The overhead press is the best lift for building bigger, broader shoulders. It’s also fantastic for your triceps, your traps, your posture, and even your core, making it one of the best all-around bulking lifts.
There are a couple different ways to do an overhead press, though. There’s the classic “strict” press, where you start with the barbell on your chest and muscle it up with your shoulders. Then there’s the push press, where you drive into the barbell with both your legs and your shoulders. This allows you to lift heavier weights, it improves the strength curve, and it can help you ultimately build more muscle.
The overhead press is one of our Big 5 bulking lifts, and in this article, we’re going to go over the best strategies for integrating it into your bulking routine. This article has nothing to do with powerlifting or even powerbuilding, just with using the overhead press to build muscle and gain general strength.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- How to bulk up your shoulders and triceps with the overhead press.
- How to assess weaknesses and then strengthen them.
- Assistance lifts, such as the dumbbell press or incline bench press.
- Accessory lifts, such as lateral raises, triceps extensions, triceps kickbacks, and upright rows.
This article is still skinny: But we’re bulking it up. Stay tuned.
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, it has some problems, too. The strength curve isn’t great for muscle growth, with most people struggling a great deal at a specific height (often at forehead height) and then blasting through the rest of the lift no problem. That means that you’re only getting a good amount of mechanical tension during a portion of the lift.
We can fix that strength curve by making the lift more explosive, though. 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 developing your shoulders.
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.
The push press also becomes our explosive lift that helps to develop power and athleticism. This allows it to fill a role similar to how the power clean is used in many general strength programs (such as Starting Strength). The push press, however, is far better for developing muscle size and strength than the clean is. (Although I’m not sure how it compares for developing power.)
How to Perform a Push Press
We’re not trying to do a classic push press, we’re just trying to add a little oomph to our overhead press. You’re going to perform the lift exactly like a standard overhead press, except you’re going to add a bit of leg drive to get things moving.
Bend a little bit at the knees and hips, and then explode upwards to drive that bar off your shoulders:
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. But since the weights used in the push press are heavier than what the arms can move alone, all the arms can do is slow down the deceleration of the bar.Glenn Pendlay, the legendary strength coach
As Pendlay points out, your upper body should be pressing the bar up with full force all throughout the lift, except now instead of getting stuck at the sticking point, you’ll probably falter a little higher up.
And that’s perfect. The whole point of using leg drive is just to blast past that sticking point, improving the strength curve, and thus getting you a bit of extra muscle stimulation.
The One-Arm Shoulder Press
One-armed presses are an obvious 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 core will need to work harder to balance the asymmetrical weight.
- 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 Incline Bench Press
If you want to give your front delts a bit of extra love, the incline bench press is your lift. The incline bench press is usually thought of as an upper-chest exercise, and it is, but the steeper the incline is, the more your shoulders will take over. If your goal is to grow your shoulders, you’ll want to set the bench up at a 30–45° angle.
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 push-up is great for your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Which muscles it emphasizes is going to depend on your anatomy and your technique. Doing deep “deficit” push-ups (raising your hands up with handles or weight plates) will tend to emphasize your chest, whereas doing decline push-ups will tend to emphasize your shoulders.
What makes push-ups a great assistance lift for the overhead press is that you’ll probably use a narrower grip, which will emphasize your shoulders and upper chest. Furthermore, just like with the overhead press, your shoulder blades won’t be pinned down, giving it a nice carryover.
Perhaps most of all, this is an opportunity for guys who want to build a bigger chest to sneak in a bit of extra pec work.
The accessory lifts for the overhead press are similar to those for the bench press. The difference is that instead of emphasizing the chest (e.g. chest flyes), we want to emphasize the shoulders (e.g. lateral raises). And instead of emphasizing the short head of the triceps (e.g. triceps pushdowns), we want to emphasize the long head (e.g. triceps kickbacks).
- 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.
- Upright Rows: these are a great compound accessory lift for improving your aesthetics, working a number of different muscles in your arms, upper back, and shoulders. However, they’re also infamous for causing inflammation in your shoulder joint (shoulder impingement). If they feel good, great—do them. If they feel bad, do lateral raises instead.
- 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 incredibly beefy, these are a great lift—perhaps even the best lift—for adding inches to your arms.
- Triceps Kickbacks: just like overhead extensions, these are a great isolation lift for the long heads of your triceps.
- 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.