Do You Meet The Standard?
Everyone claims to have a strict overhead press that meets the standard of 0.75x bodyweight. That means a 200 pound guy should be able to strictly press 150 pounds over his head. But that standard is almost always perverted when you see just what it takes for the lifter to complete the rep.
It's usually not too pretty. A wide stance and ultra-arch isn't any more a demonstration of strength of the overhead press than raising the hips is to a bench press, or kipping is to a weighted pull-up.
Look, the bar should travel in a straight line from start to finish. Stacking on too much weight and allowing your back to go into extreme, disc-herniating extension is the wrong way. That's one reason the clean and press was removed from Olympic lifting competition.
Coaching Cues for the Overhead Press
The strict press is as much a dance with rhythm and timing as it is a feat of brutal strength. Once you have mastery over the control, tempo, and coordination of your body, you'll be in a good place to get really strong with it.
- Start Position: Use a hip-width foot stance, similar to that recommended for a conventional deadlift. Set your hands just outside your shoulder width. The bar should be at collarbone level. Likewise, the elbows should be no more than an inch in front of the bar.
- Pressing Phase: Tucking the chin creates the space for the bar to travel straight up, in front of the face, without deviation. It's important not to allow the back to overarch during this first part of the lift. Make it a goal to get the bar to forehead level with your spine perfectly straight.
- Lockout Phase: Two things need to happen here. First, the elbows need to flare outwards in order to incorporate the mid and rear deltoids more fully. Don't be afraid to let the arms rotate as the rep progresses. This will allow the forearms to be properly positioned under the bar and contribute to the strength of the lift.
Second, get the spine under the bar as soon as you can. This happens by immediately getting the torso "through the window" you create with your arms.
This should happen the moment the bar crosses the level of your forehead. The sooner you can do this, the better. It's a saving grace for your sticking point. It doesn't mean pressing the bar behind you. It means shifting the ribcage forward. Understand the crucial difference.
Can't Press Heavy With Good Form? Do These Exercises
The true correctives for poor press patterns come in the form of abdominal and thoracic spine health. Paying attention to both factors will lower the amount of low back extension, strengthen the movement, and provide an ideal loaded overhead position. This can be accomplished by doing these exercises:
1 – Ab Wheel Rollout
The tucked hip position and core bracing intrinsic to rollouts are essentially a horizontal version of an overhead press pattern. The second you lose neutrality of the lower spine during this movement, you'll feel it in the form of discomfort in the low back. Get a strong, technically sound rollout and you'll be well on your way to strong pressing.
2 – Kettlebell Angled Press
This movement blazes the lower traps, which are key players in promoting thoracic extension and keeping the ribcage up high. Proper extension can create range of motion at the shoulder joint and a better environment to achieve a proper finish position in the press, with the bar stacked over the spine. (You don't need much weight to do these.)
Use A False Grip (Yeah, I Said It)
Many lifters make the mistake of loading the barbell too deep into the palm during pressing movements. This has a different effect on push exercises than it does on pull exercises. When the bar is nested too far back in the hand, the wrist often breaks and the rep is performed with the bar unsupported by the rest of the arm.
With a conventional grip, it's difficult to correct this positioning and place the bar where it should be, especially as the weight increases. A false grip allows you to clasp the bar and put the weight over the wrist and forearm from the beginning.
If you don't know what a false grip is, it's where you place your thumbs on the same side of the bar as your fingers. In the conventional grip, you wrap your thumbs and fingers around the bar.
False vs. Conventional Grip
The false grip is best reserved for intermediate or advanced lifters as they're strong enough and experienced enough to not drop the bar.
The Benefits of Doing It Right
Guys with a susceptibility to spine injury should really take the strict press seriously, because doing it wrong can make that susceptibility much worse. Conversely, doing it properly can tremendously increase spine health. There's virtually no middle ground.
Gauge your true 2, 3, or 5 rep max for the overhead press, being as strict as possible in following the form guidelines listed above. Even if your numbers regress at first, you'll be rebuilding long-term strength and health.