If you lift weights regularly, you already probably focus on the overhead press to develop upper body strength. If you’re a newbie lifter who’s just starting with weight training, there’s no better time to get the basics right.
So, what are the best assistance exercises to make your overhead press stronger? The obvious answer is to do more overhead presses consistently, of course. After all, practice makes perfect. But you can also train supporting muscles with accessory exercises to build a bigger overhead press.
Keep reading to learn more about the accessory lifts that will give you better leverage from your workouts. These tips will add power and increase the strength of your overhead lifts. Join me as I walk you through the exercises step by step.
Overhead Press: A Quick Overview
The overhead press is done in the standing position with a bar on the shoulders. It involves pressing the bar upwards until it is overhead.
Another name for this exercise is the shoulder press because it works on the shoulder muscles.
However, an overhead press does much more than target the shoulders.
It also engages other muscles like the long head of triceps, upper chest, lower back, and abdominal muscles--more on these specific muscle groups below.
The overhead press can be a challenging exercise even for expert lifters. But it is possible to correct movement imbalances and gradually add power with total body awareness.
The key to accomplishing this is doing assistance exercises for the overhead press. These are secondary movements and press variations that help build power and make overhead pressing easier over time.
What Muscles Does Overhead Press Work?
The first thing you need to do to make any big exercise easier is to understand what muscle groups are involved in the main lift. This is true for all big exercises such as bench press, squat, deadlift, and overhead press.
An overhead press is a compound exercise, meaning it involves multiple joints and muscles. Here are the muscles that you engage when you are pressing overhead:
- Deltoids: These are the main muscles that perform the lift. All three portions of the deltoid muscles (back delts, side delts, and front delts) are engaged in an overhead pressing.
- Triceps: This muscle assists with straightening the elbows to press the weight above the head. It also supports the final position in the weightlifting motion when the arms are fully extended or locked out.
- Rotator cuff muscles: The rotation cuff group includes the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. This is a group of muscles that surrounds the shoulder joint. They become engaged when you balance the bar overhead.
- Traps: The shrugging motion at the end of each rep engages the trapezius muscles, which cover the shoulder blades.
- Abdominal muscles: The core muscles provide support and help you add weight to your lift. They provide stabilization and prevent you from falling over when the bar is overhead.
- Upper back lats: These muscles provide shoulder stabilization and assist with the lockout with the weight overhead.
- Legs and glutes: Since an overhead press is a standing lift, you need strong legs and glutes to flex and push hard and provide balance.
Lack of strength in these muscles can be a limiting factor in the main movements of the exercise. On the other hand, the bigger the muscle mass and stronger the musculature in these muscle groups, the better your overhead press.
Now that you know which muscles add muscular strength to your overhead press, we can go ahead and discuss the accessory exercises that will train these muscles.
Assistance Exercises For Overhead Press
1. Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press
Benefit: A seated overhead press is a less intense version of the standard overhead press or strict press. Press variations can help build shoulder strength.
How to do it:
- Pick up a dumbbell in each hand with a firm grip.
- Sit on a bench with a backrest. Make sure your head, shoulders, back, and butt are in contact with the bench. Your feet should be planted firmly on the floor. Engage your core and abdominal muscles for stability.
- Exhale and slowly lift the dumbbells to shoulder level. Your palms should be facing away from your body. Hold the dumbbells shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Wrists should be neutral (neither flexed nor extended).
- Take a deep breath. While breathing out, press the dumbbells up in a vertical line until they are overhead and your elbows are fully extended. Don’t allow your back to arch (it should be in contact with the backrest throughout).
- Next, breathe in and slowly lower the dumbbells to the starting position with elbows and wrists neutral and your back still in contact with the bench.
Safety Tip: While less intense, you can still injure your shoulders during different variations of the overhead press, especially if you use a poor technique or too heavy weights. If you experience any pain during the exercise, gently lower the weights and stop.
A variation of this exercise that you can try during strength training is the incline bench press.
To do an incline press, lie back on an inclined bench, place your hands on the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and make sure your palms are facing up.
Then, slowly lift the bar and press it up until your arms are stretched. Bring the bar gradually down to starting position and repeat.
Here's a variation of this exercise where I'm fully flat on my back.
Note how it's working my shoulders, biceps, and triceps.
2. Overhead Dumbbell Triceps Extensions
Benefit: Many lifters often ignore the triceps, and there is a general tendency to focus on the biceps. But, as mentioned above, the triceps play an important role in pressing overhead.
One of the best exercises for adding more muscle mass to the triceps is the overhead dumbbell tricep extension. Other good exercises are bench pressing and press-ups.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Pick up a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand.
- Raise the dumbbells over your head until your arms are fully extended.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells behind your head.
- Gently come back to the starting position.
Safety Tip: When you lower the weights behind your head during a triceps extension, be careful not to flare your elbows outwards too much.
Also, don’t use very heavy weights as this can increase the chances of an injury. Listen to your body and work with what you safely can.
3. Push Presses
Benefit: A push press is one of the best accessory exercises to build shoulder strength and upper body strength in general. It engages the core and helps to generate momentum with the lower body.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the bar with a firm grip ensuring your thumbs are wrapped securely around the bar. By ensuring a close grip on the bar and squeezing before you lift, you’ll activate the surrounding muscles more and achieve a better range of motion.
- Rest the bar in front of the shoulders and slowly drop into a squat position. Center your weight below the bar. Keeping your knees slightly bent will allow you to build power during the push press.
