Overhead Press In Gyms With Low Ceiling (7 Tips)

you can overhead press with low ceilings by avoiding performing them in an upright stance

The standing overhead press is great if you have a gym that is spacious enough for you to perform this exercise but sometimes you may be unlucky to find that you have low ceilings in your own home gym. You might find out that the barbell will hit the ceiling if you performed the exercise, especially if you are tall.

So how can you overhead press in gyms with low ceilings? You can overhead press with low ceilings by avoiding performing them in an upright stance. Alternative ways can include a Z press, seated overhead press, overhead press in a split stance, and kneeling overhead press. You can also use bands/chains and smaller plates to avoid hitting your ceiling.

In this article, we’ll give you 7 ideas for performing the overhead press in gyms with low ceilings so you don’t have to give up training your shoulders. 

Why Keep Overhead Press In Training Even With A Low Ceiling?

Many people who have low ceilings might think to themselves, “What’s the point of keeping the overhead press in my program? Should I ditch it or keep it?”

The overhead press, specifically with a barbell, is one of the most useful exercises to keep in your training whether your goal is to build muscle, develop strength or improve athleticism. 

We’ve even discussed previously the major benefits overhead pressing has for powerlifters looking to improve their bench press strength. 

Additionally, the overhead press is one of the best exercises for shoulder stability.  It strengthens the rotator cuff muscles, which are important for protecting vulnerable tendons around the shoulder joint and preventing injuries like a rotator cuff tear.

Here are some other reasons why you should keep the overhead press in training:

  • You can train overhead strength with minimal equipment
  • It challenges the core muscles in overhead strength 
  • It trains to keep shoulder joint and shoulder blades mobile
  • It can provide adequate stimulus for hypertrophy (building muscle)
  • It keeps shoulders healthy for powerlifters

So rather than giving up on the overheard press altogether, let me give you 7 ideas that you can use when overhead pressing with low ceilings.

7 Ways To Overhead Press With Low Ceiling

7 ways to overhead press with low ceiling

If you cannot perform a standing overhead press with a barbell and plates loaded, you can change the way you position your body or you can use alternative ways to load the barbell. 

The 7 ways you can overhead press with low ceilings are:

  • Use smaller plates on the barbell
  • Use resistance bands on the barbell
  • Use chains on the barbell
  • Perform Z press
  • Perform seated overhead press
  • Perform kneeling overhead press
  • Perform split stance overhead press

1. Use Smaller Plates on the Barbell

If you are using 45lb size plates on the barbell and the plates just about make contact with the ceiling, then you should consider changing the plates you use on the barbell. Most 45lb weight plates are 17.72 inches in diameter. 

So, you can consider using smaller size plates to make up the loading on the barbell. This may help you reduce your required ceiling height by between 2 to 6 inches depending on how small the plates are that you are using.

I would recommend getting either 25lb plates or 35lb plates. The smallest diameter 35lb weight plates that I could find on Amazon came in at 14-inches in diameter, which would save you 3.72 inches in space compared with a standard 45lb plate.  

You can check out the weight plates on Amazon HERE.  

One thing to consider is that you may need to use many weight plates and your gym may not have enough to help you load to the desired load. If it is your own gym, it may be somewhat expensive to purchase enough plates to get you. 

What you can do if this happens is to increase the difficulty of the set with the lighter weights. 

Methods of doing this include:

  • Increasing the time under tension of each rep (i.e. slowing down the tempo of the movement)
  • Reducing the rest time between sets making each set slightly more challenging
  • Training it later in a session when your muscles are already pre-fatigued

2. Use Resistance Bands on the Barbell

Another way you can load resistance on the barbell without using weight plates or weight discs is the use of resistance bands. Resistance bands would be wrapped on top of the sleeves of the barbell. Where the resistance bands are anchored on the ground will be important.

My favorite bands for strength training are the ones from WOD Fitters (click for today’s pricing on Amazon).  If you don’t already have bands, the basic starter package would be getting a black, blue, and green pair of bands (2 of each).  

If you anchor the resistance bands on a squat rack or power cages, it is important that the anchor is robust and rigid. 

Some squat racks or power cages will come with pins or pegs that come out specifically for the use of wrapping resistance bands around. It is important that you ensure the squat rack or power cage is strongly secured to the ground whether it is through heavy load on the rack or being bolted to the floor with industrial standard means.

Some individuals like to use heavy dumbbells as a means to anchor the resistance bands as opposed to anything larger. This can be done but so long as the dumbbells are not in the position where they can move or roll around. Ideally, you want a stable anchor as possible as a resistance band changing direction during lifting can lead to strain or injury.

