The overhead press (often referred to as the military press) is the best lift for bulking up our shoulders. It’s also fantastic for our upper traps, upper chest, triceps, posture, and even our abs, making it one of the best lifts for building a bigger shoulder girdle, developing general strength, and improving our aesthetics. As a result, we consider it one of the five main hypertrophy lifts.
In this article, we’ll go over how to program the overhead press into your hypertrophy routine, how to min-max your technique for even more muscle growth, and how to choose the best assistance and accessory lifts.
- Pressing for Size, Strength, and Aesthetics
- How to do the Overhead Press
- Min-Maxing Technique
- Assistance Lifts
- Accessory Lifts
- Key Takeaways
Pressing for Size, Strength, and Aesthetics
Muscles Worked by the Overhead Press
The overhead press is first and foremost a shoulder exercise, and it’s excellent for that. It works our front delts and side delts, which can make our shoulders both bigger and broader. It goes far beyond just our shoulders, though. If we’re talking about a standing barbell overhead press, a slew of different muscles are being worked hard enough to stimulate muscle growth:
Most people also know that the overhead press is great for stimulating the triceps—the beefiest muscle in our arms, making it great for adding inches to our upper arms. However, although it will stimulate the long head of the triceps to a decent degree, it may require some assistance work to see full development (such as overhead triceps extensions and pullovers).
A lesser-known fact is that the overhead press is great for bulking up our traps, which assist our shoulders when lifting weights overhead. Some people even assume that they’re doing the lift wrong when they finish a set and notice their traps are sorer than their shoulders. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. With big compound lifts like this, we don’t need to worry too much about where we feel it. Both our traps and shoulders contribute to the overhead press. If we can just get stronger at it, both our shoulders and traps will be forced to grow.
The overhead press is only okay for bulking up the upper chest. The overhead press only stimulates the upper chest half as well as the bench press (study). Is that enough to see growth? Eh, maybe. Especially if you’ve already hit your upper chest hard with another lift. But if you have a stubborn upper chest, this won’t be the exercise that magically solves all of your pectoral problems.
However, we can improve on this shortfall by including some smart assistance and accessory lifts. For example, if you add a close-grip or incline bench press to your routine, it will help with both your bench press and your overhead press, and also help you build a totally killer upper chest.
Oh, and the overhead press is also good for building bigger abs and obliques. It’s not quite as good as the chin-up, but it does a much better job of stimulating your abs than the bench press, squat, and deadlift (study). In fact, if you’re doing both chin-ups and overhead presses, your core will get a fairly solid workout, you may not even need ab isolation exercises.
The Overhead Press & Aesthetics
The overhead press is one of the only lifts that trains both our front delts, giving us bigger, rounder shoulders, and our side delts, giving us broader, wider shoulders. This makes it one of the best lifts for improving our aesthetics. Perhaps even the best lift for our aesthetics.
However, because the overhead press works both our shoulders and upper traps, some people argue that the overhead press will make our necks too muscular. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. Having big traps will help us lift more weight both in and out of the gym, and then in terms of aesthetics, they’re one of the most attractive muscles on our bodies (study). We want big traps.
The overhead press is especially important for our trap development because, unlike the deadlift, it actively works our traps through a large range of motion. A complete overhead press involves a full shrug at the top of the movement, removing the need for doing shrugs as an accessory lift.
In fact, because of how important it is to build a thick and strong neck, we generally recommend that people add in extra neck training, including upper trap work as well as neck curls and extensions.
Pressing & General Strength
The deadlift and the overhead press are perhaps the two most important lifts for developing general strength. The deadlift gives us the ability to pick heavy things up from the floor, it strengthens our entire posterior chain, and it improves our hip mobility. The overhead press, on the other hand, gives us the ability to lift heavy things overhead, it strengthens our entire core, and it improves our shoulder mobility. Between just those two lifts, we can develop an incredible amount of general strength, mobility, and resiliency.
Most people realize that life can be hard on our lower backs. It’s common for people to struggle with persistent lower back injuries as they age. The deadlift can help prevent that. What most people don’t realize is that lifters get just as many shoulder injuries as back injuries (perhaps from overdoing it on the bench press), and it’s the overhead press that can help prevent those cranky shoulders.
