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Overhead Pressing Power/Strength Movements

Waller, Mike MA, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D; Piper, Tim MS, CSCS*D; Miller, Jason MS, CSCS

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2009 - Volume 31 - Issue 5 - p 39-49
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181b95a49
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The purpose of this article is to discuss the execution of overhead pressing movements, from the shoulder press to the split jerk. There are numerous exercises and their variations that have been used by individuals in their strength and conditioning programs for increasing upper extremity pressing strength. Although the bench press tends to be a staple, standing overhead pressing exercises can be an alternative in strength and conditioning programs (7). Additionally, standing overhead pressing requires the upper extremity to generate the pressing force while using the lower extremity to generate a stabilizing force. The action of raising a load over a person's head will change the center of gravity, increasing the distance from the base, thus decreasing stability.

It is not within the scope of this article to address every selectorized machine, plate-loaded machine, strongman style press (log, stone, etc.), benches, or the other assorted applications on the commercial market. Therefore, this article approaches the subject and the necessity of a closed kinetic chain (CKC), with feet in contact with the ground, when performing overhead pressing while standing.

The importance of overhead pressing in a standing position is its applicability to a majority of sports because most sports tend to be played from a standing position and require some upper extremity strength. Movement of the feet will influence the lower extremity CKC if the athlete is performing a push jerk that has some minimal lateral foot movement versus the greater forward and backward motion of split jerk. Instructions of the split jerk will be discussed later, which will allow for clarity of its motion. It should also be noted that as the load (intensity) or complexities of the presses are increased through training, the lower extremity CKC will require an increase utilization of the lower extremity musculature to accelerate and stabilize the body.

This is not to say that an aquatic sport would not benefit from a CKC overhead press, but in most athletic events, if force is to be generated away from the body to an object or opponent, the athlete's feet will be in contact with the ground. It may not be that a CKC overhead press mimics any specific sport skill, but it does address an attribute that is required in many sports, which is pressing with the upper extremity, with a concurrent stabilization of the torso through the activation of the muscles of the trunk, and the assistance of the lower extremity in generating the force via pushing in the opposite direction against the floor.

At the present time, trunk activity has been examined during the execution of bench pressing exercise and not overhead pressing actions. The actions of the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external and internal obliques, spinal erectors, and multifidus are based on their anatomical functions (6). Differences in the activity of the trunk musculature between the standing shoulder presses and the split jerk are not available at this time and will need to be investigated in future research.

The law of action-reaction (Newton's third Law) states that the effects that one body exert on another are counteracted by the effects that the second body exert on the first pressing (2). Applying this law to overhead presses, a person's lower extremities are pushing against the ground with equal force. As the load increases in a standing press, the isometric action of the legs will have to increase. If the press is a power movement such as a push jerk, then the lower extremities will have to exert greater concentric forces to generate the upward vertical power necessary. The preceding descriptions are to lay the foundation of some of the variables that should be considered when coaching these lifts. This study is set in an order of progression with each overhead pressing exercise building upon the other.



The shoulder press, which requires a person to learn how to move their head around the bar, should be taught first to develop a movement pattern that will be needed to finish a push press. The most effective method to set up the shoulder press is to start with the bar resting on squat stands or power rack cradles at a height around the upper chest level. If a person is capable of obtaining a clean rack position, then use this to remove the bar from the stands (Figure 1). The bar should ideally rest across the upper pectorals, clavicles, and deltoids while being balanced by the hands. However, if a person cannot hold the bar across their anterior deltoids, they will need to hold the bar as close as possible to their chest while supporting the bar with flexed elbows and wrists or as much as flexibility will allow. Knees should be extended and torso straight.

Figure 1:
Clean grip.


There should be an inhalation to elevate the shoulders and chest prior to pressing the bar upward while extending the elbows and flexing the shoulders. Press the bar until the elbows are fully extended and the bar is directly over the shoulders (10). As the bar is being pressed, a person moves their head back around the bar. After the bar is above the head, the head should be pushed forward. The legs remain straight throughout the ascension of the bar until the elbows are at full extension (10).


