Overhead Press Progression and Training Variables
By: Barbell Logic Team
A lift or exercise is “trainable” when it responds to the cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation with limited complexity and will improve for a very long time. While the press is difficult to train, it is trainable. You do not need a lot of complicated assistance lifts to make your press stronger. The difficulty of training the press comes from the need for micro-adjustments and its relatively slow objective progress. Think of training your press like filling a bucket drop-by-drop, small changes over a long time. Here are some basic principles that will help you improve this difficult-to-improve lift.
The Overhead Press Progression
The overhead press is perhaps the most satisfying display of strength with a barbell. In the strength-exhibition days of the circus strongman, a barbell would not be on stage without it being pressed or supported overhead by the performer. This was more impressive to the paying crowd than a deadlift or clean to the shoulders. As Rip wrote in Starting Strength (3d ed.), “The day the barbell was invented, the guy who invented it figured out a way to pick it up and shove it over his head. After all, it is the logical thing to do with a barbell.” (Chapter 3, “The Press”.) Give a toddler something “heavy” and more likely than not, she will try to hold it overhead. We are anteriorly focused, “handsy” creatures, and while the deadlift may be a more primal display of strength, taking weight and pressing it overhead is the one that tends to matter most to us on an instinctive level.
At least until we start barbell training. Then, the press becomes a challenge, technically demanding and difficult to progress. The press has the longest possible kinetic chain of any barbell lift. (The links of the kinetic chain are every piece of the body involved in the production and transmission of force between your base of support and the weight you are moving.) Yet, it involves the least amount of muscle mass, acting as the primary movers to complete the exercise. Together, these things mean that the press is both critical to full-body strength and the most difficult of the main lifts on which to make long-term progress.
Below we will discuss a variety of methods to continue or induce progress on your pressing program. Keep in mind, however, that we are considering these in the vacuum of generality. There are useful principles and ideas, but how they fit into any program will vary greatly from person to person. Our suggestion is to take some of these basic principles, look at your training log, see how far your pressing program has come, where it needs to go, and make some Minimum Effective Dose (MED) changes that begin to take you there. But first, let’s look at the press itself. (Read here for a full discussion of Minimum Effective Dose Programming.)
What Kind of Press?
A press generally refers to any lift that puts a weight over your head. There are many different ways to do this:
- Seated presses
- Standing presses
- Partial range of motion presses
- Behind-the-neck presses
- Dumbbell Presses
- Machine Presses
- A Strict press
- A Press using hip movement
- A Push press
- Push or Split Jerks
But THE PRESS most often refers to a relatively strict, basic press, carried in front of you and pressed using only the upper body musculature. It is one of our four main training lifts. These main lifts—the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift—are the lifts that best drive general strength increases, and they are the benchmarks that we use to measure increases in strength. The lifts that use the most muscle mass, longest effective ROM, and allow for most weight to be lifted are both the most stressful lifts and (they tend to be) the most general lifts, using the most common equipment and setups. Together they give a good picture of full-body, general strength.
For the core of the novice program, the squat and the deadlift use the most muscle mass to perform work and allow us to lift the most weight. These are by far the best drivers of systemic stress—the kind of stress that signals hormonally-driven changes in strength. However, they do not locally train the musculature of large portions of the body, namely those that flex, extend, retract, elevate, abduct and adduct the joints of the upper body.
The press includes as much of this mass as possible while keeping the rest of the exercise selection criteria intact. This is the role of the press in a general strength program. As such, any variation of the press that forms the core of our program should rely on the muscles of the shoulders and arms to perform most of the work. We can rule out, a jerk or a push press or anything that shifts the concentric contractions of the work to the legs as redundant and detracting from the purpose of the press in our training.
Similarly, for our benchmark form of press, we can rule out the seated press, as it eliminates a large percentage of the kinetic chain, removing certain important contributions like the need to stay balanced and use your legs to help control the bar. Partial range of motion presses have the same issue, though they may allow you to lift more weight.
