The Case for the Overhead Press
A look at these important, but often neglected, exercises
Soar with your Strengths is a self-help book by Donald O. Clifton and Paula Nelson with a simple formula for success: Discover what you’re good at, and then focus all your resources on getting better at it – and do just enough work to manage your weaknesses. For example, just because Mariah Carey can sing doesn’t mean she can act (e.g., Glitter, 2001), and just because Sylvester Stallone can act doesn’t mean he can sing (e.g., Rhinestone, 1984). Although this advice to focus on your strengths makes a lot of sense, as opposed to the self-help gurus who claim that you can do anything you set your mind to, it may not be such a good approach when designing strength training programs. As evidence, I offer exhibit A: the bench press.
Understand that I am a fan of the bench press, and variations of this lift are included in just about every workout I’ve designed – from athletes seeking to improve performance to the average client who just wants to look good in the buff. But I don’t like the current trend of spending so much time on the bench press at the expense of overhead pressing. Besides, improving your overhead pressing strength will improve your results in the bench press.
Records in the bench press are continually being broken (thanks partly to the assistance of bench press shirts), and presently the absolute records in this lift exceed 500 pounds for women and 1,000 pounds for men. But for feats of overhead strength, we have to look at the earlier days of the iron game.
No discussion about overhead pressing would be complete without mentioning strongman Doug Hepburn, who in the 1950s could press 175 pounds overhead with his right hand and could do a 350-pound behind-the-neck press. When was the last time you saw anyone in your gym doing any overhead presses with three 45s slapped on each end of a barbell? Back then even bodybuilders were strong.
Reg Park could perform standing dumbbell presses with 140-pound dumbbells, a one-arm dumbbell press with 165 pounds for two reps, and a behind-the-neck press with 300 pounds; Bill Pearl could perform a 310-pound seated behind-the-neck press and a 320-pound military press. Both these men – who were as strong as they looked – did these lifts nearly a half century ago!
Five Great Reasons to Overhead Press
Before getting into a workout that will help you add another 45 plate to each end of the barbell during your sets of overhead presses, let’s examine why overhead pressing is so important. Here are five reasons that make my case:
Reason #1: It develops the deltoids, traps and triceps. Sure, you can isolate each of these muscles, but an overhead press does it all at once. This makes it a very economical exercise, which is great for those who need to keep their workouts brief. Do the math. Either you can perform three sets of a standing overhead press or you can do all this: three sets of lateral raises (for the deltoids), three sets of upright rows (for the traps) and three sets of standing French presses (for the triceps). Even if you perform a tri-set, the workout time saved by performing an overhead press is considerable. What’s more, multi-joint exercises often work single muscle groups harder due to the inferior force curves involved in many isolation exercises. For example, the triceps kickback and the dumbbell lateral raise only apply a large amount of tension during a very small part of the mid-range portion of these exercises.
Reason #2: It improves results in the bench press. One of the best ways to get a great bench press is to train overhead pressing strength. Because of various inhibition mechanisms, your bench press progress is often stalled until you spend time on the overhead press. Powerlifting legend Ed Coan reported to me that he was able to break a lengthy plateau by working on his overhead strength.
Reason #3: It can prevent shoulder injuries. Training only the bench press shortens the subscapularis muscle, puts pressure on the shoulder joint and may injure the shoulder.
Reason #4: It’s a great conditioner for the lower back and other core muscles. A weakness in the lower back becomes obvious during the performance of the overhead press. One could argue that other predictors such as external rotator strength pinpoint the cause, but overhead pressing strength is a better predictor.
Reason #5: It’s a great diagnostic tool for the strength coach. Nick Liatsos, a Boston-based physical therapist who has treated many strength athletes, has made the same observation. Liatsos also believes that one should be able to press behind the neck to demonstrate healthy shoulder function, and that the strength ratio of the behind-the-neck press to the bench press is a predictor of shoulder health. When we perform upper-extremity structural balance testing as outlined in the Level 1 PICP practical course, we can identify a strong correlation between shoulder pain and lack of overhead strength. There are two ratios of interest that can suggest this:
The first is the ratio of the seated dumbbell overhead press to the bench press.
The weight done for 8 reps on each dumbbell should represent 29 percent of the close-grip bench press measure. In other words, a man able to close-grip bench about 220 pounds for a single would use a pair of 65’s for 8 reps in the seated dumbbell overhead presses.
The second is the ratio of the behind-the-neck press to the bench press. The weight for a 1 RM behind-the-neck press from a seated position should represent 66 percent of the weight used for a 1 RM in the close-grip bench press. That load is lifted from a dead-stop position with the bar resting on the traps, not from a weight handed off in the lock-out position.
Sixteen Workouts to Better Pressing
If you have at least two years of training experience and have been neglecting overhead presses and want to make amends, I have just the training program for you.
This specialization program consists of a series of four workouts, with each workout consisting of four training sessions. Once you’ve done the exercise for four workouts, move to the next phase. You should perform every workout from a phase every five days. Once you have done the workout four times, proceed to the next phase.
Pair each exercise with an antagonistic exercise of your choice. For the shoulders, antagonistic work could consist of vertical pulling exercises such as pull-ups, one-arm pull-ups and one-arm pulley pull-ups. And be certain to use similar loading parameters for these exercises. With the first workout, for example, you could superset the presses with chin-ups for five sets of 6-8 reps on a 40X0 tempo followed by 90 seconds’ rest.