Recovery from the fully pressed position is a controlled lowering of the bar with the arms until the bar reaches the anterior deltoids. Once the bar touches the shoulders, the legs may be used to further decelerate the weight of the bar but should not bend beyond a 1/4 squat position. The bar should be returned to the starting position using an explosive front squat action.


The next exercise that should be taught is the behind neck press, which allows a person to keep their neck neutral while the bar rests on their upper trapezius (Figure 2).

Figure 2:
Behind the neck press: start position.


A person may choose from 3 grip styles: the clean grip (see Figure 1), snatch grip (Figure 3), or a grip somewhere in the middle (see Figure 2). The most efficient method to set up the behind neck press is to start with the bar resting on squat stands or power rack cradles at a height that puts the bar close to the upper trapezius level. Rest the bar on the upper trapezius while holding the bar with the hands similar to a bar position used when squatting (4). The bar is removed from the rack just as if a squat was going to be performed except the lifter's knees and torso remain straight. If a person has tight internal rotators or pectoral musculature from excessive bench pressing, then obtaining this starting position may be difficult. The addition of stretching exercises to improve elasticity of these muscles will need to be implemented (Table 1).

Table 1:
Potential limiting factors in flexibility with corrective stretches
Figure 3:
Snatch: finish position.


To establish a solid base for the press contract, the lower extremity musculature, including the gluteals, in conjunction with the tightening of the abdominal musculature to establish a solid base of support. Push the feet into the floor and then press the bar upward (Figure 4). Focus on controlled elbow extension and shoulder abduction, with maximal force/effort through the arms and hands. Figure 5 is the end point when the bar is pressed with minimal cervical flexion, elbows are fully extended, and the bar is directly over the shoulders (4).

Figure 4:
Behind the neck press.
Figure 5:
Behind the neck press: finish position.


Recovery from the full-pressed position is a controlled lowering of the bar with the arms until the bar reaches the trapezius. If necessary, use the legs to decelerate the bar with the previously described squatting action. One repetition maximums should be avoided with this exercise as lowering the weight in an uncontrolled manner could place undue stress on the glenohumeral joint capsule. A dropping of the bar could also pose risk to the vertebrae should the lifter fail and drop the bar on their cervical neck area opposed to the upper trapezius, which can add in cushioning the bar impact. The behind neck press is most appropriately used for establishing range of motion of the shoulder joint capsule and strength in that range, which can add to overhead stability when performing snatch lifts. The additional benefit of the behind neck press is that it allows an athlete to perform a pressing motion without having to worry about hitting their chin or head with the bar (4). These 2 basic pressing movements, the barbell overhead press and behind the neck press, are important for developing upper extremity strength production.


The next lift in overhead pressing progression is the push press. It is similar to the shoulder press with the exception that the legs are used to help initiate the upward movement of the bar.


The most efficient setup method is exactly the same as the shoulder press, where the lifter removes the bar from its resting location on squat stands or power rack cradles (6). It will be necessary for the athlete to use a clean grip and rack the bar across the anterior deltoids with the knees and torso straight (6).


The athlete will contract their abdominal musculature prior to a forceful inhalation to elevate the shoulders and chest (3,4,6,7). Immediately after this raise of the shoulders, there should be a quick 1/4 to 1/5 squat, also called the “dip,” with a very rapid change in direction upward, generating vertical power “drive” (3,4,6,7). The bar will continue its upward motion from the continued application of force through the flexion of the elbow and shoulder. The push press is finished when the bar is pressed out with full elbow extension. The bar should be directly over the shoulders, with no rebending of the knees (6). During the upward movement of the bar, the person pushes their head through their arms until slightly forward of the arms. This forward motion of the head is achieved by thrusting the chin anteriorly as the bar clears the head while at the same time continuing shoulder flexion and moving the arms slightly posteriorly to place the bar directly over the shoulders.


