If you want to bulk up then you are probably going to hit the gym and do lots of lifting to bulk those muscles, so why not try out an overhead press?
The overhead press, which is often referred to as the military press, is the best lift you can do to bulk up your shoulders. It is a brilliant lift for upper traps, upper chest, posture, triceps and even abs building.
It is one of the best lifts that you can do to build a bigger shoulder girdle, develop general strength, and improve your aesthetics.
Of course, it may be obvious to state, but, pressing is the opposite of depressing, and as a result, it is considered to be one of the five-top muscle building lifts that you can do.
Today we will talk with you about how you can incorporate an overhead press into your workout routine, how to maximize your technique for your optimal muscle growth, how to choose the best assistance and accessory lifts, and even more.
So, stay tuned here, for plenty of information on how you can bulk up fast with the overhead press.
The Overhead Press: What exactly is it?
Before we dive into any of the nitty-gritty details about how you can perform this press, let’s take a moment to actually look at what an overhead press is. The overhead press has two names, it is either referred to as the overhead press, or the military press.
It is a compound exercised that is most often used to develop upper-body strength, focusing primarily on the shoulders. It is very popular in strength training, and it is also very popular among bodybuilders too.
This type of press is considered to be one of the primary barbell lifts, alongside other common lifts such as the squat, bench presses, deadlifts, chin-ups, and the barbell row.
You can perform an overhead press with either dumbbells, or with kettlebells. However, we do recommend barbells, as they make the lift more sturdy. It allows you to lift more weights and engage more overall muscle mass. It can be done while seated, however, standing engages more muscle mass.
So, if that is what you want, try to stand while you perform this lift as it will be more beneficial to you, overall.
What muscles do you work out during overhead press?
If you want impressive shoulders then an overhead press is a good choice lift for you. The overhead press is a big compound lift that is absolutely perfect for building those impressive shoulders. It works your front and side delts, this means that aesthetically, it will make your shoulders bigger and broader.
However, these are not the only muscles that are worked hard enough during this workout, in fact, you will get muscle growth from your traps, your abs, and your triceps when you do an overhead press.
The overhead press is one of those lifts that actually engages both your front delts and your side delts. The engagement of the front gives you those bigger looking shoulders, the kind of thing you can brag about and show off. The engagement of the side gives you those broad looking shoulders, which you definitely want to show off.
These muscles are typically limiting factors. This means that they typically always worked hard enough to stimulate a maximum amount of muscle growth.
This makes the overhead press one of the best lifts that you can do to improve your visual body aesthetic, and it is also the top most popular exercise in any shoulder workout, because it really brings all you need to build those shoulders up!
Doing an overhead press is also a fantastic way to work the body, your medial and lateral heads of your tricep muscles. However, the overhead press will not work the long head of your triceps, this bit does get missed out in this workout.
If you want to also build bigger triceps then you will want to include triceps isolation lifts, things such as skull crushers, overhead extensions, or even a pullover, can work for this. Doing these is a way that you can bulk up all three heads of your triceps.
One thing that most people do not know is that the overhead press is also a fantastic way to build up bigger traps, these are the muscles that assist your shoulders when you lift weights overhead.
This means that you do not need to do any shrugs as an isolation lift. Yet, do remember that an overhead press doesn’t give you full neck development. If you want to bulk up that neck, then you may want to add in some neck curls and extensions to your workout.
If you want to build your chest too, an overhead press can work for that, however it will not always do a great job of it. A flat barbell bench press will work out your chest twice as hard as an overhead press.
To build a bigger upper chest, you will want to include some incline or close-grip bench pressing alongside your overhead press work out.
Doing an overhead press while standing is good, not just because it works you out more, but, also because it works out your abs and obliques as well, It is not as efficient as the chin-up, however, it does do a much better job of stimulating your abs than a bench press, squat, and deadlifts.
Actually, if you are doing both chin-ups and overhead presses, then you will find that your core will get a brilliant workout, and you can probably say goodbye to ab isolation exercises. So, if you are a bit fed up with having to do ab isolation work-outs then a combination of these two can be a great replacement.
Last but not least, doing overhead presses will also work out several important postural muscles. No matter what, postural muscles are imperative for good form, and general health, you will always want to work out your postural muscles, but if you work a desk job, these are even more important for preventing back pains and aches.
Overhead presses will work out your postural muscles, such as; the serratus anterior, and external rotator muscles. This is one of the reasons that you will be likely to see powerlifters using the overhead press as a way to keep their shoulders powerful and pain-free.
