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Overlooked movements: Standing overhead press

Few people know the standing overhead press was actually included in Olympic lifting right up until as recently as 1972!

It’s as primal and basic as it gets, pick a weighted object up and press it overhead. Our great ancestors were commonly participating in such movement patterns.

Deep squatting to defecate and hoisting stuff overhead in which to carry = primal human patterns of movement!

Great and legendary strongmen of ‘yesteryear’ were regular performers of heavy overhead pressing, and their displays of strength need no telling! These guys kept it simple, they exploited the basics: Lift heavy in the foundational movements and eat well in conjunction. There were no ‘fads’ in their times (Late 19th to early 20th century) they had no supplements, no pre-workouts, no fancy assisted machines, no complicated “results enhancing” techniques, no media promoted “golden workout routine” to be distracted by! No, instead………..

Just moving some good old iron around! 

That’s not to say the modern world of supplements and intensity promoting techniques aren’t good, they’re great. But only great when used in the correct context. The problem is: many people today complain of lagging shoulders, lack of upper body development and generally having “weak shoulders”

So to combat this, they spend their precious gym time employing every results boosting technique in existence. Super sets, drop sets, tri-sets and giant sets! Maybe even rest-pause and they’ll carry out all forms of isolation movements. Lateral raises, rear delt raises, front raises, plate raises and smith machine presses… name a few!


After which they’re left frustrated and disappointed. They gave it all they had every workout and received sub-optimal results. How come? Well, a common pattern I’ve observed is; often those who find themselves in this unfortunate predicament, have woeful overhead pressing capacity!

Derive a solid foundation and build upon it 

All those exercises and techniques I mentioned above work fantastically well. But they are advanced techniques, that should be applied by the more advanced trainee – someone who has built their solid foundation. A solid foundation being an impressive capacity in the compound lift associated with the area of the body. 

Question for you: Do you know anyone who can strict overhead press their bodyweight? 

Let’s quickly establish what ‘strict press’ means. By strict press, I mean the movement is initiated and completed using only the shoulders and triceps. No excess lumbar extension in order to complete the movement. The abdominals stay shortened and engaged, the glutes stay squeezed, spine neutral and head neutral. The bar travels totally in a vertical plane! No horizontal deviation! The conclusion is the bar being fully locked out (full elbow extension) and in line with your ears overhead. 

How many people do you know who can sustain that quality of movement whilst pressing their bodyweight overhead?

For me personally, I’m stumped. 

But let’s imagine you set that as a benchmark, your current strict overhead press 1RM may be 135 lbs at present (a decent amount) and you may weigh 180 lbs. Let’s get that 1RM up to 180 lbs! Do you think you will not have seen significant shoulder and upper body development?

It’s a no-brainer! 

Why not fully exploit every last ounce of benefit from the basic foundational principles before taking the next step? Why not get the most out of the least? Becoming stronger in the overhead press will recruit predominantly type 2 muscle fibers (fast twitch) these have the greatest potential for hypertrophy. 

Devote time to developing your big and powerful type 2 fibers before you even consider all the fancy hypertrophy routines. I mean, you can’t hypertrophy a muscle that barely exists can you? Recruit the dense fibers and then create the sarco-plasmic hypertrophy that causes them to ‘swell’. You have zero business worrying about shoulder development doing isolation exercises when your overhead press strength is weak!

The bench press nearly always wins the popularity contest between that and the overhead press but………

What many people fail to realise is: The overhead press and bench press compliment each other wonderfully! If you’ve been in a sticky and ugly bench press plateau for longer than you can even remember………try removing the bench press from your current routine (don’t worry, you won’t die or anything!) and replace it with more overhead press work. Once your numbers start to climb in the overhead press, you should find that on resumption of bench pressing, you’ll catapult yourself well beyond the previous “rut”.

I’m still not entirely sure why the overhead press has evaded the spotlight in modern day workouts, it’s a movement I have actually been trying to specialise in for a while now, as my overhead press was and still is to some degree under par. 

Perhaps it’s the humbling nature of the lift, you have to stabilise the weight more than you would when benching, maybe it’s the common occurrence of tight lat muscles that impinges shoulder mobility which deters people from using this awesome movement. Or maybe it’s just a lack of understanding in regards to the actual benefits on offer from the overhead press?

Either way this post should go some way towards rectifying this trend.

The overhead press is basic, it’s simple, it’s effective and it works! 

The basics worked then, they work now and they will always work! 


JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

5 thoughts on “Overlooked movements: Standing overhead press Leave a comment

  1. Yet another informative and fantastic post, thank you.

    I love the strict overhead press. When carried out correctly, it’s positively wonderful. I’ve possibly seen the biggest transformation in my shoulders as a result of this exercise. I’m still pressing the same weight but after 3 weeks, it’s much easier and I’m ready to move it up a notch. I’ve no idea what my one rep max is as I haven’t yet tried. I’m pressing 20kgs comfortably over 5 sets. If I can work up to 30, I’ll be incredibly happy.

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