The overhead press is an explosive whole body movement that relies on numerous working parts to be executed properly. While hammering away at the lift itself can lead to some quick gains early on, rotating in key variations of the overhead press can keep your shoulders well rounded and progress moving forward. This is the short list of the best pressing exercises to fix your stagnate overhead press.
Seated Military Press
The standing barbell press is a fantastic primary exercise for building basic size and strength through the upper body. However, lack of stability in the standing position can result in smaller weights being used than in the seated position. When progress comes to a halt in the standing overhead press, adding in some overload by taking a seat may be the ticket. Seated barbell presses allow the lift to start at the top of the movement, allowing stretch reflex to contribute to each repetition instead of taking it from a dead stop. The lifter braces against the seat and takes an ever-so-slightly lean back, increasing stability for a more efficient press and allowing for more weight to be pressed with more speed. As a new training stimulus, overloading the delts, triceps, and supportive muscles can lead to immediate improvements in force production, potentially blasting the standing press variation to new heights.
The seated barbell shoulder press (or seated military press) is one of the most commonly used variation of all overhead movements, however it is typically done incorrectly. A few common mistakes that can hinder the benefits of the seated military press are:
-Arching too much into the bench: This turns the movement into an incline bench, bringing the stronger muscles of the upper chest into the movement. While this allows more weight to be used, it also ceases to carry over to the vertical standing press.
-Hands too wide: This is another tactic of the ego-lifter which allows more weight to be used, especially when paired with a reduced range of motion. While wider grips will tax the deltoids more, it also lacks enough specificity of a standing barbell press to predictably improve it.
-Bar stopping short: Typically, the overarched lifter will get another boost in poundage by only taking the bar to forehead level. This is basically like doing a partial lockout movement. The hardest part of a standing strict press is building enough speed off the initial push to blow past any potential stick point on the way to lockout. If the bar is not taken to this point below the chin, that strength at the starting position will never be realized.
-Elbows flared: Keeping the elbows to the side while the barbell is taken to the top of the head simulates a partial dumbbell press, an optimal strategy for moving substantial weight with little meaningful development. This setup improves leverage by keeping the hands in line with the main pivot point, the shoulder joint. This is why working sets of dumbbell presses usually add up to more weight than the standing barbell press. Keeping the elbows out in front simulates the position in all standing military press variations and will provide more direct contribution to that setup.
In short, the proper way to do a seated military press involves using the stability of the seated position to your advantage without substantially limiting range of motion or changing position. The bar should still travel well below the chin, stretching the delts under a load to sufficiently recruit more motor units. The hands should stay relatively close, just as in your go-to standing barbell press position, to ensure that your work done with the seated press will carry over. The back should not be over-arched (unless doing an incline bench press is actually your goal), and the elbows should stay out in front instead of out to the side.
Standing Barbell Pin Press
A proper standing press setup will have the hands somewhat close and elbows up, creating compression off the chest. When weights get maximal and above, it is not uncommon for a lifter to blow the barbell off of the collar bone, only to have it come to a screeching halt an inch above the forehead. Just as with midway stick points on the bench press, stalling on the standing barbell press halfway up can be a sign of weak triceps or poor patterning at lockout. And just like boards are used to fix bench press lockout issues, a standing pin press can be used to overload the overhead press and eliminate weakness at the top of the lift.
For the most direct carry over to the standing barbell press, the pins will be set so that the bar is directly at the sticking point of a maximal lift. For broader gains in lockout power and to keep training fresh, the pins can be moved to higher and lower positions. The key to getting the standing pin press to work for you is to keep position as similar as possible to where you would be at the same point during a full range standing barbell press. Don’t game the system by starting the bar over the middle of the head with the elbows pointing out to the side.
Grab the bar with your same pressing grip width, keep the elbows in front, and make sure the abs are braced and you are upright as you initiate the press from a dead stop. Once the bar gets moving, drive it back over your center of mass and push your head forward. Come down under control and let the weight rest before initiating another rep. Each effort should be explosive but controlled. Pro tip: I have found that pulling straight down into the bar before pressing makes it easier to get an effective break off the pins for your first rep.
Behind the Neck Press
Barbell press variations to the front are great upper body builders, but can also overdevelop the front delts. To stave off weaknesses from developing in the other heads of the shoulder, behind the neck press variations can be rotated in to keep the shoulders mobile and strengthen the traps, rear delts, and medial delt head. Once upon a time this exercise got a bad rap for leading to shoulder problems and was eventually deemed unsafe. If you have tightness through the pecs and shoulders which impair your ability to move and you attempt a behind the neck shoulder press with a lot of weight on your first try, you will likely get injured. But if you take the time to slowly build up in weight while demonstrating control and coaxing flexibility, you will find this to be one of the most effective exercises for size and strength in the shoulders (and your shoulder joints will thank you).
Behind the neck presses can be done seated or standing; either way, make sure an upright position is maintained the entire time. With a grip width just slightly wider than your normal pressing setup, push the head slightly forward and lower the bar to the base of your skull. It doesn’t need to touch your shoulder blades, just the base of the skull. If shoulders are tight, pushing the elbows slightly forward may help keep a truer bar path. Aim to keep the bar moving, as each rep drives blood into the muscle and builds up metabolites. The tension maintained on the shoulders throughout the entire set is one of the selling points of this movement: blood can’t get out because slack is never taken off the delts. Add in the awesome stretch at the bottom of the behind the neck press and you have a nasty pump that feels like occlusion training in full effect. If you have never done behind the neck barbell presses before, I guarantee a month of these will leave your delts looking like rocky mountain boulders.
Band-Suspended Overhead Press
This is a movement I initially scoffed at for being overly complicated and non-specific. Training modes that focus on destabilization have always puzzled me, since force development is always going to be optimized on a stable plane and optimizing force production is the surest way to get stronger. Benches on bosu balls, squats on vibrating plates, all gimmicks to distract the common lifter from their primary goal. But then an injury happened. With a strain in the tendons of one of my rotators, I found myself unable to press anything overhead without pain. Since this is my money maker for upper body development, I was frustrated and demotivated. Scouring through social media, I found a recommendation from another coach dealing with the same issue.
Apparently, by hanging weights from bands around the bar, he was able to press away without pain. In fact, the band setup worked so good, that he was able to get weekly working sets in pain free until the injury healed and he could go back to straight weight again. I didn’t believe it. It looked stupid. I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that. So I waited until everyone left the gym and tried it. Sure enough, I got within 90% of my typical working sets (with about half the weight hanging from the bands) and felt no pain. Something about the constant alternating tension and relaxation of the muscles from the bouncing weights made the stress easier on my achy shoulder. Lighter bands and more weight caused more instability, and hanging weights from different bands caused them to bounce at different rates.
I still don’t know what mechanism is at play here, but I do know when something just works. I used this effectively to keep my shoulders strong and, when I weaned myself back onto just the bar, set an all time standing strict press PR of 335lbs….. pain free. The other benefit of the bands is that it requires much more work from the delts. Try a strict standing press with the bands for repeating sets of 10-12 and let me know how toast your shoulders are!