How To Overhead Press With Proper Form

by Caleb Lee on September 18, 2008

The Overhead Press is probably the best press/push movement you can do.  Most people think of the bench press as the best upper body exercise but I’ll share with you why it’s not… why you should be overhead pressing… and exactly how to do the overhead press with correct technique in this article.

The overhead press is important enough that I made it one of the key exercises in the DoubleYourGains’ 3-5 Program

Overhead Press Is The “Original” Press

Most people don’t know that up until 1972 the overhead press was in all the weightlifting competitions… but athletes arched their back so much to press more weight overhead that it eventually became too hard to judge if there was “excessive arching”… and it was replaced with the bench press. (The photo to the left is an example of this extreme back arch that got the overhead press taken out of competition).

In fact, I was talking with my dad the other day (in his mid fifties) and he was telling me “when I was growing up, everyone overhead pressed…” and he was correct. Sadly most guys today are just worried about “how much can I bench?”

In fact the Overhead Press is correctly named just “Press”. All other exercises such as bench presses, military presses, etc are all variations.

What Is An Overhead Press?

Very simply, you press a barbell from your front shoulders overhead until your elbows are locked. Your knees are locking during the entire lift with the feet at shoulder-width apart.  There are quite a few variations of the Overhead Press — here’s some:

  • Military Press – Put your heels together like you’re standing at attention in the military and press…
  • Side Press - One armed overhead press…
  • Dumbbell Overhead Press – Overhead press using dumbbells…
  • Jerk – And olympic weightlifting press movement…
  • Push Press – Using your legs to help press the weight overhead…

This article will focus on the standing overhead press with the feet at shoulder width level. The “regular” press.

Below is a video of Mark Rippetoe coaching some people on overhead pressing, you get to see a guy do a couple reps with perfect form:

Why Focus On The Standing Overhead Press?

This is one of the reasons why the overhead press is better than the bench press… because you’re standing. Doing the Overhead Press in a standing position makes your “core” muscles — your abs, obliques, transverse abdominis, lower back and spinal stabilizers work harder in order to stabilize your body.

Plus, it’s a much more functional movement meaning it carries over into real life and athletics much more easily. I like to use this general rule when it comes to exercising: “Stand On My Own Two Feet”. Almost every time you have to use your strength or conditioning skills in real life you have to do it while standing, walking, moving, etc…

… There aren’t many times where you have to use your strength while laying on your back or sitting in a chair–so I mimic this as much as possible in my training and strength practices.

Why You Should Overhead Press

Besides the reasons listed above here are a few more reasons why you should overhead press NOW:

  • Total Body Exercise — Your whole body gets used like the squat and deadlift. Your shoulders, chest and arms press the weight while your core muscles and legs stabilize your body…
  • Builds Muscle — Because it works so many muscle groups, you build more lean muscle mass along with strength…
  • Builds Strength — This is one of the best strength training movements to build raw pressing strength
  • Good For Your Shoulders – Most guys have muscle imbalances from too much bench pressing. The bench works the front of the shoulders more… while the overhead press works all the shoulder heads equally. Muscle imbalances lead to injuries, so you should start overhead pressing now…
  • You Feel Cool – While everyone else is doing bench presses you’re picking a lot of weight off the ground and putting it up over your head :)

Is Overhead Pressing Safe?

It may not seem like it at first, but it’s actually safer than bench pressing. If something goes wrong you can always just drop the weight down to your shoulders and then put it on the floor. Or if something goes really wrong you can just get out from underneath it and drop the barbell.

As long as you pay attention to the technique points in this guide and don’t let your overhead presses look like the picture of that guy up above (with the extreme back arch) then overhead pressing is perfectly safe and you should do it.

You Need Shoulder Flexibility

To do this exercise correctly, you need a little bit of shoulder flexibility. I didn’t think anyone would have problems with doing this exercise correctly and then I met one of my best friends who spent way too much time doing bench presses and realized other people might have this problem too.

At the mid point of the exercise when your arms are locking the weight overhead, there should be a straight line going from the bar, down through your scapula, down through the middle of your feet. Which means your head should be slightly forward and your shoulders behind your ears slightly.

Look at the picture below and see how there is a straight line down through the guy’s body.

How do you increase your shoulder flexibility? Do shoulder dislocations with a broomstick, rope or band.

Before Your Press (Starting Point)

I usually power clean the bar to my shoulders or I just have it at the appropriate height on the power rack and get underneath it like getting read to front squat.