First, the overhead press helps us develop strength through the entire range of motion of our shoulders. That not only involves our shoulder muscles but also our traps and a slew of smaller postural muscles. The stronger we can get in that range of motion, the tougher our muscles, bones, and connective tissues will get, and the lower our risk of injury will become.
The overhead press is also a key exercise for our serratus anterior muscles, and big serratus muscles not only look badass but are also important for keeping our shoulders healthy.
And on that note, the overhead press involves the external rotators (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, and teres minor). They aren’t prime movers or anything, and the purpose isn’t to bulk them up anyway, but overhead pressing will keep them strong enough to ward off shoulder problems.
How to do the Overhead Press
The overhead press is a seemingly simple lift. Like the deadlift, it was around long before squat racks, benches, and safety bars made their way into the weight room. All you have to do is pick up the barbell and lift it overhead.
However, of the Big Five lifts, the overhead press can be the most finicky. After all, if you try to just press the weight overhead, the barbell will collide with your chin or your nose. This means we that we need to start off leaning back (at the hips), and then scooch under the barbell as soon as it clears our forehead, like so:
The trick is to clench your glutes and abs like a madman when you bend at the hips. If your glutes cramp, so be it. Your glutes and abs working together are what’s going to keep your lower back safe. That makes the overhead press tricky to learn, absolutely, but it also makes it an incredibly important movement pattern to master. If you can grow strong at this, you’ll be much less likely to injure yourself in your day-to-day life.
There’s another trick, too. You’ll want to bring your chest up (by clenching your upper back muscles) to give yourself a better platform to press from. If you look at the above illustration, you’ll notice that the guy’s chest is all puffed up. That’s important.
Finally, you’ll want to pop your head in front of the barbell as soon as it clears your forehead. The sooner you can get the barbell stacked over top of you, the more likely you’ll be to finish the rep.
Here are some cues that might help:
- Lock your ribs down. Take a deep breath and brace your abs hard.
- Clench your glutes hard. And bend at the hips, not the lower back.
- Puff up your chest. You do this by clenching your upper back muscles.
- Lat shelf. Raise your elbows to create a shelf out of your lats.
- Head through the window. Once you’ve lifted the barbell over your forehead, drive your head through the window.
- Shrug! Shrug the weight up as you press it overhead. It’s a trap exercise, too.
If we’re trying to build muscle with the overhead press, our main opponent is the extreme moment arm halfway through the lift, as we’re trying to navigate the barbell over our foreheads, right here:
That’s the pesky spot in the lift where our shoulders are most likely to give out. Now, every lift has a sticking point. And obviously you’ve got to fail somewhere. Thing is, this moment arm is so extreme that by the time we’re failing our set, our shoulders might not even be tired yet. If you’ve ever failed a rep out of the blue, this is why. It’s a troublesome strength curve.
Fortunately, there’s a pretty solid way to improve the strength curve: lift explosively. As soon as your rep starts, heave the barbell off your chest with all the might you can muster. The more momentum the bar has when it reaches that sticking point, the better. Remember, all you need to do is clear your forehead, at which point you can bring your torso under the bar and get rid of that pesky moment arm. And besides, even if you continue to fail at the sticking point, your shoulders will have been working hard to accelerate the bar up until that point, improving your growth stimulus. Lifting explosively almost completely fixes the strength curve.
(For the record, all of the big lifts have a sticking point, and all lifts benefit from lifting explosively. You should always be trying to accelerate the barbell.)
Now, there are a couple of different ways to do an overhead press. There’s the classic “strict” press, sometimes called the military press, where you start with the barbell on your chest and muscle it up with pure shoulder strength. Momentum is discouraged. Then there’s the push press, where you drive into the barbell with both your legs and your shoulders. Each has its pros and cons.
The Argument for the Strict Press
The main argument for doing a strict overhead press is that it keeps the lift good for bulking up the shoulders. The fear is that adding in leg drive would reduce shoulder involvement, turning it into more of a lower-body power exercise. That’s not accurate.
