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A Beginner's Guide to Overhead Pressing
By Richie Whitehead
Many lifters seem to be overhead pressing now, due I think, in part, to Jim Wendler’s influence. As a beginner also doing them and finding much success with them, I thought I would share a few tips I’ve found helpful in executing the lift. There’s nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary here, but these are things I wish someone would have told me from the beginning. So in keeping with that spirit, I hope you’ll keep an open mind, and if you haven’t given overhead pressing a fair shot, throw it into your routine for a few weeks and see what happens.
For those who have never done them before, the first thing I suppose I should address is how to execute a proper military press. The only real variable from the beginning is how you start the lift. If you have a power or squat rack and a lot of ceiling clearance, just set the pins to the height of your clavicle. Take a comfortable grip, get your air, and remove the bar from the rack. However, if you’re like me and lift in a garage with a low ceiling clearance, you have to be inventive. I do my overhead pressing in the driveway. If you start from the floor, just clean the bar using whatever grip you plan on pressing with. It isn’t that complicated.
Now, concerning grip width, this is something you’ll have to play around with. As with the bench press or any other lift for that matter, a shorter distance equals more weight and a wider grip equals a shorter distance. Personally, I find a wide grip on overhead presses very uncomfortable. After a lot of experimentation, I’ve found that a medium close grip just outside the width of my shoulders is the best bet. It’s very safe and comfortable, and it gives me a lot of control over the bar—something really valuable that you’ll especially appreciate as it’s dangling precariously over your dome.
I encourage you to try a thumbless grip. I have no idea why—and Jim has mentioned this before—but it does help with the tracking of the lift. It also seems to be easier on your shoulders—so once again, another good thing.
Concerning the actual press, don’t turn it into a shot put. Keep the bar close to your face on the way up. Also, I’ve found it helpful to do my breathing at the top of the lift. If you were squatting, you wouldn’t breathe in the hole, would you?
Now we get to what would have been the best piece of advice anyone could have given me on overhead pressing from the very beginning—starting your sets from the top of the lift. Think about it. If you’re used to doing a lot of squats and bench presses, you’ve come to rely on the downward or eccentric portion of the lift to get you started. It spring loads your muscles and sets you in a groove. The problem with the military press is that it’s a lot like the deadlift at the beginning of the lift. You simply press the bar overhead from a standstill. I always find this jarring, and it throws me out of my groove. I find the same thing deadlifting. Often, the second and third reps are easier than the first. The solution? Start from the top of the lift.
My favorite thing to do is to begin the set with a push press, which if you’ve never done or seen one before, is essentially a cheating military press—driving from the knees. What this will do for you is set you up in the perfect position with very little muscular fatigue on the part of your prime movers. Then from the top position, the lift becomes very similar to a bench press or squat—things you should be very familiar with by now. It’s much easier to crank out smooth, flowing reps this way. Again, I encourage you to do your breathing at the top of the lift, too, just like you would with any other exercise.
Finally, we come to stance. Keep your knees straight. You don’t have to lock them but be in that neighborhood. You don’t need to put your heels together or anything like that either. Shoulder width apart is fine.
Now for some fun stuff. Try experimenting with push presses. The single best thing I’ve done for my shoulder development has been to perform a mix of strict and push presses within the same set. Suppose I plan on doing a relatively heavy set of five military presses. I’d get the set started with a push press. I’d perform five strict presses and then perform another two or three push presses, depending on how froggy I was feeling.
Everyone is different, but I find that the push press does not interfere with my strength on subsequent work sets. Not much anyway. But they do loads for increasing my cumulative strength over successive workouts. They’re fun, and they do a lot for your confidence in pressing overhead—again, all good things. The only problem may come with your record keeping. If you’re doing a program like Wendler’s 5/3/1, you may want to either omit the push presses (though I’d still recommend the first one to get you started) or don’t record them. But don’t let this deter you from calling all his posted military presses push presses. He loves this! Congratulate him on his push press PRs! At any rate, if you do decide to include them, do them on your work sets. Don’t bother on your warm ups.
Moving on…if your training time is limited and you’re only able to do one upper body day per week, consider starting with overhead work and finishing with bench presses. It will affect your benching strength somewhat, but you already love to bench, and it isn’t like you’re going to say fuck it and leave early.
I’ve been starting my pressing days with rows, progressing to militaries, and finishing with benches. Not only is my strength (in all three) increasing, but my shoulders are filling out, and my arms don’t hang in front of my body as much as they used to. They’re healthier, they feel better, and it’s making training fun again. Also, I have no idea why, but the whole session seems to run shorter and I have much more energy after.
Lastly, learn to love rear lateral raises and lying external rotations. Do them often. I like to do them every evening. You read that right—every evening. These work teeny tiny, itty bitty muscles that recover very quickly. But they’re vital to the healthy functioning of your shoulders. I like to do three sets of each, a rep away from failure. Even if you lift at a gym, invest in a few light dumbbells and take them home. Walmart sells some cheap ones.
Okay, I guess that about wraps things up. Again, nothing revolutionary here, but if you’re already a monster who can’t fit into collared shirts, this article wasn’t intended for you. Now, for no apparent reason at all, watch Gary Numan’s “Cars.”
Richie Whitehead is a long-time reader and customer of EliteFTS.com, avid recreational lifter, and staunch supporter of all things new wave.
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