shoulders. Make sure it feels comfortable and stable. “Pack” your shoulders as well for better form. This means pulling your shoulders back, sticking out your chest, and keeping your back straight. Tighten your core.

It is also here during the starting position that some people like to take a deep breath so they can let it out explosively during the movement itself.


This is a good breathing technique, but you can also breathe normally. The main thing to be mindful of, especially if you’re a beginner, is to keep breathing. Don’t hold your breath during any part of the movement! This can be hard if your natural urge is to hold your breath while exerting force. Holding your breath could lead to serious injury because it can raise your blood pressure to suddenly high levels and potentially burst a blood vessel.

2

Push Straight Up

Keeping your arms moving in a straight line, push up towards the ceiling. The bar will end up in an end position that is hovering high over your head.

Avoid swinging the weight around or otherwise using momentum to carry it up. You want to use your muscles to do the pushing. If you have to use momentum to get it over your head, then you’re using too much weight. Make the movement slow and steady, especially if it’s the first time that you’ve done it.

3

Squeeze At The Top (Optional)

If you want to give your traps an extra workout, you can do an overhead shrug at the very top of the movement. It may look a little funny, but it works your traps just as well or even better than standard shrugs. You can even do this movement as an isolation exercise if you want to target the traps alone.

4

Bring It Back Down Safely

Do the negative side of the movement in the exact opposite way that you performed the positive side. Bring the barbell down until it rests lightly on your upper pecs and then start the next rep after a brief pause. If you have trouble bringing the barbell down and there’s a lot of shaking and instability, reduce the amount of weight that you’re using or try an easier variation of the exercise.

5

Follow General Weightlifting Guidelines

Just as with any resistance exercise, don’t forget to follow the usual safety standards:

  • Breathe throughout the movement and never, ever hold your breath during exertion
  • Don’t load too much weight on the bar
  • Use a spotter, especially if it’s your first time
  • Consider doing easier versions of the movement before you perform a standing overhead press
  • Stop short of total failure to avoid losing control of the bar

If you follow these guidelines, you should be able to do an overhead press fairly easily with minimal risk of injury. It’s a simple movement, and chances are that you’re already lifting things over your head sometimes at home or at work, anyway. In fact, it’s exactly because of this that the overhead press is one of those basic, useful bodybuilding movements that can help reduce your chance of injury in everyday life as well.

Conclusion

person carrying black barbell overhead press

image source: Pexels

The overhead press is a great exercise to try. It’s right up there with other standard pushing movements such as the bench press, the push-up, and the dip. If you want to target the upper chest and shoulders, it’s one of the best exercises you can do.


Since it’s a compound movement, it works the smaller muscles of the arms and the stabilizing muscles of the core as well. This means it’s a very efficient exercise to add to your routine that will save you time at the gym. It can also be done easily with both barbells and dumbbells, which gives weightlifters of all levels an opportunity for mastery.

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