If I asked you to name the best upper-body pressing exercise – one that lets you move serious weight and builds size and strength in just about every muscle above the waist – what would your answer be? If you said “the bench press,” you’re thinking like a typical modern gym rat.
If your answer was “the overhead press,” then you’re thinking like bodybuilding’s pioneers, the guys who built bodies that inspired the lifters of the sport’s Golden Age.
Back in the day, the standing overhead press was the cornerstone exercise of some of the most impressive physiques. But it was more than just a muscle builder. It was a key marker of manliness itself, on top of being a fundamental strength-building exercise and even a competitive Olympic lift.
Sure, it’s out of favor today, thanks to a combination of intimidating difficulty and injuries caused by bad technique. But if you’re an ambitious lifter with a healthy back and shoulders, it deserves a place of honor in your training program.
When the Press Was Clean
The overhead press has always been a potent symbol of athletic masculinity. The silhouette of a figure with a loaded barbell locked out overhead is a classic image expressing brute strength, raw power, and an attitude that asserts, “Yep, I just made this barbell my bitch.”
Through the years, all the big-name musclemen – from Sandow and Saxon to Reeves, Reg Park, and Arnold – used overhead pressing. The shift toward the bench press as the primary upper-body pushing exercise is relatively recent. There’s an obvious connection to powerlifting’s rise in popularity in the 1960s, but there’s also a surprising link to an even older strength sport: Olympic weightlifting.
Until 1972, the Olympics included three lifts: press, snatch, clean and jerk. “But the competitive press became sloppier and sloppier, resembling a laid-back standing bench press rather than a strict military press,” says longtime T Nation contributor Dan John. “Between the danger of injured backs and just ugly, difficult-to-judge lifts, it was time to move on.”
Just before it was finally removed from competition, superheavyweight Olympic lifter Vasiliy Alekseyev, weighing nearly 340 pounds, pressed 520. At that same time, 123-pound bantamweight Imre Foldi pressed 280. Even with ugly form, those are awe-inspiring numbers.
With the disappearance of the overhead press, bodybuilders had one less reason to incorporate the Olympic lifts into their training, according to physical-culture historian Randy Roach, author of Muscle, Smoke, & Mirrors.
“A lot of bodybuilders are really hybrid powerlifters-bodybuilders, and they train with most of the same exercises,” Roach says. “But Olympic weightlifting was a sport that relied heavily on skill.”
The shoulder press was the least skill-dependent of the Olympic lifts. When it was taken out of competitions in 1972, Roach says, “it kind of burned all connections with bodybuilding and powerlifting.”
Before 1972, it was common for a lifter to use the barbell shoulder press as a measure of his overall strength. After 1972, it became the forgotten lift. If bodybuilders compared their strength, it was usually with the bench press. As a result, all variations on Olympic lifts – cleans and high pulls along with standing presses, jerks, and snatches – began to disappear from bodybuilding routines.
Shoulder presses were still included, but from a seated position, often with the back against an upright bench. That may target deltoids more directly – at least, that’s the idea – but it leaves out a lot of muscles that come into play when you stand up and lift the way men were meant to lift.
Your core muscles – abs, lower back, glutes, and upper thighs – have to be strong and stable to do a standing press with good form. That’s in addition to the muscles you’re targeting: delts, traps, triceps, and serratus.
If you’re weak in any of those areas, those deficits are exposed on a standing press. A genuinely strong guy should be able to press the equivalent of his body weight overhead, according to prolific T Nation contributor Christian Thibaudeau, with good form and no momentum generated by your lower body.
Now let’s talk about how to get there.
Meet the Press
Thibaudeau, an Olympic weightlifter-turned-bodybuilder-turned-coach, offers these key points about form:
- “The perfect grip is one and a half to two inches wider than the shoulders,” Thibaudeau says. Too wide a grip reduces your strength and increases the risk of wrist pain. Too narrow a grip puts the shoulder joints in a risky position.
- The best head position: looking up slightly. “I call this a snobbish or ‘walk like my shit doesn’t stink’ head posture,” Thibaudeau says.