Recovery from the fully pressed position is a controlled lowering of the bar with the arms until it reaches the upper chest and anterior deltoids. The knees bend to assist the decelerating of bar as it is received (7,8). The load on the barbell will typically be greater than the weight used for a shoulder press because of the use of the legs to initiate the action. This exercise is an explosive strength exercise as there is a component of speed associated with the generation of upward vertical displacement of the bar.



The push jerk or power jerk are names that have been used to describe the same exercise that is executed in the same manner as the push press with the exception during the pressing phase of the lift.


As an athlete explosively presses the barbell upward, they will simultaneously push themselves under the bar in a “jump down” motion (4,6). When the athlete's arms are straight (elbows at full extension and shoulders at full flexion) to catch the bar over head, the knees will be slightly flexed in a 1/4 squat position as seen in Figure 6 (4,6).

Figure 6:
Push jerk: finish position.


After the athlete catches the bar, they will stand up and demonstrate approximately about 2 seconds of control with the bar in the overhead position, then the bar is lowered back to the rack position across the anterior deltoids. It should be noted that with maximal attempts, bumper plates should be used so the athlete can use a control drop of the bar to the platform. Spotters on either side of the lifter can assist the athlete by grabbing the end of the bar when lowering the bar from the overhead position back to the rack position. If jerk boxes (stands) are used, then the bar is lowered to the boxes at the completion of the jerk in a controlled fall. Jerk boxes (stands) can be a 3-foot-long, 2-foot-wide wooden box or metal stand whose height can be adjusted according to the athlete.



The split jerk is a progression from the push jerk with the difference being that instead of pushing the body under the bar into the squat position, a split foot stance position will be used. Primarily, the split jerk is used for weightlifting, although the use of moving the feet in a cyclic split jump pattern may prove beneficial to triple jumpers, pitchers, and other sports requiring a similar lower extremity motion. A cyclic split jump is the motion of one leg moving forward while the opposing leg moving backward. A continual execution of these leg movements would result in the action of bounding. Therefore, inclusion of the split jerk may enhance the muscular stiffness of the legs, improving bounding efficiency.

At this point in the pressing progression, the athlete should have the pressing phase well established. The next part in learning the push press is determining which foot will go forward and backward. The easiest way to determine the proper lead foot is to ask the athlete to walk toward you. Typically, the athlete will step first with the dominant leg, which would be the lead leg in the split jerk.


The split motion is performed by a quick hip flexion of the lead leg and quick hip extension of the rear leg, with Figure 7 displaying the final catch position. The impact of both feet should occur at the same time with the front foot landing flat and the rear foot landing on the ball of the foot (3). Both knees should be slightly flexed and approximately hip width for maximal lateral stability (4). As in the jerk press, the legs will not only act as decelerators but will also have to be able to move quickly out of the way if a press is missed. The barbell should not move forward or backward but rather follow a strict vertical path (3,4).

Figure 7:
Split jerk: finish position.


Recovery from the split foot position is done by extending the front knee with a small step back followed by a step forward by the rear leg (3,4,6,9). If the steps by the feet are consistent, the athlete's feet should be close to parallel with each other when standing vertical (8). If the feet are not close to parallel, the coach should take some time to correct this error. The athlete or coach may choose to alternate the lead leg with repeated repetitions of the split jerk. This should be based on the overall goal of the athlete.


Snatch grip style presses are beneficial for improving overall shoulder girdle strength and can aid in improving the ability to catch the snatch lift. Snatch grip presses are performed in the same functionary manner as the traditional clean grip press motions with the exception of the bar's starting/resting position.


Snatch grip press has the bar resting on the upper trapezius of the athlete, behind the head and neck. A large difference between this lift and the clean grip presses is that the athlete will not need to move the head much as the bar placement will allow vertical motion to be largely unimpeded. Regardless of the specific lift, the bar is held overhead with the muscles (middle trapezius, rhomboids, and teres major) around the shoulder blades isometrically contracted, elbows locked, and the bar's line of force directly over the shoulder (see Figure 3). The contraction of the muscles around the shoulder blade will provide stability to the posterior side of the upper body to hold the barbell in place.