How do I perform an overhead press?
The overhead press should start off from a standing position with the weight placed on your upper chest, or just above this point. Keep your chest high, brace your core and then press the weight over your head. Hence, the name.
It might look like a simple thing to do, but how things look Vs the reality of them, is oftentimes very different.
At the start of the lift you will need to tuck in your chin, and you may also need to bend backward slightly at your hips, this will allow the barbell to clear your chin and your nose. You do not want to hit your chin or nose with the barbell.
Once the barbell is past your forehead, you can then bring your body and head back underneath it. Be gentle with these movements, as you do not want to injure yourself.
There are a few steps/ cues that you can think of as you perform the overhead press. Do not think of doing them all at once, do these one at a time, and take it slow. You can try them out one by one as you perform the press, and see which helps you the most.
- You can lock your ribs down. Taking a deep breath and brace your abs hard as you do so.
- Clench your glutes hard, bending at your hips, not your back. Remember, lift with your bum, not your back.
- Puff up your chest, clenching your upper back muscles.
- Relax your elbow and flex your lats to create a sort of shelf out of your lower back.
- Put your head through the window, once you have lifted the barbell over your forehead.
- Shrug the weight up as you press it overhead. This is great because it is also a trap exercise. So it brings even more to the table.
Optimizing the Technique
If you are looking to build up muscle with the overhead press then your main competition is the extreme moment arm halfway through the lift, so try to get the barbell over your forehead.
It is a tricky spot in this lift where your shoulders are more likely to give out. Every lift will have a sticking point though, and obviously if you are going to fail, you have got to fail somewhere.
The thing here is that this moment arm is so extreme, that by the time you have failed your set, your shoulders may not actually be tired. If you have ever randomly failed a rep, this is why. It is a very troublesome strength curve.
But do not worry, and don’t beat yourself up about it either. It is okay. You see, there is a pretty easy way that you can improve your strength curve. Simply, lift explosively.
As soon as you start your rep, heave the barbell off of your chest with all the power you have. The more momentum that the bar has when it reaches the sticking point, the better off you will be.
Remember that all you have to do is clear your forehead, and at this point you can bring your torso under the bar, and it is goodbye to that annoying moment arm.
Even if you do continually fail at the sticking point, your shoulders will still have been working super hard to get to that point anyway, this will improve your growth and this will help you get past that sticking point eventually.
If you do choose to lift explosively, then you will find this will pretty much fix that strength curve.
There are a couple of different ways that you can do an overhead press. There is the classic strict press, often called the military press, where you will start off with the barbell on your chest and muscle it upwards with pure, solid shoulder strength. Momentum will be discouraged here.
Then there is the alternative push press, where you will drive into the barbell with both your legs and your shoulders. Either version will have pros and cons, neither is better than the other; it is simply a matter of [reference, and which brings you what you seek from the press overall.
Let’s take a look at both of these individually.
Something to Say About Strict Press
For either press, there is an argument for it. The primary argument for doing a strict overhead press is that it keeps the lift optimal for bulking up shoulders, which is probably why you are doing this, right?
Some people may worry that if you add in a leg drive, you make the lift too easy on the shoulders, which will adapt it into a more lower-body focused exercise. This is not strictly true.
You see… “After the bar leaves the shoulders, the lift becomes almost identical to the press. And, the arms, of course, are always pushing with all the upward momentum they can muster”.
With both the overhead press, and the push press, your shoulders should be firing with maximum power in an attempt to accelerate the bar forcefully upward. The push press does not take away from the shoulders, it simply adds in some leg drive.
In some cases this leg drive may allow you to lift more weight for your reps, and thus, it doesn’t take away from your shoulders, if anything, it will actually improve your shoulder growth. Win-win.
Nonetheless, if you have only just started doing overhead press, then you should start with a regular overhead press. Try to accelerate the bar as you lift it, providing it with the momentum needed to get past that sticking point, but ensure that you generate the momentum from your shoulder, not your hips and legs.
We won’t say it isn’t complicated, because it is. However, the fewer moving pieces there are the easier it will be to master, like anything really.
No one wants you to be heaving the weight up to your nose, shifting all the strain into your lower back and ingrain a poor technique, one that will probably result in painful injuries. Start simply, and work your way from there.
Consider Your Anthropometry
You must consider your body. In an ideal world, the weight would start off at your upper chest. But, no human body is perfect, and so you may have long forearms in relation to your upper arms, and if this is the case then the weight may hover a few inches about your chest.
