Know Your Lifts: Overhead Press

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 11, 2013 · 41 Comments

in Fitness, Health & Sports, Visual Guides

Start. Look forward; head neutral. Grip the bar so that forearms are vertical. Bar about clavicle level. Hands don’t touch shoulders. Wrists in line with forearms. Elbows in front of the barbell. Squeeze glutes to avoid arching your back. Weight heavy in heels. Feet hip-shoulder-width apart. Chest up and expanded. Bar gripped in the base of the palms, directly over the forearms.  Life. Press bar straight up. Lock elbows out. Squeeze shoulder blades while extending arms overhead until full extension is reached. Keep upper back, glutes, and abs tight. Straight line going from the bar, down through your shoulder blades, and through middle of feet. Drive through heels while pressing. Tuck chin back and press bar straight up and overhead to full extension; return head to neutral and bring torso forward once bar clears the face.

“Know Your Lifts” is an illustrated guide series that shows how to perform basic weight lifting exercises. Check out our previous guides on the High-Bar Back Squat and the Deadlift. On the docket today is another essential and beastly lift: the Overhead Press. The overhead press (or shoulder press, or strict press, or just “press”) is superior to the bench press in that it works the whole body and is a much more functional exercise (most of the time when you’re lifting things you’re on your feet, not lying on you back). It’s also feels pretty manly to hoist a heavy barbell above your head.

Thanks to Barry Schroeder and Jim Schoenberg of CrossFit Sandstorm for consulting on this post.

Buy this guide as a poster!

Know Your Lifts Series: 
High-Bar Back Squat
Overhead Press

Illustration by Ted Slampyak

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard White February 11, 2013 at 9:31 pm

My girlfriend does this with perfect form. If you go the gym and don’t do this, you’re terrible. Good day.

2 Dan February 11, 2013 at 9:35 pm

I like that the picture for this and the deadlift are both lifting 315. Pretty light for a deadlift and world-class elite for the press.

3 Brian February 11, 2013 at 11:42 pm

Perhaps you could do the hang clean next, as some lifters try to do both the clean and press in succession.

4 Sam February 11, 2013 at 11:56 pm

I have pretty much ditched seated shoulder presses for overhead presses. It is an awesome exercise and sometimes I even take it one step further with a Push Press. Both are great at hitting every part of the deltoid.

The cool thing is not many people do this at the gym. Heck, the squat rack is usually abandoned. Better for me…

5 Tonysolo February 12, 2013 at 5:58 am

Dan, highly unusual for an Internet commenter to pick apart an illustration. You feeling ok bro?

6 Ben February 12, 2013 at 6:43 am

Dan, I was thinking the same thing. A 315 overhead press is almost unheard of nowadays. Still, it’s a sweet drawing and even better lift. Thanks!

7 Christopher February 12, 2013 at 8:15 am

technically the military press is different because you keep your feet together, where as the shoulder press is with them apart.

8 Ryan February 12, 2013 at 8:17 am

Thanks for the wonderful guides! Will you be selling these as posters?

9 Christopher February 12, 2013 at 8:18 am

also locking elbows is debatable, usually trainers and videos will tell you not too because at heavy weights, it can lead to hyperextending the elbow/do damage. You should extend to almost locking, but not to complete lock.

10 Mark February 12, 2013 at 8:41 am

I did this exercise just yesterday. It is very humbling.

11 Chuck February 12, 2013 at 8:46 am

I always injure my shoulder when I do this. Any ideas why?

12 John February 12, 2013 at 10:02 am


Are your elbows splayed way out to the sides? You might be doing some shoulder-impingement stuff, which is bad juju. BTW, I’m not an orthopedist, but I’m dating a data systems engineer for Kaiser, so I guess that’s my credential. :D

Anyhow, joking aside, I’ve always understood that your elbows should be pointed forward at the bottom, and that you should never let them splay out further than about 45 degrees from the sagittal plane.

Go look at the Starting Strength wiki or any of the MYRIAD youtube videos of Mark Rippetoe coaching people on this lift.

For my part, it’s my favorite lift. It’s the most primitively manly of the lifts, except maybe the deadlift.

I’m actually going to be moving away from iron. I’d like to try my hand at gymnastic-type bodyweight exercises and see if I can’t do some handstand pushups. Heavy as I am, that’ll be quite an achievement if I can pull it off. :D


13 Ben February 12, 2013 at 10:38 am

@ Christopher – I think our joints are made precisely for locking. Heavy supports were used by old time strongmen specifically to develop joint and ligament strength. I agree that hyper-extension is a problem is handling heavy weights though.

