by Alec Enkiri | 6/25/21

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Today we're going to talk about the overhead press and breaking through those stubborn plateaus! Now, I feel obligated to say, I'm not the best overhead presser in the world. I've strict pressed 200lbs for a single, weighing about 160lbs at the time, I've strict pressed 185lb for a triple off pins, and I have push pressed 255lbs for a triple as well as 265lbs for an easy single. So like I said, I'm not the best overhead presser in the world, but I've put some respectable weight overhead and along the way I've learned a few things about the exercise. So today I want to share 4 quick tips with you guys to help you maximize your overhead press in the long run and build some healthy, strong, cannonball delts in the process!

And just as a quick preface, in this article I'm going to be referring to tips that are primarily intended to improve the strict overhead press. Not the push press, nothing with leg drive, just pure shoulder strength. As well, none of these tips provided here today will be technique pointers, we can save that for another article if people are interested. But in today's installment the advice here is mostly going to be training tips - little tweaks you can make to your program and to how you are training/programming the lift to help you break through that next inevitable plateau. So enough of that, lets get to the 4 underrated tips!

This article in video format on my YouTube channel!

Tip #1 - Up the FREQUENCY!

This is probably the best tip that I can give you. Ya gotta up the frequency man! Once you're past the early beginner stages this shit is simply not going to budge if you are only training it one time per week. That just is what it is. This lift can be very stubborn and once the body adapted to a given level of work, you'll be really hard pressed to expect this lift to continue to improve at that point. Honestly, the deltoids themselves seem to actually respond very well both to large volumes of work and high frequencies of work. Think about high level swimmers for example, they are known for their big, broad shoulders. And part of that is that they use those muscles every time they get in the pool, which if you're competing at a high level, is probably very, very often for relatively long periods of time. So their shoulders are doing a hell of a lot of work, and they're responding to it very well also.

Elite swimmers. An example of high frequency and high volumes of shoulder intensive work.

So up the frequency! If you're overhead pressing once per week, do it twice instead. If you're already doing it twice, then add in a slot in another session so that you can do it three times. This will also give you the opportunity to work some different variations, and I think is one of the most underlooked aspects of improving pressing performance. The stronger you can get in a multitude of different variations, the stronger you will ultimately be on the strict barbell overhead press. So try pressing off pins for some deadstop work, try using the swiss bar for a neutral grip (or a strongman log would work as well). Pressing with a trap bar is another good option that I've been utilizing lately as well and it's quite different from pressing a Swiss bar because the resistance starts out directly over top of the center of mass rather than out in front of it. Along with that you can obviously press dumbbells. Push presses are great as well. Seated overhead pressing can also be valuable.

The point is there are plenty of options here and you should make use of them as you up the frequency. Don't just press a straight bar over head all the time. Tinker with different variations and find which ones work best for you. The increased frequency will by default bring with it an increase in total volume and chances are your shoulders will respond very well to the increased workload. And bigger, stronger shoulders is ultimately what will lead to a bigger overhead press. So be sure to give this tip a shot!

...can't deny the broadness of the shoulders.

Tip #2 - Do Higher Reps

Along with the increased frequency you're going to need to inject some variety into your rep ranges and your weight selections as well. In my opinion, most people try to go too heavy, too often with this exercise. We've all seen it, a guy who can barely muscle up the first rep from a dead stop, and then since the bar is over head after that he's able to get a stretch reflex in on all the remaining reps and essentially take his 2 or 3 rep max and turn it into an ugly and bouncy set of 5 reps. Now, obviously heavy training has its place with this lift just like it does with every other lift, but I think that most people kind of miss out on the bigger picture here. You need to build your shoulders to build a big overhead press, and a big part of that is getting in some high quality volume, and accruing large amounts of work over a given period of time.

