Overhead Pressing Strategy
Update: here’s another blast from the past. Dating back to November 2, 2007, this was one of my first posts on overhead presses and it still rings true.
The four most important exercises for any serious weight lifter to obsess about are the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. Today, I am going to discuss how to properly perform a standing overhead press (aka shoulder press or military press), and a push press. Both motions are obviously used to push objects overhead. Clearly, overhead pressing is not only extremely functional but is fundamental in helping to build a firm athletic base regardless of your fitness goals.
I am going to be using a barbell in this explanation, but it can be performed with any reasonable object. First of all, load a bar appropriately and bring the weight to the front your shoulders. You can either clean the weight from the floor like an Olympic weightlifter or you can load the bar at the desired height in a squat rack.
Shoulder Press or Overhead Press
The first step is to take the bar with an overhand grip with palms facing forward and with your feet shoulder width apart or slightly wider, and knees only slightly bent. The starting position begins with the bar being held over the upper chest.
Take a deep breath and hold it. Now begin pressing the weight overhead with the elbows situated directly underneath the wrists. Make sure that your arms are as close to vertical as possible when pressing overhead. Also, be sure to contract those abdominals while trying not to allow too much arching in the lower back.
Once you hit the toughest part of the lift, begin forcefully exhaling through pursed lips, as if letting air out of a tire. This will ensure a safe spine position and help you push the weight through the full range of motion. Remember to pause just short of locking out your elbows and reverse the direction bringing the bar back to the upper chest while inhaling appropriately.
Many definitions of the military press are identical to the shoulder press or overhead press, except that the feet are specifically positioned in a narrower stance. I’m guessing your foot position would be just inside shoulder width. This makes the exercise slightly harder.
The push press can be done with more weight then the military press because you will be using your legs (the push) to help propel the press.
To execute a proper push press, start with the bar in the same position as the military press, on your upper chest. Now bend your knees at a 30-45 degree angle, about a 1/3 to 1/4 squat. Now use your legs and hips to squat the weight up, and use the momentum of the push to start the press.
The momentum from the push combined with the strength of your press should move the bar through the midway sticking point and hopefully to the top of your range of motion. Once again, pause just short of lockout and allow the bar to descend back to your upper chest. Be sure to catch the bar with slightly bent knees to preserve the health of your knees and lower back.
How to Use Overhead Presses
Switch off between these two exercises as your overhead press. Use the military press for a month to establish proper form and discover your starting weight. Then use the push press for a month with 110% or more of the weight you used for your military press.
For example, I might military press 135 x 8 but I might push press 185 x 8. When you switch back to the military press, you will probably be several pounds stronger than when you did them last. Overhead pressing should be part of your core exercises along with squat, bench, and deadlift. Give it a try and you will surely appreciate the results.
Less Intense Options
I don’t recommend them, but there are also some good shoulder exercises you can do if you can’t complete a shoulder press or a push press. They are good solutions shoulder training exercises, but all standing barbell overhead presses are superior.
Seated Military Press: Many gyms have a military press station in which you can sit on a bench, unrack the bar from the hooks, military press to your hearts content, and either drop the bar on the rails that run parallel to you, or re-rack it on the hooks.
Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Grab two dumbbells and clean them up to shoulder level. Press each dumbbell from shoulder level to just short of full extension above the head. To avoid putting too much strain on the lower back, consider using an alternating pressing motion: left arm, right arm, left arm, right arm, etc…
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: Sit on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand, lying one on each knee. Use your legs to pop the dumbbells up to shoulder level one at a time. Keeping your feet flat on the floor and driving through the heels, press both dumbbells from shoulder level to just short of full extension above the head. Lower the weights under control.