From our list above, this leaves one of the more standard pressing variations or the behind-the-neck press for us to consider as the core/benchmark pressing variation for the focus of our training. Mark Rippetoe has made perhaps the best argument against the behind-the-neck press, showing that it requires loads that are too light to be useful to most lifters’ programs:
“When the bar is behind the neck, the shoulders are put in a position that is not particularly advantageous under a heavy load. This position is right at the edge of the shoulder’s range of motion and puts a lot of stress on the ligaments that hold the shoulder together. . . . The behind-the-neck press places the humeral head in just about the worst position it can assume under a load. If this exercise is to be used in a program safely, it has to be done with such light weights that it becomes almost a waste of time if strength is the goal.” (“Starting Strength,” Chapter 3 “Press Variations.”)
That doesn’t mean people do not perform heavy behind-the-neck presses. Rip also notes that the behind-the-neck press “has been done with heavy weight by big strong men, but none of them got that way with this exercise.”
So, our benchmark press should be a standing variation, it should not use the legs, and it should start from a rack position held in front of the lifter. From here the basic model of the press uses the motor unit recruitment patterns, the support structures of the body, and basic mechanics to lift the most weight in the safest and most efficient ways. For a full description of the model of the press, read Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training (3d ed.). For a clear tutorial on how to press, see the video below:
Our preferred variation of the press is one that uses a slight forward hip movement to initiate the press. Gravity is pulling down on the barbell, giving definition to the plates and the bar in the form of weight or mass. Our goal is to move that mass through a defined range of motion—in this case from the bottom rack position to the lockout at the top of the press. Any force that is not working directly against gravity is inefficient, it doesn’t help accomplish our goal. That means that any horizontal movement of the barbell during its upward trip is the result of the lifter exerting a force that didn’t go toward lifting the barbell. To be more efficient, we need to move the bar in as vertical of an upward path as possible. We need to get our body out of the way and bring the barbell from its starting position—several inches horizontally forward of its eventual lockout position—back. The hip movement accomplishes this nicely. This forward hip movement uses the entire body to allow a vertical bar path. This is the kind of press demonstrated in the video (above) and a version of the press we typically refer to as the “Press 2.0.” More on that a little bit later.
Minimum Effective Dose Programming for the Press: Basic Principles
A lift or exercise is “trainable” when it responds to the cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation with limited complexity and will improve for a very long time. While the press is difficult to train, it is trainable. You do not need a lot of complicated assistance lifts to make your press stronger. The difficulty of training the press comes from the need for micro-adjustments and its relatively slow objective progress. Think of training your press like filling a bucket drop-by-drop, small changes add up to small PRs, and every big press is built on the dedication to fill your bucket bit-by-bit, pound-by-pound for a very long time.
Here are three basic principles that will help you improve this difficult-to-improve lift:
Stress must increase over time, but don’t let stress outstrip progress. As a basic programming tenet, your training stress goes up. This does not mean that your stress per workout goes up constantly in a linear fashion. It does that for a short time, during your Novice Linear Progression, when the amount of training stress used to drive adaptation occurs in a single workout. Eventually, the amount of training stress that induces a strength adaptation has to accumulate over multiple training sessions.
As you get stronger, it takes more stress to continue your progress, and in order to accumulate that greater amount of stress, you have to manage your time and recovery more closely. For an advanced athlete, you cannot put all the training stress needed to drive adaptation into a single workout. If you could, you would quite possibly kill the lifter. Instead, the advanced athlete will balance the accumulating training stress from many workouts with their ability to recover. Fatigue is the advanced lifter’s constant training companion, whereas a newer intermediate lifter will likely start each Monday feeling pretty fresh.
Importantly, the increase in training stress is based on what you need, not what you can do. In this sense, more stress is not always better. This is embodied in the Novice Linear Progression and in the Minimum Effective Dose toolbox. Just because you can induce more stress in a workout does not mean that you should. Instead, the goal is to increase the training stress enough to give you the maximum return on your training cycle.
