Why You Hate The Overhead Press

The strict overhead press can be one of the most frustrating lifts you’ll ever have the pleasure of pursuing in your fitness career.

In fact, many individuals doom themselves to having a bad OHP forever based solely on how difficult this movement can be to progress. However, I think anyone can have a great press if they are willing to 1. Put in the work 2. Be patient with the movement and 3. Treat the overhead press with the same amount of focus and dedication they would for the squat, bench, and deadlift.

Truth be told…yes…the overhead press is difficult. That being said there’s a few ways you could be making your life even MORE difficult. Here’s all the things to avoid making an already hard movement even harder.

(Need some strict press programming? Click here!)

1. You Don’t Take The Overhead Press Seriously 

Before we cover the more technical mistakes that can get in the way of having a strong overhead press, there is an elephant in the room.

A lot of people say they want a bigger overhead press, but not many train like they want a bigger overhead press.

It’s rare to see the OHP taken seriously outside of the sport of strongman, but still many will wonder why 3 sets of 10 reps…once a week…as an accessory after all their other lifts…isn’t making their strict press number drastically improve.

Increasing your strict press, not so surprisingly requires…training your strict press. Increasing your bench numbers isn’t going to do the trick, doing some small dumbbell shoulder work won’t cut it, and training this once a week to every other week won’t result in any notable progress either.

If you want to see your OHP progress you really have to mean it. In fact, strongman programming which is known for strong overhead presses often replaces typical bench sessions you’d find in a powerlifting program, with pressing sessions. This goal can take a lot more time and dedication than many may think and it’s good to know going in.

2. Bad OHP Bar Path

Strict press shares a big similarity to the deadlift in that lifting anywhere outside of the “proper” bar path can make this movement go from easy to impossible in a matter of seconds.

It’s common to see newer lifters do their overhead press in a big curved arch. Usually this is done to avoid slamming the bar into their chin…which…fair. That being said, focus on making your head get out of the way, not the barbell.

The OHP bar path is ideally a straight line to directly overtop your head, not a big curve around it. Yes I know your chin is in the way. To solve this problem tuck your head and display that double chin loud and proud and drive the barbell as close to your face as you possibly can. As soon as the bar clears the top of your head, drive your head through the “window” created by your arms and the bar itself as fast as you can.

This will effectively allow you to press in a straight line and is at the top of the list in terms of technique improvements that can make a press feel drastically easier.

3. You Lack Stability

A lot of how “good” your strict press feels has to do with how stable and tight of a position you can generate. If you are lazily grabbing the bar, walking out without a care in the world, and then haphazardly throwing the bar overhead as fast as possible there is a reason you don’t like the press…

Focus on the small details to make sure your pressing position is as stable as it can be. Take a wider stance than you may think you need (outside of shoulder width) to give yourself a stable base. Flex your quads, glutes, and hamstrings hard to lock yourself into position(If you’ve yet to give yourself a butt cramp on OHP you aren’t squeezing as hard as you actually can). Brace hard at your core…again…take what you think “bracing hard” is and double it. Finally keep your elbows tucked to maintain your forearms being parallel to each other to create a solid rack position to press off of.

Taking the time to get tight across the board can be the difference between having that “oh sh*t this is heavy” moment, and the much more confident “LIGHTWEIGHT BABAYYY” moment.

4. You’re Treating This Like It’s The Bench Press

While both are upper body pressing motions there’s unfortunately not much that carries over from the bench press to the overhead press.

A big example of this is how many that are new to the OHP, but know how to bench, will grip the bar for their strict press. Wide grip.

Wide grip benching is an effective way to cut ROM on the bench and usually results in a stronger overall lift for most who use it. This tends not to work for OHP…

OHP tends to favor either narrow grips or more “neutral” grips (neither is more “correct” than the other there’s a lot of wiggle room here) that allow the lifter to keep their forearms parallel to each other as opposed to wider grips that result in your arms pressing on more of a diagonal. In theory taking a super wide grip on OHP would cut your overall ROM, but it also limits how effectively you can press weight straight up, negating that minor ROM difference.

5. You’re Rack Position Could Use Some Work

Much like your overall stability, your rack position plays a big part in how “heavy” the bar will feel in your hands.

For starters, adjust where you are grabbing the bar in your palm. Aim for the radial longitudinal crease (yes you’re going to need to google a picture of a hand) instead of simply using the middle of your hand. You’ll need to slightly rotate your hands inward to the bar to make this happen comfortably, but once you get it the bar will have a perfect resting point in line with your wrist.

From here your grip width can vary, however, wherever you choose to grip shoot to have your forearms parallel to each other and your elbows tucked to stay as tight as you possibly can.

Finally, understand that your rack position can have the bar floating anywhere between the bottom of your chin to touching your clavicle. While both are correct, I tend to see more people benefit from a “floating” rack position than all the way down at their chest…at least for strict press. The floating position tends to be a more natural spot to press from, while bringing the bar down to the chest can cause some people to lose proper positioning. Starting from the chest can be helpful for push pressing, and may have useful carryover for weightlifters, but if it’s throwing you off see how the “floating” rack position feels for you!

6. You Have ZERO Patience

Even if you are doing everything right with your overhead press (absolutely killing your training sessions, training the movement frequently, and displaying top notch form)…progressing the press is just plain slow.

If you are looking to make the same 20 to 30lb leaps and bounds you may see from your squat or deadlift, you are always going to be disappointed with your overhead press progress.

This movement takes time and there’s no getting around that. If you are making small jumps session to session or week to week (even just 5lbs), you’re adding a rep here or there, or the bar speed is increasing…YOU ARE MAKING PROGRESS. Trust the process, and try not to get in your head about how slowly things are going, or how you are “never going to have a great overhead press“. You will. Give it time.

(For more on the overhead press check out this video!) 

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.