I consider the barbell strict press to be a staple in upper body development. And I’ll say it – it one-ups the bench press as far as functional application and testimony to true strength goes.
That’s the reason why so many men have a weak strict press, despite relatively impressive numbers in their squat, bench, and deadlift. The overhead press is hard, and people neglect training it for that reason above all else.
Beyond that, however, there are many people who avoid the barbell strict press like it’s the plague for another reason: It causes them pain. I’m sympathetic to this crowd, since this lift in its simplest format, can be very unforgiving.
It’s important that we fit the workout program to the lifter, and not the lifter to the program. It’s never in our best interests to force-feed a movement pattern, just because it has been said to be important to practice.
And as a community, we have to get away from thinking it’s the specific exercise that deserves our attention, and not the movement pattern itself – there’s a big difference.
Long story short, if we have a history of injury or chronic pain, unfavourable leverages, or other restrictions that make overhead pressing a pain, it’s smart to consider a few hacks and variations that are worth your while.
1. Use Fat Grips
Increasing the surface area of a barbell is a way to disperse the load across more of the hand. This will have a direct translation to the amount of shoulder and elbow stress you feel since the pressure isn’t limited to a very specific area anymore. Since most regular gyms don’t carry fat bars, it’s smart to improvise by buying a pair of fat grips.
Most people think about the benefits fat grips have to forearm training and grip strength in general. I believe them to be just as valuable to pressing patterns for the reasons mentioned above. Simply placing them on the bar only takes a set or two to get used to, and instantly creates a different, more joint-comfortable feeling when doing not only the overhead press, but any form of press.
2. Change the Angle
Pressing “overhead” is relative. In other words, people instantly assume that it also means pressing perpendicular to the floor. If you can change your body angle to make your “overhead” position in better keeping with gravitational forces, you’re going to be a step ahead in creating a nicer environment for your load-bearing shoulder joints.
The easiest way to do this is by switching to landmine and Viking press variations. Here are 3 examples. If you look closely at each one, you’ll see that my finish position still creates a straight line from my hips to my hands – meaning the same geometry applies; I’m just on an angle to the ground.
3. Use Dumbbells
Of course, no one said you’re stuck using a barbell for your overhead press pattern. Making the switch to dumbbell variations allows you to manipulate your elbow and wrist position to roll the head of the humerus to better, more comfortable places as each rep progresses.
Sure, you may not be as strong using dumbbells as you are with a barbell, but it’s important to ask what you’re doing this all for. If you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, then you should be aware that most of your training should be about loading movements – not moving loads. To get the right muscles active, it may mean scaling things back, making the switch, and greasing the groove.
4. Pull First
The name of the game should be stability of the shoulder joint, especially if you’re a sufferer of chronic pain or injury. With that said, you can pre-emptively keep yourself out of harm’s way by simply adding stability to your shoulder blades via some pulling work.
This will get some blood in the scapular region and remove instability while warming up the rotator cuff through 360 degrees. I personally recommend row variations, but pulldowns are fine to use too.
5. Use a False Grip
This is one of the biggest hidden gems to help shoulder training become a little more joint friendly – but I’ll state this disclaimer here first: It’s strictly for intermediate and advanced trainees. If you’re a beginner, don’t attempt this.
Taking the thumb out from around the barbell when holding it can be a key change to make pressing more comfortable, and more in keeping with the physics of the movement. Here’s why.
First, the broken-wrist position that most people start with in the shoulder press needs to be corrected for proper alignment when the bar reaches the top. Moreover, depending on the lifter and the size of his hands, the bar may end up sitting far back from the base of the hand, making it tougher to apply full force since the bar is positioned over empty space, and not the forearm itself.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it will place unnecessary stress forces on the wrists, elbows and shoulders due to the lack of full contribution from the important muscles of the forearm.
Second, placing the thumb behind the bar allows the lifter to focus more of his grip toward the pinky finger. Anecdotally, I’ve found this to increase and improve triceps activation (try it at home!), which doesn’t hurt for more pressing strength.
For the visual learners out there, I’ve got a full explanation video.
Pushing through the pain is so 2005.
If you really want to make strides while taking your joints into consideration, you’re going to have to make mods to your hand and wrist position, elbow position, hand grip, or total body position. And that’s what all 5 of these modifications exploit in their own way.
This enables any lifter to continue training such an important pattern, rather than avoiding it altogether, which will not only keep the movement weak, it’ll also keep you in the same world of pain you started in. And you wouldn’t want that, now, would you?