Overhead Pressing Playbook

Build true upper-body strength by getting acquainted with — or mastering — this fundamental lift.
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Overhead press variations probably run a close second to squats in terms of being the most neglected exercise in the gym. Most people won’t do them for a few simple reasons: They’re hard, it’s not as easy to make gains in the movement and it’s even tougher to cheat. But folks, that’s exactly why you should do them.

Having a strong overhead press translates to strength in many other muscle groups including your core, and mastering this movement pattern is a true testament to shoulder health and mobility. If all of the above isn’t incentive enough to start doing them, nothing will be.

When Presses Go Wrong

The overhead press is commonly botched by lifters who use excessive overarch in the lumbar region to compensate for limited shoulder mobility. For proper execution, the bar must be centered over the mid-foot through the entire range of motion, meaning the bar will be positioned over the spine at the top of the lift, with the head pushed slightly through the arms (“head through the window” position). When someone doesn’t have the ability to place the hands and arms directly above the body, however, something’s gotta give.

Assessing Your Press

Some may think it best to simply load the bar with weight and start pressing away. In reality, that’s a recipe for disaster, particularly for those who insist on moving max weight at the expense of good form. There are many things you can do to boost your pressing proficiency, but these two steps are key:

Step 1: Improve shoulder mobility. Grab a dowel or band and hold it at arm’s length with a wide overhand grip. Without bending your elbows, rotate the dowel or band all the way around to the back of your body so it contacts your low back or glutes. You’ll notice that this asks a lot of your shoulder rotational capabilities and will help create more mobility at the joint. When the movement gets easy, move your hands in by an inch on both sides and repeat.

Step 2: Strengthen your upper back. A strong upper back is not only a much-needed support system to stabilize the shoulder joints but also an essential component to pull the arms into much greater ranges of motion than they would otherwise. Overhead pulling variations such as chin-ups and pulldowns are great complements to row variations to get the scapular muscles doing their job. Do them often.

Best Press

Use these form fixes to lock down your pressing game and pack on pounds of upper-body mass.

• Use a hip-width stance. Don’t space the feet too wide or you won’t be able to produce as much force.

• Hold the bar just outside shoulder width, and let it rest on your collarbone with your elbows directly under or 1 inch in front of the bar.

• Breathe in and then exhale as you drive the weight upward without letting your back overarch.

• Straighten your wrists and elbows completely and lock out overhead, keeping your abs and glutes engaged. You shouldn’t be able to see the weight or your arms in your peripheral vision. Lower the bar slowly and repeat.

• If your press is weak, make it a point to do them at the start of your workout when you’re fresh.