The overhead press is notoriously thought to be a weak link for many lifters. This doesn’t mean you should feel discouraged by it, but you should try to understand why your overhead press is weak so you can figure out how to make it stronger.
Why is your overhead press so weak? Your overhead press may be weak because you haven’t been training it frequently enough when compared to other lifts or your technique and mechanics are inefficient and need some adjustment.
The action of pressing and holding a load over your head is not commonly utilized in everyday life. Walking into a gym and trying to do something like that for the first time is likely to be a humbling experience.
However, like every lift, the more you practice the more you will improve. Just because your starting point is lower for the overhead press than perhaps the bench press, the ceiling of your potential is probably higher than you think.
In this article, I will go over some signs that your overhead press is weak, reasons for why this is occurring, and what you can do about it.
Heard a rumor that OHP makes you shorter? Check out the article Does Overhead Press Make You Shorter? to find out if the rumor is true.
Signs That Your Overhead Press Is Weak
Sometimes, your overhead press really isn’t weak, and you just need to be more patient when you’re trying to increase it. It’s also important to note that the overhead press will always be a weak lift in comparison to the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
So how do you know that your overhead press is actually weak? Below are a few signs to pay attention to.
1. You Aren’t Progressing
Progress can sometimes be hard to measure since even an improvement in technique can be progress regardless of whether you are moving more weight. However, if it has been several months and you are still using the exact same weight for the exact same rep schemes, you may truly be stuck in a plateau.
It is also important to not compare your overhead press progress to something like a deadlift or squat. Your starting abilities with the OHP are likely significantly lower.
Therefore, a 10lbs increase in the OHP is a much more significant change than a 10lbs increase in a deadlift when looking at it from a percentage of strength. So, make sure you are indeed in a plateau and aren’t just dissatisfied with the much slower progress you’re likely to see with the overhead press.
2. Your Sets Feel Inconsistent
One way to tell that you may have a weakness is that the weight you use doesn’t feel consistent or the way you press up the weight doesn’t feel consistent from set to set or rep to rep.
If the barbell is flying on set 1 but feels impossible to move on set 2, there is likely something funky going on with your technique that should be smoothed out. Much like with your other lifts, your body should be overhead pressing in the same way and engaging the same muscles throughout all of your sets.
3. You Can’t Overhead Press 75% of Your Bench Press
Strength standards are somewhat arbitrary and everyone is likely to be different. But if you’d like a more objective measure, a good place to aim for is to be able to overhead press around 75% of your bench press for the same amount of reps.
Therefore, if you bench press 135lbs for sets of 5 but can’t overhead press around 100lbs for sets of 5, you’d benefit from giving your OHP some extra attention.
Curious about how your bench press stacks up to other lifters in your age group and weight class? Check out the article How Much Should You Be Able To Bench (By Age & Weight).
4. Your Neck Becomes Stiff After Training
Something that I have experienced myself and have heard others complain about is getting a very stiff neck or knots and pain in the shoulder blades the day after doing overhead presses.
This is a sign that your overhead press is weak because you are not using all of your muscles in an optimal way. Your traps are bearing too much of the load and, as a result, become very sore and overtrained.
As you become more proficient with the overhead press, you will find that your entire body plays a role in the movement. This will prevent an overwhelming amount of stress from being concentrated in one single muscle group or area of the body.
8 Reasons Why Your Overhead Press Is Weak
Now that you know which signs to look for to determine if your overhead press is weak, let’s discuss the reasons behind this.
1. You Aren’t Engaging Your Lower Body and Core
One of the most common mistakes seen with the overhead press is that all of the focus is placed on the upper body to initiate and complete the movement. While it is primarily an upper body movement, you can’t completely ignore what is occurring below the shoulders.
Your core should be bracing as tightly as it would be for any other compound lift, and your legs and glutes should be engaged and rigid. Just like you wouldn’t bench press without leg drive or squat without keeping a rigid back, engaging your core and legs are crucial for driving strength in the overhead press.
2. Your Hands Are Placed Too Wide or Too Narrow
Hand placement is very important for the overhead press because it will determine how well you are able to engage your lats. If you suffer from persistent neck stiffness or shoulder blade knots from the overhead press, your hand position may be the problem.
Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your wrists directly above and in line with your elbows. Otherwise, you may have trouble initiating the movement or locking it out. You can use a mirror to help you find your ideal grip width for the overhead press.
3. You Are Training It Once a Week or Less or as an Accessory Movement
A lot of lifters, especially powerlifters, train the overhead press as a second tier movement and don’t give it the attention it needs in order for it to get stronger.
It’s likely that your overhead press is weak simply because you don’t train it frequently enough at a high enough intensity and use it only as an accessory movement after you’ve already benched or squatted.