This is not uncommon, however, it does present a problem. If the bar hovers above your shoulders, then the force from your leg drive won’t be able to be transferred properly, all you would be doing is jarring your shoulders.
For your leg drive to work properly, you will need the barbell to have a solid connection with your torso.
The good news? Well, Olympic lifters have discovered a neat solution to this annoying issue. What they have done is decided to hold the barbell further back in their hands, cocking their wrists back. This does worsen the grip, but it does allow for a proper leg drive.
For their purposes it makes much more sense, however for others, it does not. In this case, it would be turning the overhead press into a lower body movement.
Do Not Fix What Isn’t Broken
When you gain strength from any workout, your muscles will feel sore. This means that if you gain strength via the overhead press then your shoulders and traps will be at least a bit sore afterwards, and it will also mean that you do not have an extreme sticking point. This means there is no reason not to stick with ding a standard overhead press.
You should only consider this overhead press when you start to find issues.
Something to Say About Push Press
Much like there is an argument for the strict press, there is also an argument for the push press. The classic overhead press is a lift for developing the shoulders, triceps, and in some cases, the upper back. You can greatly improve your strength curve by making the lift more explosive.
If you use some leg drive to get your bar up, similar to a push press, then you can blast through that sticking point and struggle through the rest of the lift instead, which is ideal for building those perfect muscles.
Besides, you will also get to use a heavier weight, which allows you to stimulate a bit of additional muscle growth as you start to lower the weight back down afterwards.
Let’s make one thing clear first though, this is not quite a ‘push press’. A push press is more of a specific move that is used in Olympic weightlifting. Here, we are just aiming to gain extra muscle and overall strength. If anything, it is kind of a cheat code.
If you tell people that you are doing an overhead press this way, they will accuse you of cheating. If you were to tell people that you are doing a push press, they will probably cringe.
However, if you were to then inform them that this is the best variation for gaining size and strength in your shoulders, they will love you, and probably ask you for tips.
If adding in some extra leg drive to your overhead press helps you to clear that irritating sticking point, then why not go for it? The extra weight and reps will improve your muscle growth anyway, there is no downside to this, really!
Increasing Your Overhead Press
The key to getting stronger and better at any exercise is practice, we can all agree on that. So, when you first start doing the overhead press, the best way to get better at it is practice.
The more that you practice your technique, the better you will get at it, the better you will get at activating your muscles, and the more leverage you will develop. The best way to begin is to start off by doing the overhead press 2 or 3 times a week.
Once you have solidified your technique, the best way you can continue gaining strength is to bulk up relevant muscles. In order to be able to use bigger weights in overhead press, it is to get bigger shoulders, bigger traps, and bigger triceps. Kind of obvious, right? So, there are three approaches you can take to make those muscles better.
We have listed these approaches in order of how important they are. Let’s look;
- Vary your overhead press! The best way that you can get stronger at the overhead press is to do different variations of it. You can do the standing barbell overhead press, or the standing dumbbell press, the seated overhead press, and so on, and so on. All the muscles that you build up with these different lifts will directly correlate with an increase in your overhead press strength.
- Try out assistance lifts. Once you have done your overhead presses, you can also do lifts that will work in a similar pattern. This is great because it gives your joints a break, which they need, especially with the repetitive strain from the movement. It helps you to build a more balanced musculature, and most of the muscle that you will build will help you adapt and improve your overhead press.
- Try doing accessory lifts. You could also train your shoulders, triceps, and traps separately too, if that is your thing. You can choose lifts that will work them with the best strength curve, bringing them close to failure, without actually failing. A good example of this is the overhead triceps extension, it is much more useful for your triceps than the overhead press, which makes it a great lift for this muscle specifically. The only catch is that only some of the strength that you gain from this will then transfer into your overhead press. This is simply because an overhead triceps extension does not do anything for your shoulders or traps, so it won’t always help you overhead press more weight. This is why it can be useful to do separate exercises for each muscle, so they build together separately, and then together.
Keep in mind that you do not need to do these exercises every time you do an overhead press. You can spread them out over the week.
You could perhaps do overhead presses and triceps extensions at the beginning of the week, then do some lateral raises in the middle of the week, and finish the week with an incline bench press.
Mix it up, and see what works for you. This way you can work out your relevant muscles, three times per week and add it all up enough throughout the week to maximize your overall muscle growth.