@ Chuck – Try overhead pressing with dumbells for awhile. For some people, the barbell keeps your shoulders from their desired range of motion, dumbells (or kettlebells) should fix that.

14 MattyT February 12, 2013 at 11:03 am

John is right, when in doubt seek Rippetoe!

15 dannyb278 February 12, 2013 at 11:38 am

my favorite lift ever. I think it is so rare to see that life done these days as everybody else seems to use dumbbells.
I’ve actually had men and women ask my what the lift was. For me at least i can lift WAY weight like this than with dumbells, and it looks badass.

16 Adam February 12, 2013 at 12:04 pm

“The overhead press (or shoulder press, or strict press, or just “press”) is superior to the bench press in that it works the whole body”

They primarily work different muscle groups (deltoids vs. pecs). Ideally, one does both.

17 Braxo February 12, 2013 at 12:46 pm


Handstand push ups are an excellent body-weight alternative to the overhead press.

To help train for them, you can start with just simple hand stands against the wall – but do it so your face is facing the wall, this puts your body in the correct ‘hollow-body’ position.

Once you can hold your weight that way, slowly lower your head to the ground doing a hand stand negative to help build your strength to a regular hand stand pushup.

18 JW Browning February 12, 2013 at 2:06 pm

I alternate this with bench press throughout the week. I have found a seated overhead press puts one more at risk for injury. Great exercise, the overhead press.

19 pat g February 12, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Love this lift… and hate it for the slow slow gains. My only difference in form is leaning from the hips rather than just pulling the neck back to get the bar up to lockout. Seems to keep everything tighter

20 Drake February 12, 2013 at 3:38 pm

This is super helpful. I started the Strong 5×5 routine since reading the Testosterone series and couldn’t find any good videos on doing this lift correctly. Thanks.

21 Clayton February 12, 2013 at 4:39 pm

I started week 5 of stronglifts this week. This lift is by far my favorite. It’s so challenging and feels so great!

One thing that seems to vary widely regarding form: Rippetoe says that elbows should be forward and down, while this illustration seems to say elbows should be forward and in front.

Also, grip width: some say elbow width; Rippetoe says slightly wider than shoulder width.

Also, I love Starting Strength and Strong 5×5. I have never lifted diligently before. I have never stuck with a plan (what plan?) for more than a few days, but the 5×5 has changed everything. After five short weeks I have found a renewed zest and pride in life. I love striving to get stronger each week. I am so blessed to have kept this habit so far.

22 Ron February 12, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Do not lock elbows out. Ever, unless you are in a competition. Repeated locking out of your joints such as elbows while lifting heavy weights will injury those joints over time. When exercising, almost lock out.

23 Brandon February 13, 2013 at 8:50 am

There’s been alot of knitpicking over the whole Know Your Lifts series, but the bottom line is these are great general guidelines on form for good complex movements when the majority of the male population is going to the gym to do a chest and bicep isolation exercises. These exercises will make you functionally stronger, more athletic, and, in my opinion, better looking than the aforementioned exercises.

24 Paul February 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

OHP is awesome, but if you’ve got chronic shoulder problems, be careful. It might be safer to do it with dumbbells (particularly using a neutral grip). Some people will need to just not do it–that’s a damn shame as it’s a great lift but there it is.

Things to note: find a grip that’s comfortable for you. I like just past shoulder width.
Don’t lock out-stop just short.
Keep your elbows under your wrist.
Come down to your frigging upper chest on each rep. Don’t stop at your eyes or your mouth. Go below the chin.

I alternate OHP and bench press for my upper body days.

25 Paul February 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Also–I thought my 225 OHP was good :P 315…I think I’ve seen 3-4 people manage that.

26 Emachine February 14, 2013 at 9:17 am

As other have mentioned here, if you want to save a couple bucks and get some serious shoulders start praticing handstand push ups, you can find progressions from vey easy too end result. People that think HSPU are only for people that do crossfit, look into old srongmen, most did handstand push ups.

27 Xavier February 14, 2013 at 10:36 pm

If you have ever dislocated your shoulder, stay far away from this lift. I was doing these warming up with only the bar and my shoulder came out just like that. Granted, my arm muscles were very fatigued. Still, I advise not doing it if you have had similar joint issues. It is a great lift and I wish I could still do it.