During the recovery of the snatch grip presses, it is advisable to have spotters on either side of the bar to assist lowering the bar back to the athletes rack position, especially when using near maximal loads. This assistance will decrease the chance of a shoulder injury during the eccentric phase of the lift as the bar returns behind the neck. However, as mentioned, when lowering the bar the athlete should use the legs to absorb the bar and not rely entirely on the shoulder musculature.

Each of the presses has specific errors that can take place but there are few that may occur more commonly and may be seen in any of them. Table 2 lists some of the common errors that can occur in any of the respective pressing motions along with possible corrective actions that can be used by the coach to assist in the development of the athlete.

Table 2:
Pressing errors and corrective actions


All the previously mentioned overhead pressing movements can be done with dumbbells (DB) or kettlebells (KB) with relatively the same technique. The differences arise from the motions being unilateral instead of bilateral, with unilateral pressing requiring an increase in shoulder and arm stabilization. Load application using the DB or KB will be less than the load used during a barbell press because of the individual distribution of the implements. The position of the implements while being held will vary, but the general adaptation will be the same. It is beyond the scope of this article to address all the differences between the DB and KB, so it is recommended that prior to their application, the strength and conditioning professional should familiarize themselves with these 2 implements. Using DB or KB are an alternative if adequate space or barbells are not available, and/or there is a large number of athletes who need to go through the weight room facility at one time. As the athlete becomes more proficient with the lifts, it may be prudent to progress to a barbell because heavier loads may be used and the additional use of a rack saves the athlete's energy for more complex or intense exercises, eliminating the need to lift a training implement from the floor.


One adaptation that can be made for overhead pressing is the use of machines that use a stack of plates selected with a pin or are loaded with traditional plates. These loads are moved with the use of lever arms, cams, or cables. They come in variations from standing to seated positions. The application of machines can find a place in a strength and conditioning program if an injury is preventing a particular free weight exercise from being efficiently performed or space is a consideration.

Strength professionals should also consider how the external forces will be distributed through the body when in a seated position. Sitting in a chair will spread the forces into the back pad and seat, thus adding support to help stabilize the body. When an athlete is pressing an object over head, the anchoring point will be their feet, with the vertical forces distributed through the trunk, hip, and leg structures (musculoskeletal system). However, when in a seated position with back support, the anchoring points become the seat and back pad. The vertical forces here are distributed through the trunk, hip, back pad support brace, and the seat braces. The added stabilizing effect of the seat may allow a person to press slightly greater loads because of the reduction in recruitment of other muscles (leg muscles) needed for stabilization in an overhead press.

Performing explosive strength exercises with machines are fine, but some of the muscular stabilization that is gained from using free weights is lost. A good time to use machines would be during an active rest phase, after a competitive season, or early in a general preparation phase. Inclusion of the machines at these times can provide the athlete a physical and mental recovery from the intense work that takes place just prior to and during the season.


Overhead pressing motions are a vital component to a strength program for developing upper extremity strength and explosive pushing ability. However, these benefits can be negated if incorrect technique is taught, maintained, or promoted. Table 3 displays the muscle actions of the presses along with the primary agonists, antagonists, neutralizers, and stabilizers to help with selecting the most applicable exercise for a particular athlete. There are a myriad of overhead pressing styles that can be implemented, but correct technique is just as critical for success as choosing the right exercise. Table 4 lists pressing actions with a sport application, and Table 5 provides guidance for volume, load, and program objective (1,11). It is the responsibility of the strength coach to select the most applicable press, specific to the athlete's goal. To effectively develop an athlete, there has to be the overall enhancement of strength and fitness before specific enhancement of attributes involved in that sport.

Table 3:
Pressing actions and involved muscles
Table 3:
Table 4:
Pressing actions and possible sports applications
Table 5:
Programming guidelines for applying exercise (1,11)


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    No Caption Available

    action-reaction; press; strength; stability

    © 2009 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association