If you decide to choose assistance and accessory lifts, you need to ensure that you choose ones that will help you strengthen the muscles that are limiting your performance when you perform an overhead press.
Say, if your triceps were a limiting factor then you should do triceps extensions as well, However if your shoulders are limiting your performance, then triceps extensions are useless, and instead you should work on doing shoulder based exercises instead.
Now, let us take a moment and go through these, to help you choose the lifts and exercises that will best help you get better results with your overhead press.
Variations of the Overhead Press
The One-Arm Shoulder Press
If you are looking for a great assistance list, one-armed presses are perfect. The movement pattern is nearly identical, which makes the ideal for bulking up your shoulders and straps. However, they also come with some great benefits too. Let’s take a look at what these can do for you.
- One-arm shoulder presses reduce spinal loading, which makes them less fatiguing. Your spine will only need to support one dumbbell per time, this will allow you to add in more shoulder work without damaging your recovery afterward.
- One-arm shoulder presses are brilliant for your obliques as well, given that your obliques will need to work over 65% harder so that they can balance the asymmetrical weight.
- These presses also emphasize your shoulder and traps over your triceps. As there is no barbell keeping the weights from falling off to the sides, your shoulders and traps need to keep the weight central. It is not 100% a good thing that your triceps involvement is minimal, but it does make dumbbell presses brilliant for bulking up your shoulder girdle.
Although, we cannot say that they are the perfect lift, they do have downsides, the primary one being that they are too similar to overhead presses. With a lift, such as a deadlift for example, it would make sense to use similar, yet lighter, variations in order to make your workout less fatiguing.
However, with an overhead press, unless you are insanely strong, you probably won’t have any fatigue issues, it would make sense to choose another heavy lift in its place. This does not mean you cannot do it, it simply may not yield the results you want, as fast as you want.
The Best Assistance Lifts to Do
Choosing an assistance lift for an overhead press will require you to think about which muscles limit you the most. You should think about which muscles are holding you back, and then think about which lifts will strengthen these muscles.
You should also think of which movements feel best on your joints, giving you the best muscle pump, and then which will give you the most soreness in the days following.
These are all factors that will show that the lift is helping you to build up muscle.
A good example of this is that a majority of people are limited on the overhead press by the strength of their front delts. If this is the case, an incline bench press, and a close-grip bench press are perfect assistance lifts to do that will help you to build bigger front delts.
They are good default lifts, however, if they hurt your shoulder joints then you can always choose to do push-ups, or even landmine presses, as a better, less painful choice.
Tell Me About Incline Bench Presses
Incline bench presses are a great lift that you can use for working your upper chest and front delts. A shallower incline emphasizes the upper chest, whereas a steep incline will bulk up your front delts.
So, in the case that your goals are to grow your shoulders, then you will want to set up your bench at a steep angle. We would recommend an angle of around 30-45°, this will work well for your shoulder growth without being too steep.
You should note that the close-grip bench press works the same muscles, though. It also has a deeper range of motion, which will work your shoulders under a much deeper stretch. There is probably still value in alternating between the close-grip and incline bench presses. However, we would probably make an educated guess that the close-grip bench press is the better lift.
This decision is up to you though, you should decide which best suits you and your work-out routine. Different things will work for different people, so it doesn’t hurt to try both out and see which works best for you.
Think About the Close-Grip Bench Press
When it comes to strength curves, our muscles will grow best if we can load them heavily at longer muscle lengths. This is where the overhead press has its downfall, this is because it is too easy at the beginning of the motion range, and thus, it doesn’t challenge the fronts of our shoulders in a more stretched position.
This is why, if you want to fix this, then you use a close-grip bench press. If you use a narrow grip, keeping your arch modest, and then bring the barbell down lower on your torso, often just below the sternum, then you get a good stretch on your front delts and your upper chest. It also challenges them in the stretched position too.
It is good to keep in mind that the overhead press has the primary advantage of working out your entire shoulder girdle, and not just your front delts. This doesn’t correlate in the close-grip bench press.
A close-grip bench press primarily works out your front delts, your upper chest, and in a much smaller way, your triceps too. However, if you are struggling to develop your front delts and your upper chest, then the close grip bench press is often much better than an overhead press is.
This can be a great additional work out to do in order to build up those muscles, and bulk up.
What about Push-ups?
As many people will know, push-ups are great for your chest, shoulders and triceps. The muscles it emphasizes depends on your body and your technique. There are a few ways to do this.
