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How to maximize your overhead press

Overhead pressing is a key part of any good training program.

If you want strong, healthy shoulders you should be working the press hard at least once a week. That alone will make a huge difference in your performance.

I’ve managed to put up to some respectable numbers, including a 419 pound push press and a strict press of 320. But progress in these lifts hasn’t been easy.

Here are a 4 things that have helped me get better at going overhead.


1. Tight is right.

This tip will improve your lifting immediately.

When holding the weight support it not only on your delts, but also squeeze it with your lats. This is the same feeling you should have while benching.

Think about engaging your back muscles by externally rotating your shoulders. This little bit of extra support with give you more stability through your midsection. The tighter that area gets the more force you will transfer overhead.

Speaking of tight, don’t forget your ass! Pinch a penny with those cheeks and you’ll press more immediately.

2. Use the push press to build the press.

I do push press for about 90% of my overhead work. It’s works very well for me.

I do, however, perform all my assistance work and warm-up sets strict. I like making those pressing muscles fatigue a bit before I start using my legs. That increased the efficiency of my training.

Once you start doing the push press, think about snapping that weight up fast and aggressively. This movement needs to be violent. Also, make sure to drive all the way through to the top of the lift.

If you don’t explode from start to finish you’ll miss the full training effect.

The Push Press is an amazing way to build shoulder strength.

3. Learn to get your head through.

People make this mistake all the time. As soon as the barbell clears your face you have to push your head forward. This will bring you underneath the load, which is the easiest way to lift it.

Being directly under the weight directly gives you clear a mechanical advantage. You must do it in order to train effectively and safely.

If you have to lean backwards to press I recommend that you stop and work on your thoracic spine and shoulder mobility instead. You can’t fight physics. Sooner or later you’re going to injure yourself.

4. Do your assistance work!

You have to press heavy barbells to get stronger, but this alone won’t maximize your performance. Assistance movements will help you fix weaknesses and build your strength skill more rapidly.

Here are a few of my favorite exercises:

  • Snatch-grip press:  Stay light and hit 3-5 sets of 10 repetitions. Pull your shoulder blades together and drive the weight up from behind the head.
  • Pull-ups: This is one of the most awesome assistance exercises ever. Think of them as the opposite to the press – a vertical pull.  Try adding these after your pressing work for 3-5 sets of 10 strict reps. I love using multiple grips. Use a band or scale as required.
  • Close-grip bench: Bench pressing with a close-grip requires more work from the triceps. These muscles take over at the top of your press and help you finish the lift weight, so the stronger you can make them, the better.
  • Z-Press: This exercise is named after Žydrūnas Savickas, one of the strongest man of all time. You will sit down to press, but not on a bench. Instead, you do the press on the floor with your legs splayed out in front of you. This forces you to engage your midsection more. Let me tell you, if you feel strong now this exercise will humble you. About 3-5 sets of 10 with a light weight is plenty to start with.

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Don’t miss Matt’s Drifta Lifta interview with the leopard himself, Kelly Starrett.

Sample programming.

During my strength blocks I hit the push press hard for 5 weeks, then I take a break and unload.

I recommend that you use your training max for all percentages (your current max x 90%). Using a conservative number will you hitting every rep of the training block. Don’t let your stupid ego and a number get in the way of progress. Repeated success is a hell of a thing.

One final note: You should be able to easily pair this training with your other strength skill and conditioning work. The volume is pretty reasonable.

If you need to bring your pressing strength up, get to work!

  • Wk 1 – 5 sets x 5 reps @ 85% of training max
  • Wk 2 – 5 sets x 5 reps @ 90%
  • Wk 3 – 5 sets x 3+ reps @ 95% (last set go for max reps)
  • Wk 4 – 5 sets x 1+ reps @ 100% (last set go for max reps)

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Click for Matt’s HVIII Goods

After the pressing work make sure to perform 2-3 assistance movements. Just make sure to keep those movements light and strict. This will get your press moving quickly.

If you want more information on programming for maximal strength and power check out my book Strength LAB, I think it could help you to grow much stronger.

Happy pressing,


Mike Bledsoe


  • How many training sessions a weeka should we do? And should we use the same weight and percentages during every training in this week? Should we pick the push press or the press?

  • Thanks Matt. I’m in struggle town with ohp at the moment so this article is perfectly timed. Love your stuff on Insta too

  • Really good article guys! Especially like the programming guidance with assistance activities.

    Question :
    I always thought sticking to strict would be way better than push press. Any reason to focus on push 90% of the time?

    • Because you can handle more weight while still “pressing.” Trying the arms very well. Carries over to the press massively. Pressing alone won’t give you that surplus load.

  • whenever I do overhead press, i get an uncomfortable pain in my left shoulder, but with dumbbell press i get no such pain. Any tips to combat this??

    • The DB allows for a different position all-together. Sounds like it allows you to avoid an inflamed area, so I would do it more often. Consider backing off the barbell. Go light and for speed. Reduce barbell frequency. Your barbell press will probably go up.

  • If focusing on strongman and log lifts would this same rep scheme work or should there be different percentages and reps?

  • Thanks for the great article! I am going to go through this sample program using the one day per week as outlined. I just have two questions:

    – I know this program recommends doing push press, should the percentage be based on push press, or strict 1RM?

    – Should I just be sticking with my Jerk grip as I want this to translate to the C&J or should the grip be switched up; if so should you be doing any behind the neck etc.?

    Thanks for the awesome info, I cannot wait to build some more strength and stability pushing weight overhead!


    • Nick, I would keep everything as similar between the push press and jerk as possible. Same set-up. Same mentality, grip, foot placement, etc. Just different finish of course. I think it would be best to start training it based off the strict press. Practice form. Get very comfortable. Then, just ramp up the load. It’s totally unnecessary to start heavy. Just practice at first. Your strength will take off soon enough. Chris

      • Thanks for the confirmation Chris! Day 1 is already in the books. Once I finish the 5 weeks I will deload for a week with some lite reps and focus on press and Jerk technique. I will then go for a new 1RM Strict Press and Split Jerk and post my results to this thread.

        You guys are awesome! Thanks,


  • Hey! Just a quick question: do you think I’d be good to do Mon OHP 5×5, Wed PP 5×5, Friday OHP 5×5 (with pullups and barbell rows)? And, do you think I need to be squatting while doing this or can I just focus on the OHP, PP, Pullups and Barbell Rows and cleans? I can’t squat in my apartment, and I’ve found that the lower body tightness during the OHP isn’t as good and sturdy without squatting.

    Thanks so much

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