Barbell shoulder press: 7 common mistakes

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Before the bench press, another pressing exercise was in vogue: the barbell shoulder press, or barbell overhead press. An exercise that you don’t see very often in gyms anymore: we massively prefer a seated performance and dumbbells.

Okay, purely for hypertrophy, the barbell overhead press, or overhead press (OHP) for short, as we’ll call the exercise from now on, isn’t a must-do. The OHP causes relatively much central fatigue, more than with the seated dumbbell press.

But for the pure strength athlete, the OHP is an indispensable classic in our opinion, which is on a par with the squat, bench press, deadlift and bent-over barbell row. Every seasoned strength athlete should be able to push at least his body weight above his head.

The OHP is a compound exercise, in which almost your entire upper body comes into action: in addition to the shoulders (especially the front), the top of the chest, triceps, biceps and traps are also involved in the exercise.

Seemingly simple, the OHP is an exercise you can mess up in many ways. What follows is a summary of execution errors and tips.

1. GRIP TOO WIDE

Many people use a grip that is too wide on the overhead press – almost a snatch grip. That’s not the strongest position for this exercise. In addition, you limit your range of motion (ROM) and thus the effectiveness of the exercise.

The correct grip width for the overhead press is actually slightly wider than shoulder width and slightly narrower than the grip you use for the bench press. For example, I keep a thumb length away from the knurling’s inner limit when bench presses and a thumb width when doing shoulder presses. Keep in mind that the ideal grip width for the OHP does not exist: it differs per person.

By the way, I prefer a thumbless grip for the overhead press . That is, with the thumb in the same direction as your fingers and not around the bar. In contrast to the bench press, this suicide grip with the overhead press is relatively harmless. There isn’t really a theory to support this, but from practice I know that most people – myself included – feel that they can press more with this grip.

2. ARCHING THE BACK TOO MUCH

Some people arch their lower backs to such an extent and lean back so much that they almost turn the overhead press into an incline press. Not only does this performance compromise the effectiveness of the exercise, but you also increase the risk of a lower back injury by overextending your lumbar spine (hyperextension).

Your lower back should maintain its natural curve throughout the exercise. Your body may look a bit like an arc while pressing, but that’s because you’re using hip-drive during the lift-off and your hips come forward slightly. After that, you should not arch your lower back any further.

For good, stable posture while pressing, we recommend squeezing your buttocks and contracting your abs and quadriceps.

3. WRONG ELBOW POSITION

This is perhaps the most common mistake made by beginners. They keep their elbows slightly behind the bar. With your elbows behind the bar, you tend to press in front of your body and move away from your center of gravity. This puts unnecessary stress on the shoulders and lower back. You should actually keep the elbows slightly in front of the bar. This allows you to actually push the bar above your head.

Keep your wrists directly under the bar. Curved wrists puts too much stress on your wrists and you can even put less weight through them.

4. NO STRAIGHT LINE UP

In the overhead press, the bar has to pass in front of the head, so many tend to push her up in an arc. However, this comes at the expense of the efficiency of the exercise and therefore possibly also the weight you can use.

The way up should be as short as possible, in other words as good as vertical. To do this, your head has to give way to the bar and not the other way around. You do this by pressing your chest up and leaning your head very slightly back. When you press, move your head back a little further so that the bar can rise in a straight line. When the bar is up, return your head to a neutral position.

5. TOO LIMITED RANGE OF MOTION

Eyebrows, nose, chin… All clues to how far you should lower the bar on the overhead press before pressing them out again. That while you should in fact lower the bar down to your collarbones: the same position in which you start the exercise.

Some don’t even lower their upper arms beyond parallel to the floor. In fact, this is how you do lockouts and train your triceps rather than your shoulders. Use a full ROM for maximum effectiveness.

6. USING THE LEGS

We see some people, even just a little, use leg drive by bending and extending their knees slightly, creating momentum that allows them to press more weight. With this they actually turn the strict overhead press into a push press, a weightlifting exercise.

Okay, a bit of leg-drive (read: cheating) is okay as far as we’re concerned if you want to squeeze one last repetition.

7. LOWERING WEIGHT TOO FAST

In many exercises, but especially with the overhead press, people lower the weight too quickly. In doing so, they neglect the all-important eccentric phase of the exercise, which is important for both strength and muscle growth. In addition to your shoulders, the controlled lowering of the weight with the overhead press is also a great stimulus for your biceps, which play an active role in stabilizing the weight.

My experience is that if you lower the weight at the right pace, you tighten the bow, as it were, and you can also express the weight more easily.

FINALLY

You see: there is more that can go wrong with the overhead press than you might have thought. Haven’t mastered the exercise yet? First practice with an empty barbell. The overhead press is such a typical exercise where you can use some instructions from a (good) coach or personal trainer. Just looking in the mirror won’t help you, because the most important execution flaws come to light when viewed from the side. It is therefore a good idea to film yourself in profile with your smartphone.

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