4. You Have an Inefficient Bar Path
An inefficient bar path can be the result of lack of strength, poor mobility, or lack of practice. However, it can be a big reason why you’ve got a weakness. The bar should travel in a straight line from your chest to above the crown of your head, but many lifters swing the bar out in front as they initiate the movement.
This extra horizontal distance you add to the overhead press can make the easiest of weights feel impossible and contribute to your perceived weakness, especially if you’re strong at the start but have a weak lockout.
5. You’re Pausing on Your Chest
While you shouldn’t bounce the weight off your chest during the overhead press, you shouldn’t let the bar rest there for longer than a second or two, either. If you’re out of breath or need to reset after each rep, you may make the mistake of pausing for too long at the bottom before starting your next rep.
This can result in a weaker overhead press because you’re holding the barbell at a dead stop for a prolonged period of time and only making it harder to re-initiate the movement.
6. You Have Poor Overhead Mobility
One reason for a weak overhead press that’s easy to diagnose is simply having difficulty getting into the proper overhead position.
Overhead mobility is a common weakness unless you were born with great overall mobility or you have an occupation where you need to hold or carry things above your head regularly. If you struggle with this, you will find it challenging to use your muscles in the most optimal manner, which can leave you susceptible to aches and injuries.
7. You Have Long Arms
Having long arms means the bar has to travel over a greater distance, and you’ll have to perform more work to move the same amount of weight as someone with shorter arms.
However, while this is a mechanical disadvantage, you are still capable of overhead pressing and can still make lots of progress.
For tips on how to improve your overhead press strength when you have long arms, check out the article 7 Tips to Improving Your Overhead Press With Long Arms.
8. You Haven’t Given It Enough Time
One of the most probable reasons for your overhead press weakness is that you haven’t given it enough time.
If you haven’t been overhead pressing consistently for a long period of time, you can’t expect to be lifting an impressive amount of weight. You’ll simply need to spend more time practicing the lift.
What To Do When Your Overhead Press Is Weak
Now that you know what may be causing your overhead press weakness, here are 7 things you can do about it.
1. Train It 2–3 Times per Week
The easiest change to implement to help strengthen your overhead press is to increase your training frequency to 2-3 times per week, depending on how often you go to the gym and how much you wish to prioritize the lift.
Can you overhead press every day? Check out the pros and cons in the article Can You Overhead Press Every Day? (Pros & Cons).
2. Make It the First or Second Exercise of the Day
In addition to training the overhead press multiple times a week, you shouldn’t make it your 6th exercise of the day.
Train it as seriously as you would train squats or bench presses and do it near the beginning of your workout when you have the most energy and strength.
3. Decrease the Rep Range to 3–6
If your goal is to increase how much load you are able to handle for the overhead press, it would be most useful to stick to 3-5 sets of about 3-6 reps.
Higher rep ranges will leave you too fatigued, and your limiting factor may be endurance and not strength.
4. Adjust Your Stance and Hand Positioning
You need a stable base in order to press lots of weight. As such, you should place your feet in an optimal position that lets you engage them throughout the entire movement.
I would recommend keeping them about shoulder-width apart or slightly wider if you prefer.
Your hands should also be at the correct width, with your wrists directly in line with your elbows and the elbows pointing down.
5. Work on Breathing and Bracing
Your core plays an integral part in the overhead press. You should practice how to brace while in the overhead position since it may feel a bit different than bracing for squats or deadlifts.
Ensure you are maintaining 360 degree pressure around your torso. If you feel the need to exhale, do it at the top of the lift, not when the weight is at a dead stop while resting on your upper chest.
6. Record Your Lifts and Assess Regularly
Recording your lifts will become your greatest asset when trying to improve your overhead press mechanics. Make sure to record from the front and the side so you can easily see your arm positioning and bar path.
You should be aiming for a straight bar path where the barbell starts on your upper chest with your head out of the way and ends up with your head shifted forward and the barbell directly in line with the crown of your head.
For a comprehensive look at cues to remember when overhead pressing, check out these 13 Overhead Press Cues to Increase Strength.
7. Include Overhead Movements in Your Training
To help support your overhead strength, consider adding more accessories and exercises throughout the week that help strengthen the muscles within that range of motion. This can be particularly important for those who have mobility restrictions that cause weaknesses in the overhead press.
Some examples of exercises that can strengthen the muscles used in the overhead press include the Z press, the dumbbell shoulder press, the landmine press, and the Arnold press. You can even do movements like pull-ups and lat pulldowns.
For more info on alternatives to overhead presses, check out this list of the 9 best overhead press alternatives.
Whether you’re interested in strengthening your overhead press for the sake of it or you want to improve your bench press performance, taking the lift seriously is your first step towards making progress. You’ll have to learn how to execute the movement optimally, put in the time and effort and, ultimately, stay patient.
Can’t overhead press because your gym has a low ceiling? Find out how you can overhead press in spaces with low ceilings.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.