Torso Angle Push-up. Deep push-ups are when you raise your handles with handles or weight plates while bringing your chest all the way down to the floor will often emphasize your chest, whereas doing decline push-ups will typically emphasize your shoulder. It is recommended that you default to deficit push-ups so that you involve more muscle mass through a larger range.
Grip Width. Then there are wide-grip push-ups, which will emphasize your chest, in comparison ‘diamond’ push-ups will often emphasize triceps, shoulders and the serratus. We would recommend that you default to standard-grip push-ups so that you can utilize a wider overall muscle mass.
Push-ups can be a great assistance lift for an overhead press, especially if you use standard grip. This is because it will emphasize your shoulders and your upper chest. Just like the overhead press, your shoulder blades will not be pinned down either, this will work your serratus muscles as well. Which provides a great work-out that pairs neatly with your overhead press.
Even though push-ups are horizontal, it is definitely one of the best assistance exercises to do alongside the overhead press. Not to mention how push-ups are a great opportunity to get some additional chest growth anyway.
Try Out a Landmine Press
Landmine presses are a fantastic option for bulking up your shoulder and your upper chest while you let your shoulder blades roam. This whole movement makes for a great assistance lift for men who are aiming to gain extra shoulder strength and stability overall.
Consider the Upright Row
If you seek to improve your aesthetics then upright rows will be a good choice. You may find your limiting factor is your side delts or traps, this means that they will often get the best growth stimulus, however, upright rows will also work your forearms, flexors, and rear delts.
This lift is often used for building stronger and broader shoulders, but it is a bit awkward and weirdly controversial.
There are some issues, this movement is often known for causing inflammation to shoulder joints, especially when we are trying to force a technique that doesn’t really feel natural. Yet, these issues do not tend to come out of nowhere, if we do these and think that our shoulders are starting to get cranky, we can either stop doing them, or adjust the technique.
This shouldn’t be an issue, though. The human body is pretty good at letting us know when something isn’t right, and so if your shoulders do not get hurt by the upright row, then you shouldn’t worry that they are doing damage, you would know if they were.
Learning to do these rows in a way that feels nice on the joints can make our shoulder joints stronger too. And no matter how you do them, if they do not feel right, stop doing them. If your shoulders are cranky, lateral raises can be a good switch.
Thinking About Accessory Lifts
When you do accessory lifts, you should choose the lifts that are ideal for the muscles used in the overhead press.
Focus on Strength
The number one thing to do is focus on what muscles limit your performance. All the targeted muscles will be stimulated quite well, but by giving them extra attention you can assist the speed of their growth. Any growth in these muscles, no matter how small, will improve your overhead press strength.
Focus on Balance
Another consideration is to work on the muscles that are not being worked to the max with this exercise. The triceps, for example. This is a good opportunity to give them some extra workout. However, it won’t do much to improve your overhead press.
If you are training for max strength then you will probably want to spend plenty of extra time training your front delts. However, if you are doing the overhead press and an assistance lift, and you are training to bench press, then you are probably doing enough. Your front delts will already be growing at max speed.
The side felts and the triceps won’t be getting a huge amount of love, so you can do accessory lifts to give them an extra boost.
- Try out lateral raises. They are very popular for broader shoulder building, they bulk up your side felts, and are also great for building your traps. It is a great accessory lift for the overhead press.
- Try out overhead extensions. Pressing movements tend to avoid the triceps and long head. This is where this movement comes in handy. Much like skull crushers work with the bench press, these do as well.
- Give pullovers a try. This is another good idea for bulking up the long head of your triceps, it also allows you to work your lats and chest together.
- Why not try skull crusher pullovers. Give more emphasis to your triceps in your pullovers. It will give the short heads of your triceps time to contribute and makes a great combo accessory lift for both overhead press and bench presses.
Whatever you press, make sure you are comfortable with it. As you begin, you should start small and work your way up. Most people can start at 85 lbs, but you want to get used to the motion first, so if you are new to it, start a little below, get used to the movement and build your way up until you feel like you have reached your ideal weight. Raise your weight as you gain more strength and enjoy it.
The biggest challenge with an overhead press is the strength curve, the sticking point around forehead height where it gets tricky. But, if you can work around it then you will be good to go. Try out accessory exercises and assistance lifts to help balance out your muscle growth and relieve any strain on lesser world out muscles in your overhead press.
Enjoy the growth of your muscles and build that body big and strong.