Overhead Pressing Strength

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Of the four main barbell strength lifts — the first three being the squat, deadlift and bench press — the standing shoulder press (aka the military or overhead press) has the lowest plateau ceiling for the simple reason that it’s the one on which you’ll be using the least weight. With squats and deadlifts, you can often add 10 pounds to the bar and not even notice. It’s a different story with shoulder presses. You can be handling 185 pounds just fine, then add a nickel to each side and you can’t get the bar past your chin. Unlike the bench press, there’s no bench to push against to help produce more force, just the floor. But sticking points can be overcome to build stronger, more massive shoulders, and Jonathan Mike, CSCS, a strongman competitor and doctoral student of exercise science at the University of New Mexico, shows you how with these three strategies. 

TIGHTEN YOUR TECHNIQUE: To press big weight from your shoulders up, you need to be solid below this point. Think of your torso and lower body as the foundation from which you’re pushing off; you want that foundation to be hard as bedrock, not soft and squishy like swampland. “Right before you unrack the bar, squeeze the hell out of your upper back, brace the core and squeeze your glutes,” Mike says. “These combinations will ensure extreme body tightness and provide more power to initiate the press.”

DO MORE SPEED WORK: To be super strong, you have to be powerful; the two go hand in hand. Increasing power requires dedicating a certain number of sets to moving the bar as fast as possible, which means lightening your training load substantially. “To acquire a huge overhead press, speed work is king,” Mike says. “It’s very underrated for main lifts, but it serves a huge role in developing strength.” For speed work (in addition to heavy strength sets), Mike recommends doing three sets of eight to 10 reps with 55 percent of your overhead press one-rep max and 90 seconds of rest between sets. Make sure every rep is as fast and explosive as possible.

INCORPORATE MORE PRESSING VARIATIONS:If the only type of overhead presses you do involve a standard Olympic barbell, your shoulder-training repertoire is incomplete. Keep the basic motion the same, but mix in some other tools. Mike recommends first doing one-arm standing dumbbell shoulder presses to ensure balanced strength from limb to limb. “These are a staple in every strongman contest and are essential for a big overhead press,” he says. “Try doing sets of heavy triples [three reps] and doubles [two reps], and rotate them out with higher-rep sets undefined.”

Mike also suggests mixing in different types of barbells on a regular basis. “Try using a Swiss bar or football bar [both of which place your hands in a neutral position, palms facing each other], as well as an EZ-bar to maximize pressing strength and work your weaknesses.”