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Improve Your Overhead Press

Structural Balance

As with any compound lift, in order to improve and or hit that new PR, it is important to work back from the end goal, initially basing your programming and training around the muscles that are actively engaged when performing an overhead press, strengthening these muscles accordingly.

Similarly, to other complex multi-joint, multi-muscle lifts, your entire structure is or should be actively engaged to perform the lift optimally and safely. Any structural weaknesses in the chain will lead to reduced performance, and or to injury.

Taking several steps back from the overhead press, what muscles are actively engaged during the lift? Your, quads, glutes, hamstrings, VMO (specific to push press), lumbar spine, lats, shoulder complex, triceps, scapular, abdominals, and forearms, are all actively engaged as you press the bar from your clavicle, and throughout the duration of the lift. Muscles of the lower body and lower back will be engaged isometrically during a strict press and more actively involved during push press variation of overhead presses.

In many video’s posted through various forms of social media you may often see individuals pressing the load with an arch in their back, as if they are performing a standing incline barbell press. This could be for a number of reasons, from inappropriate coaching; poor body awareness (proprioception); excessive loading for the body to handle; a muscular imbalance, and ego.

If you are intent on attaining improvements overhead, leave your ego at the door and work on the areas that are weak. To reach your full potential work on these muscles independently for a phase or more of training, leaving out the overhead press temporarily. These would generally be programmed in an accumulation phase of a training program.

Uni-Lateral/Bi-Lateral Pressing

Unilateral, bilateral dumbbell pressing, will assist in balancing out structural issues. The shoulder complex is a highly mobile yet unstable joint, and when performing overhead work with a bar or dumbbells the full range of the scapular can be inhibited by the other. Performing a phase of uni-lateral pressing will aid not only with cross sectional strength left to right, but also improve range of movement and strength across the full range of movement.

Supplementing any overhead pressing work with vertical pulling work, including chin ups and pull-ups will maintain agonist/antagonist balance.


Another consideration concerning the scapular, relate to the smaller musculature of the lower traps and rotator cuffs which act as stabilisers when pressing. These muscles require the most volume and are the less glamourous to perform as low loads will be standard in all exercises selected such as internal rotator, trap 3 and Powell raises, this is where the ego is well and truly left at the door These exercise may be boring to some and not important, but they will make a huge difference in your ability to strengthen your overhead press.

Pin Press

Understanding how the lift works mechanically, means that you can strengthen where you are mechanically weak, a further step would be to analyse the lift and determine where your weak points are throughout the duration of the lift.

When designing your program this means that you can implement partial range lifts in your training. For example if you determine that final portion of the lift and lockout of the overhead press is a weak point, perform pin presses from the forehead and level with your cranium. Conversely if your weak through the initial phase of the lift performing high incline pin presses from anywhere between the upper chest and eyeline to strengthen your triceps. Partials are an excellent training tool to use, as the range of movement is generally short, and you can really isolate the weak point of the lift. Due to the shortened range of movement you will also be able to press a heavier load. Ideally partials should be performed in a power rack for safety.

Bands & Chains

Using bands and chains will alter the strength curve of the movement. Bands allow for greater eccentric speed to be achieved, during the early stages of the muscle contraction, requiring the individual to exert greater force to slow the load down at the latter portion of the eccentric contraction. Bands are ideal power and strength development, below are a few guideline and tips on how to program bands into your training:

- pulls down faster than gravity

- build up of kinetic energy

- use fast tempo under control

- use every other upper body workout or three upper body sessions back to back

- 40-60% 1RM load + bands

Chains, on the otherhand increase your mechanical advantage, decreasing the load at the weakest joint position, and increasing it in the strongest position i.e. the weak point in a squat is usually in the bottom position. Furthermore due to the nature of the chains oscillating, your body will be forced into engaging stabiliser muscles at a far greater rate. Here are a few tips on how to incorporated chains into your training:

- chains must be on ground at start

- accommodates the strength curve

- 60% of 1RM load + chains

- workout progression chain/no chain/chain/no chain

In my experience irrespective of which compound lift you want to improve, working on structural balance and any weak links in the chain is your first priority, you will reduce the potential for injury and reap the reward further into your training.

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