Do you want to build more muscle and strength? Stabilize your muscles and joints? Or improve your balance, core stability, and mobility?
If so, the overhead press is an ideal upper-body weight training exercise for you. It brings a whole lot of benefits. You’ll notice these benefits in your daily life, not just in the gym because you can lift an object effortlessly.
But is it really necessary? To give you a hand, I shared the answer below, plus seven overhead press variations to help you build your best shoulders ever.
What Is an Overhead Press?
An overhead press is a strength-and-muscle builder for the core and the entire upper body. It may look simple, but it is a challenging workout that must be a foundational lift in any upper-body workout.
In a nutshell, the overheard press requires you to lift a barbell (or any of its cousin’s bells) upward from your upper chest directly overhead.
Muscles at work during the overhead press: chest (pectorals), arms (triceps), shoulders (deltoids), upper back (trapezius), lower back, and abdominals.
How to Do an Overhead Press
If you’re new to this exercise, begin with the seated dumbbell shoulder press. Utilizing an upright bench stops you from overarching your lower back.
The bench also provides stability during the movement and helps you focus on keeping the tension on your shoulders while you press the weight. Dumbbells allow a more excellent range of motion and control. Both are best for allowing you to add weight quickly and learn new workout movement patterns.
Here are the steps to do a standing overhead press:
Step 1. Begin with the bar on the rack. Position your body, arms, and feet correctly before taking the bar off the rack. A regular bar on the squat rack is roughly 40 to 45 pounds.
Step 2. Position the bar on the heel of your palm, below your thumbs. Grip it with your hands as if you’ll lift the bar straight up. This position will give you the most force when you lift the barbell.
Step 3. Position your feet and grip shoulder width apart. Bend your arms like you’re doing a push-up since your body is pressed against the bar.
Ensure your legs are not spread too widely and that you’re in a comfortable stance. Aim for a shoulder-width grip. The wider apart your hands are, the weaker you’ll be and the less weight you can lift.
Step 4. Keep your forearms and elbows positioned vertically. Your forearm should create a vertical (straight) line when you hold the bar. Your middle knuckles should be facing toward the ceiling.
Step 5. Have mobile wrists so they can extend back towards your body. If your wrists stand well, you can begin a move with a strong push. Better mobility allows your elbows to flare slightly out to the sides as you press upwards.
Step 6. Lift the bar from the rack. Remove the bar from the rack and bring it to the top of your chest. Keep the bar close to your body with your forearms, creating a vertical line. Bracing your core before starting a press helps. Your head must slightly tilt backward as you push the bar up in a straight line to avoid hitting your nose and chin.
Step 7. Lower the bar down to your chest. Do this move after fully extending your arms and completing the exercise. Assuming you’re using lighter weight, begin with 2 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps. Take a 1-2 minute break after every set.
The Benefits of Overhead Press
There are some undeniable benefits of including this best upper body exercise in your routine. It can increase:
- Strength and size of the triceps muscles
- Strength and size of the shoulder muscles
- Strength and size of the trapezius muscle
- Performance of other workouts, like the bench press
- Strength in the core muscles, like your transverse abdominal muscles, spinal stabilizers, obliques, and lower back when performing the exercise while standing
Whether you’re a lifter looking to get stronger or an athlete aiming to improve your sports performance, the exercise’s strengthening benefits and core stability can help. However, it’s only necessary when you perform it in good form.
If you perform it correctly, an overhead press strengthens your rotator cuff and deltoids. Both help prevent damage to your shoulders.
Safer than the bench press
A standing press is even safer than a flat bench press. Some think that’s false because you must press the weight over your head in an overhead press. However, in reality, there’s a slight chance of an accident with the flat bench. One example is a person dropping the weight on his chest or, worse, his neck. It doesn’t carry that same risk.
You can still lower the bar to your shoulders if you can’t lift the weight. As long as you don’t use a thumbless grip while pressing (this is a big NO), there’s zero chance of the weight hitting your head or falling.