When using any specialization program for the overhead press, you should make certain to include some rhomboid and external rotator exercises. Also, a great way to catch up on overhead work is to forgo the bench press and its variations for twelve weeks or so. Don’t freak out – your bench press won’t sink to abysmal levels. In fact, it’ll jolt to new levels once you return to doing it!
If you have difficulty doing front presses because of a flexibility issue, A.R.T. (Active Release Technique) will do the trick. A qualified practitioner who releases the shoulder girdle muscles and a few forearm muscles should be able to set you on the right track in a matter of only a few treatments. To find an A.R.T. practitioner in your area, go to www.activerelease.com. Depending on his or her sports biomechanics background, the practitioner may choose one area over another to emphasize, but here is a list of muscles that are good starting points:
- deep and superficial forearm flexors
- latissimus dorsi
- long head of the triceps
- pronator teres
- subscapularis tied to serratus
- teres major
- teres major tied to latissimus dorsi
- teres minor
One-Arm Braced, Overhead Dumbbell Press, 5 x 5-8 reps, 40X0, rest 10 seconds between arms, 90 seconds’ rest after set
You can apply the 5 Percent Solution to this set/rep scheme. This means you’ll increase the amount of resistance by four to five percent each workout while simultaneously reducing the number of reps by one rep each training session, as follows:
- 1st training session, 8 reps
- 2nd training session, 7 reps
- 3rd training session, 6 reps
- 4th training session, 5 reps
This exercise allows for a greater range of motion in the pressing range than in the two-hand dumbbell press because the scapulae can move more freely. Throughout the exercise you keep the hand in a semisupinated position so your palms face your head. This hand position, which by the way is the position that places the least stress on the shoulder joint (and is one reason I really like the way the log press apparatus are designed – with parallel grip handles – for strongman competitions). By training only one side at a time, you’ll allow the scapulae to move over a greater distance.
The key technique point in this exercise is the word “braced,” because by holding on to a power rack post (or other sturdy object) with the free hand as you perform you’ll be able to use more weight in the exercise. Stand and hold a dumbbell in the non-dominant hand (always work the weaker limb first). If you’re holding the dumbbell in the left hand, the right leg should be positioned slightly forward in a semi-lunge position; and the right arm is extended at shoulder level, holding on to the power rack post.
Make an extra effort to bring the biceps as close to your head as possible when you’ve nearly completed the concentric (lifting) range. I said biceps-to-head, not head-to-biceps. Again, the extra range comes in handy to restore shoulder health. Do not wear a belt, and make sure you keep the legs out of the movement! Once your legs are in the starting position, don’t move them until the set is over. And always match the reps performed with the dominant arm – don’t perform more reps on the dominant arm, as it will accentuate the discrepancy between the two arms.
If you’re structurally balanced, you should be able to do 8 reps at a weight that’s about 29 percent of your best single in the bench press.
Seated 80 Degree Barbell Overhead Presses, 5,3,2,5,3,2, 31X0, rest 2 minutes
Start the exercise from the bottom position – you want to unrack the barbell from pins set up for the front squat – and sit down on the bench. Then, lift your feet and lock them up against the foot pad so your lower back is pressed firmly against the seat pad.
Make certain that the arms are in line with the ears when you reach the end of the concentric range. This will ensure optimal movement of the shoulder girdle and promote shoulder longevity. Again, do not wear a belt.
Workouts 9 to 12
Seated Press Behind Neck with Chains, 3 x 5, 30X0, then 3 x 3, 30X0, rest 2 minutes
You are performing a total of six sets for this exercise: three sets for 5 reps and then three sets for 3 reps. The chains will slow down the concentric range to 2-3 seconds, but the idea is to concentrate on moving the load as rapidly as possible. Intent is the key.
Whether you’re doing presses behind the neck or in front, place your dominant leg about 10 to 12 inches forward of the other foot. This diminishes pressure on the lower back compared to the standard feet-aligned technique. Within the first workout you’ll know how effective your lower back training has been. Trainees with poor lower back strength will find it hard to stabilize the trunk during this exercise. Therefore, if you can sense that the lower back is limiting your overhead power, it’s time you devote more effort to increasing the loads you can handle in lower back work.
Start the exercise from the bottom position – you want to unrack it from pins set up for the back squat – and sit down on a regular flat bench. Don’t use lower back support; you’ll be fine. No belt! Make sure the hands are as close as possible during the initial setup so the range of motion is maximal.
Workouts 13 to 16
Standing Barbell Overhead Press, 8 x 1, then 3 x 3-5, 20X0, rest 2 minutes before doing the antagonistic exercise and another 2 minutes before returning to it. A 20X0 tempo is recommended
Select a weight with which you can complete all 8 singles, then drop the weight 15 percent and do three sets of 3-5 reps. When you can complete all 8 singles, increase the weight 5 pounds in the next workout for both the singles and the multiple-rep sets. Because the law of repeated efforts is put into play with this type of set-rep protocol, you can expect major gains in strength during this last phase. And because all these singles potentiate your nervous system, the functional hypertrophy work done at the end will pay off even more. This is brutal yet very rewarding work.
When you grip the bar, make sure your index fingers are just outside the medial deltoids in the start position to maximize the efficiency of the exercise. Keep the legs out of it – don’t turn the exercise into a push press. Again, I don’t want you to use a weightlifting belt for this exercise, so be careful about leaning back excessively because it places adverse stress on the lower lumbar vertebrae (and changes the training effect by turning it into a standing incline press).
Making overhead pressing a regular part of your training will do wonders to develop impressive and powerful shoulders. And if you follow the advice in this article and try this shoulder specialization program, overhead pressing will become one of your strengths.