The bench press is often seen as the king of upper body exercises, and Monday is Bench Press Day in most gyms around the world.
But the bench press is actually a relatively new exercise that only became popular in the late 1940s. Before that, if you wanted to work your chest, you were mostly limited to push-ups, dips, and floor presses.
So, before the emergence of the bench press, the overhead press was the exercise that everyone wanted to do.
In fact, the overhead press was once one of the Olympic lifts and was only dropped from competition in the late 1960s. Despite this, it’s still a staple of strongman competitions and arguably the best way to build big, muscular shoulders.
Sadly, a lot of lifters either never do overhead presses or are very weak in this movement. That’s a shame because, as upper body pressing exercises go, the overhead press is one of the best. It deserves a bigger starring role in your workouts.
The overhead press is arguably more functional than the bench press and certainly safer. You can rep out to failure without getting pinned under the bar. It’s also an excellent lift for home exercisers, as all you need to do it is a barbell and some weight plates – no bench required.
In this article, we reveal the best strategies to boost your overhead press.
9 Ways to Boost Your Overhead Press
- 1. Become an overhead pressing master
- 2. Press more often
- 3. Build stronger scapular stabilizers
- 4. Beef up your triceps
- 5. Stretch and mobilize your lats and shoulders
- 6. Increase bar speed off your shoulders
- 7. Improve your lockout with bands or chains
- 8. Strengthen your core
- 9. Try some more demanding overhead press variations
- 9 Ways to Boost Your Overhead Press
9 Ways to Boost Your Overhead Press
1. Become an overhead pressing master
The overhead press is a surprisingly technical exercise. Things like hand position and bar path can have a significant impact on your performance. Also, using the correct technique will ensure that your muscles do all the work and your joints are in a biomechanically safe and sound position, making the exercise much safer.
So, before you start trying to increase your overhead pressing strength, make sure you spend some time analyzing and perfecting your overhead pressing technique.
Common faults to look out for include:
- Hands too wide or narrow
- Leaning too far back and hyperextending your lumbar spine
- Wrists flexing backward
- Lack of core tension
- Incorrect bar path
These errors create energy leaks that will reduce your pressing performance, both in terms of weight and reps performed. They may even increase your risk of injury.
Not sure what constitutes good overhead pressing form? Check out our in-depth guide to the overhead press.
2. Press more often
It takes time and practice to master any skill, and that includes the overhead press. If you are serious about increasing your overhead performance, you need to do it more than once a week, which is the standard frequency used by most lifters.
That doesn’t mean you should just do the same overhead pressing working twice a week – that’d soon become boring.
Instead, do two different overhead pressing workouts to ensure your workouts are always productive and never tedious.
|Workout 1||Workout 2|
|Barbell overhead press||Seated dumbbell press|
|Seated dumbbell overhead press||Shoulder press machine|
|Cable lateral raise||Bus drivers|
In addition to alternating pressing exercises workout by workout, it’s also a good idea to use different set and rep schemes. For example, you might do five sets of five one day and four sets of eight the next.
3. Build stronger scapular stabilizers
You can’t fire a cannon out of a canoe, or so the saying goes. Also, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. With no bench to lie on, your overhead press performance depends on your ability to support and stabilize your shoulders and scapulae.
If your shoulders aren’t rock solid, you won’t be able to lift as much weight. Your sets may come to a premature end simply because your stabilizers fatigue before your deltoids and triceps.
In addition to working on your overhead pressing strength, make sure you also spend some time on your shoulder stabilizers.
Good scapular stabilizer strengthening exercises include:
4. Beef up your triceps
Your pressing strength is largely determined by your triceps. So, if you want to overhead press more weight, you need to train the muscles on the back of your arms. That’s especially true if you struggle to lock your elbows at the top of your presses.
While triceps pushdowns are a fine muscle builder, they aren’t so good for increasing strength. So, instead of isolating your triceps, it’s best to strengthen them in conjunction with other muscles. This will develop functional strength and inter-muscle coordination.
Good triceps exercises for boosting overhead pressing strength include:
- Triceps dips
- Weighted diamond push-ups
- Close-grip bench presses
- Close grip floor presses
- Tate presses
- JM presses
5. Stretch and mobilize your lats and shoulders
To be a good overhead presser, you need mobile shoulders and flexible lats. If your shoulders or upper back are overly tight, you won’t be able to press the bar through its best trajectory.
For example, if your lats are tight, you’ll find it harder to fully extend your arms overhead. Similarly, if your shoulders are immobile, you won’t be able to keep the bar close to your face, increasing the distance the weight has to travel as well as reducing mechanical efficiency.
Needing to lean back excessively during overhead presses is a good indicator that you’re too tight and would benefit from some extra upper-body mobility and flexibility training.
6. Increase bar speed off your shoulders
The more slowly you press, the harder the overhead press becomes. Increased bar speed will help you blast through sticking points harnessing the power of momentum. If you want to lift more weight, your intent should always be to lift as explosively as possible. That explosive intent also increases muscle fiber and motor unit recruitment.
Good power-boosting exercises for the overhead press include:
7. Improve your lockout with bands or chains
Do you struggle to lock your elbows at the end of an overhead press? This issue can usually be fixed by performing presses with chains or resistance bands.
Pressing with chains or bands takes stress off your arms at the bottom of each rep but then increases the load as you near the top. This overloads your triceps and provides an excellent way to strengthen the end of the range of motion.
As well as overloading the upper range of motion, using bands or chains teaches you to lift more explosively and develops your ability to use speed to blast past your sticking points.
Bands and chains have a similar effect.
If your gym doesn’t have chains, buy a set of bands and keep them in your workout bag. Bands can also be used for bench presses, deadlifts, and several other exercises.
8. Strengthen your core
There is no bench to support your spine during overhead presses. Instead, your body is your bench! As such, you need a solid core to support your midsection and provide a stable platform from which to press.
That doesn’t mean you should waste your time banging out loads of sit-ups or crunches. Instead, you need to train your core as it works during overhead presses, i.e., isometrically or statically.
Good overhead press-specific core exercises include:
- Single-arm farmer’s walks
- Single-arm waiter’s walk
- Single-arm overhead press
- Suitcase deadlifts
- Pallof presses
9. Try some more demanding overhead press variations
Military units all over the world live by the moto “train hard, fight easy.” You can use the same mindset and workout approach to getting better at the overhead press. Start adding more demanding overhead pressing variations to your workouts to make regular overhead presses feel easier.
Challenging overhead press variations include:
- Z press
- Javelin press
- Half-kneeling press
- Handstand push-ups
- Overhead press with weights hanging from the bar
- Inverted kettlebell press
9 Ways to Boost Your Overhead Press
A strong overhead press is worth bragging about. There is something awe-inspiring about defeating mean old gravity and shoving a heavy barbell above your head. But a good overhead press doesn’t happen by accident; it takes time, practice, and perseverance.
So, whether you just want to build bigger, stronger shoulders or see how much weight you can push above your head, use the tips and techniques in this article to boost your overhead press.