The Overhead Pressing Primer

by Chris on January 31, 2013

Or: “Why Unsupported Overhead Pressing Should Be In Your Program”

Fact: Overhead pressing doesn’t get enough love. Seriously. We all know that Mondays are intergalactic bench press day but where does overhead pressing come in? It’s a travesty of modern strength training. It doesn’t help that there are coaches out there bemoaning the inclusion of heavy overhead work in the gym. Their logic? A combination of “Your shoulders work hard enough while doing bench variations” and “Overhead work will cause and injury”. I’m calling bullshit on both accounts.

First things first: Overhead pressing is one of the most awesome feats of strength you can perform in the gym. Right up there with deadlifting and snatching, there is something just inherently badass about hefting some weight over your head. It’s just goddamn impressive to see someone with an awesome overhead press. I contend that it’s far more impressive than some of the bastardized version of a “bench press” that are out there now.

There isn’t really any way to cheat an overhead press. Sure, you can start doing some of the ridiculous gymnastics that the Russians used and that were a direct cause of the press being eliminated from Olympic weightlifting. But even then it still takes serious strength to hoist the weight to lockout. On top of that, I’ve never heard of an overhead press shirt that adds hundreds of pounds to the lift…

Now back to the arguments laid out above.

“Your shoulders get enough work while benching”

There is no argument that the shoulder don’t work while benching. One of the prime movers on the bench press and it’s variants is the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder). So if you do a lot of bench work, as most people do, you’re putting in significant work there.

The problems comes when you use this as an excuse to exclude overhead pressing work. For starters, there are 3 heads to the deltoid: anterior (front), lateral (side) and posterior (rear). While benching recruits the anterior quite a bit, it fails to sufficiently recruit the lateral head. The posterior doesn’t really come in to play on pressing. So you’re only really hitting the front of the shoulder by benching all the time.

Another issue is that benching locks your scapula into place throughout the movement. Getting your shoulder work this way, all the time, can result in movement dysfunctions do to the restriction of the shoulder blade. Basically, your body forgets how to move the arm and shoulder blade efficaciously.

“Overhead pressing is dangerous”

This is just nonsense. Ok, I will yield that if you train throwing athletes that certain types of shoulder work are iffy. Guess what though? I’m not a thrower. I don’t train throwers. Most of you reading aren’t throwers. So why the hell should we throw out and entire movement pattern based on this logic?

The sport of Olympic weightlifting is almost entirely an overhead sport. So is strongman. If overhead work is dangerous so dangerous than why aren’t these guys facing exploding shoulders all the time?

Ok how about general population. You know, the people who sit at a desk 12 hours a day and have crap T-spine mobility and internally rotated shoulders. Of course these people have contraindications to overhead work. But if you’re doing sufficient mobility work to combat these issues there are always ways you can put weight overhead. There has been this tremendous movement in fitness over the past few years to over analyze clients and rule out everything but corrective work and it’s resulted in people who forget sometimes to just lift some goddamn weight. I had a client with the worst kyphosis (hunchback) I’ve ever seen and terrible shoulder mobility. Ya know what? We overhead pressed. All the time. And we did so by finding a variation that he could do safely, such as a standing one arm dumbbell press.

Now that the nonsense has been addressed let’s talk about some pressing variations. I prefer to do all of my overhead work unsupported, as you may have guessed from the title above. Why, you might ask? It’s pretty simple really: because it’s harder. You see, when most people do a seated, supported overhead press it turns into some kind of twisted incline bench. You can’t do that with nothing supporting your back. Sure, you can lean on a standing press but only so far. Even then you’re still supporting all that weight with the rest of your body. I’ve had days where I overhead pressed and my abs were sore the next day from doing so much supportive work.Want some variations of unsupported overhead work you can do? No problem.

  • Standing press
  • Push press/push jerk
  • Standing behind the neck press
  • Seated, unsupported press/behind the neck press
  • Z Press
  • Handstand pushups

I could go on for a while but you get the point. Put weight overhead and do it without something holding you up. It’s going to make you a lot stronger from head to toe. As a bonus, you’ll probably end up sporting some pretty nice shoulders to match.


steve February 1, 2013 at 6:26 pm


nice article
I actually stopped barbell benching and went with overhead pressing and my shoulders have actually gotten better

Christopher Smith February 2, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Glad you liked it Steve. I always try to include both in my training. Plus I just plain like overhead pressing more.

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