How to Overhead Press: Your Guide to the Proper Form

By Steve Hall

August 11, 2013

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Display your strength and prowess by executing one of the classic bodybuilding manoeuvres, the overhead press. In the days of old, lifters would act out spectacles of might. Viewers watched in awe as hefty loads were thrust overhead, hence the name overhead press.

This guide will cover the overhead to show you how to begin doing it with the proper form.

Before we start I must point out that there are several variations of the overhead press. Some simply differ in name whilst others differ in overall technique. The most common overhead press are Military Press, Seated Shoulder Press, Seated Military Press, and Push Press.

In essence the main differences among the various overhead presses are whether you’re sitting or standing and whether the legs are involved or not. For example in the Push Press the lifter utilizes a slight burst in lower leg strength to assist in getting the bar up overhead.

how to overhead press

We will be focusing on the traditional Overhead Press. This movement is great for building upper body strength as well as helping to stabilize the core and build a solid muscular structure. By maintaining as strict as form possible, the lifter will thrust the weight upward in a straight line , lock out at the top, and return to the starting position, all with a minimal amount of lower body push.

The Benefits of the Overhead Press

Learning to press a significant amount of weight overhead can be a very beneficial experience both physically and mentally. It is a compound lift and will require the lifter to engage all the muscles in the body. Each time you load the bar with plates and execute your lift ,you can expect . . .

Gains in Size and Strength

You will be amazed at how strong you get and how this strength carries through to many other lifts. By working the overhead press, your body works together to lift and stabilize the weight overhead.

Improvements in Flexibility

With strict form, you improve your flexibility in your wrists and shoulders. This improved flexibility can carry over into other lifts like the clean-and-press or even the front squat.

Better Posture

With strict form not only will your strength increase in your upper body, but the strength that is built up in your core and stabilizer muscles assists in your posture. Better posture increases your overall confidence and boosts your self image.

Standing Tall with the Overhead Press

Pressing weight overhead can be tricky and in some cases rather scary.  However, the rewards and joy that come from achieving it bring forth a powerful feeling of accomplishment. When approaching the overhead press for the first time many people want to try a seated version or even resort to using the smith machine. I highly advise to stay away from both.

The reasons I feel most people are afraid of any pressing movement is the lack of control and possibility of being stuck under the weight. In some cases, this could apply, but with the proper equipment and setup, those fears can be eliminated.

As a word of condolence from someone that has gotten stuck in an overhead press, its not that scary. In most cases, all you have to do is drop the weight and be aware of where it is falling. If you press upwards and feel yourself going back you know your form is off but you also can save the lift by slightly stepping. Or in an extreme case just letting go and moving your body forward out of the path of the falling weight.

Once you conquer your fears in any lift whether it be the overhead press—or even—the squat you can accomplish anything.

A Lesson in Overhead Press Form

As I stated before, learning to overhead press can be rather freaky. It shouldn’t be. Taking the time to learn and develop your technique for this movement is critical. The overhead press is great in building impressive shoulders and upper body strength.

This lesson will cover the proper form used for a strict overhead press.

The items we will need in order to complete our overhead press will be a barbell and a power rack.

 Note: Smith machines are great inventions and have their purpose. However they are not beneficial for us during this workout. The overhead press on a smith machine does not allow the stabilization muscles to engage. Always press with free weights.

Overhead Press Setup

The press can begin either in a power rack or on the floor. As a beginner it is much easier to un-rack the weight in the proper position, than to clean the weight from the floor. As you advance this is a great way to add some dynamic to your lift.

Note: for taller lifters or shorter power racks adjust the j-hooks so they are in the front of the rack allowing you to lift free of any obstructions.

  1. Approach the barbell in the power rack and grip with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.
  2. With a firm grip, dip under the bar and allow it to rest on your front deltoids.
  3. With your elbows pointing forward and slightly upwards, press the weight up with your legs and take a step back from the rack.
  4. With your feet together or a little narrower than shoulder distance apart, tighten your core, legs, and upper back to stabilize the weight and form the proper base to push off of. Squeezing the glutes is a great way to keep all of the muscles engaged.
  5. Your head should be in a neutral position, chest up and tight, back slightly arched, stabilization muscles engaged, and your elbows pointing forward, not down. The elbows point forward sot that it gives your body a “platform” to push from. With the elbows pointing down strength and stability are lost. You can press lighter weights this way, as the load increases the lift will become more difficult.

At this point you should look like a statue. Firm, solid, and ready to press the weight high above your head!

Beginning The Overhead Press

With the proper setup in place you are ready to begin the overhead press. Remember to keep your back and core tight. You need a solid base while pressing the weight overhead.

  1. Standing tall and strong take a deep breath, hold, and begin by pressing the weight upwards. 
  2. The goal is to keep the bar as straight as possible.
  3. The bar will be moving up and in a straight path. You want to keep the weight as close to the body as possible but also want to avoid hitting yourself in the chin. In order to do so you will need to move your head back a little bit.
  4. Once the weight has cleared the chin and is moving upwards past your nose you will need to begin to shift to compensate for the path that the bar is traveling. In order to do so you must begin to bring your chest forward.
  5. As you fully extend your arms overhead, you should be directly underneath the bar.
  6. Head looking forward, arms extended and locked out, elbows slightly flared, back moderately arched, feet solid and together firmly planted on the floor. 

Moving The Bar Down

Once you have successfully completed the first part of the overhead press you then need to slowly move the bar back down to the starting positions

  1. Releasing your breath, control the weight back down. Reset to the starting position and prepare yourself for your next lift.
  2. Keep in mind that you had to slightly adjust the position of your body to get the bar above your head, so you will need to reverse that path as the bar descends back down to your shoulder shelf.

Summary

Viola! You just completed your first overhead press. If you get stuck don't worry. Keep on trying. Remember to keep focus on your form.

As a resource a great video on learning the overhead press  is the video Standing Military Press by Testosterone Nation.

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Steve Hall

Steve is a strength training fanatic who geeks out over the best, most efficient workouts, nutrition and gear to help get you stronger and healthier!

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