After the bar leaves the shoulders, the lift becomes almost identical to the press, and the arms are of course always pushing with all the upward force they can muster.Glenn Pendlay, the legendary strength coach
With both the overhead press and the push press, the shoulders should be firing maximally in an attempt to accelerate the bar upwards. The push press doesn’t take away from the shoulders, it just adds in some leg drive.
If that leg drive allows us to lift more weight for more reps, if anything, it will improve shoulder growth.
Still, most people should start with a regular overhead press. Yes, try to accelerate the bar as you lift it. Give it the momentum it needs to clear the sticking point. But generate that momentum from your shoulders, not your hips and legs.
It’s a complicated lift, and fewer moving pieces there are, the easier it will be to master the movement. We don’t want you to heave the weight up into your nose, or to accidentally have the stress land on your lower back instead of your hips, or to even just ingrain poor technique. Start simple, advance from there.
But we’re assuming you’re an intermediate lifter at this point, and that you’re already at least somewhat proficient at the lift. At that point, opting for a full push press might still be a poor choice.
The next consideration is your anthropometry. In an ideal world, the weight would start resting solidly on your upper chest. However, if you have long forearms relative to your upper arms, it might hover a few inches above your chest, like so:
This presents a problem. If the bar is hovering over your shoulders, the force from your leg drive can’t be transferred properly. All you’d be doing is jarring your shoulders. For the leg drive to work properly, you need the barbell to have a solid connection with your torso.
Now, Olympic lifters have found a solution to this problem. They hold the barbell further back in their hands and cock their wrists back, worsening their grip but allowing for proper leg drive. For their purposes, that makes sense. For our purposes, not so much. We’d indeed be turning the overhead press into a lower-body power movement.
Finally, you may not even have a problem to begin with. If you’re gaining strength at the overhead press, your shoulders and traps are getting good stimulation, and you don’t have an extreme sticking point, eh, just keep overhead pressing. No need to complicate things. It’s only once you start to run into problems that you’d want to consider the overhead press.
Use the overhead press as your default, especially at first, but consider adding in a pinch of leg drive if you start running into problems with progression or shoulder stimulation.
The Argument for the Push Press
The classic overhead press is a great lift for developing the shoulders, triceps, and even the upper back. However, we can greatly improve the strength curve by making the lift more explosive.
If you use some leg drive to throw the bar up—more like a push press—then you can blast through the sticking point and struggle through the rest of the lift, which is absolutely perfect for building muscle. Plus, you’ll get to use a heavier weight, which is going to allow you to stimulate a bit of extra muscle growth as you lower the weight back down afterwards.
Now, to be clear, this isn’t quite a “push press.” The push press is a specific move that’s used in Olympic weightlifting. We’re just trying to gain muscle and general strength. If I recall correctly, Greg Nuckols, MA, refers to this variation as a “cheaty overhead press.”
If you tell people that you’re doing an overhead press, they’ll accuse you of cheating. If you tell people that you’re doing a push press, they’ll cringe. But if you tell people that this is the best variation for gaining size and strength in your shoulders, they’ll love you.
If adding some leg drive into your overhead pressing allows you to (safely) clear your sticking point, go for it. The extra weight and reps will improve muscle growth.
The One-Arm Shoulder Press
One-armed presses are a great assistance lift. The movement pattern is nearly identical, making them great for bulking up your shoulders and traps. However, they also come along with some nifty benefits:
- They reduce spinal loading, making them less fatiguing. After all, your spine will only need to support a single dumbbell at a time. This allows you to sneak in more shoulder work without harming your recovery.
- They’re great for your obliques, given that your obliques will need to work 68% harder to balance the asymmetrical weight (study).
- They emphasize your shoulders/traps over your triceps. Since there’s no barbell keeping the weights from falling off to the sides, your shoulders/traps need to keep the weight centred. It’s not necessarily a good thing that your triceps involvement is minimized, but it makes dumbbell presses absolutely fantastic for bulking up your shoulder girdle.