- If you know how to do a power clean and you’re pretty good at it (you’ll find a description of how to do it below), Thibaudeau says you should start with the bar on the floor and clean it to your shoulders for the first rep of each set. Otherwise, start with the bar in a rack at shoulder level.
While a truly strict “military” press requires the heels to touch, you’ll get a more stable and powerful base if your feet are about shoulder-width apart. Also, be sure to keep the legs straight, but not locked, throughout the set. The exception is when you’re doing a push press, which I’ll describe in a moment.
If your heels come off the ground when you press, your stance is probably too narrow. If your toes come up, that’s a pretty good sign that your torso is leaning too far back.
While the standing barbell press is the most basic way to get the bar overhead, it certainly isn’t the only way. These are Thibaudeau’s top variations (plus one from Dan John):
Dumbbell Overhead Press
The benefits of using dumbbells instead of a barbell range from the obvious to the obscure. First, of course, is versatility. You can use a pronated grip to mimic the hand position of a barbell press, or a neutral grip to make it easier on the shoulder joints of injured lifters. With a neutral grip, Thibaudeau says, you’ll also get more triceps involvement, making it a good choice for lifters who do total-body workouts with little or no direct arm training.
You can also do one-arm shoulder presses to incorporate more of a challenge to your core muscles. (It’s possible to do this with a barbell, if you’re feeling brave, but it’s not a recommended move in a crowded gym.)
Dumbbell variations potentially hit more of the stabilizer muscles in your shoulder girdle, which is a nice benefit. But the biggest reason to choose dumbbells, Thibaudeau says, is to give your central nervous system a break, a tip he got from powerlifter Dave Tate. When an athlete has a drained CNS, the first thing to do is take the barbell out of his hands. He’ll suffer less fatigue from that workout, and recover more fully from previous training sessions. Thibaudeau recommends switching to dumbbells every three or four workouts in which the shoulder press is a primary exercise.
According to Thibaudeau, as soon as a lifter builds a solid overhead press, using at least the equivalent of his body weight, he should learn the push press.
Set up as you would for a traditional barbell shoulder press. Dip your hips and knees, and then straighten them explosively as you push the bar overhead. It should feel like you’re jumping and throwing the weight overhead at the same time, and your momentum could take your feet off the floor when you’re learning the lift and working with lighter weights. Even with heavier weights, you could come up on your toes.
The push press is a good move to use when your progress on the traditional shoulder press comes to a halt, especially if you perform the eccentric portion slowly. You’ll get your body used to pushing heavier weights overhead, which should help when you return to the original exercise. You’ll be able to press heavier weights, which means increased strength and a bigger hypertrophy stimulus.
You can also do this with dumbbells, using a pronated or neutral grip.
Hold a barbell on your front shoulders, as you would for a traditional shoulder press. Press it just high enough to clear your head, rotate it behind the back of your head, and then lower it halfway down to your shoulders. Now press it back up until it just clears your head again, and lower it to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Keep going in a rhythmic fashion. “It’s a constant-tension exercise, so you can’t use much weight,” Thibaudeau says. “For example, if you 250 pounds for your military-press set, use around 165 for Bradfords.”
Don’t be intimidated by the behind-the-neck portion of the lift. Yes, behind-the-neck presses are completely contraindicated, as explained below, but with Bradfords you’re only lowering it to about the level of your ears. “I have a client who can’t do military presses but can actually do Bradfords,” Thibaudeau says.
Power Clean and Press
If you can do a good power clean – pulling the bar from the floor to your shoulders – then the power clean and press is the ultimate overall shoulder builder.
Explosive lifts like the push press and power clean teach your body to recruit the high-threshold motor units more efficiently. Those are the fibers with the most potential for growth.
The power clean involves more upper-back muscles, so combining it with a shoulder press gives you more total muscle stimulation than any other upper-body exercise. Of course, there’s also a price you pay in terms of CNS fatigue – it takes a lot out of you, and requires more recovery time than other upper-body exercises. But if you’re an advanced lifter who’s looking to get a lot accomplished in a limited amount of time, this is an exercise you should consider.
