Another of the most basic and functional human movements is the overhead press. Sometimes also referred to as a shoulder press or simply a press, it’s a relatively self-explanatory term: you take a barbell and press it over your head.
End of article.
Just kidding. There’s a little more to it than that. While the movement itself is simple, there are also some nuances on which we need to focus up front until they’re fully ingrained in your movement patterns. So let’s begin.
Why the Overhead Press?
First off, let’s discuss the benefits of the overhead press. Though it may appear to be a simple “shoulder building” exercise, it’s a lot more beneficial a movement than it may appear. In addition to strengthening the muscles of the shoulder (which is fantastically beneficial in and of itself, seeing as the shoulders are so prone to injury, it also helps strengthen pretty much…well, every other muscle in the body (save, I guess, some muscles of the face, assuming you’re not contorting it in any strange way).
The overhead press is truly a full-body exercise. Though the shoulders are taking the brunt of the force to raise the upper arm, the triceps are working to extend at the elbow, the forearms are working to grip the bar, the torso is working to stabilize the spine and hold you up, the legs are working to create a stable base…the list goes on. Whether they’re helping to move the bar or actively resisting motion, nearly every muscle in the body will be engaged in some way.
Step 1: The Setup
[Part of this setup assumes the use of a squat rack, tower, or stand that A: holds the bar at about shoulder height and B: allows you to get under the bar.]
As with all exercises, the preparation begins before you’re even holding the weight.
Approach the bar, extend your arms in front of you, and grab the bar with both hands at about shoulder-width apart. As far as height goes, your arms should be either completely horizontal or angled slightly downward. (Having the bar any higher will result in needing to come up on your toes to un-rack it rather than performing a version of a mini-squat.)
From there, step forward and plant your feet directly under the bar (bending your arms along the way). Bend slightly in the hips and knees until your elbows are directly under your hands, brace your whole body, and stand straight up to un-rack the bar.
Take your three steps back and plant yourself solidly with your feet about shoulder-width apart and facing forward.
[For a detailed description of proper positioning, see Step 1: The Setup for the squat.]
Step 2: The Press
As you press the bar upward, you will have to move your head out of the way briefly in order to extend all the way up (lest you slam the bar into your chin). Moving your head will involve a slight bit of movement in the neck, but be sure to keep your abs engaged (tucking your bellybutton up to your ribs, as they say) in order to avoid arching the spine.
After the bar has successfully cleared your head, you are free to move your head back to its original position and look “through the window” you’ve created.
Step 3: The Descent
Everything from this point forward is really just reversing what you’ve already done: lower the bar in a controlled manner, move your head out of the way as needed, and then step back to the rack and perform a mini-squat to re-rack it.
- The top of the move is called the “lockout.” Despite its name, your elbows should never fully lock and should retain a slight, soft bend. This is what I refer to as muscular stability (your muscles are preventing motion by active engagement) rather than structural stability (your bones stopping motion because they’re touching).
- It’s really important to try to keep your ribs from flaring upward. The muscles of your upper chest are likely much stronger than your shoulders, so it’s a natural reflex for your body to bring them into the mix by arching backward. Resist this impulse.
- Be sure you’re planted firmly and that your legs and torso are actively braced throughout the entire movement. Getting lax in any area can result in muscle tweaks if your body tries to “catch” itself to maintain stability.
- Always warm up properly, especially when using the shoulders.
Give it a try and let us know how it goes! And as always, please feel free to reach out with any questions!