Overhead Press: The Greatest Test of Upper Body Strength

by Robert Maxwell

The guide you’re about to read was largely inspired by the great strength coach Mark Rippetoe, and the information in his book, Starting Strength. If you’re serious about getting stronger, I highly recommend buying and reading this book.


If you’ve been following this website for a while, you probably realize by now that barbell training is my thing. I touch on it in most of my articles, and it’s my view that everyone should do it. But this article isn’t another rehashing of the same attempt to get you to take up barbell training. Instead, I want to talk about a specific exercise – the standing overhead press. From here on in, I’ll refer to it simply as “the press”. To be clear, I’m not talking about the push press, which involves using leg power to help get the barbell overhead, or the dumbbell or seated presses. Also not the clean and press, which involves pulling the barbell from the floor before using leg power to help raise it overhead, as with the push press. The press simply involves pushing a barbell straight overhead from a standing position until the arms are locked, using only the shoulder and arm muscles as engines. The knees must remain locked for a press to be considered strict, since bending and unbending them at the right moment makes pressing a heavy barbell overhead much easier. That’s why the press is a better indication of upper body strength than the push press. Up until 1972, the press was included in Olympic Weightlifting competitions, along side the clean and jerk and the snatch. Controversy over acceptable form caused it to be removed. Nonetheless, the press was an important staple for great strongmen of the past. The burly guys you see in old black and white photos, lifting huge amounts of weight overhead understood the importance of this great exercise. If you’re interested in strength and fitness, consider adding the press to your routine. Doing so means you’ve got to understand the proper way to perform this challenging movement.


STEP 1 - Setting Your Grip

If you’ve never pressed before, start with the empty barbell. Adjust your rack or stand so that the barbell is just below shoulder height. This is the optimal height to grab the weight from and prepare to press it upwards. Approach the barbell and place both hands on it, turning your palms slightly inwards so your life lines are roughly parallel with the barbell. This is the best and safest way to grab a barbell that you’re going to be pushing upwards. The exact spot you put your hands depends on the length of your forearms and width of your shoulders. A good general rule is to choose a grip width that makes your forearms vertical as viewed from the front when unracking and holding the barbell at roughly collarbone height. Doing so means the barbell will be perpendicular to your forearms, which, for many people, is the strongest position for pushing something heavy directly upwards. But this isn’t the case for everyone. If you have long forearms relative to your upper arms, you might find a slightly wider hand placement better. This will give you a forearm angle slightly shy of 90 in relation to the barbell, and for some people this position is way stronger and more comfortable. A wider hand position has the advantage of shortening the vertical distance the barbell has to move before lockout.


STEP 2 - Unracking the Barbell & Setting Up

With your hand position on the barbell determined, it’s time to remove it from the rack and prepare to press it up. You might wonder why I’ve dedicated an entire step of this article to proper removal of the barbell from the standards. The reason is that there’s only one right way to do it, but a whole lot of wrong ways. Those who don’t take the time and trouble to learn proper removal of the barbell won’t be able to press nearly as strongly. With your hands in the position that you determined in step one, get right up close to the barbell, then bend your knees so you’re underneath it and it’s roughly level with your collarbone. Without moving your hands from side to side, rotate your arms down, so your elbows are slightly in front of the barbell as viewed from the side. This is the position your arms will be in when you press the barbell upward in a moment. The angle of your wrists should be fairly neutral, but there may be a slight backward bending of your hands, depending on your arm geometry. No matter what your proportions, this bend, if it’s there, shouldn’t be more than a few degrees. More indicates the barbell’s resting too far back in your palms, which will lead to tremendous and unnecessary stress on your wrist joints when you attempt to press the barbell up. The barbell should be sitting in your palms so that its weight rests squarely on the end of your wrist bones. Not only is this the safest place for the barbell to be - you’ll also be able to push much better. With your hands in proper position on the barbell, elbows rotated down and forward, and knees bent, take a deep breath and brace your core muscles as hard as you can. Straighten your knees under the barbell so you raise it clear of the standards, continuing to hold your breath and brace your core. You should now be holding the barbell comfortably somewhere between your chin and collarbone, depending on your bodily geometry. Take two steps backwards from the rack, then widen your feet slightly beyond shoulder width. Once every step of the press becomes second nature for you, the goal will be to maintain that same breath you took while unracking until you’ve completed your first rep. During this learning process, you’ll be spending lots of time on each step, checking and double checking your mental record of the procedure described here, so holding your breath isn’t something you’ll want to do yet. You’re now ready to press the barbell upwards.


STEP 3 - The Press

Before I describe exactly how to press the barbell, you need a small lesson in biomechanics. If you’ve never done any sort of pressing before, you won’t be aware of how much easier seated press is than the press I’m describing here. The reason is simple - seated press has a much shorter kinetic chain than the press. With seated press, the kinetic chain starts with your butt on the bench, extends up your torso and arms, and ends with the barbell locked over your head. The press involves a much longer kinetic chain, extending from your feet on the floor, up your legs, torso, and arms before stopping at the barbell. Why does a longer kinetic chain make the exercise harder? More involved joints mean more places to lose force before it reaches the barbell. Even though you’re not actively using your knees in the press, they still offer the force you generate against the floor an escape route before reaching the weight in your hands. With seated press, you’re generating force not against the floor, but the bench, which is much closer to the object being lifted - the barbell. That’s why seated press is easier, and that’s why the press is a better indication of upper body strength. You might be moving the weight with your upper body, but the movement takes your whole body into account. It’s now time to press the barbell up. Check your elbows, making sure they’re still slightly in front of the barbell as viewed from the side. Squeeze your glutes together and push your hips forward. This will cause you to lean back, which is what you want. A healthy backward lean, initiated by the hips and not an arch in the spine, is a very good and strong position to begin pressing from. Now flex your legs while maintaining tension in your glutes. If you’ve let out your breath, take a deep one now and hold it. Brace your core like you’re expecting a baseball bat in the stomach. You’ll be maintaining full body tension for the entire movement. Tilt your head back to leave a clear path for the barbell. Proper technique with the press, like every barbell movement, involves moving your body around the barbell, not the barbell around your body. Correct pressing involves a straight, vertical bar path. Press the barbell straight up, so that it just barely clears your nose. As soon as the barbell ascends past your face, bring your head forward and straighten your body under it, keeping your gaze straight ahead. Although you started the movement with a backward lean, you don’t want to finish this way. Straightening your body beneath the barbell as it ascends is crucial. As your arms approach lockout, shrug your shoulders upwards to add force to the last part of the ascent. Let out your breath just after your arms lock out, then take your next breath and continue bracing your whole body before lowering the barbell for your next repetition. As the barbell descends, be sure to keep your elbows slightly in front of it. The descent is when most beginners forget their elbow position, causing their elbows to drop behind the barbell, which messes up their next rep. During the descent, the movement and position of your body should be a mirror image of your movement and position as the barbell went up. Reestablish hip-initiated backward lean as you lower the barbell, so that by the time it reaches its original starting position, you’ve reached yours, too. Your first repetition is complete. Do 4 more, then re-rack the barbell. Congratulations – you’ve just done your first set of press, and taken the vital first step towards serious upper body strength. Do two more sets, gradually adding weight as you’re able. Continue pressing at least once weekly, and your upper body strength will improve drastically.


Robert Maxwell is an online strength and fitness coach and founder of The Man Factory. Are you a man 50 or older? Become your best self at www.manfactorytraining.com/strength-north-of-50

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