Overhead Press Variations
by Ben Bruno T-Nation
For some, upper body pressing begins and ends with the bench press and the overhead press.
That's cool, and those are definitely great exercises, but I like more variety than that. I like to rotate exercises periodically to avoid repetitive overuse injuries, keep the shoulders happy, give the muscles a different stimulus, and perhaps most importantly, stave off boredom.
If you're like me and enjoy a change from time to time, here are six pressing permutations to try.
1. Landmine One-Arm Floor Press
The one-arm dumbbell floor press is one of my favorite pushing exercises and it's been a staple in my routine for the past couple years. While it's ostensibly an upper body exercise for the chest, shoulders, and triceps, try it and you'll quickly realize that it's a full body exercise that requires total body tension to maintain a stable base of support.
It's also a great shoulder-friendly alternative for people who might experience pain with full range of motion pressing, or those with lower extremity injuries that preclude them from pushing through their feet.
The problem, however, is that as you get stronger, it can be tricky to hoist heavy dumbbells into position (and back down onto the floor again) when you're training by yourself. Furthermore, unless you're blessed to train in a gym with extremely heavy dumbbells, it won't be long before you've maxed them out.
Sure you can add reps to a point, but continually using the same weight will inevitably result in a plateau that feels like your own personal version of Groundhog Day. That gets old, fast.
Enter the landmine floor press.
The landmine allows for greater loading potential, and because the barbell is already elevated off the ground, it's much easier and safer to get in and out of position. With a simple self-spot from the non-working arm, you should be all set. Like so:
The angled barbell still lets you press with the same range of motion as a regular floor press (i.e., until your triceps touches the floor) and it also allows for a neutral grip, which is easier on the shoulders. Moreover, some folks will find that the thicker handle helps to relieve stress on the elbows, which is an added bonus.
You'll have to play around a little bit at first to figure out how close to set up in relation to the bar, so start very light and experiment with different body positions until it feels comfortable. Once you get that squared away though, it shouldn't be long before you're crushing some serious weight.
If you don't have a specific device to secure the barbell, place it carefully in a corner with a heavy dumbbell over the tip to keep it in place.
2. Valslide flyes
I used to think I'd never find an exercise that smoked my chest more than ring flyes.
Then I tried flyes using the Valslides. (If you don't have Valslides, furniture sliders will work well too.)
It's the same idea as ring flyes, only with the added element of friction to ensure that your pecs hate you even more. When you're using the rings, the eccentric part of the rep is the hardest, but if you can pull that off without doing the famed Ring Dip Face Plant (easier said than done, I might add), the concentric isn't that bad because the built-up tension of the rings helps bring you back in.
You don't get that assistance with the Valslides. You have to actively push out on the eccentric and pull back in on the concentric, making both parts of the rep suck equally as bad. Fact is, the concentric is probably even harder than the eccentric.
While it may seem innocuous, it's really an extremely advanced exercise, so don't just jump right into it without proper preparation. Doing so will inevitably lead to either a shoulder injury or the aforementioned face plant, neither of which you want.
Start by doing partial flyes where you only extend your arms out a little bit and progress to full flyes over time. Even with full flyes though, you still want to keep a slight bend in your elbows to protect your shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
You may also want to start from your knees. Seriously. Laugh all you want, but you probably won't be laughing once you try them.
Be advised that the difficulty of this exercise will vary greatly depending on the surface you're using, so be sure to take that into consideration. It can be anywhere from very difficult on a smoother floor to downright brutal and almost impossible on a rougher surface. A thin carpet works best, making this a great exercise to do at home or while you're traveling.
Quick word of caution: This exercise may not jive well with folks with certain shoulder pathologies. If you find it causes any pain (other than a smoked chest), stop doing it and pick something else. That really goes for any exercise though.
3. Valslide Push-up/Fly Combo
This one is similar to the above exercise, only one arm performs a push-up while the other arm performs a fly.
If you're having trouble picturing how it should look from that wonderfully in-depth description, see the video below:
Usually adding a unilateral component makes an exercise harder, but in this case, it makes it a bit easier from a pressing standpoint since the arm doing the push-up is supporting the majority of the load where the lever arm is shorter. Still, while it might be easier, it's far from easy, especially when you factor in the friction of the Valslides.
If you do this exercise on the rings, it's essentially a modified one-arm pushup where the goal is to put as little weight as possible on the outstretched arm, merely using it to counter the rotational demands. With the Valslides, however, the pec of the reaching arm gets worked quite a bit as you push your arm out and then pull it back in.