But along with that, this lift is very delicate and it will stall very, very quickly if you're trying to go too heavy all the time. So try lowering the weight and working in some higher rep ranges. I've been using a lot of sets of 12-15 reps on both straight bar presses as well as trap bar presses recently, and its going very well so far. In terms of my clients on average we probably spend the most time in the 6-8 rep range, but we also spend a fair bit of time in the 8-10 rep range as well as some time in the 10+ range, and we honestly spend the least amount of time doing 5 reps or less per set. And this method works very well. It gives you the opportunity to consistently log a high number of very clean reps, it allows you to consistently build momentum and build confidence, and it teaches you to really clean up your form and create a smooth, stable, and efficient motor pattern. So try lowering the weight and doing some high rep sets here! You won't regret it.

The trap bar makes for quite a different experience from both the Swiss bar and the straight bar.

Tip #3 - PAUSE Your Reps

Now this is tip very important! It seems trivial but it makes a world of difference when you start pausing your reps. Now I don't think all the different variations that you are doing will necessarily need to be paused all the time, for example I'm not really pausing my trap bar or Swiss bar presses right now, but if you are doing a straight bar strict overhead press then I recommend pausing every single rep regardless of how many reps you are doing per set. And it doesn't have to be a crazy ten minute pause or anything like that, but stop on the shoulders, give it a quick 1-2 count, and then explode back up! 

High rep pause work. Even a little pause goes a very long way.

Ya know, when you are ricocheting every rep off the shoulders you can start to press some very disproportionate percentages for high rep performances but that doesn't mean that those numbers are going to translate into anything impressive on a 1 rep max or anything like that because the first rep is still done without any stretch reflex. And it doesn't even necessarily mean that you're even getting stronger because all the reps are not the same. You are not necessarily producing the same movement from one rep to the next and you have no way of knowing how effective each rep is. So try pausing on the shoulders. Like I said, even a brief pause goes a very long way and this will not only clean up your performances but it will also help to keep you honest in the long run.

Tip #4 - Be PATIENT!

And finally, always remember to be patient! This lift simply takes time to develop. If we look at the big 4 lifts: the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press, the overhead press takes the longest to mature of all 4 of those. It is the slowest to develop and the fastest to stall. Part of the reason for this is that people typically train the lift in a moronic fashion, and another part is that the shoulders and triceps are both pretty small muscles. They start out quite underdeveloped in most people and it takes a lot of time, consistency, and effort to add some substantial meat onto them, and that meat that needs to be added is ultimately what creates a strong overhead press.

As well, it's just the nature of the lift! The surest way to tell if a natural lifter knows what they're talking about is to look at their overhead press. Some people are natural born benchers, other are natural born deadlifters and squatters; and these people can often get away with crappy training practices and still lift impressive numbers on those lifts. But no natural lifter has an impressive overhead press unless they have put in the time, put in the work, and learned a thing or two along the way. So next time you see that guy pressing huge weights overhead in the gym you should go pick his brain because chance are you're looking at a knowledgeable dude. 

But just remember to be patient. Just because it's moving slowly doesn't mean you're doing something wrong. It just takes time to mature. That's the nature of this exercise. Keep plugging away and eventually you'll get where you're trying to go.

Bonus Tip -  DO LU RAISES!

The Lu Raise is an enhanced version of the lateral raise popularized by Chinese Olympic weightlifters. It takes the shoulders through a much larger range of motion than traditional lateral raises and demands the use of stricter form.

Overall, the larger range of motion here is a good way to keep the shoulders supple, while incorporating more muscle groups into a movement pattern that is specific to enhancing long term overhead ability. The front and side delts get involved in the action here as do the traps to a certain extent.

The movement can be performed multiple times per week for large volumes with little ill effect on the rest of the training program so it's a great way to add some beef onto your deltoids. It can also be good for rehabbing certain types of shoulder pain. Overall, its a must include exercise! Start light and work your way up slowly; 3 sets of 12-15 reps done 2-3x per week is a good starting point here. 

The Lu Raise


And that about wraps it up for today guys! I hope you found these 4 tips helpful and I hope you're able to take something away from this article to maximize your overhead press and build your own pair of strong and healthy cannonball shoulders. And if you know someone who's struggling with their overhead press then be sure to share this article with them as well! I hope you enjoyed this one, and if you did enjoy it please feel free to support the production of more free content like this by picking up one of my training programs! Keep training hard and I will catch you guys next time!

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