Training the Overhead Press for Strength: Top 5 Key Tips

By Andrew Levings
(June 2015)

The overhead press has always been one my strongest and favourite lifts. My initial introduction to training was Dinosaur Training by Brooks Kubrik. Brooks was a real old-timer; a throwback, even when I got the book in the early 2000s (I was in my teens). Brooks posed me and every reader a question:

"Imagine how much stronger and bigger your shoulders would be when you can press a strict 220lb from standing overhead?" (paraphrased).

Brooks wasn't wrong; the overhead press, particularly done in the form described below, will build tremendous strength in the deltoids: all three heads namely the 'anterior' (front delt), the 'posterior' (rear delt) and the lateral (side delt).

The Overhead Press done in the below detailed form will build:

  • entire girdle (upper neck/trap/shoulder region) strength and power
  • an extremely strong 'core' (a word I dislike, but basically meaning abdominal and lower back or stabilising strength)
  • The triceps to a good degree depending on your individual form
  • The latissimus dorsi or lats will even get involved as a supporting or antagonistic muscle
  • The neck muscles and the trapezius or traps

'Strict Standing Barbell Overhead Press'- Top 5 Tips

  1. This is a strict lift performed with a barbell
    There should be absolute no movement with the legs whatsoever. If you initiate the movement with any dipping of the legs, you are in fact doing a push press (a good lift but one which I find is more technique dominant than the strict press). Push presses are good but I think they are best used by athletes or people with a good level of basic shoulder strength.
  2. Starting position: bar resting on clavicles or as deep as your flexibility will allow.
    This is a tricky pointer, as many of the more advanced guys or girls may have flexibility issues due to the sheer size and amount of muscle packed onto their shoulder region. Look at clips on YouTube of top Olympic lifters performing the strict press: the angle of the arm in line with the bar will make a huge difference to which muscles are engaged, and ultimately how much weight you can shift.
  3. Locking out: lock out fully with the bar in line with your head (not in front)
    You want the end position to be with your arms fully locked out, and your entire body tight and rigid. Think of pushing your head/neck/trap region forward when nearing lockout; this is again a difficult concept to get over on paper but one which will make sense you practice it.
  4. Breath / correct breathing
    Breathing (inhale/exhale) is key to any heavy lift, but I find it takes a definite concentration to get it right on this lift. What I find works for me (and this will vary from person to person) is taking a short inhale prior to the eccentric (in this case the upper pushing of the bar), bracing abs and getting real tight before attacking the push, and letting out a little breath at sticking point but mainly keeping everything tight.
  5. Reps: treat each rep like a single
    In short, when approaching a 5 rep set, see it as five sequences of singles, with proper setup and form as the first. I personally dislike bouncing reps off the shoulders and I find starting each rep from a dead stop to be the more effective method when looking to build big overhead press numbers.

My Journey with the Overhead Press

One major problem for me: I was 16 and couldn't drive to the gym, and there wasn't any free-weight gyms in a 15 mile radius. I was stuck. Luckily Brooks had an answer: 'odd object training'.

So I went to the builders' merchant with my dad with the following shopping list:

  1. 3 large rocks of different weights. I remember writing, 'heavy, heavier and heaviest"
  2. 60kg of sand (for making sandbags)
  3. An empty beer keg to fill with water

I came back with the first two; the last one my dad helped procure from a landlord mate of his.

So I set off on my journey for boulder shoulders, literally using boulders and kegs. Not surprisingly, when I first joined the gym a few years later I could overhead press more than I could bench press, much to the surprise of the real bodybuilders I trained alongside at the time (2001-2002). I eventually did a strict standing overhead press of 105kg weighing 92kg, which I was pleased with as it exceeded the goal I had set many years ago. Note that the top guys are now pressing a strict 160kg or more, which takes scary strength and power.

What is a strong overhead press?
I would say bodyweight done in the strict form detailed is strong. Anything above that and you're getting into more advanced levels.

A few ideas for training the Overhead Press

  • Do it frequently.

    Lots of guys like training chest/bis twice a week, and often have very good development and strength in this region for that reason. Training the overhead press (or a variant) twice a week is a good idea. Three times a week is possible, but then it may intrude on the setup of your other training goals too much.

    I finally realised this point when reading Bounce by Malcolm Gladwell (a good read by the way, both for training, business and wider life topics). In summary, he said that the more hours you put in, the better you get, and that natural talent or acumen is overrated. He postulated 10,000 hours practice to be good at something (he was referring to a whole discipline like piano playing or table tennis, and not one part like shoulder training when weightlifting or bodybuilding).

  • Assistance work

    Many people find doing the same lift all the time boring, and they get better results when mixing things up or, put a different way: 'training instinctively'. As a big fan of the conjugate method of Westside Barbell fame, I find this to be true and get better results when varying the overhead press assistance work.

    One key proviso here: if you specifically want a big overhead press, then you really should try to do the actual lift as often as possible (basically to get good at something specific, do that specific thing often).

    Some assistance work ideas:

    • Neutral grip standing dumbbell overhead press A.K.A 'Reg Park Press'.
    • Seated overhead barbell lockouts with the bar resting off the pins of a power rack, set at varying heights, but particularly nose or chin level.
    • Dips. Dips are in the same plane of movement as standing overhead presses (vertical) and I personally find them to be great assistance work.
    • Triceps. Triceps will allow you to lock out heavy weights overhead. Any tricep work will help, but I really find extensions (done with a barbell or dumbbell) effective. Personally I really like single arm dumbbell extensions from a standing position for reps of 6-8.

And remember: "You can't cheat or beat a strict overhead press"