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Get Stronger Faster: Learn Better Overhead Press Techniques

Last updated: June 29, 2020

Many sports and hobbies require a strong and mobile shoulder, such as fishing, volleyball, tennis, and any sport that involves throwing. An essential exercise to build a strength base for the shoulder is the standing overhead press.

We prefer to do standing overhead press as oppose to seated because it teaches the whole body how to effectively stabilize itself when lifting. Also, compound shoulder exercises such as the standing overhead press is more functional and practical than an isolation exercise such as the dumbbell lateral raise.

Therefore, right from the start when we un-rack the barbell to the end when we re-rack the barbell, we must establish and maintain a stable base of support. This involves full engagement of our legs, core, and back muscle.

The Overhead Press Sequence:

  1. The Set-Up
  2. Un-racking
  3. Performing the repetitions
  4. Re-racking

The Set-Up (Prior to un-racking the barbell):

FIRST: Get close to the bar

  • Grip the bar just outside your shoulder width and palms facing away from your body.
  • Your feet should be directly under the barbell, bend the knees slightly with your collar bones parallel to the barbell.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades back and downwards to engage the back muscles.
  • Your elbows should be positioned directly under your wrists. Your shoulders will be placed in a more externally rotated position.
  • HELPFUL TIP: Be careful to not overextend your back rather you should feel your upper back straightening!

SECOND: Brace the core

  • Now take in a moderate amount of air by “breathing into the belly” so your belly puffs out slightly while engaging your core muscles. This is known as bracing the core.
  • HELPFUL TIP: To help with core muscle engagement, imagine you were to punch yourself in the gut, your core would instictively brace to prevent any damage.
  • With the core muscles engaged, the lower back will likely be in a more neutral position.

Un-racking and setting your feet:

Third: Drive the barbell up using your legs

  • Drive the weight up by straightening your legs and hip.
  • The barbell should be off the rack. The weight will be supported partially on your shoulders and collar bones, as well as, your hands. Take a step back away from the rack so it does not obstruct your exercise.
  • Check your feet again: they should be roughly shoulder width apart. Minor adjustments are allowed depending on your comfort level.
  • HELPFUL TIP: Now squeeze your lower body muscles to provide a stable base, especially the glutes and quadriceps muscles. Keep your legs engaged.

Performing the repetitions:

Fourth: Push up and over your head

  • Start to push up the barbell, keeping the bar as close to your centre of gravity as possible. You may retract your chin slightly to keep the barbell close to your centre of gravity.
  • As soon as the barbell clears your head, push your head forward again which will help the barbell travel up and slightly backwards so your shoulders and arms are completely engaged.
  • HELPFUL TIP: You should barely see your elbows and push the barbell towards the back half of your head.
  • At the top, your shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips and knees should be vertically aligned when viewed from the side.
  • HELPFUL TIP: Make sure to engage your core throughout and avoid arching your back.

FIFTH: Lowering the barbell

  • HELPFUL TIP: Be conscious to keep the elbows directly below the wrist at all times. A a common mistake is allowing the shoulder to go into internal rotation and elbow drops behind the wrist.

Re-racking the weight:

SIXTH: Walking the barbell to re-rack

  • IMPORTANT: Never re-rack with your hands – always walk the barbell to the rack.
  • Allow the barbell to come to rest partially on your shoulder and collarbones, as well as, your hands.
  • HELPFUL TIP: Always engage your core when taking a step forward and lowering the barbell.

Overall key tips: It is best to use a top-down approach with the overhead press

  1. Get close to the bar with the bar at the level of your collar bones
  2. Try to keep the elbows forward so they’re right underneath your wrists
  3. Always brace the core throughout to help keep your back straight
  4. Drive the barbell up and slightly backwards towards the back half of your head
  5. Keep your legs engaged and ready when un-racking, performing the repetitions and re-racking the barbell. A common mistake to avoid is having floppy legs or having your legs go soft when performing repetitions.

Reps, reps, reps…

When learning a new exercise perform the exercise with light to moderate weights in the beginning, to learn correct form. Perform 3 sets – 10 to 15 repetitions each set. Gradually increase the weight in very small increments once a week. If you’re not sure how much weight to use, always start with the bar and gradually add 5-10 lbs at a time. As you become more proficient and confident with your technique, you can gradually use heavier loads to further stimulate the muscles to become stronger.

The advantage of compound exercises like this is that you can load the exercise heavily once you are confident with it. For example, for people with a lot of experience, they can safely use an extremely heavy weight that can only be done for 3 to 5 repetitions and 3 to 4 sets. But for most people who are not trying to become a serious weightlifter and just want stronger shoulders, a moderately heavy weight done for anywhere from 10 to 20 repetitions per set will also build a lot of shoulder strength.

It is best to focus on technique than focusing on adding too much weight. Remember, as a beginner, any weight will increase your strength; even a weight as low as 10 lbs can help build strength quickly. If you’re a more experienced weight-lifter, it’s enough to push with a good amount of weight for about 3-5 repetitions each set.

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