Proper Form and Technique for the Overhead Press (OHP)

Joseph Rosi
March 17, 2021

In sports like powerlifting, the bench press has overtaken the overhead press to the point where you don’t see it happen as much in a gym anymore. The OHP does have a major advantage as it is better for general shoulder health, mobility, and injury prevention. It uses the entire shoulder girdle in natural human movement and does not put a lot of stress on the anterior aspect of the shoulder like the bench press does. Another added benefit is the overhead press requires minimal equipment or a spotter. The OHP or Strict Press is one of the best upper body strength tests as it tests the whole upper body.  When done correctly, and with strict form, it can humble even the greatest ego. 

Muscles Used During The Overhead Press

So let’s take a look at what muscles we will primarily be using throughout the lift. 

Let’s start with the upper body as these muscles will be more dynamic in nature. The main muscles include the deltoids, serratus anterior, trapezius, rhomboids, rotator cuff, pectoralis major (primarily the clavicular head), biceps, and triceps.  

Now what’s really cool in this instance is most people typically think of the biceps as flexing the arm at the elbow; however, it also crosses the shoulder at the top giving it some assistance with lifting overhead.  Another cool aspect of the biceps is it is considered the 5th rotator cuff muscle as it helps control the head of the humerus in the socket which we know is extremely important for overhead movements. 

Alright enough geeking out.  As far other muscles involved but to a lesser extent will be the glutes, quads, erector spine, and forearm muscles. 

Set Up of the Overhead Press

When walking up to the rack for the first lift, we want to position the bar in the rack so it is just above the nipple line.  This will allow you to safely walk-in/ out of the rack without hitting the J-hooks.

Your hands should go just outside shoulder-width apart and your wrists should be in slight extension or a neutral grip and the hands can be in a false grip, meaning the thumb isn’t wrapped around the bar or you can have your thumb around the bar.  

The bar should be at the level of the clavicles and the elbows should be slightly in front of the barbell. The shoulders should remain down and back to increase tension in the middle and upper back.  

When taking a look from the side, the cervical spine should be tucked in to allow the bar placement to move vertically without hitting the chin. The thoracic spine should be extended, but the ribs should remain down. The neutral spine should remain neutral and the glutes should be squeezed tight to help get you under the bar.  The heels of the feet should be shoulder-width apart.  

Overhead Press Technique

For a visual walkthrough go to the youtube video at the top of this post. 

After having a solid set up, you want to push the bar up while keeping the shoulder blades down to allow the movement to come from the deltoids and begin upward rotation from the serratus anterior and you should not see the shoulders elevate as this would indicate premature activation of the upper traps.

As the bar path moves upward you need to retract the chin so you don’t hit it on the way up and the elbows should stay tucked together until the bar passes the level of the eyes. When the bar passes the level of the eyes, you can “untuck” your chin and bring it back under the bar. This step is really important so we don’t get the bar too far in front of us and put excess stress on the shoulders.  

From behind we should see the scapula rotate upwards and initiate the movement from the serratus anterior and not shrugging the shoulders by elevating the upper traps.  The lumbar spine should stay neutral and we should see the thoracic spine extend without the ribs flaring. 

After you complete the lift, the bar should come under volitional control at the top prior to slowly lowering the bar down with control.  While in the locked out position, when looking from the side, you should see the bar stacked over the heel where the elbows should be fully locked out, and are rotated in front of you. 

**Side Note  – the rotation actually comes from the shoulders, but it’s best to see from looking at the elbows **

You should also see the entire spine in a neutral position and the ribs down. It’s very common to see someone arch with their lower back to compensate for decreased shoulder mobility or strength, where there is either limited mobility in the shoulder joints or muscle length limitations such as in the lats. 

The OHP or Strict press is one of my favorite exercises because it requires both mobility and stability from the majority of the body to execute the lift properly. Because of this fact, it makes it a great exercise to test where your weaker areas are as well as the areas that you may need to spend some more time in from a mobility standpoint. This is a classic example of when the core exercise becomes the rehab exercise simply by modifying overall load and tempo.  Don’t neglect the overhead press. 

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