Overhead Barbell Pressing; Why and how
Featured Strength Training Equipment: barbell, free-weight, dumbbells, kettlebells, power rack, bench press, Olympic bar, squat rack
Periodically I have to dynamite yet another of my precious preconceptions. George Orwell called them, "our smelly little orthodoxies." My most recent revelation occurred when I decided on a whim to add overhead barbell pressing back into my extremely limited menu of free-weight progressive resistance exercises. I had jettisoned overhead pressing years ago. My working theory was that bench pressing (especially narrow-grip benching) essentially worked the same muscles (upper pecs, delts, triceps) as overhead pressing and therefore pressing overhead was redundant. I reverse-engineered a quite clever rationale in order to arrive at a preordained conclusion, i.e., it was okay to ditch overhead pressing.
Speaking of precious preconceptions and smelly orthodoxies, I need to take a quick minute to puncture the biggest overhead pressing myth of them all: that results gleaned from overhead pressing using exercise machines are equal to the results derived from overhead pressing using free-weights such as barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells. Seated shoulder press machines are plush and expensive and found in every commercial training facility, in every YMCA and in every fitness club in the land. Overhead press machines are the lite beer of progressive resistance training.
Machine presses are better than nothing – however they cannot hold a proverbial candle to the muscle-building strength-infusing results, the unrivalled effectiveness of barbell/dumbbell/kettlebell overhead pressing. The overhead pressing device is the Rolls Royce of exercise machines: plush, lush, smooth as glass, effortless and smooth – the very attributes that make these devices so attractive to users make them ineffectual (comparatively speaking) as resistance training tools.
Machines make heavy weights light. Free-weights make light weights heavy. When it comes to results, choose the later. Machines eliminate the 3rd dimension of tension, the need to control side-to-side movement. Machines have locked-in frozen grooves that allow muscle stabilizers to stay relatively dormant; conversely barbells and dumbbells cause muscle stabilizers go crazy. Beware the seductive siren song of exercise machines, so sultry and coaxing… "Come…lie down…push in the most relaxed manner imaginable…" resistance training made easier is inferior resistance training.
Switching from machine pressing to dumbbell pressing can be shocking. It is an ego blow when you discover that though you press 150-pounds of resistance for 8-10 reps using your favorite overhead press machine, you struggle to push a pair of 40-pound dumbbells for 8 proper reps. If you are a machine presser, switch to free-weights and experience the best shoulder and triceps gains of your life.
My mistake was to have quit overhead pressing altogether. On a total whim a few months back I decided to undertake an overhead dumbbell press workout. It was only then that I discovered how freaking shoulder weak I was. I discovered I had a bad strength imbalance between the overhead pushing strength of my right arm and my left arm. This had gone totally undetected. All my flat benching was evenly pushed with zero imbalances, yet in the overhead dumbbell press, my left arm lagged a full 30-pounds behind the pushing ability of my right arm. I was shocked – there was no pain or discomfort, just left arm overhead pressing weakness. How or why I know not. I devised a remedial strategy.
The good news was that I wasn't injured. My left armed overhead press was so weak, poundage-wise, that I could work the weak-ass arm often. It takes a lot less time to recover from tiny poundage than big poundage. Five times a week I would walk to the unheated garage and perform 3-4 sets in the left-arm overhead press. I would hang on tight to the vertical pillar of my power rack with my free right hand. I stood at attention and pressed the light dumbbells overhead: slowly, precisely using an exaggerated range-of-motion. I would emphasize a hard lockout on every left-handed rep.
I would work up to one, all out, super strict set – then quit. I would hit positive failure in around reps 8-10. Within three weeks I had brought the weak sister left arm up to within 10-pounds of the stronger right. I then began overhead pressing with a barbell. Again, I was disappointingly weak – no arm lag – but weak overall - how could this be? My overhead press was a pathetic 50% of my narrow-grip flat bench press. I had erroneously thought it would have been like 80%.
My remedial barbell overhead press strategy was to work up to a lone, all out set in the barbell press. I wanted to be unable to complete another rep in around the 5th or 6th rep. This rep range gives me the balance of results I sought. 5-6 rep sets split the difference between low rep grind power (1-3 rep sets) and the hypertrophy-inducing attributes associated with high rep (7-12) sets. The 5-rep set provides balanced results. Ideally, I want to barely complete rep #5 or at most barely make rep 6. I might need 3-4 warm-sets in prep for the top set. It takes me that long to get my head screwed on straight and my psyche going.
If I make 5 or 6 reps with a weight, I move the training poundage up five total pounds in the next session. I usually need to butt heads with particular poundage for 3-4 sessions before I can move it up. Since my barbell pressing weights are light, I hit them twice a week. So far I have bumped up my starting overhead press poundage up by 45-pounds, 5-pounds at a time. Along the way I have really gotten to love the exercise – again. These overhead presses are done "off the rack." Set the Olympic bar in a squat rack. Face it, step under the bar, rack the bar across the shoulders, stand erect and step back. Spread your feet to establish a strong push base.
Once you have stepped back and set up, flex your thighs and butt hard. This is your push platform and you don't want to shoot a cannon from a canoe. Everything is tight and tense; the lungs are full of air, your breath held. Now lay back just enough to miss the face as you push the bar overhead. Freeze this position and press up and back. Lock the triceps out hard. Stand erect from your layback at lockout. Lower with great resistance and control, simultaneously inhale and lay back again. When the bar touches the clavicles, explode it upward for the next rep.
Start with the empty barbell and perform perfect 5-rep sets. This protocol ingrains technique. The overhead press is a technique lift and gets better with repeated practice. The other valid free-weight overhead presses are done seated: the seated overhead dumbbell press, the seated barbell front press and the seated barbell press behind-the-neck. These are powerhouse movements: great benchers like Ed Coan (550 double, raw, weighing 220) and Joe Ladiner (600 raw bench weighing 240) loved the seated press-behind-the-neck. They felt the PBN was the number 1 bench press assistance exercise. Both men were capable of 400 x 1. Coan did an astounding 350 for five reps weighing 220. Incredible!
Never corrupt the technique in order to complete a hard rep; that is when the accidents and injuries occur. When you hit a pressing plateau, drop the poundage back to 60% and begin anew. If you were stuck at 100-pounds for 5-reps and after many sessions cannot get past that 100 x 5, you have plateaued. In the next session, drop the weight to 60-pounds (60% of 100-pounds) and rep out in the overhead press. A man with a 100 x 5 overhead barbell press might get 10-12 reps with 60-pounds.
Each subsequent overhead press session, add a total of 5-pounds to the bar and rep out again. Keep going in this fashion until you end up back at 5-reps again, only now you are using more poundage. I would suggest any overhead press odyssey begin with standing overhead dumbbell presses. Check for imbalances. Graduate to the barbell press off the rack. Ingrain these techniques first.
Experiment with the seated variations only after mastering standing dumbbells and the standing barbell overhead press. You have to "graduate" to the seated variations. Nudge the poundage upward, slightly. Learn to love overhead pressing and your shoulder size and power will skyrocket. Back in the day when overhead pressing was popular, the benchmark for a strong man was to be able to do a strict, overhead barbell press with bodyweight. That might be a goal worthy of pursuit. Even if you come close, you maximally muscle up.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.