We have already covered some major movement patterns with the squat and deadlift, now it’s time to look at another. Pressing. More specifically, overhead pressing.
Pressing is great for developing huge upper body strength and is vital for most aspects of performance.
The overhead press is great for developing the shoulders, chest and arms whilst also demanding stability from the core and lower body. Providing you have the correct mobility and no abnormal bone structures like a type III acromion (hooked bone causing impingement) then the overhead press can be a great way to develop the stabilisers of the shoulder girdle which aren’t utilised whilst bench pressing. On top of that, developing those stabilisers can actually improve your bench!
Before You Start
Overhead pressing is a very simple looking movement, however it requires a lot of mobility to execute correctly. Most notably the thoracic spine. If you have an excessively kyphotic thoracic spine or slouched shoulder position, chances are you might not be ready for overhead pressing. With today’s lifestyle of tech and prolonged sitting the chances of you having this type of posture are high.
This means that your scapulae or shoulder blades are in a poor position and in turn could lead to impingement related pain. On top of this, correct upward rotation of your traps, serratus anterior as well as strong rotator cuffs all contribute to correct overhead mechanics and shoulder health.
Do you have lower back pain while pressing overhead? Again your thoracic spine could be letting you down, providing you aren’t just being stupid with the weight on the bar. As I said, more than meets the eye with the press.
So before you start moving anything overhead, it’s worth conducting a little assessment. Try the back to wall shoulder flexion below.
You should be able to get your thumbs to the wall without the lower back or head coming off the wall. Did you pass? If you did then chances are you have good thoracic extension and can start pressing. However if you struggled, try the same movement but lying on the floor. Bend your legs so your feet are flat on the floor, get your lower back and head flush to the floor and reach overhead. If you still can’t maintain a good position, I would put overhead pressing work to one side and address mobility/stability issues as detailed later in this article.
Can We Press Yet?
If you have adequate mobility and flexibility then you are ready for the barbell overhead press. If you struggled to pass the overhead test, then it may be worth looking at variations or alternatives to build shoulder strength.
However before we look at those let’s assume you are ready for the barbell press.
• Foot Position – We want our feet ideally below the hips i.e. jumping stance, to give us a solid base or ‘pillar of power’ to support the load overhead.
• Grip – Grip the bar just outside shoulder width roughly 1.5” to 2” away from the shoulder.
• Rack – Elbows should remain slightly in front of the bar with forearms vertical. This position will also help engage the lats which are just as important as the shoulders.
• Tension – This is a strict press so before we lift, everything from the foot up should be engaged and tight, paying particular focus to the glutes and mid line.
• Big Breath – Once tension on the bar has been sufficiently built and the position has been set, take in a big breath and hold. Think about pushing your belly out as if to brace for a punch to the stomach.
• Press the Weight – To initiate the press, we should drive the weight through our heels and move the head back not chin up. The bar should remain over the centre of the feet and travel straight up.
• Drive Chest Forward – Once the bar passes the forehead, make a conscious effort to push the head and chest forward to assist in locking out the movement.
• Lockout – The bar should be overhead with arms fully extended and a straight line from arm to foot through the shoulder and hip.
• Push Elbows Forward – To complete the lift, the bar must be returned to the shoulders by pushing the elbows forward to keep the bar on the optimal path. Again the head moves back to accommodate the bar and end position should look the same as the start position
Sometimes just changing the grip on a movement can reduce pain or improve movement whilst working on the issue at the same time. Using a neutral grip dumbbell press may work as a good alternative to the barbell press. It is also easier going on the wrists if you suffer with the flexed wrist position of the barbell press.
If neutral grip still doesn’t do it for you, then perhaps try a single arm pressing variation, whereby again impingement can be reduced and better position can be maintained. Work your way through these progressions, starting with the half-kneeling stance to improve core stability at the same time and keep the lower back in a good position.
Finally if you cannot maintain a good overhead position with any of the above, or are still in pain try landmine press variations. They are great for building shoulder strength while minimising any chances of impingement related pain or poor overhead positioning.
With the press, most errors can be corrected with simple verbal cues or visual demonstrations. Refer to the video above along with the written description to ensure you are pressing correctly. However as mentioned earlier, if we lack overhead mobility and stability such as shoulder flexion, ROM and scapulae movement, no cue is going to fix that. So work on single arm pressing or landmine pressing whilst using the exercises below to assist with getting into the correct overhead position.
Start with developing your breathing patterns by checking out the article here. To expand on that article try the below stretch with diaphragmatic breathing to not only open up the lats, but open up the rib cage and thoracic spine too.
Next work on soft tissue through SMR, again checkout this article on SMR by clicking here. In the video below, pay close attention to rolling out the lats, chest and thoracic spine.
With that we want to work on mobility exercises for thoracic extension and scapular movement on the rib cage. Give the below exercises a try and re-test often using the overhead test as if you don’t see improvement, then they aren’t for you.
We also want to improve stability especially in the scapulae and rotator cuff to ensure correct overhead mechanics. Once you have done some mobility/flexibility work add in some of these exercises to re-enforce motor control and stability.
This list is by no means exhaustive, just a handful of exercises I have seen work regularly. However as I said before, if after a re-test you see no improvement, try some other exercises. You may also need to look at thoracic flexion exercises if your thoracic spine is already stuck in extension. Check out this great article detailing some flexion exercise by clicking here.
Finally, adding in pulling exercises such as the barbell bent-over row and the chin-up are great ways to re-enforce correct scapulae movement with actual strength and can also help improve that kyphotic posture we spoke of earlier.
The overhead press is a stubborn movement and very hard to continually progress at the same rate as say your squat or deadlift. Assistance work can be the difference between adding an extra kilogram to the lift or being stuck at the same weight for months. Now there are notably two main areas of failure in the overhead press: struggling to even move the weight off the shoulders or struggling to finish the lockout overhead. The former would mean you want to target the shoulders and chest for assistance work and the latter targeting the triceps. So if you struggle to get the bar off your shoulders try these:
Front Raises target as the name suggests, the front of the shoulder one of the prime movers in the press.
The rear of the shoulder often gets neglected or over-looked even though it contributes to your press. Bent-over Flyes are a great way to hit those muscles.
The Push Press allows you lift more weight than your strict press, through use of assistance from the legs and hips. This can again help you get past plateaus by having more weight overhead.
For those stubborn triceps:
Skull crushers are a great way to isolate the triceps along with any other tricep extension exercise.
Dips are a great full body movement that can develop the shoulders, triceps and chest at the same time. Check out my YouTube channel for regressions and progressions on the straight bar dips in the below video.
One final note is that it may be worth investing in some fractional plates from 1/4kg to 1kg. That small jump may also help you get through a plateau rather than jumping up 2.5kg when using 1.25kg plates which is usually the smallest most gyms have.