by Dan Trink T-Nation
I'll come right out with it. The overhead press (and its variations) is my favorite lift because it's also my best lift. Many training partners – often jacked-up behemoths that can outperform me in every other movement – have tried to go pound for pound with me in overhead work, and it's always a hoot watching them slouch home with their muscular tails dragging between their legs.
Random gym-goers stop mid-squat and marvel at the amount of iron I toss around, along with my pristine technique in doing so. My push-press PR is often the first thing I discuss when meeting people at weddings.
I even have a small cabinet in my office loaded with perfume-scented fan letters from female admirers gushing over my pressing prowess.
Ladies, I'm flattered, but let's at least try to keep things at a professional level, okay?
All right, I'm exaggerating (well, parts anyway), but I'm not the only lifter enamored with the overhead press. Strength coaching legend Mark Rippetoe wrote this article for T Nation offering solid evidence why the overhead press should be a mainstay in your program, and it goes well beyond just building a silhouette like a superhero.
Coach Rip argues that pressing overhead keeps shoulder strength in balance from anterior to posterior; something your beloved bench press fails at miserably. He drops a few other salty knowledge bombs along the way so If you haven't read that article yet, you should do so, immediately. Go ahead, I'll wait.
So now that we know that the overhead press is a worthy movement and that I've personally had some success with it, this article gives you my top 5 tips for improving your overhead press. This is top secret, black box stuff that I've been keeping close to the vest for years. So don't say I never gave you anything.
1. It All Starts With The Grip
I've noticed that most people start with a grip that's too wide. While it's true that a wider grip leads to a shorter range of motion (which is usually advantageous when trying to lift heavy), going too wide also takes you out of your 'pillar of power' – my term for an imaginary column that runs in a straight line from your feet (which should be hip-width), all the way up to the ceiling.
Going too wide also doesn't allow you to keep your elbows tucked next to your rib cage and takes much of your lats out of the movement, significantly limiting your power output.
The good news is, finding your correct grip is a breeze. Step to the bar and grab it just outside shoulder width, making sure to keep your forearms and elbows tucked closely to your serratus anterior.
Next, as you press, try to keep your elbows in as tight as possible during the entire movement. Sure the bar will have a longer way to go, but your shoulder will maintain a better angle, allowing for more strength to transfer to moving the bar.
2. Keeping It Tight Means Getting It Right
There are two ways to guarantee abdominal activation. One is by squeezing something between your legs (insert sophomoric yet amusing joke here). The other is by holding something heavy over your head.
However, if an impressive overhead press is the goal, don't wait for the load to be above you before bracing your abs. You should be firing essentially all your major muscle groups before the bar ever leaves your delts, including your feet, calves, quads, glutes (especially), abs, and lats.
This will make your press instantly stronger. Want proof? Find a friend and give him a firm handshake. He'll probably feel some pressure from that grip you've developed doing heavy deadlifts and chins.
Now, repeat the handshake, but this time consciously root your feet into the floor and fire all the muscle groups mentioned above. Your grip strength just doubled, and now your friend is steamed because he'll have to eat his morning Pop Tarts with his left hand for a week. Serves him right for eating crap. In any case, the power of that total body contraction can be transferred into a heavier press.
3. Head Back, Not Chin Up
As you press the bar overhead, especially with variations such as the push press or jerk, there's often a tendency to want to point your nose up to the sky to avoid smashing the bar into your chin.
This is a natural reaction and makes practical sense as the last thing you want to do is destroy all that expensive orthodenture work that kept you in braces for most of your teen years.
However, this technique also forces you to loop the bar forward, taking it out of the most ideal plane of motion, which is directly above the center of your feet.
The solution is instead of looking up, retract your entire head directly back, as if you were making a double chin. The bar should pass directly in front of your face on its way up.
This will keep the bar path centered, balanced, and along the strongest possible path.
4. Be Quad Dominant
For the last few years it seems the glutes have received much of the credit for being the prime producers of strength and power in the lower body. All this attention to the posterior chain may be well deserved in most lifts and athletic endeavors. However, when it comes to overhead presses that involve leg drive (such as the push press or jerk), you want the power to come from the quads.
If you try to make the movement more glute dominant by hinging your hips back, the bar will move forward, taking it out of the aforementioned 'pillar of power'(trademark pending). However if you break forward with your knees and keep your torso tall, the bar will stay over the center of your feet and in its most advantageous position.
5. Work On The Weakness
Once you've mastered pressing technique, it's very rare that adding strength to the prime movers (the anterior and medial deltoids and the triceps) will be the quickest way to progress the lift. More often the antagonists, synergists, and support structures are the weak links holding you back.
Make sure that external shoulder rotation work is a big part of your program to ensure strong posterior deltoids. I like the seated external dumbbell rotation for this. Also, work on strengthening your obliques with side planks and offset carries. Finally, keep your rotator cuff healthy and fully functional by training it with a variety of pre-hab movements.
Putting It All Together
Now that you know how to get the most out of your overhead presses, here's a great way to incorporate them into your training during a hypertrophy (mass building) phase.
For this type of phase, I'm a fan of a body part split focusing on 1-2 muscle groups per session. I often recommend training 4 days per week with one day being a lower body day with the main lift being a squat variation; a chest/back day; a lower body day with the main lift being a deadlift variation; and a shoulder/arms day.
The following is a sample shoulder/arms day that would fit well into this phase. Notice how the exercise selection stays static but the reps/sets/rest change from week to week.
Also, week 3 is when you should plan to overreach (or open up a can of whup-ass, for you less delicate types), so feel free to incorporate some more advanced techniques such as drop sets or rest/pauses here.
Hypertrophy Program – Shoulder/Arm Day
A1 Military Press
A2 Preacher Curl
B2 Cable Lateral Raise
C1 DB Hammer Curls
C2 EZ-Bar Decline Triceps Extension
C3 Seated DB Reverse Flye
Sets Reps Rest
Week 1 4 8-10 60 sec.
Week 2 5 6-8 75 sec.
Week 3 3 10-12 60 sec.
Week 4 2 15 45 sec.
Get An (Over) Head Start
You're all set, pal – five rock-solid tips and tricks to improve your overhead press. Now it's up to you to strap on your gonads and incorporate more overhead lifting and accessory movements into your training program to start building brute upper body strength.
Furthermore, let's not forget that it's my favorite lift. So at least you and I will have something to talk about the next time I see you at a wedding.