Taking a load from the shoulders to overhead is something that many beginners and even advanced lifters struggle with, and we are here to offer some reasons as to why that may be the case, and if so, how to address your issue to build a stronger overhead press.
So, how do you improve your overhead press?
When looking to improve your overhead press, you first need to address your overhead mobility/stability, and then build better technique and more muscle mass in the shoulders and triceps. Once you have done this, you can start to integrate more advanced overhead variations to address sticking points and areas of weakness.
Our goal with this article is to help you improve your overhead press numbers in 3 months or less.
- Provide 4 reasons why your overhead press might be weak
- Discuss 7 ways you can improve your overhead press in under 12 weeks
- Give you a sample 4-week overhead pressing workout program that can be used by beginners and more advanced lifters.
4 Reasons Why Your Overhead Press So Weak?
Having a weak overhead press can be the result of many things, such as poor mobility, instability of the shoulders, previous injury, or simply lack of strength.
While there may not be one clear cut reason as to why your overhead press is lacking, the below four reasons are often responsible for weak overhead pressing strength.
When addressed, you can start to individualize your overhead pressing programming to attack your weaknesses and start building a bigger, stronger, overhead press.
Reason #1: Incorrect Overhead Press Form
.The skill of pressing something overhead will take initiative, but if you are generally strong and have good mobility, improvements can be seen daily quickly.
Below are a few common issues lifters have with their form or set up that if present, can lead to weakness and injury.
- The load needs to start on the front deltoid, rather than letting it be lowered on the chest.
When the load starts too low on the body, the shoulder is stressed and the lifter will also find it is very difficult to get the load off the body. To fix this, position the load higher up on the front of the shoulders and above the clavicle
- If the elbows start behind the load in the press, or at any point fall behind the load in the range of motion (from the side view), this will create a forward force that will not be efficient in getting the load to move overhead.
Aim to keep your elbows under the load at all times, or even slightly in front in the start position.
- At the end of the press, the load needs to be above the head, and slightly back over the traps so that the shoulder blades and upper back muscles can aid in the stabilization needs.
If you are leaving the load out front of you (over the crown of your head or in front of the body), this can lead to excessive strain on the shoulder joint.
Reason #2: Lack of General Upper Body Pressing Strength
Building strength takes longer than correcting form.
For many of you, lack of overhead strength can be remedied by doing them more frequently (increasing from 1X/week to 2-3X/week), but also increase general upper body strength and muscle growth with other forms of pressing (triceps and chest).
I find there is a high carry over to the overhead press when I work exercises like flat bench, incline bench, dips, and weighted push-ups.
Reason #3: Poor Overhead Mobility
Lack of shoulder mobility, which are generally caused by tight lats and triceps, poor shoulder joint range of motion, and/or poor thoracic mobility are all issues that need to be addressed prior to loading up heavy overhead presses.
If you have poor overhead mobility, you’ll likely won’t be able to lock out your arms overhead without leaning back too far, and you’ll be compensating the movement with your upper chest rather than using your front and side delts.
Failure to have good mobility will result in stressing the joints and connective tissues negatively, which could result in injury.
Reason #4: Shoulder Joint and Connective Tissue Instability
Gaining stability often comes with getting stronger, but there are times when you are mobile, yet very unstable overhead.
This often limits your ability to try to develop strength, since the shoulder joint is unstable and cannot be trained with enough volume and intensity.
To remedy this, you can perform movements slower, add in shoulder stability exercises, and take a more hybrid approach to increasing overhead strength and shoulder mobility.
Need a workout program? Get 3 free workouts on Fitbod right now.
7 Tips to Improve Your Overhead Press in 12 Weeks of Less
My top 7 tips for improving your overhead press are:
- Build Stronger Scapular Stabilizers
- Stretch the Lats and Triceps
- Train Your Sticking Point
- Build Stronger Triceps
- Improve Your Posture
- Control the Eccentric
- Do Overhead Presses More Frequently
Each tip addresses at least one, if not more of the main reasons behind a weak overhead press, and can be placed within an existing workout program to address areas of concern.
1. Build Stronger Scapular Stabilizers
The shoulders are stabilized by both the scapular stabilizers and posterior shoulder muscles (rotator cuff muscles). Many lifters who train the overhead press frequently could really benefit from improving the strength and stability of their rotator cuff muscles and scapular muscles.
Failure To have proper shoulder stability in the upper back and posterior shoulder could result in excessive stress and strain being placed on the smaller muscles in the shoulder or general instability with heavier loads overhead (both of which can result in injury)
Movements like crawling, arm bars, Turkish get ups, and band pull aparts are all great ways to build in special movement patterns to help stabilize the scapula and shoulder during overhead pressing positions.
2. Stretch the Lats and Triceps
Lack of shoulder mobility is a common issue with lifters who are strong presses yet struggle with the overhead press.
More often, the triceps and lats are tight, and restrict the lifter from placing a load overhead in a stable position. If you find yourself struggling to place the load up and slightly behind your head (without having to arch your back too much), you may find it helpful to do some basic triceps and lat stretches.
Stretching the lats and triceps allow you to properly place a load overhead in the stable position, which can improve your ability to press loads overhead without excessive wear and tear on the anterior shoulder.