To do a power clean, set up as you would for a deadlift, with your feet a bit less than shoulder-width apart. Grab the bar overhand with your arms just outside your legs. Start with your back flat, hips loaded, knees bent slightly, and feet flat on the floor.
The first part of the exercise, called the first pull, is to the top of your knees. While the bar is still moving upward, quickly and powerfully straighten your hips and knees and come up on your toes to generate momentum. When your hips and knees are straight and your heels are off the floor, shrug your shoulders as hard as you can.
Now comes the trickiest part: As the bar moves upward, dip under it by bending your hips and knees. Catch it on the front of your shoulders, allowing the bar to roll to the ends of your fingers as your elbows come up. In the perfect catch position, your feet are flat on the floor, with your knees and hips bent, torso upright, head elevated slightly, and your upper arms parallel to the floor (and thus perpendicular to your torso).
Straighten your hips and knees, and then do a standard shoulder press. Then lower the bar to the floor for the next rep.
Dan John often includes this supplement to the shoulder press with his lifters. After you lock out the final rep of any set of overhead presses, you can do a handful of partial reps where you only press the bar the final two or three inches.
This extra work not only reinforces correct lockout technique and body position, it helps to make the entire body, from the armpits down, tighter and stronger. After including pressouts for several sessions, you’ll become intimately familiar with the location and function of your serratus anterior muscles.
Because of the sometimes-delicate nature of the shoulder joint, anyone with a history of shoulder pain is quick to write off the overhead press, and that’s usually fine. “If it hurts, don’t do it,” is an excellent maxim, and not one I’ll try to convince you against.
The trouble is that even people without a history of shoulder problems are sometimes intimidated by overhead press variations. Some won’t do any overhead exercises, which is a clear overreaction. Others are scared away from variations like the behind-the-neck press, seated shoulder press, and any type of overhead press using a machine.
To figure out the true risks that these variations may pose, I checked with Clay Hyght, a chiropractor and trainer as well as a competitive bodybuilder and bodybuilding judge. He didn’t hesitate to come down hard on one of those exercises:
“The risks of doing behind-the-neck presses far outweigh the benefits,” Hyght says. “There are simply too many other good shoulder exercises that are both safe and effective.
“Many people say, ‘But I’ve been doing them for 20 years and I’ve had no shoulder problems.’ Sure, and I know people that smoke a pack a day for just as long, and they don’t have lung cancer. But we undoubtedly know that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. So, if you want to have shoulder problems, go ahead and do behind-the-neck presses. Otherwise, do something that makes more sense, like a dumbbell shoulder press.”
While the basic overhead press is done standing, the majority of barbell shoulder press stations you’ll find in your gym will have an upright seat back. The message bodybuilders receive is that overhead presses are supposed to be done seated, with the rear shoulders resting against a pad.
This extends to the dumbbell stations, where adjustable benches are usually set to the fully upright position when lifters do shoulder presses.
But are seated presses really a good idea? Hyght gives the seated press a conditional thumbs-up, with a caution for those with a history of lower-back problems. “Seated shoulder presses do increase the compressive load on the intervertebral discs,” he says.
“It’s still a rather safe movement,” Hyght adds. “Assuming you have a healthy spine, keep your abs tight, and avoid hyperextending at the lumbar spine, you won’t likely develop any problems from doing seated presses. We basically have to pick our battles, and the seated shoulder press isn’t a battle that most people should worry about.”
Then there’s the machine shoulder press. Sometimes the equipment you find in gyms is well designed and useful, and sometimes it isn’t.
“There are quite a number of biomechanically sound shoulder machines,” Hyght says. “They typically offer a good combination of safety versus effectiveness. Hell, just about any shoulder press machine would be far safer than a behind-the-neck press!”
But Hyght says that machine presses should never replace dumbbell and barbell exercises as your primary overhead lifts. “I might choose a machine shoulder press as the primary shoulder movement once every five training cycles,” he says. “And even then, it would probably be specifically for intensity-boosting techniques, like rest-pause or forced reps.”