As long as you don’t have any medical conditions or injuries, the benefits of overhead press for the shoulder joint are also huge. In addition, if you avoid hyperextension of your lower back, you strengthen your rectus abdominis, erectors, deep core muscles, and obliques with this workout.
Think of the number of sports that use overhead movements – softball, baseball, a quarterback in football, swimming, and basketball. Throwing or moving overhead needs core and overhead strength. That’s something this exercise can provide. More so if you’re an overhead athlete, as overhead pressing is a necessary move.
So, Is Overhead Press Necessary to Tone Up?
No. The overhead press isn’t required to tone up and build upper body muscles. You can get by with lateral raises, front raises, and incline presses.
However, developing your deltoids through those exercises may take a while, and you’ll miss out on the best pressing exercise to test your upper body strength and strengthen your shoulders.
The overhead press is a compound workout that significantly affects other essential lifts. For instance, it will help improve your triceps lockout strength and give you stronger anterior delts for a big bench press.
While I would still recommend doing small isolation exercises, it’s better to do the exercise if you aim for overall deltoid growth and give your muscles shape.
Best Overhead Press Variations
Repeatedly performing the same workout leads to overuse, boredom, and a decrease in gains and performance. Therefore, you may wish to vary your exercise if you want to train the same muscles at work during an overhead press.
Here are some of the best variations to consider:
1. Seated Barbell Overhead Press
This pressing movement helps isolate the upper back and shoulder muscles. It takes the leg muscles out of the equation and requires you to focus more on your upper body strength to press the weight overhead in a controlled motion.
2. Dumbbell Overhead Press
This overhead press variation allows you to work both sides of your body unilaterally and ensure there’s no strength imbalance.
Simply hold the dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing forward. Keep your elbows below your wrists and press the weight overhead. Meanwhile, a dumbbell shoulder press elicits greater muscle activation of the anterior deltoid than other workouts.
To determine if you are ready to overhead press heavy weight, do an overhead-reach test and shoulder-blade touch test. Passing these tests means you can do barbell overhead presses without concern that you may damage your shoulder joints.
3. Push Press
This exercise makes a great full-body workout. Keep your wrist in a more favorable pressing form to perform this overhead press variation. This variation enables you to recruit your lower body to assist you as you press the weight overhead. It’s an excellent choice for individuals struggling with a full overhead press.
Thruster is a compound exercise that uses more than one joint. It combines overhead press and front squat. Additionally, it requires you to elevate your heart rate, improving your performance and cardiovascular fitness.
5. Military Press (Strict Overhead Press)
Compared to the standard overhead press, the military press requires that you bring your feet closer together. It’s like a soldier standing at attention. With such a posture, your core and glutes must work hard to maintain a stable base during the press.
6. Kettlebell Press
It is a workout technique where you hold the kettlebell at shoulder height. Make sure your elbow is tucked into your chest. Next, press the weight directly overhead.
7. Arnold Press
Named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Arnold press requires you to hold the dumbbell in front of your face, so your upper arm or arms are parallel with the floor. This exercise will help you develop healthy shoulders and chest muscles.
Workouts that target the small muscles in your upper back and shoulders, such as the prone lateral raise and scapular retraction, can also help you perform a more efficient overhead press and decrease injuries.
People Also Ask: FAQs About Overhead Press
What is the difference between a shoulder press and an overhead press?
A shoulder press isolates the deltoids, while the overhead press mainly works the delts and engages the triceps.
Does overhead press work the lateral deltoid?
Yes, both the anterior (front delts) and lateral (middle delts) deltoids worked nicely. The function of the lateral deltoid is “lateral abduction,” which means to move the arm laterally away from the body.
The overhead press can be challenging at times to progress. It is even seen as one of the most technical out of the other static compound barbell movements.
However, it’s not impossible to achieve with persistent effort and training. It may not be necessary for toning up muscles, but it’s encouraged for overhead strength and can positively impact athletic performance and other lifts.
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Nathan Lloyd, MSc
LICENSED PERSONAL TRAINER
I’m a personal trainer, based in Boulder, Colorado.
I service clients physically in the Boulder area, mainly in the ONE Boulder Fitness Gym, but am also available for online consulting and coaching.
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