I know some strength and conditioning coaches who don't like to program high rep overhead pressing because it's too fatiguing and takes away from other training outcomes. However, it may have its time and place depending on the person.
So what is high rep overhead pressing? High rep overhead pressing is performing 12 or more reps in the overhead press. This means using between 40 to 60% of your 1 rep max.
In this article, I will go through everything you need to know about what high rep overhead pressing is, and what the pros and cons are to help you decide whether it's right for you.
What Does High Rep Overhead Press Mean?
High rep overhead pressing means performing 12 or more reps in the overhead press. This type of rep range is usually done with hypertrophy (muscle growth) and muscular endurance in mind.
The overhead press is more commonly performed in a low to medium rep range, where 1 to 8 reps are considered low reps, and 6 to 12 reps are considered a medium rep range.
High reps mean performing low-intensity loads(<70% 1RM) in the exercise, whereas low reps can be performed with high- and moderate-intensity loads. Research shows that both ends of the intensity range can be effective for increasing muscle mass.
Strength athletes may choose to perform high reps in the overhead press for various reasons. They may overhead press with high reps to break through a plateau that they have reached with overhead pressing with low reps. They may also do high reps so that it does not clash with the type of demand from doing low reps in other pressing exercises.
5 Benefits of High Rep Overhead Press
Here are some benefits of performing high rep overhead press:
- Build muscle mass in deltoids and triceps
- Break through plateaus in your overhead press
- Break through plateaus in your bench press
- Increase overhead press strength in beginners
- Improve overhead press technique
1. Build Muscle Mass in Deltoids and Triceps
The overhead press primarily activates the deltoids and triceps but also engages the serratus anterior and the trapezius muscles too.
The deltoids are the bulk of your shoulder muscles that you can see.
The serratus anterior muscles are attached from the rib cage to the side of your shoulder blades. They protract and upwardly rotate your shoulder blades.
The trapezius are your upper to middle back muscles.
High reps will mean that you have to use low load intensities, which often means below 60% of your 1 repetition maximum. Low load training has been shown in research to be very effective at increasing muscle mass.
High reps for the overhead press may be better than low reps with respect to time efficiency. This is because you perform more reps in each set, meaning that you need not do as many sets overall in a workout.
2. Break Through Plateaus in Your Overhead Press
Performing high rep overhead press can also be an effective way of breaking through any plateaus you have in increasing your overhead press strength.
You may have a plateau in your overhead press because you have a stubborn sticking point somewhere in your range of motion. A common sticking point in the overhead press could be when the barbell is at chin level or at forehead level.
Performing high reps can help you train through that weak point with more repetitions, and you can perform more repetitions from dealing with a low-intensity weight.
You are going to be able to perform more repetitions through the sticking point with high reps and low loads than with low reps and high loads. With low reps and high loads, your sticking point may be more prominent as you try to work at higher intensities and push through heavier loads.
Do you have trouble locking out your overhead presses? Check out these 8 tips for improving your overhead press lockout.
3. Break Through Plateaus in Your Bench Press
A high rep overhead press can also be a useful tool for increasing your bench press if your shoulder and tricep muscles are weak.
In the bench press, research has shown that the tricep and deltoid activation relative to chest muscles increases as you perform higher intensity loads.
So the high rep overhead press can be useful for long-term improvements of the 1 rep max of your bench press over time by increasing mass in the muscle groups that are more activated at higher intensities.
Learn more about how the overhead press can help improve your bench press.
4. Increase Overhead Press Strength for Beginners
High rep overhead pressing can also be effective at increasing strength in the overhead press, particularly in more novice to intermediate exercisers.
Research suggests that there is a relationship between the dose training intensity and the response to strength training. That means that there is an optional range of intensities that elicit the best results. Above and below that range brings out suboptimal results.
Novice lifters tend to respond better to lower intensity training and naturally can perform higher reps at lower intensities. For these lifters, high rep overhead pressing is a good protocol for increasing overhead press strength.
If you’re looking for more ways to improve your overhead press strength, check out these 7 tips for overcoming a weak overhead press.
5. Improve Overhead Press Technique
High rep overhead pressing is also a good way of improving your overhead press technique. To be able to improve your technique, you need to be able to perform more repetitions and also train with a load that does not challenge you too much.
If a load is challenging you too much, you end up focusing more on lifting with high effort as opposed to paying attention to how you are moving in the repetition.
This makes high reps for the overhead press a good idea. On top of this, I would suggest avoiding going towards failure so that your weaknesses or imbalances do not come out. If you train with poor movement and technique, you actually reinforce poor movement and poor technique.
An often overlooked element of proper overhead press technique is hand placement. Learn more about grip width and hand placement in the overhead press so you can maximize your strength gains.
Drawbacks of High Rep Overhead Press
Here are some drawbacks of performing high rep overhead press:
- It is inferior for building overhead press strength in advanced lifters
- It can make shoulder imbalances worse
- It can cause more fatigue than low reps
1. It Is Inferior for Building Overhead Press Strength in Advanced Lifters
High reps with the overhead press are inferior for building strength in the overhead press, specifically for anyone who is intermediate or more advanced.