Whatever variation you choose, the key is to do some type of overhead pressing for shoulder development. “You couldn’t win the lightweight teenage division at a local drug-tested contest if you didn’t train your shoulders directly,” Hyght says. Lateral raises alone are unlikely to work.
Press Here for Impressive Shoulders
Christian Thibaudeau created this four-week program to widen and thicken your shoulders. Do each workout once a week.
Workout 1 Heavy Loading
|A||Barbell seated shoulder press from the bottom position||2||3|
|Increase the weight for the second set; use cluster reps (see below)|
|B||Barbell seated shoulder press||2-4||3|
|Increase weight for each set; use slight leg drive|
Barbell Seated Shoulder Press from the Bottom Position
Set up a bench in the power rack, and set the bar on safety pins at the level of your mouth. Start each rep from the pins. Rest 10 seconds between reps. So you’ll press the weight from the pins, set it back on the pins, rest 10 seconds, press it again, set it down, and then press it one more time. Increase the weight for the second set, and do it the same way.
Use more weight than you would for standard shoulder presses (after a thorough warm-up, of course). Your goal here is to prime your central nervous system for the standard shoulder presses that you’ll do after these.
Barbell Seated Shoulder Press
Start with a weight that’s slightly less than what you used for your second set of the first exercise. Raise the pins so you start each set with your arms fully extended. Do 3 reps, then add 10 pounds. Continue adding sets with increasing weight until you can no longer get 3 good reps without having an eyeball pop out of the socket.
Workout 2 Contrast Loading
|A1||Push press Explosive reps||5||3|
|A2||Dumbbell lateral raise||5||5|
|B1||Dumbbell neutral-grip push press Explosive reps||5||3|
|B2||Barbell front raise||5||5|
|C1||Barbell power clean or power high pull Explosive reps||5||3|
|C2||Dumbbell bent-over lateral raise||5||5|
Rest 15 seconds in between sets of the paired exercises. So you’ll do push presses with explosive reps, rest 15 seconds, then do lateral raises with a traditional lifting tempo. Rest as much as you need before you repeat the two exercises.
Barbell Front Raise
Stand holding a light barbell (even an unloaded Olympic bar may be too much weight for this movement) with straight arms in front of your thighs. Raise the bar straight out in front of you until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Lower the bar and repeat.
Barbell Power High Pull
The high pull starts the same way as the power clean: Pull the bar from the floor, generate momentum with powerful hip and knee extension and by coming up on your toes, and shrug your shoulders. But instead of dipping under the bar and catching it on your shoulders, stay upright. Allow your elbows to bend and lean back as the bar comes up to, or just past, the level of your chin.
Lower the bar to the floor for the next rep.
Some will perform this movement as a fast-motion upright row, but it’s really a different exercise. A row uses upper-body muscles – traps, delts, biceps – with no contribution from the lower body. A high pull gets most of its power from the hip-extensor muscles, with the final pull coming from the traps. The delts and arms are just along for the ride.
To sum it up:
- It’s just about impossible to build an impressive physique without overhead pressing exercises. They build your delts like no other exercise, and also contribute to your traps and triceps.
- Standing presses are better than seated, since they involve more stabilizing muscles and contribute to core strength and stability. They also offer less spinal compression, making them a better choice for those with a history of lower-back pain.
- If you have a shoulder injury, past or present, choose dumbbells over a barbell, and avoid machines. Shoulder presses with a neutral grip are the easiest on the shoulder joints.
- Behind-the-neck presses, with a full range of motion, are one of the most dangerous exercises in the gym. Not everyone gets injured performing them, but why take the risk when there are so many better and safer ways to build your delts and traps?
- Machines can be useful or dangerous. Trust your body to know which ones build up the muscles and which ones grind down the joints.
The return you get from putting the bar overhead is a wider, thicker set of shoulders that look like you’re wearing shoulder pads even when it’s all you under that T-shirt.
Press on, brothers.