Gym bros are like NBA players discussing height.
They may already have reasonable stats, but they’ll always go the extra mile to fluff up their numbers.
People get preoccupied with the amount they can bench. They may even lie about their squat. But the biggest deviation from the truth comes in the form of the big lift that’s the least practiced by the masses – the overhead press.
There’s a simple reason why most people don’t strict press - it’s hard.
You can raise your hips during a bench press. You can stop above parallel in a squat. But the strict press makes cheating a hindrance or just plain awkward.
For this reason, people tend to shy away from it simply due to the work it takes to master technique and get strong with it.
However, your gains depend on making a habit of practicing this movement. Before you ask, no, the seated dumbbell press isn’t a suitable alternative, just like the leg press doesn’t substitute for the squat.
Of course, you’re going to need some help, so a quality check is in order if you’re looking to master the overhead press.
Strict Press Starting Position
Surprisingly, the basic setup of the lift is where more people go wrong.
Setting up with a base that’s too wide may be looked at as a position of greater stability, but it’s actually just making the distribution of force less linear – and that’s the name of the game. Remember: this is a push with the arms, not the legs.
With that being said, going wider with the feet won’t add to the efficacy or strength of the lift, as long as you’re not planning to use them. Stick with a hip-width for the foot spacing, similar to what you’d use in a conventional deadlift.
If you’re still unsure, do a set of 3 vertical jumps and note where your feet naturally land each time. This should be your spacing.
In a way, the same rules apply when talking about the hands. You don’t want a grip as wide as your bench press when you’re going overhead. The arm should finish in more of an “I” than a “Y” formation. To ensure that, start with the hands just outside shoulder width.
Next, it’s important to look at the elbows. The idea is to achieve a position that potentiates the most force production. Having the elbows tucked behind the bar won’t promote that. Alternatively, having them held too high, approaching a front squat or power clean “rack” position isn’t smart either.
Tuck the elbows in tight, and keep them about 1 inch in front of the bar, and no more. This will make sure that the forearms are perpendicularly under the bar for the first half of the movement, adding to its strength and a continual line of force as the rep progresses.
Aside from these key points, a tall, tight body and packed neck complete the ideal starting position for the strict press.
Executing the Strict Press
Now that you’re set up, it’s time to push that bar overhead. Stay tight, keep your chin tucked, and drive the weight up to your forehead. Aim for your nose on the way up (you won’t hit it).
The first mistake people make regarding the overhead press is not respecting the physics of the movement. There’s nothing that should come between the bar travelling in a straight line from bottom to top.
That means you’ll have to get your face out of the way to achieve this – otherwise you’ll end up “looping” the bar around your head on the way up, creating an arcing path, similar to a letter C.
If you still choose to use this method, it won’t get you very far as it becomes next to impossible to do this with heavier weights.
Instead, pack your neck, and keep that bar as close to your face as possible in order to maintain a linear press. If you read back, you’ll notice I mentioned a press only to the forehead. That’s just 1/3 of the movement, right?
There’s a reason I made this a target point. As soon as the bar clears the head, it’s time to get back into position. Flare your elbows and push your chest and head “through the window” you’ve just created with your arms.
You’ll have to be deliberate with this motion. Doing so will put the spine under the bar once more and create much more stability and strength for the movement.
Remember - you’re moving, not the bar. It’s still travelling in a straight line. Finally, lock out the weight at the top of the rep and get comfortable with a strong finish position.
Troubleshooting the Strict Press
As mentioned, the most common issue with the strict press comes in the form of not respecting physics. Besides looping the bar around the head, many lifters who don’t possess the adequate mobility can't move the bar linearly.
Related: Try This Dynamic Upper Body Warmup
Insufficient shoulder rotation can cause issues with overhead pressing and make compensatory patterns present themselves to keep the bar loaded above the feet.
Use shoulder dislocates to open up the chest and improve rotation. Along with that, you must ensure the back muscles are strong and well trained for both scapular stability and postural correction.
Usually, as a result of insufficient shoulder mobility, the back overarches to compensate in order to allow the bar to finish in the correct position.
Above anything else, you must practice the movement religiously. Sometimes a deficiency isn’t a deficiency, you’re just not good at using proper technique. If it goes beyond that, however, it’s time to look deeper.
To counter this issue, gluteal strengthening and lower abdominal strengthening could be a good way to attack things from the bottom up. The two key exercises that can help this cause:
Why those two? Well, they make it very difficult to arch the back and still train the correct musculature. In the case of hip thrusts, you’ll be able to tell when you’re no longer using the glutes and you can simply correct by posteriorly tilting the pelvis to make them fire again.
In the case of the rollouts, bad form and a hyperextended spine will cause instant stress to the lumbar spine. Plus, these offer an added benefit as the arms move overhead while bearing load with the core. When you translate this to the overhead press, you’ll have a better braced position overhead as the weight gets heavier through your sets.
It’s one of the hardest lifts for a reason, which means you should probably practice it quite frequently. Ditch the dumbbells and get strong enough to move ¾ of your bodyweight overhead without sloppy form. That’s a true testament of strength and should be a prompt shut-down to the age-old question “how much ya bench?”.