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Overhead Press: The Complete Guide Overhead Press Form

By Lukas Hambsch

Posted in Exercise guides, Upper body, Overhead press

Top of a dumbbell overhead press.
Top of a dumbbell overhead press.

Overhead Press Benefits

The overhead press is one of our four core upper body lifts. It primarily works your deltoids and triceps. By doing it from a standing position, you'll also be activating your core to keep your body in a strong, balanced position. Bracing your body by tightening your core is important for every lift and every sport. Since the angle of the overhead press focuses the movement on your shoulders instead of your chest, it's the most important exercise for your shoulder development. Make the overhead press part of your regular routine for a strong, balanced upper body.

Overhead Press Progression

The bodyweight version of the overhead press is handstand push-ups, but those are pretty intense for beginners. If recommend just starting with light weights on the dumbbell overhead press. Start light and increase the weight once you're comfortable with the form.

If you've never done the overhead press before, start off with 5lb dumbbells and increase the weight as you feel more comfortable. Once you can use perfect form with the 17.5lb dumbbells, you're ready to use the 45lb bar for the barbell overhead press. If you'd rather keep using dumbbells, keep using them instead of switching to the barbell. There isn't an advantage in doing one over the other.

Overhead Press Form

Dumbbell Overhead Press

Set Up

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead.
  • Place the dumbbells on the ground parallel with and just outside your feet.

Weight on ground ready to start dumbbell overhead press

Approach

  • Bend through your hips to pick up the weight like you would for a deadlift.

Picking up dumbbells before overhead press

  • As you stand up, bring the weights up to your shoulders.
  • Your elbows should be at a 10 degree angle with your shoulders. Similar to how they are when bench pressing.

Weights in position to start dumbbell overhead press.

Movement

  • Once the dumbbells are at your shoulders, press them over your head as fast as you can. The weight will still be moving slowly, but focusing on the explosive movement will prepare you for heavier weight.
  • Make sure to keep your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders as you push the weight overhead.

Weights in position to start dumbbell overhead press.Elbows straight at top of overhead press.

  • After straightening your arms, you will lower the weight back to your shoulders in a controlled manner and repeat the movement again.

Barbell Overhead Press

Set Up

  • Use a power rack or squat rack and align the bar with the bottom of your sternum. Just like setting the rack up for a squat.

Bar is aligned with your lower sternum

Approach

  • Grip the bar just outside shoulder width. Use the markers on the bar to make sure each hand is grabbing the bar an equal distance from the center.
  • Move your body under the bar so that the bar is over your shoulders.
  • Bring your elbows up as far as you can while still holding the bar.
  • Lift the bar from the rack and take one step back with each foot.
  • Stand with your feet even with each other, shoulder width apart, and toes pointing straight ahead.

Barbell in front rack position, ready to start overhead press.

Movement

  • As you start to lift the bar, brace your core and move your head back just enough to allow the bar to pass while keeping your eyes straight ahead.

Moving head back while overhead pressing

  • As soon as the bar clears your head, move it back under the bar while still pushing the bar overhead.

Once your head is cleared, it moves back under the bar

  • Once your arms are straight with the bar overhead, you have completed the lift.

Arms straight at the top of the overhead press

  • Lower the bar back to your shoulders in a controlled manner, moving your head out of the way like you did on the way up.

Finish

  • After you've finished your set, step forward until both sides of the bar hit the cage. Make sure you set the rack low enough initially.
  • Then set the bar back into the rack.

Bar touching cage before dropping into racks

Common Overhead Press Mistakes

Elbows Too Far Out

This mistake happens more frequently with the dumbbell overhead press since it's difficult to hold the barbell with your elbows too far out. Another sign you're making this mistake is when the dumbbells come down on top of your shoulders instead of in front of them. The reason many people allow their elbows to flare out too much is because it lets them lift heavier weight. The problem is that it puts your shoulder joints in a compromising position. Keeping your elbows at a 10 degree angle with your shoulders will help to keep them healthy and pain-free.

Elbows flaring too far out during overhead press.

Not Going Down All The Way

Just like every other exercise, doing partial reps will slow your progress and put unnecessary stress on your joints. When you don't go all the way down for each rep, you're able to use heavier weights without doing any additional work. The problem is that the heavier weights always put additional stress on your joints. So you're putting more stress on your joints, while doing the same amount of work. There's no reason to do that.

Pushing the Weight in Front of You

This mistake occurs with the barbell overhead press when your head gets in the way of the bar. You might feel yourself pushing the weight in front of your head, instead of moving your head back. There are two problems with doing the lift this way. First, it makes it more difficult to keep your balance because it causes you to lean forward. Second, you won't be able to lift as much weight because the bar won't be directly under your shoulders.

Using Your Legs

The overhead press is different from the push press. When doing the push press, you use your legs to give you momentum when starting the lift. For the overhead press, don't use any leg momentum. It should be a strict press using only your upper body.