The overhead press is a staple exercise in many strength and athletic training programs. It was a favorite exercise of old-school bodybuilders, with programs such as Bill Starr's "5 x 5" incorporating it as a main exercise. However, many current bodybuilders favor machine presses or dumbbell and cable raises over heavy overhead presses when it comes to building big shoulders. Including heavy overhead presses in your training, however, could be the best thing you could do for shoulder size.
Technique and Muscles Worked
Place a barbell in a squat rack at shoulder-height and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Assume a shoulder-width grip on the bar. Lift the bar from the rack and take a step back, then forcefully press the bar straight up until it's directly over your head. With elbows completely straight, pause for a second then lower it again. According to Charles Poliquin, owner of the Poliquin Performance Center, heavy overhead presses not only hit your shoulders, but target your trapezius and triceps muscles too.
Overhead presses are a compound exercise, meaning they work multiple joints and muscle groups simultaneously, as opposed to isolation exercises which focus on a single muscle group. Compound exercises should form the majority of your training program, says strength coach Christian Thibaudeau in his book "The Black Book of Training Secrets." They hit more muscle fibers and stimulate more growth than isolations.
The main case against heavy overhead presses building big shoulders is that they mainly work the front part of the shoulders. They do hit the side and rear deltoids too, but not as much as lateral or rear lateral raises do. However, according to Starr, increasing your overhead pressing strength will do far more for shoulder growth than doing hundreds of lateral raise variations. Rather than doing three different exercises to hit all the heads of the deltoid, Poliquin says that, for most people, the press will hit the whole shoulder perfectly and adequately.
The overhead press should be a mainstay in your routine for building big shoulders. For muscle growth to occur though, you need to constantly lift more weight or perform extra repetitions. Start with four sets of six to eight repetitions and aim to add an extra couple of reps, an additional set or 5 pounds to the bar each session. You also need a nutrient-dense, high-calorie diet to build muscle and a balanced training plan that hits all your other muscle groups. More advanced trainers may need to add shoulder isolation exercises such as cable or dumbbell raises to hit the other parts of the shoulder.
- Old School Trainer: Bill Starr’s 5 x 5 Training
- ACE Fitness: Standing Barbell Shoulder Press
- Charles Poliquin: The Case for the Overhead Press
- "The Black Book of Training Secrets": Christian Thibaudeau: February 2007
- Iron Man Magazine: In Defense of the Overhead Press
Mike Samuels started writing for his own fitness website and local publications in 2008. He graduated from Peter Symonds College in the UK with A Levels in law, business and sports science, and is a fully qualified personal trainer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist with accreditations from Premier Global International.