Rack Up Strength by Going Overhead

August 24, 2011

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photography: Robert Reiff; Model: Gary Strydom, IFBB Pro I’m not going to try to dissuade you from focusing on the big three lifts – bench press, deadlift and squat. After all, they’re our favorites, too. But I’d be remiss and fail at my obligations if I didn’t direct your eyes in one of the most important directions a strongman needs to look: overhead. I doubt you’ll have any objections, but the standing overhead press is by far one of the most difficult exercises in the gym. Requiring phenomenal shoulder stability, from the rotators to all three delt heads, the overhead press also calls into play the entire back, the triceps, the core as well as legs. No wonder those who practice it are truly among the strongest guys around. What you’ll find interesting about this month’s focus on the standing overhead press is not that I’m zeroing in on the how-to of that particular exercise (at least not at first). I draw your attention initially to the integral components necessary to accomplish it. I’m taking a straight-ahead approach to the foundational elements of the standing overhead press, hitting all those areas necessary for a successful lift. So, in short order, let’s break down the individual parts and areas that help support the movement, beginning with the most intricate.


The rotators, not the major muscles of the shoulder (front, middle and rear delt heads), often hinder one’s ability to successfully press overhead. The supraspinatus, teres minor, infraspinatus and subscapularis need little but necessary training to maintain strength and stability during the overhead press, as well as in all chest and back exercises. With just three basic exercises (see “Building Strength Overhead”) you can bolster the deep (and not visible) yet delicate musculature upon which the three outer delt heads rely. I suggest using very light weight and keeping your reps at 15-20, especially if you haven’t given those muscles much attention lately, or ever.


You may think ‘ho-hum’ whenever you read about “core” training, but to a strongman or bodybuilder looking for renewed power and strength, specifically with anything overhead, there’s not a more important area upon which to focus. The abdominals, both superficial and the deeper core muscles, along with the lower-back musculature all support the shoulders, spine and hips during the standing overhead press. You need to train both the rotator group and low-back/core musculature either last in a particular workout or on a day specifically devoted to them. You never want your core or rotators fatigued before doing major strength exercises with heavy weight.


Finally, bringing both the shoulder complex and core together into one movement is important for continued progress in your overhead pressing ability. The overhead squat, even though it’s called a squat, isn’t for the legs. It’s actually for those shoulders, low back and core. Probably best performed inside a power rack, where you can place the safeties at the perfect level, once you master and begin building strength in the overhead squat, your overhead press will immediately improve regardless of whether you do it seated or standing. (See “The Overhead Squat – Do It Right.”) “Building Strength Overhead” is a two-phase workout. Phase 1 is designed for the aforementioned areas that are the most critical to your overhead pressing success. In phase 1 you’ll hit the overhead squat first when you’re freshest before moving on to the rotator-specific work and core training. Only after you’ve attacked these specific exercises for four weeks will you move on to phase 2, where you’ll hit the standing overhead press specifically. To fully appreciate your newfound strength, you can try the phase 2 workout first, then do phase 1 for four weeks. Then compare both your phase 2 performances.


  • Set the safeties just above eye level in a power rack and place an Olympic bar on them.
  • Step inside the power rack and grasp the bar with a very wide, overhand grip.
  • Place your feet wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointed out slightly.
  • Squat under the bar until your arms are fully extended overhead. Your legs should be bent close to 90-degree angles (or deeper if necessary).
  • Keeping your arms locked, press through the floor with your legs until you’re standing with the bar overhead.
  • Keeping your head in a neutral position and holding the bar above your head with arms extended, squat down as if you were sitting in a chair.
  • Keep your abs tight with your chest up and a natural arch in your lower back.
  • Lower your hips until your quads are at least parallel to the floor or deeper. The bar should nearly touch the safety bars in the down position.
  • Explode out of the squat position, driving the bar upward toward the ceiling.
  • When you reach the standing position, don’t lower the bar but squeeze your shoulders, back and legs for a brief count before beginning the next repetition.
  • This is a challenging move. Start with a very light weight to get the form down before progressing to heavier weights.


PHASE 1: Strengthen your entire body, rotators and core with the standing overhead press in mind. FULL BODY: Overhead Squat     3 Sets x 8-12 Reps ROTATORS: Cable or Dumbbell Internal Rotation     3 Sets x 15-20 Reps Incline Dumbbell 3-Way Raise ^     3 Sets x 15-20 Reps ^ Lie face down on the incline bench with your head hanging off the top and your eyes focused on the floor in front of you. The dumbbells will hang straight down to the floor. Raise them out in front, to the sides and then behind you, doing all reps for one angle before proceeding to the next. CORE: Good Morning*     3 Sets x 8-10 Reps Standing Cable Crunch     3 Sets x 8-10 Reps Weighted Hanging Leg Raise     3 Sets x 8-10 Reps Plank     3 Sets to failure *The good morning is an excellent low-back exercise and a good way to offset the heavy abdominal work in the program. The good morning and heavy ab movements, combined with an inner-core exercise like the plank, will help you fortify your entire midsection, helping you handle what you heave overhead. PHASE 2: Four weeks later put yourself to the test. Here’s an upper-body strength workout with the standing overhead press placed first, when you’re the freshest. Standing Overhead Press     4 Sets x 4-6 Reps Upright Row     4 Sets x 8-10 Reps Rack Pull     3 Sets x  6-8 Reps Standing Calf Raise     4 Sets x 12-20 Reps *Select a weight that allows you to fail at the designated rep range. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.