Barbell Overhead Press

Exercise Name:
Name: Barbell Overhead Press
Also Called: Press, Barbell Shoulder Press
Muscles Worked:
Primary: Shoulders
Secondary: Triceps
Function: Strength
Mechanics: Compound
Force: Push
Main: Barbell
Ancillary: Power Rack
Optional: None
Experience: Beginner
Rep Range: 3-12
Training Tempo: 2 – 0 – 1 – 0
Related Exercises:
Variations: Barbell Seated Overhead Press, Push Press, Dumbbell Shoulder Press, Behind the Neck Press, Overhead Rack Lockout
Alternatives: Clean and Press, Power Clean and Push Press, High-Incline Press, Overhead Squat, Handstand Push Up, Incline Rack Lockout

Instructions with Pictures

Note: Pictures coming soon!

1. Starting Position

  • Using an overhand grip, grasp the barbell with hands just wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Unrack the barbell and step back, with the bar at shoulder level.
  • Assume a shoulder width stance.
  • Raise your elbows high enough to hold the bar against your collar bone.
  • Make sure forearms are parallel to each other and perpendicular to the floor.
  • Stay in a neutral spinal posture at all times.

2. Concentric Repetition

  • Flex shoulders and extend elbows to press the bar in a vertical line, up.
  • Move torso backward to let the bar safely pass your head.
  • Move torso forward after the bar passes your head.
  • Continue pressing until the bar is overhead with your elbows locked.

3. Midpoint

  • Don’t pause at the top of the motion.

4. Eccentric Repetition

  • Flex elbows and extend shoulders to bring the barbell down in a vertical line.
  • Move torso backward to let the bar safely pass your head.
  • Move torso forward after the bar passes your head.
  • Lower the bar until it returns to the starting point.

5. Repeat

  • Repeat the motion for the number of repetitions needed to complete the set.
  • Anything within a 3-12 rep range can accomplish most goals. But to narrow it down, 6-10 reps is best for most people (especially beginners) and goals.

Common Overhead Press Errors to Avoid

Mistake: Solution:
Excessive arching Squeeze abdominals and glutes to maintain neutral hip alignment. Not only do neutral hips prevents the dangers of excessive lower back arching, but it provides a strong and stable base that supports your torso and the load.
Curved bar path Press the bar in a straight, vertical line. Move your torso back momentarily to let the bar go up without hitting your face; on the concentric and eccentric repetition.
Using leg drive Avoid the temptation of pushing through your legs to generate momentum. Reduce the weight if you can’t properly perform a set without relying on your legs. Otherwise, you’re doing a push press; not an overhead press.

Overhead Press Tips

  1. Warm Up! The shoulder joint is naturally at a higher risk for injury compared to other joints because of its ability to perform axial rotation (rotation in any direction). Perform light warm up sets that gradually increase in weight and perform range of motion exercises (see mobility).
  2. Don’t Grip Too Narrowly. Using a grip width that is narrower than shoulder width will put excess strain on your shoulder joint and its connective tissue. Use a grip that is shoulder width or slightly wider.
  3. Keep Knees Straight. Lock your legs straight by keeping your knees locked. Or if you’d prefer, keep them in the position just before being locked; just so long as you don’t use your legs to contribute pushing power. Save the leg-generated momentum for the push press exercise.
  4. In the starting position, raise elbows up high so that they are slightly in front of the bar when viewed from the side. Doing this ensures that forearms are vertical and the bar is touching your chest.
  5. Keep upper arms turn slightly inward to prevent elbows from “winging” out at your sides. But don’t turn them in so much as to cause discomfort from excessive inward rotation.
  6. Avoid too much “sway” when moving torso back; to get out of the way of the bar path. You should use only the smallest amount of sway necessary to keep balanced and allow your arms to continue extending vertically during the positive rep.
  7. At the midpoint, your feet, scapulae and bar should all be aligned vertically, from a side view. If this is not the case, then something about your form, stance or posture is flawed.
  8. Shrug your shoulders up when the barbell is overhead. This is necessary to correctly execute the lockout and fully activate the upper back muscles.
  9. Flexing the upper back muscles around your scapulae when the bar is overhead to emphasize the lockout.
  10. Improve shoulder mobility by doing exercises like shoulder dislocations and scapular wall slides as part of your warm up routine. It may also be wise to make them part of a daily mobility/flexibility routine to improve your shoulder health in the long run.
  11. Improve thoracic mobility by performing thoracic mobility exercise, such as thoracic extensions (on a foam roller) or the cat stretch, in your warm up (and/or in a daily mobility/flexibilty routine). Thoracic mobility, especially extension, is key to doing the overhead press technique correctly and with no strain or pain.

Is This Exercise Right for You?

The barbell overhead press is a foundational strength exercise. I strongly recommend it to all trainees.

It’s easily the best shoulder exercise for beginners. That said, it’s important to start light and learn good form, since reinforcing poor form over the long term causes shoulder issues.

Due to its high load intensity capacity, this lift has tons of strength progression potential. Undoubtedly, experienced lifters will want to tap into this for continuous long-term gains.

It may be wise to avoid the overhead press (or approach it cautiously), if you suffer from any of the below problems.

  • Pre-existing shoulder problems. A common workaround is to use shoulder exercise machines if free weights are too unsafe.
  • Poor shoulder mobility. If your shoulder mobility is so poor that you can’t do the full range of motion without pain, don’t try to fight through it. Instead, focus on improving your shoulder mobility
  • Lower back pain. If lower back pain persists despite maintain a neutral spine and neutral pelvic alignment (by flexing your abs and glutes), then give it up for now. Try doing the exercise in a seated position, or abandon overhead movements until healed.
  • Neck pain. Try the dumbbell shoulder press to avoid neck strain when moving your head out of the bar’s way. This won’t solve the root cause, which could be due to poor thoracic mobility, poor cervical mobiity or any number of things.

About the Author Alex

Hey! My name is Alex, and I'm the owner and author of King of the Gym. I started this website back in late 2009 during college, and it has been my pet project ever since. My goal is to help you learn proper weight training and nutrition principles so that you can get strong and build the physique of your dreams!

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