Lifting weight overhead — whether by pressing a set of dumbbells, heaving a carry-on bag into an airplane’s overhead compartment, or stacking dishes onto a high kitchen shelf — is a common movement in our daily lives.
While we often do it without much thought, as in the case of many everyday chores, pressing objects overhead carelessly can be dangerous. When setup is poor or the wrong muscles are engaged, the press can lead to aches and tension in the neck, shoulders, elbows, and lower back.
When done well, however, it’s a powerful way to build strength and stability in the arms, back, and core while improving mobility and posture.
The more mindfully we perform the exercise and its variations, the better those skills will transfer to everyday life — making it easier and more comfortable to lift and reach overhead.
1. Place a barbell in a rack at shoulder height. Load it with an appropriate weight (or, if you’re a beginner, use just the bar with no added weight) and stand facing it.
- Tip: Widen or narrow your grip to find a comfortable position. Keep your elbows close to your body to protect wrists and shoulders.
2. Assume an overhand grip and step close to the bar, allowing it to sit across your chest, on the front of your shoulders. With feet about hip width apart, lift the bar up and step away from the rack.
- Tip: Stack your shoulders over your hips, drawing shoulder blades back and down.
3. Brace your core and glutes and, with control, press the barbell straight overhead, moving your chin out of the way. Once your arms are straight overhead, reverse the movement and slowly lower the bar back to your chest.
- Tip: As you lift, take care that your wrists are straight and your forearms perpendicular to the floor.
- Tip: Draw your abs in and pull your ribs down to stabilize the shoulders and protect the lower back.
Note: You can also do this move with kettlebells and dumbbells. Try holding weights in both hands, or perform the exercise with one arm at a time. For one-armed presses, take care to stay upright — shoulders over hips — and avoid bending or shifting weight to one side.
Overhead Press Variations
Push Press: Set up to perform an overhead press as described above. Before beginning to press, bend your knees slightly and squeeze your glutes. Then “pop” your hips as you punch the weight overhead to put a little more power behind the press. You’ll likely be able to lift heavier weights by recruiting the glutes this way.
Z Press: Perform an overhead press while seated on the floor, legs straight in front of you. Remember to keep your back straight and shoulders over your hips. This variation will further challenge your postural muscles.
Bottoms-Up Press: Use a kettlebell to perform this variation, holding the handle with the bottom facing the ceiling instead of resting the bell on your forearm.
For moves to warm up and mobilize your shoulders, read “Fitness Fix: Improve Your Shoulder Mobility.”