Here's what you need to know...

  1. If you do an overhead press and your shoulders and thoracic spine don't extend as they should and you can't lock the rib cage down and keep the hips extended, stop your elbows at ninety degrees of flexion in the bottom position.
  2. Draw an imaginary line from ear to ear over the top of your skull. This is where the bar finds its home. Finishing at any point that isn't on this line makes for a faulty finale.
  3. If you're suited for full-range pressing, try using a false or thumbless grip. It requires less shoulder extension in the bottom position. But for those putting the brakes on at ninety degrees, wrap the thumbs and keep the wrists straight.

Experienced lifters appreciate the process of honing a lift for strength and for training longevity. While technique has overarching principles, every lifter must overcome nuances based on individual anatomy and structure. To polish your overhead press, we'll consider both.

Hands, Elbows and Shoulders: The Logistics

Overhead press logistics are dependent on control – and not just control of the iron in your grasp. Your ability to control your body position determines hand position on the bar. What we're looking for is how well you control your hips and low back, and how well your thoracic spine extends as the bar travels through a rep. Let's use a video example to guide your overhead press orchestration. That's me in the video. The weight on the bar is 235.

Sure, pressing 235 pounds overhead is a nice feat for a 205-pound man, but the repercussions –walking like an elephant did a somersault on my back and limiting my ability to perform other barbell lifts for a month – aren't appealing.

Notice that Quasimodo-esque mass in my upper-back? That's my thoracic spine. It doesn't do a whole lot of moving, especially into extension. Not good. Since it doesn't move, my low back and hips take up the slack and translate forward like a mo-fo. But, if I'd aligned my hands so my elbows reached ninety degrees in the bottom position and didn't lower the bar past my chin, I'd have avoided the sting of an angry lumbar.

Hand placement and range of motion are dependent on how well we move and what moving parts we can control. Do your shoulders extend and flex as they should? How about your thoracic spine? Does it extend? Can you lock your rib cage down and keep your hips extended? If you do all of these things well, then employ a narrow grip and move the bar through the full range of motion. But if any of these elements are askew, stop when your elbows achieve ninety degrees of flexion in the bottom position.

How to Finish

Draw an imaginary line from ear to ear over the top of your skull. This is where the bar finds its home. Finishing at any point that isn't on this line makes for a faulty finale. This alignment also makes it difficult for your rib cage to protrude, which is good. If it still protrudes, work harder to "lock it down" with your abs. If that doesn't work, you're just not well suited for barbell pressing, at least not right now. Another implement – dumbbell, kettlebell – may suit you better.

Implements Other Than Barbells

Barbell pressing asks the body to be efficient under awkward circumstances. If you have the biomechanical means to meet the challenge, great, press to your heart's content. However, if you're not suited to barbell press, your strength and size shouldn't suffer as a result. Dumbbells and kettlebells allow us to press from more biomechanically advantageous positions, which results in a better movement arc. Pressing those implements from different positions –kneeling, half-kneeling, standing – prepares us to handle the barbell, and if our body tells us that we should never barbell press, they're a great alternative for building size and strength.

Loading Parameters

There's no cut-and-dried answer. Loading parameters depend on what you're trying to accomplish. Training choices and practices are predicated upon a desired outcome. I will say, however, that I typically load the overhead press using sets of two to five reps, as this range builds strength and promotes mastery of form. To add volume, which is a concern for anyone trying to add mass, I add cluster sets after the main sets. The volume increases, the weight stays heavy, form stays respectable, and I grow.

However, there are times a guy just wants to rip into a high-rep set – you know, get out some angst and let the iron fly. If that's you, then I implore you to use dumbbells or kettlebells for these sets. Sure, throwing the barbell around for a set of twenty every once in a quarter is okay, but making it a habit constitutes less than stellar thinking and you'll end up with less than stellar shoulders (and the same goes for the neck and probably your back).

A Quick Note on Grip

If you're doing full-range pressing – moving the bar from collar bone to over the dome – try using a false or thumbless grip as it requires less shoulder extension in the bottom position, but for the folks stopping at ninety degrees, wrap the thumbs and keep the wrists straight. Holding straight wrists also permits intense torque, especially during the decent. Grab the bar as hard as possible and torque the outside of your hands into the bar. The message sent to your brain, and subsequently to your shoulders, is one of safety and power. Get muscles and neurology communicating effectively and you'll tap further into your strength.