Of all the lifts, the overhead press and its many variants have to be the most misunderstood and, sadly, underutilized. Yet, it is a very powerful tool to use in your arsenal for shoulder, traps and triceps hypertrophy, athletic performance and, believe it or not, shoulder health.
Back in the 50’s, 60’s &70’s, the overhead press was a part of the training regimen of the Golden Age bodybuilders, Olympic Weightlifters and strongmen. It fell out of favor after it got taken out the weightlifting events, as judging had become too difficult. In order to lift heavier loads, the competitors had started to use so much body English they were turning it into an entirely new lift.
This cascaded down in the strongmen and bodybuilding world, and soon people were starting to advocate against the military press and the shoulder press in fear of creating shoulder impingements or other biomechanical issues.
Fortunately, this lift seems to be making a welcome return lately, coming back into mainstream training and being advocated by lifting experts in the know. This is good news, as it provides many benefits to the trainees and can be a great addition to any strength training regimen.
The Boons of Overhead Pressing
Bench Press Plateau Buster – This is a little-known trick, but doing a specialization phase in overhead pressing can increase your bench press performance. The best way to use this lift is to focus on it to the exclusion of the bench press for 3 months. But once you come back to the regular bench press, you will immediately notice improvements. This can be a strategy used to bust through a plateau in the bench press, or simply in order to get to higher numbers. Powerlifting living legend Ed Coan credits this method to some of his best gains in the bench press.
Great Upper Body Mass Builder – All the forms of overhead press are great work not only for the deltoids, but also for the upper part of the traps and the triceps. They can add slabs of meat on all those muscle, especially since they won’t be used to doing work at this angle. If you are new to the overhead press and want to train for mass, be prepared to pay the piper with soreness like you’ve never felt before.
Increased Core Strength and Stability – It’s no surprise that if you want to put a heavy load over your head, you need to have core and lower strength and stability. The core strength of Olympic weightlifters is among the strongest there is the athletic world for this reason
Long Term Health of the Shoulder Girdle – This point may be contentious, but as early as the 70’s training expert Bill Starr identified a lack of proper overhead press training as one of the reason for the increase in shoulder issues. The theory is that training in the same plane of motion with the bench press can cause a shortening of the subscapularis muscle. This in term precipitates faulty mechanic of the shoulder. Of course, adequate rotator cuff and scapular retractor muscle strength ratios matter, but they are only one factor.
How To Know If You’re Strong Enough
To achieve maximal performance, you should have all lifts within a certain range of strength in regards to other lifts. In the case of the overhead press, those ratios of strength are as follow
1) The Seated DB Overhead Press should be 58% of your close grip bench press 1RM. This means that if you can bench press 150 kg with a bi-acromial width, you should be able to DB press overhead 43.5 kg per dumbbell.
2) The Behind the Neck Press should be 66% of the close grip bench press 1RM. This overhead version needs to be done from a dead start from the pins though, not from a hand off.
You migh not at all close to being able to achieve these ratios. If so, then it is time to about backing off the bench presses and specialize on overhead work.
3) The DB External Rotation with elbow on knee should be 9.8% of you of the close grip bench press 1RM for 8 clean reps. This will ensure stability of the shoulder girdle as you put a heavy load over your head.
The Right Overhead Press For You
All overhead press variations are not equal. They each have a few specific, key differences. You should be aware of them in order to start including them in your training.
1) Dumbbells are easier than barbells
Since they allow more leeway and a greater variety of grips than barbells, barring specialty bars, dumbbells are the tool of choice to start with. This will also allow you to fix any left/right strength and mobility discrepancies.
2) The neutral grip is easier on the shoulder than the pronated grip.
Although the pronated grip is more popular, the neutral grip is easier on the shoulder joint to start with. Whether you use dumbbells or a football ball, this grip puts less strain on the joint as the internal rotator muscles such as the pectoralis major, teres major, subscapularis and latissimus dorsi are in a more relaxed position.
3) The seated version takes out many muscles
Since core and low back strength are necessary to press overhead in a standing position, using the seated version allows you to bypass a potential limitation. This is a good thing if you are looking only for hypertrophy, but less useful for athletic purposes. Most sports are played standing up and the transfer is greater in that position than in the seated position. And yes, many sports have an overhead strength component
For the general preparation phase of athletes, the seated variations are ok, but the bulk of your overhead pressing should be done in the standing position. Doing standing presses require more focus on technique: you don’t want them to degenerate to push presses. So proper technic matters. Aim for a ratio of 1:3 seated vs. standing overhead presses.
What Are The Best Ways To Bust Through An Overhead Plateau?
If you want to specialize in overhead pressing, there are three ways to start doing this
1) A 3-month Specialization Phase
In this phase, you will abandon the bench press (gasp!) for that duration (phew!) and use only overhead variations. This will allow you to progress naturally between the various exercises and increase your strength in the lifts. Look to achieve the aforementioned strength ratios first and foremost.
2) Overloading The Top Range
This method is particularly useful to blast through a plateau and allow you to achieve full range of motion in the overhead press. You can use either the seated or the standing version of the exercises.
Here is an example
A1 Overhead Press DB Seated Mid Neutral Grip
5 x 4-6 reps, 4010 tempo, 10 seconds rest
A-2 Overhead Press BB Pronated Grip ½ Top Range
5 x 4-6 reps; 2110 tempo; 4 minutes rest
The movement should start and end on the pins at each rep.
3) Push press with slow eccentric lowering
A push press is basically a cheated standing military press where you use some leg drive to get the bar overhead. Keyword: SOME leg drive. It is a variation of the jerk where the arms are still doing the bulk of the work. You don’t want to propel the barbell overhead, just use the leg impulse to help you in the lift off phase.
It used to be a staple in the training of Olympic weightlifters back in the day but has fallen out of favor with the other overhead press variations in the 70’s
This exercise allows you to use a slightly heavier weight then you would with a standard overhead press. This comes from the added leg drive. The slow eccentric component will overload the negative phase of lifting and allow you to transfer these gains into the regular military press when you get back to it.
Make sure that the barbell is lowered under eccentric control, otherwise you are defeating the purpose of this exercise as a plateau buster.
There is no manlier way to lift a weight than to press it overhead. If you develop strength in this fashion, your physique as well as your performance will benefit. Use this as plateau buster in the bench press or as a variation to build 3D delts.
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