As far as honesty goes, nothing will make you more honest and humble than including the barbell strict press into your workout routine.
I’ve said it in many articles I’ve written in the past, and I’ll say it again here: There’s a reason I don’t see it enter many people’s workouts when I go to the gym.
That reason is because it’s hard and there’s no real way to cheat into a stronger result. As feared as this movement is, the truth is, as long as you’re in good health, you should probably be practicing it for improved upper body strength and development.
I’ve noticed a lot when it comes to the overhead press: For one, it’s probably the most technically specific of the big lifts.
If you don’t follow certain instructions to the tee, you’re going to have a weak press and a low ceiling on how strong you get. It’s as much a co-operation with physics as it is a dance with rhythm and timing on your side.
At 6’4” and 250, I’m not built for the strongest lifts with my extremities. But I can definitely be proud of overhead pressing numbers that can hold their own – most importantly, done with very good technique and no excessive low back arch. Around my way, that’s pretty rare.
But enough about me. I’m going to use my experience and a little science to give you 3 movements worth their weight in gold if your goal is to improve your overhead press.
1. Kettlebell Angled Presses
This is a movement you’ve probably heard very little about. Most people’s issues with strong presses come from mobility restrictions and the inability to properly get the hands overhead without the lumbar spine compensating (via overarch) to do so. There’s a lot going on here that the typical unilateral trap raise doesn’t attack.
First of all, the movement still takes advantage of the proper force angle, but encourages an isometric contraction of the shoulder retractors and postural muscles, since the bell is being held in close (in other words, you’re not allowing gravity to pull the bell down towards the floor, for the duration of the entire set).
In addition, the lever arm created by the arms sliding forwards and outwards creates plenty of work for the thoracic spine extensors, while making sure the deltoids are less involved (since there’s no “raise” component to the lift).
In the trap raise, I’ve found that missing the technique on a few reps can allow the shoulders to jump in and initiate the “lift” pattern. With the KB press, there’s less room for that, since the delts would only get involved closer to the end of each lift, and not throughout).
Third, the fact that a kettebell is being used rather than a standard dumbbell is a big deal. The weight distribution of the bell makes the weight feel that much more daunting at the top of the force curve. It’s a subtle change, but it makes a big difference.
Think about holding 10 pounds out in front of you with a dumbbell, then holding that same 10 pound dumbbell on a string so it hangs to waist level, though your hands are still outstretched at the same level and place.
My favorite part about the KB angled press is the fact that it encourages a rigid trunk and spine. Because you’re carrying the bell in both hands, the torso isn’t allowed to “rest” on anything. That activates many more muscles to encourage good, even spine posture through the entire back. As you go through the movement, it’ll ask a lot more of you to maintain good form.
2. Barbell Z Press
The Z press is a strict press in disguise. And the disguise is that it asks for even stricter form. Simply put, sitting flat on the floor to perform overhead presses even further exploits trunk strength and stability, shoulder mobility, and upper body force production since the legs can’t enter the lift in any way.
Moreover, going through the classic backward lean cheat pattern while in this position will only cause you to fall over. This lift forces you to be honest with yourself and your abilities – and if you can get to ¾ of your strict press weight, you’re off to a great start.
My opinion: Training this lift for higher rep ranges than typical strength training makes for a wonderful supplement to your strict press.
3. Cobra Pulldowns
We all know that strong pressing strength is going to hinge upon scapular stability. Whereas presses are important for the specific skill itself, pulling movements will improve upper back strength, which is where all 4 of the rotator cuff muscles originate, and would benefit from added strength and even mass.
I chose the cobra pulldown because it allows more scapular movement than the standard lat pulldown with a bar. Since the shoulder blade moves in congruency with the upper arm as the hands move overhead, proper scapular movement is just as important as its stability during a press.
Training through a full range of motion during pulldowns (seen in the video) will help shoulder health and good mechanics.
4. Ab Wheel Rollouts
To help stop the back from sliding into hyperextension, it takes a collaborative effort between the lower abdominals and the glutes. Though rollouts target the entire rectus abdominus, they also tackle a task that’s invaluable to a strict press: That of overhead movement while keeping the trunk engaged.
Using a hollow body, you’re engaging your abs the entire time you roll the ab wheel away from you. The second you allow your back to arch and the stomach to fall inward, you’re going to feel it – right in your lower back. This is a horizontal demonstration of the demands of a standing overhead press.
Getting good at rollouts will mean good form for your presses. If starting from the toes is too demanding (which it probably is), start from the knees, or even use a raised surface as you kneel on the floor.
If you want overhead strength, you have to acknowledge all the areas of fitness doing overhead work depends and relies on.
Once you do, you’re off to the races. If you’re not there yet, use these golden tools to help your cause, and you’ll be making leaps and bounds in no time.