Because I am always eager to learn from people stronger than me, here is an awesome guest post with practical tips on how to increase your ever lagging Overhead Press.
I found it really helpful as John shares his training frequency, sets & reps and some tips you may haven’t considered yet.
Update 14.01.2015: In the meantime John hit 300 lbs / 136kg! Video Below.
My name is John Phung and I run a blog over at JohnPhung.com.
While not shattering any world records at this body weight, it’s probably a little higher than the average person lifting weights at the gym.
Gregor asked me to write a short blog post about my approach and success with the overhead press, so I’m going to share with you some of the different techniques, insights and approaches that have worked for me in the past.
They have helped me overcome plateaus and consistently hit new PRs in the overhead press. They have worked for me, and they might work for you too.
Update: John hits a 136kg /300 lbs Overhead Press
Looking back at my training logs, there are a few things that stand out which have contributed to continued improvements in the overhead press:
- Increasing Total Body Stability
- Improving Triceps Pressing Strength
- Utilizing The Stretch Reflex
1. Increasing Total Body Stability
You need a rigid torso to stabilize your body as you press the barbell overhead. If the torso is not rigid, your body will start to wobble which will then affect your ability to press the weight up, potentially leading to a missed rep.
Unlike a seated press where you’re sitting in a chair with a back rest to stabilize your torso while you press the bar overhead, the standing overhead press relies on you to stabilize your entire body to effectively push the bar up.
Here’s how I do it:
Everything from the ground up must be solid and tight, and that starts with the shoes.
Weightlifting shoes adds stability to all my lifts, and that includes the overhead press. The soles of my Nike Romaleos 2 are flat and have a wide surface area which keeps my feet welded to the ground.
Mental Cues For Increased Stability
Prior to initiating the overhead press, there are 4 cues that I use:
- Chest up
- Squeeze glutes
- Squeeze quads
- Flex abs
I also stick my chest up, which naturally contracts the muscles in the upper back and puts me in a better position to press the bar overhead.
Squeezing my glutes makes my hips rigid and flexing the quadriceps ensures that your knees are locked in place, and guarantees that a heavy overhead press doesn’t suddenly transform into a push press.
Flexing the abdominals keeps my upper body tight and helps prevent me from excessively leaning back.
To stabilize the core even further, I wear a belt during my heavier sets.
Personally I don’t train my core directly. That is, I don’t do any isolation exercises for my abdominals. What has helped me are L-sit chin ups and L-sit pull ups, which are excellent exercises that hits many muscle groups at the same time, killing many birds with one stone.
Another way to get in some lift-specific core work is quite simple: What I do at the last rep, last set is lock the bar up at the top, and then hold it there for as long as I can.
Usually your body starts shaking before you have to lower the bar.
2. Improving Triceps Pressing Strength
With the incorporation of reverse grip bench presses into my training, my triceps strength has improved. This has transferred well to the overhead press.
I ended up switching to the reverse grip bench press because I was experiencing forearm pain (of all things) with a conventional bench press. Also, I would periodically feel pain shooting down my arms from my shoulders.
The reverse grip bench press places a little more emphasis on the triceps compared to a regular bench press with a pronated grip.
Although depending on the equipment you have access to, whether you use a spotter or not, and your comfort level gripping a barbell backwards, unracking it and carefully moving the bar over your face, neck and chest without it slipping out of your hands, it may not be for you.
Alternatively, the close grip bench presses would work well to develop triceps pressing power.
Stronger anterior deltoids and triceps developed from heavy triceps-centric bench presses has helped me in grinding out the reps, push past sticking points and lock out the bar at the top of the overhead press.
3. Utilizing The Stretch Reflex
The hardest part of the overhead press is the the first rep. If you’re performing the overhead press without pausing at the bottom and if you’re like me, you’ll find that the second rep is often easier than the first.
The reason why is that the first rep is pressed from a dead stop, but the second rep benefits from the stretch reflex of the muscles in the arms, shoulders and to some extent the hips and abdominals.
If you’re pushing for a 1 rep max, you may have the strength to press the barbell up if only it would clear your chin, but if you can’t get past the initial hurdle of the first few inches of the movement, you will miss the rep.
The trick to get over the hardest part of the press is to set up the exercise so that you can initiate a stretch reflex at the first rep.
I discovered this by making 2 adjustments: narrowing my hand position on the bar, and raising the initial starting position of the bar on my power rack.
Closer Hand Position On The Bar
When I first started, I used to press with my pinkies on the powerlifting bar markings on the bar.
Take a look at my “before” technique:
Although it was wider than what the Press instructions in Starting Strength has recommended, it felt more comfortable at the time and I still managed work my way up to a 235lbs overhead press.
The bar touched my upper chest as I unracked it, and I had to press from a dead stop.
After reading some articles on the press, reviewing the press chapter in Starting Strength 2nd edition and watching videos of people who could overhead press more than I could, I decided to experiment with a closer, more “proper” grip for the press.
