While raw strength often determines how much you can overhead press, the correct overhead press grip hand placement also makes a difference in the amount of weight you’re able to lift.
So what is the ideal overhead press grip width? The ideal overhead press grip width is just outside your shoulders. You should be able to keep your wrists straight and your forearms vertical. With the proper grip, you should also be able to maintain tension in your upper back and generate force from your forearms to maximize your strength potential.
The right overhead press grip width is different for everyone and depends on your height, arm length, and shoulder mobility. But there are some rules to follow regardless of your body type and physical limitations.
In this article, I’ll discuss…
- Why grip width is important for the overhead press
- Provide four cues you should follow when finding the right grip width
Why Does Overhead Press Grip Width Matter?
You should treat the overhead press the same way you treat a squat, deadlift, or bench press. This includes setting yourself up for the lift properly and finding a grip that not only makes you stronger but also works for your body type and reduces your risk of injury.
Unlike with the bench press, a wide grip for the overhead press doesn’t have a lot of advantages. A wide grip can actually make your overhead press weaker because you aren’t able to use your triceps as much and may have trouble with your lockout.
A wide overhead press grip also makes you more likely to flare your elbows. This places a lot of stress on your shoulders and can result in a curved bar path, making the lift inefficient.
Alternatively, if your overhead press grip width is too narrow, you risk putting your shoulders in internal rotation. This can lead to shoulder impingement, which occurs when your rotator cuff rubs against the outer edge of your scapula.
Want to learn more about grip width in the bench press, then check out the following articles:
- 8 Close Grip Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
- Wide Grip Bench Press: Is It Better?
- 6 Different Types Of Bench Press Grips
How To Find the Right Overhead Press Grip Width For You
Set the rack at a height that allows the bar to be at the same height as your collarbone. Then place your hands on the bar just outside your shoulders. For most people, the hands will be about a thumb’s length away from the shoulders or about 1-2 inches away from the smooth part of the bar.
Some lifters may notice that a slightly wider or narrower overhead press grip width feels more comfortable. If you’re not experiencing any pain and you’re using proper technique otherwise, feel free to experiment with your hand placement to find a grip width that works best for you.
4 Rules to Follow When Finding Your Overhead Press Grip Width
There are 4 rules you should follow when determining the optimal hand placement for your overhead press:
- Hold the barbell in the meaty part of your palm
- Keep your forearms vertical
- Keep your elbows slightly in front of you
- Keep your wrists neutral
1. Hold the Barbell in the Meaty Part of Your Palm
Although it may feel more natural to hold the bar closer to your fingers, it’s not the most efficient way to perform the overhead press.
Holding the bar close to the base of your palm allows you to generate the most amount of force when pressing the bar overhead because you’re able to leverage more power from your forearms.
Many lifters also like to use what is called a bulldog grip. It’s called this because it resembles the way a bulldog’s front paws turn in slightly.
The bulldog grip is achieved by gripping the bar and then rotating your hands in slightly so your thumbs point towards the ground. Gripping the bar this way prevents you from bending your wrists too much, which has some negative effects on the overhead press, as I’ll discuss below.
2. Keep Your Forearms Vertical
Your forearms should be vertical to the floor, parallel to each other, and perpendicular to the bar. This will be important once you start pressing the bar overhead since it will allow you to follow a straight bar path.
While some lifters can rest the bar on their deltoids while still keeping the forearms vertical, this won’t be possible for others depending on arm length and shoulder mobility. It’s also more difficult if you have longer forearms in relation to your humerus.
In this case, it’s okay if the bar doesn’t rest on your deltoids. It’s more important to keep your forearms vertical than it is to try to force the bar to sit on your shoulders.
3. Keep Your Elbows Slightly in Front of You
If your overhead press setup is correct, your elbows should be slightly in front of your body when viewed to the side. You don’t want your triceps to be horizontal to the floor like they would be for a front squat, but your elbows shouldn’t be angled backward, either.
Keeping your elbows in front of your body allows you to engage your upper back, which helps stabilize the weight. However, you’ll want to avoid pinching your shoulder blades together. Squeezing your shoulder blades prevents upward rotation, which is necessary during the lockout portion of the lift because it helps prevent shoulder impingement.
4. Keep Your Wrists Neutral
Even though a slight bend in the wrists is okay, you don’t want them to bend so far back that they’re at a 90° angle.
If your wrists are bent too much, they’ll no longer be stacked over your forearms and elbows, and you’ll lose a lot of your power. The bar will also be out of alignment as you start pressing the bar overhead, which will throw off your balance and make it more difficult to control the weight.
You may also develop wrist pain over time due to the repeated pressure of a heavy barbell on your wrists.
If you have wrist pain when doing the overhead press even if your wrists are in a neutral position, wrist wraps may help. Check out the article 8 Best Wrist Wraps for Powerlifting for a list of the best wrist wraps on the market.
How to Know if Your Overhead Press Grip is Too Wide or Too Narrow
If you’re experiencing any of the below issues, you may need to fix your hand placement.
You Feel Pain in the Front of Your Shoulder
The overhead press shouldn’t cause pain or discomfort in your shoulders. If it does, your grip is either too narrow and you’re placing your shoulders in internal rotation, or your grip is too wide and you’re unable to use your triceps and deltoid muscles efficiently.
Feel Tension in Your Upper Back
Although the deltoids, triceps, and pecs are the prime movers in the overhead press, the muscles of the upper back also play a role. They’re responsible for stabilizing the weight and for producing upward rotation at the top of the lift.
If you don’t feel tension in your upper back when setting up for the overhead press, your forearms may not be in the correct position. You’ll need to adjust your grip width until your forearms are more vertical.
Your Overhead Press Is Weak in Relation to Your Other Lifts
The overhead press is difficult to progress on, even for experienced lifters. There are a lot of factors that contribute to a weak overhead press, but sometimes making simple adjustments to your grip can help maximize your strength potential.
Should You Use a Regular Grip or Thumbless Grip for the Overhead Press?
If you experience wrist pain or have trouble keeping your forearms vertical with a regular grip, you can use a thumbless, or suicide grip.
A thumbless grip is when you place your thumb next to your index finger instead of wrapping it around your fingers. Many lifters like to use it because it’s easier to keep the wrists neutral, and it’s more comfortable for the shoulders. Some lifters also report feeling stronger with a thumbless grip.
Although a thumbless grip isn’t recommended for the bench press, experienced lifters can use it for the overhead press because it’s easier to get out of the way of a failed overhead press. However, a thumbless grip shouldn’t be used for push presses or push jerks, since the bar can easily slip out of your hands on these power-driven movements.
I also recommend that beginners stick with the regular grip until they’ve perfected the movement and learned how to control the bar overhead.
Everyone’s overhead press grip width will be different. Regardless of where you place your hands, you should always make sure you’re holding the bar near the base of your palm, your forearms are vertical, your elbows are slightly in front of you, and your wrists aren’t bent.
Following these cues will not only make the overhead press easier to perform but will also reduce your risk of injury and make your overhead press stronger.
Check out these other overhead press guides:
- Overhead Press in Gyms with Low Ceiling (7 Tips)
- 9 Best Overhead Press Alternatives
- Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
- Does Overhead Press Make You Shorter? (Science-Backed)
- Can You Overhead Press Every Day? (Pros & Cons)
- How to Improve Your Overhead Press Lockout (8 Tips)
- 7 Tips to Improving Your Overhead Press with Long Arms
- Bench Press vs Overhead Press: Differences, Pros, Cons
- 13 Overhead Press Cues To Increase Strength (With Pictures)
- Why Is My Overhead Press So Weak? (7 Fixes That Work)
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.