The downside to one-armed shoulder presses is that they’re too similar to overhead presses. With a lift like the deadlift, it makes sense to use similar but lighter variations as a way of managing the tremendous amount of fatigue that they generate. But with an overhead press, unless you’re insanely strong, you probably aren’t going to have fatigue issues to begin with. It might make sense to choose another heavy lift.
The Upright Row
Upright rows are a great compound accessory lift for improving our aesthetics, given that they work the forearms, upper arms (elbow flexors), upper back (traps), and shoulders (side and rear delts). The limiting factor is often our side delts or traps, and so they tend to get the best growth stimulus. This makes the upright row one of the very best lifts for building broader shoulders. However, they’re also finicky and surprisingly controversial.
Are Upright Rows Dangerous?
Upright rows are known for causing pain and inflammation in our shoulder joints (shoulder impingement), especially when we try to force a technique that doesn’t feel natural. However, these issues rarely sneak up on us. If we notice that upright rows make our shoulders cranky, we can either adjust our technique or stop doing them, preventing an injury from ever arising.
The good news is that our bodies are quite good at telling us when something is aggravating them. If upright rows don’t hurt your shoulders, then there’s no reason to think they’re doing any damage. Also, keep in mind that our bodies adapt by growing both stronger and tougher. If we can learn to do upright rows in a way that feels good on our shoulder joints, then we can make our shoulder joints more robust.
And, of course, if no matter how you do them, you can’t get upright rows to feel good—stop doing them. Pick a different exercise. Lateral raises tend to be the better lift for people with cranky shoulders.
How to do Upright Rows Safely
All of our shoulder joints are a little different, and so there’s no single correct way to do upright rows. Just like everyone will need to find their own preferred stance width and depth when doing squats, we need to find our own preferred grip width and pulling height with upright rows.
The best way to learn how to do upright rows safely is simply to experiment. Try a few different grip widths, seeing which feels smoothest. Start with a shoulder-width grip, but experiment going both narrower and wider. Pull as high as you can comfortably pull, stopping before you feel any grinding in your shoulder joints. With a bit of experimentation, most peoples are able to find a way to comfortably and safely do upright rows.
Since everyone benefits from slightly different grip widths and ranges of motion, one common issue with the upright row is being so inconsistent from workout to workout that it’s hard to progressively overload our muscles. When you find a grip width and pull height that works for you, make a note of it and stick with it for at least a full training phase (3–6 weeks). Then, as long as you’re being consistent from workout to workout, feel free to vary your technique from phase to phase. That might help spur on a new wave of muscle growth, and it may even help to prevent overuse injuries.
Finally, even though the upright row is a compound lift, it tends to work best when done with lighter weights in moderate-to-high rep ranges. Anywhere from eight reps up is okay, but sets of 10–20 reps works best for most people. When doing those reps, do use a weight that challenges you, but make sure that your form is clean, there’s no momentum or hip drive, and that you’re feeling it in your side delts and traps. Otherwise, it will turn into a high pull, which isn’t as good for bulking up our shoulders.
The Close-Grip Bench Press
As we covered in our article on strength curves, our muscles grow best if we can load them fairly heavily while they’re at longer muscle lengths. One of the pitfalls of the overhead press, then, is that it’s too easy at the beginning of the range of motion, and so it doesn’t challenge the fronts of our shoulders in a stretched position.
The close-grip bench press is the perfect fix for this. If we use a narrow grip, keep our arch modest, and bring the barbell down lower on our torsos (just below the sternum, usually), then we not only get quite a good stretch on our front delts and upper chest, we also challenge them in that stretched position:
Now, keep in mind that the main advantage of the overhead press is that it works our entire shoulder girdle, not just our front delts. That’s not true of the close-grip bench press. The close-grip bench press mainly works our front delts, upper chest, and, to a lesser extent, our triceps. But if you’re having trouble bulking up your front delts and upper chest, the close-grip bench press is often even better than the overhead press.
The Incline Bench Press
The incline bench press is another good lift for working our upper chests and front delts. A shallower incline tends to emphasize the upper chest, whereas a steeper incline tends to favour the front delts. If your goal is to grow your shoulders, you’ll want to set the bench up at a 30–45° angle.
