Activate deltoids and triceps.
Surely that’s all there is to it?
If you want to increase your numbers on your overhead presses there are 10 things I suggest you do on a regular basis.
Let’s start from the bottom.
As in the bottom of your body, although you will see that your glutes are key element in overhead pressing strength.
So let’s start from the GROUND up.
I heard a great saying (it escapes me who said it) which goes, “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe”.
In other words, if the base on which you are trying to generate power from is weak, you have no hope in making in much progress.
Pay close attention to this as working through the check points from your feet upwards is a great way to mentally prepare and execute a good over head lift.
Lower Body and ‘Core’
I hate the word ‘core’ as it is so often misunderstood and misused but most people understand what is meant and which area we are concerned with.
Locking your quads, glutes and ‘core’ muscles on tight has two benefits.
First, it helps fire up your entire nervous system, priming the whole body to contribute to a rock solid base on which to press.
Second by engaging quads, glutes and deep core stabilizing muscles, you are able to lock the hips and lower back in place.
If you don’t, as soon as the going gets tough on that press, you’re body will buckle or at best, lose the strong alignment from ground to bar/dumbbell/kettlebell shifting your centre of gravity and ultimately result in a missed rep.
Tighten Your Lats
Your lats (those big muscles that give the V-shape typical of bodybuilders) are one of the biggest and strongest muscle groups in your body.
If you can learn to activate them as you press overhead, you can expect much greater stability and therefore strength in the movement.
This can seem counter-intuitive at first, as you almost feel like you’re pulling against yourself but the added stability will pay dividends.
Bring your chest and upper back into play
It’s tempting to view an overhead press as a shoulder exercise.
This neglects and wastes the potential of the chest and upper back muscles.
To bring your chest into play more you can do two things.
If pressing a barbell overhead, try to shorten the bar as you press it by gripping tight and attempting to move your hands closer together (your hands won’t actually move)
If pressing a kettlebell or dumbbell, consciously contract the pecs as you press.
To activate the upper back muscles, as you approach the top of the lift, retract your arm(s) so that your biceps finish in a position such that your arm covers your ear.
Consciously pull the weight backwards using your back muscles giving you more horse power to make the rep!
Keep centre of mass of the weight as close as possible to yours
Whatever you are pressing, keep it’s centre of mass as close to your midline as possible.
The further it moves away, the greater the stress and strain on the pivot point.
This can be either your shoulder, lower back or both making the lift harder and increasing your risk of strain or injury at that joint.
To help the tip about retracting your arms and activating your back muscles, spending time improving your thoracic mobility can do wonders for pressing strength.
In this day when we spend far too much time hunched over computers, we can lose the correct amount of movement and mobility in the thoracic spine (where your ribs attach).
Maintaining the right degree of movement will enable you to make use of the ‘chest bump’ technique which can give you extra kick in your lift, without ‘cheating’ and using your legs as in a ‘push press’.
Improve your thoracic mobility by regularly getting a field hockey/lacrosse ball stuck into your pecs, traps and rhomboids and foam rolling your lats.
Also use a foam roller or two tennis balls taped together to do ‘thoracic sit ups’.
Position one ball either side of your spine and perform a sit up motion to maintain movement of the vertebrae.
Do 5-10 reps at each vertebrae.
Scapulae stability and movement
Related to thoracic mobility is good movement of the scapulae (shoulder blades).
Perform 2 x 20 Wall Angels before each pressing session, focusing on retracting the shoulder blades as you do it.
Add lying overhead pullovers to your training session to strengthen serratus anterior which facilitates correct scapula movement and helps stabilize them.
Lie on your back holding 1 dumbbell between both hands.
Retract your shoulder blades, pinning them to the floor.
Maintaining this tightness, slowly lower the dumbbell from above your face to the floor behind you taking 4-5 seconds to do so.
As you graze the floor, pull from just under your shoulder blades to activate the movement and bring the dumbbell back above your face.
Perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Finally, we need to get your oblique muscles strong if you want to improve your single arm pressing strength.
A great way to do this is with single arm farmer walks.
Take a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell and walk 40-80m holding the DB in one hand.
Feel how the opposite side of your body has to lock on tight to stop you tipping over.
These same muscles will come into play when you try to press a heavy weight over head with one arm.
Often it is the uncertainty of holding a heavy weight overhead which lets us down.
To develop the belief you can hold it, perform 2-3 sets of overhead holds for time.
Get the weight you want to use (or even heavier) up to the lockout position by performing a push press or jerk, using your legs.
Hold the lockout position for 45-60 seconds focusing on all the pointers given above.
Bring the weight down safely at the end, or if using a barbell and you have suitable flooring, drop the weight from the lock out to avoid strain on the shoulders.
Switch Up Your Sets
Sometimes doing straight sets leads to plateau’s and you want to switch things up.
Similar to ‘clusters’ which I like to use occasionally to bring up squats, pressing strength reacts well to ‘ladder’ training.
Let’s say you can press 20kg for 6-7 reps with each arm.
Instead of doing say 4 sets of 6 we’re going to use an ascending ladder.
1 rep with right arm 1 rep with left arm NO REST
2 reps with right, 2 reps with left NO REST
We’ll continue to build as close to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 on each arm as we can and repeat for 4-5 sets.
This increases the volume used on each arm with a given weight which you would normally only do for your 6-7 reps.
Make these drills an integral part of your training week and you will see your overhead stress increase dramatically over a period of weeks or months.
It involves a combination of taking the brakes off and putting the accelerator down to make sure you keep making progress!