If the deadlift is the King of lifts, the overhead press would definitely be Queen. This movement is incredibly challenging, marrying it to the deadlift when it comes to the first two disciplines in any strongman competition. When it comes to deciphering which man/woman possesses the most brute force and power, nothing will give a better indication than how much you can pick up off the floor and how much you can press above your head.
Why it differs
Common sense should tell you that you’ll always lift more benching than you will in the standing shoulder press. Although it is true, more weight does not always mean tougher. The overhead movement recruits much more of the core musculature and requires a lower back of steel to move heavy loads. Bench press may give a great indication of raw pressing strength, but a strong standing press shows a man with little weaknesses.
The following are my top 5 tips for overhead pressing. Each is designed to enable you to create the most stability possible and therefore lift more weight. Like explaining in the previous deadlifting article, some cues may resonate with you, others may not. The main thing is to pick the one tip you think your lift has been lacking and applying it.
1. Place your sternum under the bar prior to lifting
Your strength will always equal to the level of stability you can create in a joint. On the opposite side of your sternum you have your shoulder blade retractors. The shoulder blades being retracted is an incredibly important aspect of pressing as it places the shoulder joint in a much more optimal position for pressing overhead. If the sternum is under the bar, the opposing upper back muscles will be directly under the bar as well. This means they are in the perfect position to push the bar upwards. The biggest mistake I see when observing people pressing is having the bar too far forward in front of them. This puts them at a huge disadvantage for when the loads go up.
2. Inflate and brace the core prior to lifting
You may recognise the “inflate and brace” cue from the deadlifting article. It’s safe to say that this tip will feature unanimously across the board when it comes to lifting, however each time it will be used in a slightly different way.
In this case, the inflate and brace technique must be used before taking the bar off the rack. If you try to create stability once the bar is on your chest, the load will prevent you from developing the adequate tension required. As with the deadlift, tense your abs hard, hold the rigidity and inflate the core. Doing this correctly, comfortably takes off 5-10kg “perceived” kilos from the bar, i.e. it makes it feel lighter. As an experiment, during your warm up’s try doing the opposite and attempt to create tension after you’ve taken the bar out of the rack. Notice the difference in how the bar feels and how easy it is to press.
3. Crack a walnut with your glutes
A strong lower back solves pretty much everything in weight training. However, a strong lower back and strong glutes go together like glutamine and creatine, zinc and magnesium, peanut butter and jam; you can’t have one without the other.
As I’ve explained in previous articles, I like to think of your glutes as roots to a flower. The flowers stem is your spine and the plant pot which the flower sits in is your pelvis. In a gust of wind, which flower do you think blows over easiest, the one with big, strong, thick roots or the one with small, weak, thin roots.
Strong glutes glue the pelvis into position. If the pelvis is strong, the upper spine has more potential to be strong. This all contributes to more weight and better technique.
4. Head through once it passes your head
Lifting weight is all about mechanics. To keep a lift safe and efficient, you want the weight to follow a bar line as close to your centre of mass as possible. When a bar strays out of this line, the movement becomes awkward and you attempt to compensate. This can increase the risk of injury.
Your centre of mass would be like putting an axis directly through the top of your head and down your spine. When we initiate the overhead press, we need to first press the weight slightly forward to get our head out of the way. Think is why people will often struggle with the start of the lift more than anything else.
As soon as the weight has passed the top of your head, you should return the bar to your centre of mass by getting your head through your arms. This places more emphasis on the prisoning muscles (shoulders and triceps) and puts the shoulder blade retractors in a much more favourable position as well.
5. Use your lats on the lowering phase to create extra stability
Muscles are paired up in something known as agonist and antagonistic pairs. I like to simplify this to “one is the break, one is the accelerator”. When we press, the shoulders and triceps are the accelerator muscles, although they need to be strong, their strength potential is limited if the opposing muscles (lats and biceps) are weak.
On the lowering phase of the press, I like to contract my lats as much as I can. Of course, this is more tiring, but I find it creates much more stability for the proceeding rep. This is why it makes sense from a strength perspective to pair up opposing muscle groups. If you are strong in both directions, the direction of movement will be balanced, e.g. an equal force of push and pull.
End note: All tips are only as good as your weight selection. Utilising these tips won’t make you lift more, they will simply improve your technique. Good technique plus patience and consistency is what gets you strong. There is no lift truer for this than the overhead press. Apply the tips, be smart with your weight selection and be patient.