My Plan of Attack For the Overhead Press

Posted on by Ben Bruno

As I alluded to yesterday when I gave a training update, I’d like to improve my overhead press. To me, it’s just a badass exercise, and one I wish I was better at.

Unfortunately, if I train the overhead press heavy and often, my left shoulder hates me. Also, with my knee being the way it is right now, I don’t think heavy standing work would go over too well either.

So I got to thinking, and I’ve started to implement a plan of attack geared towards improving my overhead press that doesn’t actually include seated overhead pressing. There are some lifts that I’ve improved just through assistance work, the deadlift being one of them. I hit my best deadlift after not deadlifting for two months prior.

With other exercise like chin-ups though, I find that the only way I can improve them is to do them.

I’m not sure where the overhead press will fall into that equation, but I’m going to give it a rip.

Here is my plan, as well as my rationale for why I’m doing it.

I am going to press three times a week: one heavy day, one medium day, and one light day.

Day 1- Heavy Dumbbell Inclines

This is an exercise I can do heavy without bothering my shoulders, so I’ll use it for my heavy strength work. This week I did 6 sets of 5 reps.

Day 2- Light 1 Arm “Bottoms Up” Kettlebell Presses

I am doing these for shoulder and core stability. I’ve never done them before, so it’s a new challenge. I’m not sure how they’ll carry over to the overhead press, but I suspect it will be positive. I’m hoping it will like my experience with ring pushups/dips about four years ago. When I first tried them, I could barely do a couple and it felt useless, with practice though, my numbers shot up to the point where I can now do almost as many on the rings as I can regularly, and the added shoulder stability helped my pressing.

That’s what I’m shooting for with the bottoms-up presses, but we’ll see. The first time, it was ugly and I struggled to get 5 sets of 5 with 16 kg (35 pounds). Don’t laugh.

Ok, you can laugh. I deserve it.

While I’m doing 5×5, I still consider this to be a light day since the weight is so light. While it was challenging to do, it wasn’t taxing, if that makes sense.

Day 3- Medium Giant Cambered Bar Overhead Press

Pressing with the giant cambered bar is a wild ride that really challenges your core and shoulder stability because the bar wants to shake on you.

These don’t bother me at all, and I suspect it’s just due to the lighter loads. I’ve been doing sets of 6, but again, it’s a lot lighter weight than I could normally use. I’m hoping my doing these though, it will address the core aspect of the overhead press so when it comes time to test it out my core is not the weak link.

To keep my shoulders healthy and functioning at their best, I’m doing the soft tissue and stretching work that I outlined last week here and here.

Like I said before, I’m not sure how it’ll work, but that’s the plan. I wanted to give you some insight into what I’m doing and, more importantly, why I’m doing it.

After my post yesterday, enough people expressed interest in how I’m currently training that I think I’ll send out a newsletter either this weekend or early next week with a sample week. If you’re interested, just sign up above.

  • Jacob VasapollI

    Nice outline Ben. Looking forward to the newsletter.

    • Ben Bruno

      Thanks Jacob! I’ll write it up soon and send it out this week or at the beginning of next week. I can’t say it’s thrilling, but it’s what I do.

  • Storm

    Ben – I’ve got the same issue with my shoulder when overhead pressing (seated or standing). My favorite substitution is the standing two-barbell two-handed landmine press. I use two barbells at the same time and just lean forward until the tips of the BBs are in front of my shoulders. I’ve only ever seen it done one-handed and/or kneeling, but this two-bar/two-hand version is really easy on the shoulders and spine, plus you can still load it up as heavy or light as your reps dictate. One tip is to place a bench underneath the barbells (directly under the edge of the plates is easiest) to sit them in between sets.

    • Ben Bruno

      That sounds cool. Thanks for sharing!

  • Rtokumura

    It is opposite shoulder of your knee? On a different note I have found that mashing my trap up against a loaded bar can really help relieve any tension in the upper trap, then smashing my lateral and anterior delt on the bar. Kettlebell armbars have helped too, lowering the kb down I can quickly assess how my shoulder feels. Great blog

  • Jordan, UK

    Hi Ben, I think it’s very useful to outline your plan and let everyone know what your doing and then talk about what worked and what didn’t. I think it gives you a lot of credibility rather than releasing a ‘new’ ‘foolproof’ program. I’ve only recently started following your posts but all look great so far. Thanks.

    • Ben Bruno

      Thanks Jordan!

  • RBK

    Theory: DL is more hardwired in the brain and CNS as a more stable, closed chain movement. On the scale of compound lifts, it is not that technical.

    The overhead press, when done open chain style, can be somewhat technical, requiring a lot of coordination between active stabilizers, and agonists. The lats, traps, RC, serratus, and delts must all fire in an orderly sequence with the appropriate level of tension in all groups.

    I think this may be one of those lifts that you will need to practice the actual lift, Pavel-style, daily, until your form is bulletproof. It shouldn’t kill your shoulder to do it, unless you have an improper groove, or overly dominant stabilizer.

    For example, a lat that doesn’t release enough, inhibiting the trapezius/serratus triangle to roll the scapula out of the way to allow the humerus free travel.

    Of course, you may have a severely hooked acronium, in which case, it may just be a contra-indicated movement altogether.

    Another training option would be to do it closed chain (handstand push up), and you can unload it with bands if necessary. Btw, I used to have the same problem, a painful click on the dominant arm eccentric. But there was nothing wrong with my shoulder structure, that proper patterning and a little more thoracic extension couldn’t solve. Now I OHPR body weight, no problem! Good luck..

    • Ben Bruno

      Thanks for the ideas!

  • Lucas

    Hi, Ben
    Perhaps you never really though about this, but maybe the reason why the press hurts your shoulders is your form – you’re not locking out and getting under the bar at the top of the movement.
    Mark Rippetoe on his book Starting Strength says that is this locked out position, with the shoulders shrugged upward, that works the posterior aspect of the shoulders, including the external rotators. Mark himself has rehabbed his shoulders from surgery with presses.
    If you can’t read the book (http://startingstrength.com/), at least see this video on him teaching the press (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJFjYyA40ss).
    Keep it up.

    • Ben Bruno

      Thanks Lucas!

  • Alan

    When doing dumbbell pressing, do you ever use a neutral grip? Since I don’t have access to a Swiss Bar or a Football Bar, I play around with the varying grips when I do dumbbell work.

    • Ben Bruno

      Alan, yes, I do all my dumbbell pressing with a neutral grip. Love it.

  • Coachjeremybrown

    A bottoms up KB press goal is man shit Mr. Bruno. No matter what the goal, most do not even attempt bc they are afraid of looking weak in order to get strong. I trained with master RKC’s and am studying under Kenneth Jay, (author of Perfecting the Press and Olympic Level coach) in the Kettlebell Institute. I applaud your well thought out program

    • Ben Bruno

      Thanks Jeremy! Sometimes you’ve got to put the ego aside to get stronger in the long run.

  • Md Peyton

    I have shoulder problems too, but never let it stop me from overhead pressing. The key is to keep your lats and traps super tight. My shoulder on really hurts when I get sloppy and relax my back. Treat it like bench – you are bracing your lats and traps so you have a stable base from which to press. Another key is to use your lats to lower the bar.

    • Ben Bruno

      Thanks!