The majority of research shows that higher intensity loads in strength training are superior for bringing about increases in muscular strength.
This is because higher intensity loads are important for activating more specific motor units, which is a combination of nerve cells that are attached to muscle fibers.
These motor units are called high threshold motor units because they require a high threshold of tension in the muscles for them to be activated. They are more responsive to high-intensity loads and contribute to the majority of your strength gains.
2. It Can Make Shoulder Imbalances Worse
If you have any underlying shoulder imbalances, performing high reps in the overhead press can reinforce the shoulder imbalances.
Shoulder imbalances will occur if there are postural imbalances between the left and right sides of your body.
When you perform high reps, you spend a lot of reps reinforcing those imbalances and letting your stronger arm take over. This is because the overhead press is a bilateral movement, which means you are performing the exercise with both arms at the same time.
To fix shoulder imbalances, you should consider training with unilateral exercises, which means exercises that hit one side at a time. Good unilateral exercise alternatives to the overhead press may be the landmine press or single-arm dumbbell shoulder press.
3. It Can Cause More Fatigue Than Low Reps
Performing high reps in the overhead press, especially if performed to a closer proximity to failure, can cause more fatigue than with low reps.
Research has suggested that training higher reps closer to failure can cause more neuromuscular fatigue than with lower reps closer to failure.
This may be more useful to keep in mind if you are a competitive strength athlete who needs to take fatigue management into consideration for competition preparation.
If you’re preparing for a powerlifting competition, check out How To Taper For Powerlifting (6 Mistakes To Avoid).
Is High Rep Overhead Press For You? How To Know
Are You Free From Shoulder or Back Injuries?
If you are carrying any shoulder or back injury, you should avoid high rep overhead pressing.
High reps on the overhead press will require a high frequency of movement in the shoulder's full range of motion, so any shoulder injury or pain can be exacerbated.
High reps on the overhead press will also require a long time under tension in your core muscles, so it may risk straining your lower back if you do not have the full working capacity of your trunk.
To avoid lower back discomfort when doing the overhead press, follow these 6 tips for overhead pressing without back pain.
Has Your Strength Plateaued in Your Overhead Press?
If you have a plateau in increasing strength in your overhead press, you may want to consider high rep overhead presses.
Particularly, if you have been doing low reps and high intensity for a while, or if you are no longer progressing with your current training prescription, high reps in the overhead press may provide a novel stimulus enough to break through the plateau.
High reps in the overhead press can also increase the number of reps you can do for the higher intensity loads. A good place to start is to perform between 12 to 15 repetitions for the overhead press.
Do You Need to Build Muscle?
If you want to build muscle in the shoulders and triceps, you should do high rep overhead presses. If you do choose to do high reps in the overhead press, you should push the sets quite hard and train close towards failure.
The closer you train towards failure, the more you activate the important muscle fibers that are most responsible for your muscular strength and size gains.
An important condition for training close to failure that you should keep in mind is the condition of already starting with proper technique. Training high rep overhead presses to failure is best for lifters who have already mastered their overhead press technique.
A good place to start is to go for 12 to 20 repetitions for the overhead press.
Do You Need to Build Muscular Endurance?
If you want to build muscular endurance in the shoulder and tricep muscles, high rep overhead press is appropriate for you.
Muscular endurance may be a useful quality to improve upon to break through plateaus in your training for muscle hypertrophy or muscular strength. Muscular endurance may even be a necessary quality for sports-related tasks, such as if you are an overhead athlete (i.e. you play baseball/softball, volleyball, or participate in throwing events in track and field).
Muscular endurance can be achieved by doing 15 to 20 repetitions for the overhead press.
Frequently Asked Questions: High Rep Overhead Press
Why is the Overhead Press So Hard?
The overhead press is so hard because it requires a high degree of shoulder mobility and midline and core stability. It also uses a lot of small stabilizer muscles in the shoulder girdle that can fatigue easily. Additionally, you need to exert a lot of effort to hold your breath and brace to maintain a rigid posture.
Does Overhead Press Increase the Bench Press?
The overhead press may increase your bench press strength because you are increasing strength in muscles that are activated in both exercises, specifically the front deltoids and triceps. If your pecs are a weakness in the bench press, performing the overhead press is unlikely to increase the bench press.
What is the Best Rep Range for Overhead Press?
If you are looking to increase strength, lower reps in the range of 1 to 8 are best. If you are looking to increase muscle hypertrophy, aim for the rep range of 6 to 15. If you are looking for muscle endurance, then higher reps in the range of 12-20 may be more beneficial.
Other High Rep Training Guides
- High Rep Deadlifts: Should You Do It? (Benefits Explained)
- What Are The Benefits of High Rep Squats? (Science-Explained)
- 5 Benefits Of High Rep Bench Press (Science-Backed)
- Do Powerlifters Do High Reps? (Yes, Here’s Why)
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com