As an example, when you first started lifting, there was a learning curve to the press. The first time you did it, it was difficult and the weight was relatively light as you learned the lift. But, since you had never performed the press before or with correct form, that was enough training stress to start your strength gains. After a few workouts, not only were you starting to get stronger, but you also became better at pressing. Say you started your press at 75 pounds and took 5-pound jumps from there. After two weeks, you were programmed to press 95 pounds for three sets of five repetitions. But, really, you’ve become more proficient in the lift and you could probably press 105 to 115, maybe more, for the same amount of sets and reps. So, why don’t you?
Bigger jumps in weight to what you can lift on any given day may seem like faster progress. But it is progress for the sake of progress and not for the sake of training stress. Perhaps you press 115 for three sets of five, but then you begin to struggle in your next workout. Now you have to make another change to your program. Every time you skip the minimum effective dose, you speed up the need for unplanned changes to your programming. And, you cut short the amount of time you can make progress with only single variables (like the weight on the bar) changing. In the short run, you may not notice these differences as much, but they will bring you to plateaus and take away your ability to make small adjustments that lead to big gains in the future.
The second principle is that the PR (personal record) is the single most important metric. Not necessarily a one-rep max PR, but heavier weights for a given number of sets and reps are the most important data in your training log. These are snapshots that show whether what you are doing with your programming is working or not. Ignoring the PR for too long, especially for earlier intermediate lifters, can lead to long term frustration as you may not know what programming shifts are working well for you and which ones are a waste of time.
The third basic principle we will look at with respect to the press is that you have three basic variables that you can nudge, pull, or twist to change the training stress within your program: exercise selection, volume, and intensity.
The Press Variables
Below is a basic outline of changes to make to your pressing program over a long period of time. These are not sequential. The timing of these changes, how they fit into your program, and how you make them is necessarily an individual experiment. You might think of these as conceptual ideas in your MED toolbox. Considered in the context of your training log, they should help you plan small changes to your pressing program and stave off the dreaded plateau.
There are not a lot of useful variations to the press. However, you can manipulate the basic press in several ways. Above, we mentioned the “Press 2.0.” This is the preferred press that uses a little bit of hip movement to improve your bar path and give you a slight stretch reflex at the bottom of the movement. The “Press 1.0” is a more mechanically difficult but less technically demanding variation, performed with a static stance and lower body in a strict fashion using no hip movement. It is a good option for training and is where many lifters will start, before learning the Press 2.0. You can combine these versions for an effective change to your programming without having to alter the sets, reps, or intensity of your training.
Press 1.0 to Press 2.0
If you started training with the strict press, learning the Press 2.0 version can help you continue to make progress without much change to your on-paper program. The Press 2.0 arguably satisfies the exercise selection criteria better than the press 1.0, and being good at it will help you lift a little bit more weight.
Press 2.0 to Press 1.5
When you have become adept at the Press 2.0, you can make another small change to your multi-rep sets. We usually call this the “Press 1.5.” It is less of a change to the way you perform the lift than it is a change to how you approach your sets. For the press 1.5, the first rep of every set is performed just like the press 2.0, hip movement at the bottom. But after the first rep, every other rep starts from the top of the movement. This means that after you breathe at the top, when your arms are locked out overhead, and you do not stop at the bottom. This gives you a stretch reflex at the bottom of the lift and tends to allow you to lift a little bit more weight for sets of 3 or more. The main reason for this is that it shortens the set and helps you stay tight throughout the movement.
The Pin Press
There is one primary assistance lift to the Press: The Pin Press. For the pin press, you set the spotter arms of your rack at varying heights, higher than your normal rack position and press from there. This changes the stimulus for the pin press for every different height setting you can manage. So, while this is the primary assistance lift for the press (and one of the very few we use), it is highly versatile.
The pin press will come later in your programming, when you have manipulated volume and intensity enough that you are consistently pressing ~2-3x per week (keep in mind that during the novice phase and 3-day Texas Method, you are pressing 1.5 times per week, typically). The pin press offers a lot of variation, so don’t be tempted by change for the sake of change. A good place to start training the Pin Press is at forehead height for sets of 3 repetitions.