28 Keith February 14, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Always lock out your joints unless going for hypertrophy, in which case there is a good argument for the added TUT, time under tension. The joints were designed to lock out and the ligaments and tendons need strengthened as well as the muscles. This is the major failing of the Charles Atlas approach. The muscles don’t know any better, maximum contraction with a VW or a pencil will elicit the same response, but the tendons and ligaments aren’t going to be fooled.

29 Tom February 17, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Last month I was doing this exercise, and felt/heard a pop in my shoulder. I tore my labrum and rotator cuff while lifting only 125 lbs. I’m looking at surgery and 8 months of rehab.

Moral of the story: don’t be a tough guy. Start light my dudes, and work your more neglected shoulder muscles, too.

30 Todd February 23, 2013 at 9:53 am

This is a great series! Do you or are you going to sell these as posters? I would love to have them in my home gym.

31 Andy February 23, 2013 at 10:35 am

I was pissed when the squat discussion devolved into rabbling after Rippetoe’s name came up.

Here in this article, no better name can be spoken. I would say that arguably the most important part of Rip’s legacy is the work he has done to bring the Press back into its rightful place as the ultimate man-lift, the true dick-measurer, and just one of the most productive exercises on which to work your ass off.

32 will February 26, 2013 at 10:12 am

That’s actually a very solid instruction on the military press. Nice job. I’m proud. Also, sick mustache.

33 steve2024t3 February 28, 2013 at 11:52 am

This is one of the big 4 (bench, overhead, deadlift, squat). I cannot disagree with the fact that this is one of the cornerstones of a solid weightlifting program. I must add that you can throw variations of this into the mix. One of my go-to’s is the single hand kettlebell clean and press. It is an old school move that hits a good roundout of muscle groups, and stresses the body in a dynamic fashion. As every body is a bit different, and we go to the gym for different reasons, I welcome feedback

34 john March 18, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I hope we will see these in your store soon I a 5X5 ‘er and i want these in frames in my man cave

35 Kashif Ansari September 1, 2013 at 2:46 am

it is the most testosterone fueled exercise of them all. a truly manly alpha romeo exercise that will build upper body mass and density. it’ll get you a chunky upper form like jhonny bravo.

36 Ron W November 2, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Many weight trainers I talk to have never done the overhead press. I started working out back in the early 60′s and anyone who did always asked, “how much can you press?”. I’m 62 now and have gone back to doing it. It’s tough , but certainly one of the basics of strength.

37 Ry P November 6, 2013 at 10:22 am

I really wish I could get the technique here, I can’t advance past 85 lbs. It’s gotta be somewhere I have my chest and where I have my hands and arms…

I just can’t see me actually “bouncing” it off my chest just to make it go up when it gets really heavy. Gotta get the proper technique.

38 Terry Pearson November 12, 2013 at 10:23 am

@Ry P: This is by far the hardest exercise for me (Doing stronglifts 5×5). My wife will tell you that I dread the Overhead Press days!

I am currently at 125 and it is HARD. My first advice is to pull some weight off, focus on form, and build up slowly. Stronglifts has you doing this exercise once every 4 days because you need that time to recover. Speaking of recovery, go 5-6 minutes between sets.

In between each set, drink water or some sports drink. This exercise is hard and the glucose may boost your performance.

Finally, start working toward 3 sets of 15 chinups and pullups on the day you do this exercise (after NOT BEOFORE). This will give help you develop some of the same muscles. Make sure you are doing this on the same day and then giving those muscles several days of rest. Also check out Stronglifts or Starting Strength as both will help you blow past those numbers.

Best of luck!

39 Luke Johnson February 4, 2014 at 10:14 am

As of last friday I hit 90kg OHP when I weigh 82kg at 5’10″. 14 months ago I struggled to lift 40kg over my shoulder. My advice is train the lift 1/2 times a week and make sure to lift heavy. Shoulders fatigue earlier than other muscles so why bother fatiguing with light weights when you can lift heavy. It will fly up

40 Zyzz February 13, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Why are you comparing the shoulder press to bench press (and saying its “superior”)? You’re using your shoulders and core for OHP; bench press works on the pecs and triceps primarily and shoulders secondary. They aren’t comparable and you definitely should be doing both.

41 Ry P February 26, 2014 at 8:47 pm

After a couple months of needing the time to get proper form down, I’m almost ready to exceed past doing this for 95lbs.

If tomorrow I can complete 5×5 for 95lbs, I can finally add more weight.

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