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 overhead press is a simple lift. You pick up a barbell and lift it overhead. Like the deadlift, it was around long before squat racks, benches, and safety bars made their way into the weight room.
The overhead press is also the classic test of upper-body strength. Again like the deadlift, it tests our strength from our fingers to our toes. If there’s a weak link in our physique, the overhead press will find it.
In fact, if all you had was a barbell and some weight plates, you could make a near-complete bulking routine out of just the overhead press and the deadlift. Your quads, biceps, and lower chest may lag behind a little bit, but you’d still be able to build a strong and aesthetic physique.
Unfortunately (for them), bodybuilders replaced the overhead press with the bench press in the 1950s because they wanted bigger chests. Then powerlifters followed suit in the 1960s. And then in 1972, the Olympics abandoned the clean and press.
Fortunately (for us), if we adopt the orphaned overhead press as one of our foundational lifts, we can become bigger, broader, and stronger than our peers.
Now, mind you, it’s not like shoulder pressing was ever completely abandoned. Bodybuilders continued doing seated shoulder pressing to build up their shoulders.
The problem with seated shoulder pressing is that it forces the use of lighter weights, it doesn’t stimulate as much overall muscle mass, and it’s harder on our backs—especially down near our tailbone. Better to stand with a heavier weight and let the force be equally distributed through our entire body, strengthening the entire thing. It’s safer, it’s more athletic, it develops more versatile strength, and it builds more muscle.
The overhead press is first and foremost a shoulder exercise, and it’s excellent for that. It’s one of the only lifts that does a great job of bulking up both our front and side delts, helping us to build bigger and broader shoulders.
The overhead press can be a big exercise, 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.
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. In fact, a complete overhead press involves a full shrug at the top of the movement, removing the need for doing shrugs as an accessory lift.
Combined with judicious neck curls, pressing will help us build impressively thick and strong necks.
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 some incline bench press into your routine, it will help with your bench press, your overhead press, and help you build a totally killer upper chest.
The overhead press is also 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, but overhead pressing will keep them strong enough to ward off shoulder problems.
Oh, and the overhead press is also good for building bigger abs and obliques. It’s not 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, you may not even need ab isolation exercises.
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 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 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.
- Torso angle: 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. (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 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.