However, note that the close-grip bench press works these same muscles, challenges them at greater muscle lengths, and has a deeper range of motion. There’s probably still value in alternating between the close-grip and incline bench press, but I’d guess that the close-grip bench press is the better lift for building muscle in our shoulders and upper chests.
The push-up is great for your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Which muscles it emphasizes is going to depend on your anatomy and your technique.
- Torso angle: deep “deficit” push-ups—raising your hands up with handles or weight plates while still bringing your chest all the way down to the floor—tend to emphasize your chest, whereas doing decline push-ups will tend to emphasize your shoulders. (I recommend defaulting to deficit push-ups so that you involve more muscle mass through a larger range of motion.)
- Grip width: wide-gripped push-ups will emphasize your chest, whereas narrow “diamond” push-ups will tend to emphasize the triceps, shoulders, and serratus. (I recommend defaulting to standard-grip push-ups so that you use more overall muscle mass.)
What makes push-ups a great assistance lift for the overhead press is that you’ll probably use a standard grip, which will emphasize your shoulders and upper chest. Furthermore, just like with the overhead press, your shoulder blades won’t be pinned down, working your serratus muscles.
As a result, even though the push-up is horizontal, it’s one of the best assistance exercises for the overhead press.
And let’s not forget, push-ups are a great opportunity for us to sneak in a bit of extra overall chest growth.
The Landmine Press
These are a great lift for bulking up your shoulders and upper chest while letting your shoulder blades roam wild. This makes them a great assistance lift for guys who are looking for more shoulder stability and strength. (You’ll need special equipment for these.)
The accessory lifts for the overhead press are similar to those for the bench press. The difference is that instead of picking lifts that emphasize the chest (e.g. flyes), we want to pick lifts that emphasize the shoulders (e.g. lateral raises). And instead of picking lifts that emphasize the short heads of the triceps (e.g. skullcrushers), we want to pick lifts that emphasize the long heads (e.g. overhead extensions).
- Lateral Raises: these are one of the most popular exercises for building broader shoulders, and yet they’re still underrated. Not only are they absolutely incredible for bulking up your side delts (which are often underdeveloped), but they’re also great for bulking up your traps. This makes lateral raises a perfect accessory lift for the overhead press.
- Overhead Extensions: just like skullcrushers are great for bulking up the short heads (lateral/medial) of your triceps for the bench press, overhead extensions are great for bulking up the long heads of your triceps for the overhead press. Furthermore, since the long heads of your triceps are so beefy, these are a great lift—arguably the best lift—for adding inches to your arms.
- Pullovers: these are another great lift for bulking up the long head of your triceps, but it allows you to work your lats and your chest at the same time.
- Skullcrusher pullovers: if you want to add even more triceps emphasis to your pullovers, you can add in a skullcrusher movement to finish the lift. That’s going to give the short heads of your triceps a chance to contribute as well, making it a good combo accessory lift for both your bench press and overhead press.
The overhead press is an incredible lift for improving our general strength, it engages a ton of muscle mass all throughout our bodies, and it’s perhaps the single best exercise for building broader shoulders. Giving the overhead press a higher priority in our lifting routines is one of the best ways to improve our aesthetics.
The main problem with the overhead press is the extreme sticking point when the barbell is around shoulder height. This makes it important to give the bar enough momentum to clear that point. Otherwise, you might be forced to stop your sets before you’ve stimulated an optimal amount of shoulder growth.
One way to give the barbell momentum is to focus on accelerating right from the beginning. That will help. That might be all you need. But drastic moment arms call for drastic measures. You may want to add a bit more oomph with some leg drive, turning it into a bit of a push press.
When it comes to assistance exercises, the incline bench press is a good default. It’s another heavy shoulder lift, but it has a markedly different strength curve, addressing the main weakness of the overhead press.
For accessory exercises, if you want to emphasize shoulder and trap growth, lateral raises are a great choice. If you want to build bigger arms and thicker triceps, go with overhead extensions.
Finally, including some push-ups in your routine will also help with your overhead pressing.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program.