Long before I became a trainer and barbell connoisseur, I assumed all overhead presses were the same. You grabbed a weight, pressed it over your head, put it down, and turned into a magical unicorn.
At the time, I didn’t know the difference between horizontal and vertical pressing movements, just like I had no idea that different presses needed to meet a few mobility requirements before it was deemed safe enough to do.
To read more about the mobility requirements for overhead pressing, read my post on How to Test Your Mobility for Safe Overhead Pressing.
Nevertheless, I learned through a lot of trial, error, and shoulder pain that not all presses are created equal. Here are just a few variations and [general] what’s different about them.
- The shoulders and arms are the only thing that moves while the lower body acts as the stabilizer
- A true test of upper body strength, more so than the bench press
- Typically done with a barbell, but you can also use kettlebells and dumbbells which allows for a few modifications for cranky shoulders
- Recommended for experienced trainees with no history of shoulder pain or major injuries. If you do have achy shoulders or a history of pain, I’d much rather you use a dumbbell or some other variation
Standard overhead [shoulder] press
- A lot more wiggle room here in terms of how to progress or regress this exercise
- You can perform this seated, standing, or kneeling, one arm, double arm, or alternating (see point above)
- Other variations include the Arnold Press, Landmine press, Javelin press, & One-arm press
- Great for developing the shoulders but then again, so are all overhead press movements
- Movement also requires use of the hips
- Fantastic way to build explosive power as well as strength in the upper body
- You can use just about any piece of equipment for this
- Horitzonal press variation but still considered an overhead press
- This can be done with an incline or decline bench, on a Swiss ball or the floor, and with a variety of grips and ranges of motion
- Those with a history of shoulder pain might want to skip the barbell version. Instead, do a floor press or do a dumbbell bench press with neutral grip.
Notable mentions: Jerks, Snatch, and push-ups.
Clearly, there are a lot of options for pressing overhead, and each one presents a benefit, particularly the military press and push press
Perks of the Overhead Press
It’s worth noting that as far as upper body strength development and hypertrophy is concerned, the traditional overhead press is king, not the bench press. That’s because the overhead press works the shoulders and arms front, middle and back. The bench press on the other hand, uses the chest and front of the shoulders as primary movers. There is nothing wrong with this, it can just create an imbalance if all you ever do is bench press for developing the upper body.
The press is also considered harder because of the position you’re in. When you’re standing for a strict press, your only two points of contact are through your feet, whereas the bench press contact points has three – feet, glutes, and shoulders.
Finally there’s a lot less room for cheating in the standard barbell overhead press than in the bench press because the arms and shoulders are the primary movers, while the lower body’s role is in stabilization.
So let’s break the two most popular overhead presses down.
The Military Press
The military press is best performed with a barbell if you have healthy shoulders and are cleared to press weight overhead. I can’t stress this enough. A lot of people walk into the gym and start throwing barbells up and down before they’re ready, get hurt, and then blame CrossFit for all their troubles. It’s not CrossFit’s or anyone’s fault that you’re
an idiot hurt; stop lifting with your ego!
Back to it…here’s a front and side view of what the strict press looks like:
- Hand grip is slightly wider than the shoulders and elbows slightly out in front of the body the whole time (instead of pointing straight down)
- After unracking the barbell, be sure to pull your core in, pin the ribcage down, and squeeze your glutes!
- As you press overhead, keep the bar as close to the face as possible (just move your nose out of the way)
- At lockout, the biceps should frame your ears, and there’s a straight [imaginary] line from ears to shoulders, to hips, knees, and feet
- If you’re doing this for multiple reps, don’t let the bar bounce off your shoulders. As soon as it comes down you get it right back up
The Push Press
The push press is another great way to develop overhead strength, explosive power, and even endurance with a heavier load. The easiest and most accessible variation starts with dumbbells, but you can use any piece of equipment you have, including a barbell. Watch this video for a few helpful pointers for the barbell push press.
- Similar grip and position as the strict press above
- If you’re using a dumbbell, use a neutral grip with the palms facing in which is more shoulder friendly
- Feet positioning should be similar to whatever your front squat stance is
- The dip-drive phase is not a shallow squat. Instead, drive from the heels and violently extend the hip, knees, and ankles as you press the bar up
- When the weight is overhead, the ears should be in between the bicep, spinal column stacked (that includes the neck), and the bar path should be in one straight line
In BarbellSTRONG coaching, we work our way up to overhead pressing so that we can 1) do it safely and 2) enjoy all the benefits of the exercise once we’re ready for it (Apply here for 1:1 coaching with me).
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