Intensity and Volume
More subtle and varied are the ways that you can manipulate the variables of volume and intensity. As a review, volume is the total number of working reps during a workout or a training cycle. Intensity just refers to the weight on the bar. While a set of five repetitions has a different training adaptation than a single rep or a set or eight to ten repetitions, if we assume that the weight on the bar is sufficient for the given rep ranges, then volume is a useful metric by which to assess overall training stress. Volume, the way we are using it here, also accounts for frequency—or the number of times you perform a lift during a given cycle. The threshold intensity of your training matters a great deal but when you are systematically adjusting intensity, the goal is to put more weight on the bar for a given amount of volume.
When you are a novice, the only variable that changes is the weight on the bar. These represent changes in intensity. At first, you will be adding more weight, maybe five pounds per workout. Then, one of the first minimum effective dose changes you can make is to micro-load your overhead press. Switching from five pound increases every workout to 2.5 lb. increases or from 2.5lb increases to 1 lb increases can help you sustain regular progress on the lift. How you microload depends on you and your particular response to training. If you are a higher responder, then you shouldn’t need fewer than 2.5 lb increases on your press for most of your training career. If you are a lower responder, microloading can be in increments as small as half-a-pound if necessary. Smooth steady progress from microloading leads to far more gains in the long run than the lurching progress that you get from being greedy.
Sets and Reps Trickery
The next change to press programming usually isn’t much of a change at all. Recall earlier how we said that sets of 3 are different from sets of five? Well, in general sets of three are easier to complete and five sets of three repetitions is easier than three sets of five repetitions. So, the first change we usually make to sets and reps is to keep the volume the same, but manipulate the sets and reps in order to allow you to put a little bit more weight on the bar. This is an intensity-biased hack, essentially allowing you to complete the same number of repetitions with extra rest.
When trickery no longer works, then it may be time to hold the weight on the bar steadier and start adding a little bit of volume. Five sets of three can progress to four-sets-of-four to six-sets-of-three then five-sets-of-four and so on. Then, the intensity can increase and the progress can start over again with five sets of three repetitions. By keeping the weight on the bar the same though several workouts or cycles while manipulating volume, you have to get stronger to handle the increased training stress, but the weight on the bar increases gradually. This takes patience.
Top Sets + Backoffs
Eventually, you may progress to the point where the highest intensity that you are lifting is too difficult for more than one set. Next, you would add volume by adding backoff sets. As an example, you might switch from five-sets-of-three to one-set-of-three followed by three backoff sets of five repetitions. The exact number of sets and reps for both the top set and backoffs can vary greatly, but here you can add volume while maintaining a high level of intensity. Top sets followed by backoff sets is a great way to continually drive intensity upward or to introduce volume as needed. How you this change will depend on your programming.
Frequency Change and the 4-Day Split
Up to this point, if you have been regularly alternating your press and bench press workouts, you have been pressing three times every two weeks (or 1.5x/week). When you change this organization to a four-day split, one of the first and easiest changes to make is to add some pressing frequency to your program. Often this will mean that you will start pressing (and bench pressing) two times per week.
Your top set for your press will move to a different day than your volume backoff sets, and you will have both of these workouts every week, going from three pressing workouts every two weeks, combining intensity and volume, to four pressing workouts every two weeks, splitting up the higher intensity work and the volume work in order to continue to drive one or the other. Keep in mind that the simple change in frequency also represents a change in overall volume.
The overall goal through each of these changes is to continue to drive progress and set PRs for 3×5, 5×3, 1×3, 1×1, and in other rep and set ranges. You should challenge yourself to do more at a given rep range than you ever have before, setting PRs in many different forms. Doing so is the measure of the changes you make throughout your programming.
The four-day split is an excellent organization for your training. It opens up a lot of variables that you can begin to work with, change, and use for evaluation, that are not always available when you are training three days per week. There are definitely ways to work around a 3x/ week training schedule, but doing so takes a little bit more care, especially if you aren’t able to spend 2.5 hours in the gym.
For more press programming, listen to Matt and Scott lay out this basic outline, and follow the conversations on Minimum Effective Dose Programming at Barbell Logic: Articles, YouTube Channel, Podcast.