  • Feet Shoulder Width –Keep your feet in this position for balance…
  • Grip width – Hands are slightly wider than shoulders…
  • Grip With Thumb – Bar sits in the base of your palm, thumb is used to grip the bar…
  • Chest Up – Inhale deep and puff out your chest big…
  • Keep Elbows Forward – Your elbows should be up in front of the barbell (if looking from the side)…
  • Look Straight Ahead – Look forward the whole time (don’t follow the bar with your eyes)…
  • Flex Your Glutes – Squeeze your glutes hard together like you’re pinching a coin between them to protect your back from excessive arching and increase your strength…
  • Squeeze The Bar – To activate your CNS even more and recruit even more strength…

How To Do First Part (Concentric) Of Press

The goal is to press the bar straight overhead. Let me repeat: Straight overhead. There’s a little problem here — your head is in the way, so you’ll want to move that before it gets hit with the barbell :)

  • Press Upward – from the shoulders squeeze the bar and begin pressing it up…
  • Stay Tight — Flex your abs, glutes and squeeze the bar hard as it gets harder to press it…
  • Move Your Head – Keep looking forward while you quickly tilt your head back out of the way and continue pressing up…
  • Lean Your Upper Body Forward -  Once the bar hits about forehead level, lean into/under the bar as you continue pressing overhead…
  • Keep Your Head forward – When it’s locked out overhead your chin should be close to your chest…
  • Keep Everything Tight – Squeeze the bar, keep your upper back tight, glutes tight, abs tight, and lock your elbows…

How To Do Second Part (Eccentric) Of Press

Now the bar is locked out overhead. Your elbows are locked and you feel like a stud, now you just have to get the bar down without killing yourself:

  • Breathe – It’s ok to let out a little air at the lockout. But don’t let out all your air, you need to keep the pressure in your abdomine high for spine stability…
  • Stay Tight – Make sure you’re flexing those glutes, abs and you’re squeezing the bar…
  • Lower It Under Control – Don’t let it come crashing down, but you don’t need to fight the bar either, just lower it under control…
  • Touch Your Shoulders – Bring it full range of motion (ROM) and let it touch your shoulders…
  • Reset Before your Next Rep – Make sure the bar is high on your shoulders and your elbows are forward…

Key Points To Remember:

  • You Need To Overhead press — just do it. If you can’t do it correctly now because your shoulderst aren’t flexible enough then you DEFINITELY need to do it…
  • Keep Your Elbows Forward and Chest Out – Don’t forget to reposition yourself this way in between each rep…
  • Get Under The Bar – Lean forward with your torso and make sure you get underneath the bar and your head is close to your chin…
  • Stay Tight — It’s of utmost importance to use all the max tension techniques you can. Breath in to create intra-abdominal pressure… Squeeze your glutes… flex your abs… squeeze the bar and keep it all tight throughout each rep. You can let out a little air once you’ve locked the weight out overhead but keep your body tight, don’t let anymore than half the air out before you lower the bar.

So start overhead pressing today and watch your total body strength increase. Need a good program? Get on the DoubleYourGains’ 3-5 Beginner’s Strength Training Program. One of the key lifts is the overhead press and you’ll discover all the other exercises you should do as well for a complete and balanced program.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill August 5, 2009 at 5:29 pm

“Most people don’t know that up until 1972 the overhead press was in all the weightlifting competitions… and it was replaced with the bench press.”

The clean and press was a part of olympic weightlifting until 1972 and was not replaced with anything. Olympic weightlifting currently consists of the snatch and the clean and jerk.


Caleb Lee August 6, 2009 at 12:48 pm

@ Bill: You’re correct sir.


Saf September 20, 2009 at 7:18 am

“Lean forward with your torso and make sure you get underneath the bar and your head is close to your chin…”

yeah, I hate when my head gets away from my chin…:D


Steve December 24, 2010 at 6:52 pm

The girl in the "before you press" picture looks like she's about to do a front squat. That is not an efficient position from which to do a press. I'd find a different picture.


Alex March 26, 2011 at 11:44 pm

In Olympic weightlifting its used a hook grip for clean, and then unhook it for a jerk. Should I use the hook grip just for clean&press?


Caleb_Lee April 25, 2011 at 1:44 pm

I dunno, I do some of those exercises but I'm no means an expert in O lifting :)


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