That arm movement also introduces a huge anti-rotational component as you fight to stabilize your torso and avoid twisting, making it one heck of a core exercise. Fact is, if you choose to put this in your training program, you might try to include it as a core exercise to kill two birds with one stone and get in some additional upper body work while you're at it.
4. Giant Cambered Bar Overhead Press
Like the name suggests, this is an overhead press with the giant cambered bar, which makes for a pretty wild ride.
Be prepared to drop the weight quite a bit from what you can normally overhead press with the barbell, especially at first as you adjust to the instability of the bar that comes from the plates swinging around. Your numbers should increase as your shoulder and core stability improves though, and when you go back to using the barbell, it'll feel substantially easier.
I also like this variation because it reflexively teaches good form. You can hear all the standard cues about bracing your core, squeezing your glutes, using your lats, and not pressing out in front of your body, but put the cambered bar in your hands and you'll quickly figure that stuff out automatically.
Or else you'll get dominated. Don't say I didn't warn you.
5. Staggered Stance Landmine Press
Overhead pressing with the landmine is an awesome alternative for those that can't do the traditional overhead press (a.k.a. the standing military press) for whatever reason.
The most common reason for people nixing the overhead press is shoulder troubles of some sort. This might be the result of a previous injury, or it could just stem from a lack of shoulder and/or thoracic mobility that makes going straight over head problematic (for more on that, read this article.
Regardless of the reason for the shoulder pain, switching to the landmine for overhead work will usually be better tolerated, both because of the angle of the press – it's more like an incline press than an overhead press – and because it allows for a neutral grip.
For others, the chief complaint with overhead pressing may be low back pain, as there's a tendency to lean back and hyperextend at the lumbar spine, which can spell trouble under heavy loads. This may simply be a matter of tightening up the form and increasing core strength, but for those with serious lower back issues or disk pathologies, it's probably wise to switch to the landmine press as there's less risk of hyperextending since you're pressing out in front of you.
That said, just because it's easier on the joints, don't think for a second that it's an easy exercise or that it's just for injured folks. These will humble anyone that tries them.
They can be done many different ways, but my favorite is using a staggered stance and stepping into each rep explosively to help create momentum, similar to a push press.
Doing the exercise this way requires total body coordination where everything moves in synch. Sometimes I'll do the reps dynamically with lighter weights and higher reps, and other times I'll go heavier and pause between reps.
Before you start using momentum, though, it's best to first master the strict press using a symmetrical stance. You can also do it half-kneeling (one knee) or tall-kneeling (both knees).
Pick your poison. They're all good.
6. "Bottoms Up" One-Arm Kettlebell Press
If you thought the giant cambered bar and landmine presses were tough, wait until you try these.
Any time I'm feeling good about myself in the gym, I can always count on these to bring me back down and make me feel like a huge wuss.
When you find something in your training that you suck at though, that's usually a sign you should be doing more of it.
Going "bottoms up" helps build tremendous shoulder and core stability while placing an emphasis on grip strength.
Starting in a half-kneeling position helps build hip and pelvic stability while also reinforcing the notion of maintaining full body tension as you press because you'll quickly lose control of the 'bell if you don't. It's also one hell of a hip flexor stretch and core exercise that trains anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion all at once. Talk about a big bang for your buck.
Here's what it looks like in action:
If you don't have access to kettlebells, you can get a similar training effect holding a hex dumbbell vertically. These will absolutely fry your forearms.
Check your ego at the door before trying these because they'll require you to use a lot less weight than you're accustomed to with regular pressing work. That's fine. Try not to think of it so much as a strength exercise (though you should still try to increase the load over time), but more as a stability exercise to help increase your strength on your regular presses as you shore up your weak links.
Another cool thing about "bottoms up" work is that while it leaves you with a huge pump in your shoulders and forearms (you know what Arnold says about the pump, right?), it doesn't leave you sore the next day, so it shouldn't interfere as much with subsequent upper body workouts.
You can implement them in your program in any number of ways, but I like to do them once a week on a separate day from my heavier pressing work. Often I'll even just tack on a few sets at the end of a lower body workout for some supplemental pressing work that won't impede recovery too much.
That's a Wrap
There's no need to overhaul your current program if it's working well for you, but if you're sputtering a bit or just sick of the same old stuff, adding some of these exercises may help get you pressing on to new heights in your training.