What is unique about resistance bands is that you can change the direction of resistance depending on the direction of the band. Also, due to the nature of the elasticity, the higher you press the harder the resistance. If the band is slightly slanted backward, you can aim for back muscles more, if the band is slightly slanted forward, you can aim for your pec or serratus muscle more.

Using resistance bands means the ceiling only needs to be above the highest point when you press the bar overhead, which is at the barbell.

Check out our other articles on using bands in your training: 

3. Use Chains on the Barbell

Chains are a similar alternative to resistance bands in the sense that the ceiling height requirement is similar and they are put on the barbell a similar way. If your chains never reach the floor, then the direction of force is always vertically downwards, with some instability coming from the swinging of the chains. 

The best place to get chains is from Rogue Fitness (click for today’s price on Rogue).  I recommend getting the ⅝ inch chain package; however, depending on how strong you are you might need more chains.

If the attachment to the chains is long enough that some of the chains are on the floor during the bottom position of the barbell, then the increasing resistance effect that you get from resistance bands will be similar to using the chains.

Due to the nature of how heavy chains come in, it is quite hard to find and manage micro-adjustments to the weight of the barbell. You can counter this by using smaller fractional plates but this might increase the ceiling requirement when performing this overhead press variation.

4. Perform Z Press

the z press is an overhead press variation that allows you to perform the overhead press with a very little height requirement

The Z Press is an overhead press variation made famous by the strongman competitor Zydrūnas Savickas also known as Big Z from Lithuania. The Z press allows you to perform the overhead press with a very little height requirement.

It is performed in a seated position on the floor with straight or roughly straight legs by the bottom of a squat rack or power cage. 

The barbell is unracked from the rack or cage with the torso kept in an upright position. The barbell is then pressed overhead until the barbell is above the back of the head. The barbell is then returned back to the original starting position. Whilst the barbell is being pressed up and down, the torso will naturally lean backward and forward in order for the barbell to move in a roughly straight line.

What you might find different is that there is a larger demand on your abdominal muscles in order to stop you from falling backward and overextending your back. The drawback to this variation is that you might find that your posterior chain flexibility may be a limiting factor. If this is the case, you may find the next seated overhead press variation to be a better alternative.

5. Perform Seated Overhead Press

A seated overhead press is a more accessible variation with regard to mobility demands around the hips and hamstrings. You will need to have a solid box or adjustable bench to sit on when performing this variation. 

It is executed in a similar way to the Z press except you can keep your knee bent. Ideally, you want your feet tucked back and underneath the hips in order to stay balanced and stable.

There are two ways to perform a seated overhead press:

  • With the use of a back of the bench press to lean on (my preference)
  • Without the use of the back of the bench press to lean on

Using the back of the bench involves maximizing the incline of the adjustable bench until it is vertical or near-vertical with a slight incline of about 75 to 80 degrees from horizontal. With this version, you press the barbell forward slightly and away from your body.

Without using the back of the bench, the exercise becomes similar to the standard overhead press or Z press where the barbell is pressed vertically to finish above the back of the head.

6. Perform Kneeling Overhead Press

The overhead press can be performed whilst kneeling on the floor. It is a good hybrid between the Z press and the seated overhead press. When performing this variation, you may want to think about providing some comfort for your knees with a yoga mat that has been rolled up or folded many times.

The kneeling overhead press engages the hip musculature a little bit more in order to stabilize your body during the pressing motion. The kneeling overhead press will engage the abdominal muscles in a similar way to the Z press. You may find this method restricting if you have knee issues or you find the discomfort from the quadriceps stretching distracting.

If you’re looking for more alternatives, check out my article on the 9 Best Overhead Press Alternatives

7. Perform Split Stance Overhead Press

The split stance overhead press, which is also known as the half-kneeling overhead press is performed in a split squat position with the knee on the back leg on the floor. 

It is similar to performing a kneeling overhead press except that you have the advantage of having one leg in front and one leg behind to stabilize you from back to front so you will not wobble as much.

When performing these, you may want to cushion your knees just like the kneeling overhead press. 

The thing you may want to take into consideration the asymmetric nature of this movement. If you are looking to bodybuild, you may want to alternate legs between sets and perform an even number of sets.

For more information, check out this article about how powerlifters train shoulders.

Conclusion

Training in the gym with a low ceiling should not be a barrier for you to incorporate overhead pressing in your routine. 

There are many ways to manage the conditions in which you perform the exercise. What you want to take into consideration is which variation you can actually perform from having access to other pieces of equipment and also choosing one that you actually enjoy. 

Choosing the variation you enjoy will help you perform better by focusing on moving well in the exercise.


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an 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 with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com