After bringing my hands closer together, I noticed my elbows came forward and the initial bar position naturally rose up towards. So now instead of the bar touching my upper chest, it was now positioned at the middle of my neck.
This lead to the next adjustment I made:
Setting The J-Hooks Higher In My Power Rack
Previously, I set the J-hooks of my power rack so that the bar was at armpit level, which coincidentally is the same position as my low bar squat.
Now, because the closer hand position caused the bar to start at a higher position, I decided to try raising the J-hooks on my racks so that I don’t need to dip down as much to unrack the bar.
While this is not necessary, it takes away any wasted energy from having to partial squat the bar off the J-hooks to get into position to press.
Initiating the Stretch Reflex
To initiate a stretch reflex on the first rep of the overhead press, here’s what you do:
Unrack the bar so that the initial starting point is at the Adam’s apple. This should be natural if you have your hands close enough together, just outside of shoulder width.
Step back into position, then when ready to press (see the mental cues earlier in the article), drop the bar down an inch or so towards the clavicles to initiate the stretch reflex.
You should find that the first repetition will feel much easier and more explosive compared to pressing from a dead stop.
Here’s what it should look like. It’s a little hard to see from this angle, but note the closer grip, higher starting position, and the slight dip of the bar before initializing the concentric part of the movement:
Update: John Recently got 260lbs
Is This Cheating?
Now I know what you’re saying, it’s not a strict press! I know, but it’s still an overhead press nonetheless.
Some would consider this “cheating”, but I don’t think cheating is the right word. Even with a stretch-reflex, I am utilizing the same muscle groups to get the weight up.
My understanding of cheating in lifting weights when it comes to the technique itself is using momentum (ex. swinging the dumbbell in a dumbbell curl), using different muscle groups than the one intended to help drive the weight up (ex. leg drive in the overhead press), or changing your body position to help get the weight up (ex. excessive layback in the overhead press).
Would a touch-and-go bench press be considered cheating? Or a squat that does not pause at the bottom be considered cheating? These movements would get a bigger bounce than the overhead press simply because they start from the top of the movement. With the overhead press, the bar is at my Adam’s apple, then dips down a few inches towards my clavicles.
I’m not against a strict press at all, but I believe to limit yourself only to pressing from a dead stop will limit your strength gains.
I’m sure by using a stretch-reflex in the overhead, I would be able to press more during a strict press where the bar starts at the clavicles.
In the end, my goal is to become stronger. Using the stretch-reflex in my lifts is just one way I will do it.
A Note On Progression, Training Frequency, Sets and Reps
The last thing I want to touch on are what helped me progress and sets and rep ranges that I’ve used in the past.
Progressing With Fractional Plates
First of all, fractional plates are an important tool in my toolbox for continued progression in the overhead press, along with the other lifts I practice.
The overhead press was the first lift to stall during the initial stages of my training, and microloading with fractional plates allowed me to make tiny increases in weight, which then added up to bigger numbers over time.
Although not necessary, fractional plates are a worthwhile investment that I recommend. It is a valuable training tool that you’ll most likely use time and time again. And not just for the overhead press, but for any other exercises involving a barbell as well.
Training Frequency, Sets And Reps
Initially, as part of the standard Texas Method template, I alternated bench presses with overhead presses every other training day.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Texas Method, generally there are two different training
weeks. When it comes to bench press and overhead press, it looks like this:
- Monday (Volume Day): Bench Press 5×5
- Wednesday (Recovery Day): Overhead Press 3×5
- Friday (Intensity Day): Bench Press 1×5
- Monday (Volume Day): Overhead Press 5×5
- Wednesday (Recover Day): Bench Press 3×5
- Friday (Intensity Day): Overhead Press 1×5
I continued alternating bench presses with overhead presses with different rep ranges over time, but eventually I wanted to improve my bench press so I decided to bench twice a week (Mondays and Fridays) and overhead press once a week (Wednesday).
This simplified my training so that all weeks are now the same (in other words, there are no “Week A” and “Week B” when it comes to bench press and overhead press).
Since I train the overhead press only once a week now, I’ve combined elements of an “Intensity day” along with a “Volume day”.
Generally, I work my way up to a heavy set, and then add a back off set or two (or more).
For the back off sets, I’ll try to hit some repetition PR’s if possible. That is a 2RM, 3RM or 5RM.
Currently I’m experimenting with back off sets of 8-10 (and possibly more) reps. I find that at higher reps, my limiting factor is my ability to stabilize my torso.
I find that working up to a heavy set, followed by a bunch of back off sets provides me with both the intensity and volume I need to drive up progress while only hitting the overhead press once a week.
If you’re struggling on improving with the overhead press, give these techniques and strategies a shot. Through experience and trial and error, they have helped me reach a 250 lb+ overhead press.
Keep breaking PR’s, and keep adding weight to the bar!
About The Author
I’ve “lifted weights” and worked out on and off for many years before seriously engaging in a structured training program. I’ve done Starting Strength from November 2011 to March 2012, and have been running Texas Method ever since. I train at home, alone, in my basement home gym.
Find out more about me at my blog over at JohnPhung.com.