Are you ready to feel like a badass when you lift heavy things up and over your head?
If so, then you’ve come to the right place!
This is your one-stop shop for learning everything you need to know about the overhead press, whether you’re...
… or simply curious about how to safely add the overhead press to your training program.
In this article, you’ll learn the benefits of the overhead press, how to safely practice overhead pressing (even if you’re using different types of equipment), and how to prevent common technique errors.
When you do an overhead press, you’re moving a weight from chest level up and over your head by straightening your arm(s). Or in other words, pressing a weight toward the ceiling and away from your body. An overhead press can be done from kneeling, supine, seated, and standing positions.
Also called the military press, the strict press, or even simply the press, the overhead press is a compound upper body movement. (A compound movement works several muscles or muscle groups at once.) While it may seem like it's only an arm and shoulder workout — and it does work these areas very well, especially when it comes to your triceps and lats — it also targets the chest, back, and core muscles. And if you’re pressing from a standing position, the additional engagement of your glutes, quads, and feet means you’re getting a full-body workout.
Beyond its ability to work a ton of muscle groups in one go, the overhead press comes with a host of other benefits, including:
Pressing is also a great way to assess your ability to create full-body tension. If you’re feeling unstable or you’re struggling with form, you can do a body scan from the ground up to evaluate where you may be losing that tension, and then target some areas for improvement.
Plus, there’s just a special kind of joy and power that comes when you start lifting heavy things overhead!
Now that you know why the overhead press is so important in your training, I’m sure you’re super excited to learn how to do it properly. But first, I want to quickly touch on a few things you need to be able to do before you can press safely.
Before you start pressing weight overhead, you need to have enough shoulder mobility to ensure you can move through the full range of motion safely. Here are three questions to consider prior to pressing.
This is the first thing to evaluate if you’re interested in working on your overhead press. Here are the two movements to try:
If you can’t raise your arms 180 degrees from your sides or front without pain or bending your elbows, then working on your mobility first before moving onto overhead pressing is best. A few exercises that may be helpful here include:
Shoulder impingement can cause pain as well as a decreased range of motion in the shoulder joint. While having impingement doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t practice your overhead press, if you’re struggling with pain or limited mobility, I encourage you to have your shoulder mobility assessed by a mobility coach, physiotherapist, or qualified trainer before adding the press to your strength training program. Being cleared for the movement by an expert — and then consciously working on your shoulder mobility before you practice your stability and control with pressing movements — may help prevent future issues or injuries.
(Note: If you’re recovering from a lower-body injury, the press can become your new best friend. It’s a great movement to practice to develop upper body strength, and because you can do it in a variety of positions [e.g., seated press], you can work around many injuries. However, be cautious not to overdo it. If you’re not in the proper position, especially if you’re compounding improper position with a high volume of reps or a heavier weight, you can cause shoulder impingement. No one wants that! Listen to your body, and make sure your mobility is there first — even if it’s tempting to dive in right away.)
Pectoralis muscle flexibility is key to safely performing the overhead press. If your chest is too tight, your range of motion may be restricted, which will make it challenging to complete the movement with proper form. If you lie on your back and extend your hands out to your sides, palms up, and feel a lot of stretching in your chest, you probably have tight pecs.
Work on your flexibility by adding some chest stretches into your training routine as movement prep. The kettlebell arm bar or some band mobility exercises would be great.
Alright, now that we’ve covered the mobility piece, let’s look at how to do an overhead press!
As I'm a kettlebell instructor, kettlebells are (as you may have guessed!) my jam. They’re great for both beginners and more advanced lifters because there are so many options for size, grip, and weight. Plus, the offset center of mass of a bell makes it a beautifully challenging tool to use, regardless of experience level. That’s why we’re going to start by looking at how exactly to do a kettlebell overhead press! (I’ll cover how to adapt the pressing movement based on the type of weight you want to use next.)
You’ll need to know how to perform a kettlebell clean before you can do a kettlebell overhead press.
Brand new to kettlebell training? Learn exactly how to use one, plus five great kettlebell exercises for beginners.
Let’s look now at how to adapt for different types of equipment and set-ups. Keep in mind that the basic steps will stay the same regardless of the overhead press variation you choose: Your core is engaged, you’re spreading tension throughout your body, and then you’re pressing a weight from shoulder height up and over head until your arm is extended.
Like the kettlebell overhead press, the dumbbell overhead press is great for beginners and advanced lifters alike because you have the option to vary the load and change up the technique. The cues here assume a one-arm seated overhead press with dumbbells.
You also have the option to do a seated dumbbell overhead press bilaterally, with two dumbbells, or while in a standing position. Mix things up as needed based on your skill level, strength, equipment availability, and interest.
Bonus: If you’re brand new to lifting, or you’re at home and don’t have access to equipment, you can practice this movement with a soup can or a water bottle! It’s a fantastic way to move through the full range of motion and get the hang of the movement pattern before progressing to heavier or more challenging weights. Again, this can be done in a seated or standing position.
The barbell overhead press is a more advanced variation you can progress to after working on kettlebell and dumbbell variations. You can perform this movement from a seated position on a bench (use the seating cues from the overhead press instructions above), or in a standing position. The cues here will walk you through a standing barbell press.
There are a few mistakes to watch out for, no matter which overhead press variation you’re practicing. Here’s a quick rundown of things to keep an eye out for:
Interested in adding more variety to your functional strength training program? Check out these 4 kettlebell deadlift variations.
If you’ve checked your mobility and are ready to start adding the overhead press to your training, you have a couple of options depending on your goals and experience.
As you’ve learned, the overhead press is a critical tool to add to your training arsenal — and now you know how to do it with three different types of equipment. Great job! It won’t take long to see improvements in your strength, stability, and mobility.
And when you’re ready for a little more variation... try playing around more with kettlebells!
As I already mentioned, the offset center of mass makes working through different planes of movement a fun challenge. The bottoms-up press, double overhead press, and straddle Z press are unique options I highly recommend trying out when you’re ready for your next performance goal.
Now go have fun lifting those heavy things up and over your head!
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