I suck at the overhead press. Always have done. I can gain strength in many other areas; even flexibility improves faster than my overhead strength. And I know many of you will remind me the overhead press is notorious for progressing slowly……..but there’s slow progress then there’s virtually NO progress. I spent years never getting better at the overhead press, despite running 5×5 routines and the odd specialisation program courtesy of T Nation. All I’d have to show for months of work was a measly few lbs increase that I had to grind my soul out to get.
So why am I writing an article with tips on a move I suck at? Am I taking the piss? Well, let me ask you this: are the best coaches always the best athletes? As a matter of fact, the opposite is nearly always true – the best coaches aren’t the best athletes, because they’ve had to trail through all the methods, sift through the failures and spend large amounts of time hitting their heads against the wall.
This is just reality when you’re not genetically blessed in a certain area. But does it mean you’re doomed? Absolutely not, it means when you do progress not only is the victory sweeter but your experiences and journey becomes far more beneficial, as you didn’t just do the said thing every so often and get better linearly without so much as an after thought.
Over the last 4-6 weeks I’ve managed to add 3.5 kg to my overhead press 3RM and while that might not seem like much, to someone who struggles overhead as bad as I do, I think this is a godlike gain. From the networking I do through social media, I’ve noticed a strange pattern: people either tend to be push dominant or pull dominant. And by that I mean they’ll either progress faster & easier with one more than the other.
So I’ve got some tips for the folk who struggle with overhead strength and shoulder strength in general. Most of these are my own discoveries (what I like to term, ‘anecdotal science’) and some are common pointers I’ve found to be true for those not blessed with this pattern………
This is a lift that needs to be trained regularly. I hit heavy overhead work twice per week which was supplemented with pike push ups once per week on top. Further still, I’d use light overhead press (empty bar) for sets of 20 reps once per week for blood flow. That’s 4 occasions weekly where the pattern is being greased across different moves and intensities but fundamentally, we’re still overhead pressing.
Another key with frequency which will sound obvious but took me a while to grasp and believe in, was the 72 hour rule. Basically leaving at least 72 hours between a session/movement focus and the next session. I trained heavy overhead press every 5th day – another time tested frequency for great results long term – and it seems it worked well. In between those 5 day ‘breaks’ I’d throw a pike push session in for high sets and low reps just to grease the handstand push up side of things (a main goal of mine currently).
This may be a personal one but I’ve found the overhead press to only start improving when I work in the 3 rep range. Originally I started working with 5 rep sets but I found I’d stall hard and often. By decreasing the reps and increasing the sets I found I could maintain a decent power output for anywhere from 5-8 sets of 3 with a weight that was pretty much my 5RM.
And of course, the rest periods needed to be generous – I’d take minimum of 4 minutes but that often became 5 minutes, sometimes more but rarely. When I did experiment with 6-8 minutes and even 10 minutes in some cases, I found virtually zero difference in my strength output.
For the overhead press it seems it adheres to the laws of strength and almost power training. Low rep sets, moderate total sets and generous rest.
The overhead press is thought of as a shoulder dominant lift but very few people understand the extent to which the triceps are involved. Many people actually say the triceps are even more important than the delts!
Naturally I always had dominant biceps and invisible triceps. They weren’t only invisible, they were useless too. I still remember training dips with a friend a couple of years ago who used half the weight I did and yet when we came to the tricep work, he could out-lift me AND out-rep me.
Much water has passed since then and during this time I’ve undergone lots of specific tricep work – much of which was done overhead with a focus on the ‘long head’ (the long head is a key player in overhead work), and I can now at least compete with schoolgirls in terms of tricep strength.
(crossfit.com) – Tricep anatomy
If this is you too, definitely spend some time working on tricep specific exercises once to twice per week and you should find all your pressing in general, benefits. If you don’t believe me, YouTube search Matt Wenning, the world record holding powerlifter, he swears by tricep brute power to being the key to press success. Even in the bench press he believes it’s key and many people could be stronger in their triceps than they currently are.
The reason overhead work gets dismissed as ‘risky’ and ‘best avoided’ by some is because generation Iphone hunchback club has caused a society of dysfunctional spines and inhibited mobility. In order to overhead press without pain you need a certain amount of mobility – mobility in the upper back, shoulders and chest. You don’t need tons but if you are restricted you can be assured overhead pressing will be harder.
I’m not blessed in this area at all but I do try to keep on top of it. Standing drop backs and advanced back bends will never be my gig but I work hard to maintain/improve what I already have. This just allows your body to move free(er) in those ranges, even if you don’t actually have more range. Hence it can be a good idea to stretch the lats prior to training overhead or even in between sets.
I’ve also worked on the internal rotation capacity at my shoulders and found this has both helped the freedom of movement overhead and the mobility itself. There seems to be another common correlation between good shoulder internal rotation and overhead mobility, at least from what I’ve seen.
(‘The Sleeper Stretch’ – a classic stretch for improving internal rotation. When drilled the right way, a game changer for capacity within the rotator cuff)
Overhead mobility is a complex topic and a puzzle not easy or quick to solve but some regular TLC to the thoracic spine and shoulders should help the overhead press feel both more natural and comfortable.
Technique Nuts & Bolts
Last but never least, we need to talk technique. While there are many amazingly thorough tutorials out there, I’d like to share a few tidbits that have helped me feel more confident with this lift:
- Grip = just outside shoulder width. Too narrow makes it require more overhead mobility and doesn’t feel nice on the shoulders. Too wide takes the triceps out of the movement more and that’s not what we want.
- The elbows must be ‘up’ and forwards, nicely under the wrists. This gives you a ‘shelf’ to press from.
- I like a thumb-around-the-bar grip. Some advise a thumb-less grip but I find you can’t get the same squeeze irradiation effect throughout the body without the thumb around.
- Before you press you need to ‘present the chest’ – which means having the chest up and out/the spine extended. Note: this doesn’t mean hyper-lordosis, just a natural curve.
- Sounds obvious but chalk can get help get a better grip on the bar and therefore irradiate tension as I alluded to a moment ago.
- The bar needs to travel as vertical as possible. Many people turn this into a standing incline press by leaning back and/pressing the bar up AND forwards. A simple way to cue this is to press the head through the window of your arms; as soon as the bar passes the top of the head, drive the head under the bar.
- I like to push all the way to a full lockout with the shoulders elevated/traps engaged. This becomes more important for those looking for handstand push up carryover or Olympic lifting success.
- Keeping the glutes and quads squeezed throughout not only braces you and gives you more stability, it has irradiation properties again (my new favourite word, clearly).
Just because you aren’t great at something now, doesn’t mean you can’t one day be great. Sure, the journey isn’t fun initially and the results are way out in the distance. But once the first domino falls, the others fall easier and you’ll wonder why you didn’t just start sooner. Sometimes when you fix weaknesses you see benefits you didn’t even think were linked………surely there’s all the justification you could ever need?
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