Also, keeping the lats and triceps loose will allow you to have better shoulder stability overhead and minimize injury: both of which will be necessary if you are to train the overhead press, shoulders, and triceps more frequently. .
I recommend the following two exercises:
Lat Stretch with Band
Overhead Shoulder Stretches
If you are looking for a complete foam rolling and stretching warm up to improve your front rack in the overhead press, front squat, and clean and jerk, try this routine.
3. Train Your Sticking Point
LIke most strength movements, sticking points occur at a place where we are most vulnerable to muscle weakness or mobility issues that for whatever reason do not allow us to express strength enough to keep the load accelerating upwards.
If you’re weak in the bottom end range of motion, train that range of motion more. Conversely, if you’re weak in the top end range of motion, train the lockout more.
Training your sticking point with pauses, partial range of motion repetitions, and overhead press variations like pin presses are all ways to address your sticking point and teach your body how to accelerate through the sticking point to become stronger.
You can also do overhead presses with resistance bands or chains to increase the resistance as you press the load overhead. This training style is called accommodating resistance, and has been shown to be very effective at increasing the rate of force production and strength.
4. Build Stronger Triceps
The triceps aid in the final stages of the overhead press, and can be trained with additional triceps isolation work after overhead pressing.The triceps are responsible for elbow extension, and like the bench press, are highly involved with the back half of the repetition.
For lifters who find they fail or get stuck at the halfway point of locking something out overhead, this is generally a clear message that your triceps need strengthening and should be addressed with partial presses and more triceps isolation training.
5. Improve Your Posture
Poor posture not only looks bad, but it can be a main culprit for poor overhead pressing mechanics and injuries from overhead pressing.
If your posture is poor, you will generally have issues maintaining an upright posture during the press and/or have limited overhead mobility (without flaring your ribcage upwards). Strengthening the upper back and improving schedule mobility are two main training adjustments that can be made.
Integrating overhead stability exercises, Z presses, and overhead carries are all easy ways to improve. Additionally, you can then make sure to not sacrifice form or posture while training the overhead press, which by default can help strengthen many of the postural muscles of the upper back and shoulders.
Want to grow stronger shoulders with resistance bands? Here are 3 Awesome Resistance Band Shoulder Workouts!
6. Control the Eccentric
When looking to build stronger lift, you can start by learning how to control the full movements and teach the muscles how to contract and produce force output throughout the full range of motion.
Controlling the lowering phase of the overhead press can also help you to increase time under tension and train the posterior shoulder and back muscles in the complimentary patterning needed for a successful and strong overhead press.
To train this, simply lower the loads slowly, making sure you feel the back muscles and posterior shoulder muscles engaged and working to support the load eccentrically as you bring it back down to the body.
7. Do Overhead Presses More Frequently
Overhead pressing is a skill, and to improve that skill you need to train the movement pattern more frequently to allow your body to refine technique.
Often, when people look to increase their lifts, you can increase training frequency of that lift by doing it more frequently and adding in more variations like partial reps, bands and chains, tempo, etc.
When training a movement more frequently, you allow the nervous system and motor units to optimize movement, become more efficient taking loads overhead, and provide your mind with more opportunities to fine tune the movements.
James de Lacey, owner of Lift Big Eat Big says:
The overhead press is an intensity driven lift. So lift heavy and as often as possible — 2-3x a week is often needed to make big progress in overhead press numbers
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Sample 4-Week Overhead Press Workout Program
Below is a sample two day overhead press program that can be used to build a stronger overhead press.
Note: this program also includes upper body accessory work to build stronger triceps, back muscles, and even the chest – all of which are key muscle groups that aid in the overhead press.
Shoulder Workout: Day 1
- Reverse Bear Crawl: 3 sets of 10 yards
- Arm Bar: 3 sets of 8-10 reps per arm
- Standing Banded Overhead Press: 5 sets of 3-5 reps, 2 sec lowering to chest after each rep
- Lat Pulldown: 5 sets of 8-10 reps
- Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 5 sets of 8-10 reps
- Dip: 5 sets of 8-12 reps
- Cable Face Pull: 5 sets of 12-15 reps
Shoulder Workout: Day 2
- Banded External Rotations: 3 sets of 15 per arm
- Overhead Farmer Carry: 3 sets of 40 yards
- Standing Barbell Pin Press: 5 sets of 3-5 reps (set pin just below your sticking point)
- Flexion Row: 5 sets of 12-15 reps
- Dumbell Z Press: 5 sets of 8-10 reps
- Skullcrusher: 5 sets of 8-12
- Upright Row: 5 sets of 12-15 reps
To progress this, you could swap out some of the accessory exercises for other triceps and back focused movements, and perform the main overhead pressing movements for 6-8 sets of 2-3 reps in the following month.
In the last month (month 3), you could perform 8-10 sets of 1-2 reps for all overhead pressing main strength work, ending with a personal best in less than 3 months.
Next Steps: Build Your Overhead Press
If you are ready to improve your overhead pressing strength, try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals and help you attack a pressing program that will adapt workouts automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress.
With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts.
Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.