- Next, press down on your heels and lift the bar directly overhead until your arms are fully extended.
- Slowly lower the bar to chest level. The arch in your spine should be in a neutral position throughout the push press.
Safety Tip: Keep a fairly narrow grip and make sure your forearms are vertical below the bar during a push press. Do not drop too deep in the squatting position.
4. Triceps Dips
Equipment: Two sturdy chairs
Benefit: This is one of the best exercises to build strength and a full range of motion in the upper body muscles, including the triceps, shoulders, and upper chest.
How to do it:
- Place two chairs about 3 feet apart, facing each other.
- Sit on the edge of one chair and grip the edges.
- Place your heels on the edge of the second chair and lift your body.
- Slide forward slightly so that your buttocks extend in front of the chair’s edge.
- Slowly lower yourself until your elbows are bent at an angle between 45 and 90 degrees.
- Gently push back to the original position.
Safety Tip: Do not lock your arms fully - keep the elbows slightly bent. Do not dip too low, as you will risk straining your shoulders.
Equipment: Barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells
Benefit: Press variations like an incline bench press, close grip bench press, and thruster can be an effective full-body workout, helping you build strength for a strict overhead press.
A thruster is a compound exercise that combines an overhead press and a squat. It is more intense than a push press.
How to do it:
- Stand with the bar in your hands in a squat rack position. Hold the bar a little bit wider than shoulder-width.
- Slowly lower into a squat. Keep your elbows high, knees wide apart, and heels planted securely on the ground.
- Keep lowering yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Next, push the bar overhead until your arms are fully stretched out. Do this using the momentum generated by your quads and glutes.
- Return slowly to the starting position.
Safety Tip: To do a thruster safely, start by using only a barbell before gradually adding weight. Ensure correct form because an improper form can lead to injuries.
If you are doing the jerk grip, know that it requires high accuracy and coordination during the snatch.
Overhead Press Progression
The right way to progress with a shoulder press depends on the goal of your workout program:
What benefits are you seeking? Do you want to:
- Build more muscle mass?
- Gain more stability and mobility?
- Get stronger and lift heavier?
Here are some progression exercises for your overhead press.
Overhead Press for Muscle Growth
If you are mainly doing the overhead press for muscle growth, i.e., to build broader shoulders and a long head of the triceps, the easiest way to accomplish this is by focusing on doing more reps.
The best way to improve is to do reps in the 10 to 20 rep range while slowly getting stronger in your torso.
This means performing one all-out set with the correct form while pushing your performance as close to failure as possible.
If you are struggling to finish your reps without losing form, stay at the same weight. If you find you can do 20 reps easily with a certain weight, add 5 lbs and start working your way up to higher reps and greater fitness.
You should also focus on slowing down the exercise, as this helps build muscle by adding intensity.
Your progression could look something like this:
- Week 1 – 150×18
- Week 2 – 150×20
- Week 4 – 155×17
- Week 5 – 155×20
- Week 6 – 160×16
- Week 7 – 160×18
- Week 8 – 160×20
Super easy to do… and if you throw in some accessory exercises from this article, you’ll soon figure out that you’re building muscle faster.
Overhead Press for Muscle Strength
If you’re doing the overhead press to develop upper body strength, you must work up to one set that is an all-out set in the 10-20 rep range.
This is generally the approach for strengthening.
Since eccentric exercise lengthens the muscle fiber and concentric strengthens it, if your focus is to increase strength, do a slightly quicker eccentric and save your energy for a strong and explosive concentric.
Start with a weight that you can lift with proper form for 20 reps. Stay about 1-2 reps from failure, meaning stop as soon as you notice a slowing of the bar speed.
Here’s what your overhead press progression could look like:
- Week 1 – 100×20
- Week 2 – 105×18
- Week 3 – 110×17
- Week 5 – 115×15
- Week 6 – 120×13
- Week 7 – 125×12
- Week 8 – 130×10
Keep at it until you can’t go beyond 5 reps. Then back off on a heavier weight by 10-20% and try to beat your new personal record in the following weeks.
If you hit multiple plateaus during lifting, try adding some extra volume to push strength levels. You can do this by doing a couple of backoff sets.
This essentially helps you hit multiple personal records in many different rep ranges while pushing your strength up while avoiding burning you out with heavy weights.
It’s all a matter of total body awareness.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much should I overhead press?
A 150-lb male should be able to lift at least 56 lbs to as much as 199 lbs, while a 120-lb female should be able to lift at least 25 lbs to as much as 132 lbs.
Take note that these weights are not absolute. The best and safest way is to listen to your body and understand what you can work with safely, especially if you’re a beginner.
Can you do an overhead press with dumbbells?
Sure you can! Scroll back up and check out the dumbbell press in a seated position which I have described in detail.
Is shoulder press the same as overhead press?
Yes, the overhead press is also called a shoulder press. This exercise uses all the major muscle groups on the shoulder.
You can’t just wake up one day and do a big upper body exercise like an overhead press. It takes time to build up to a strong lift. In the meantime, you need other, less intense assistance exercises to help you prepare.
The accessory exercises described in this article are a great example of such a workout for the overhead press. They prepare you for the strong movements you need to lift big and strong.
I hope you found this article helpful. Tell me in the comments below how your overhead press progression is coming along. Do you have any favorite assistance exercises for overhead press?