Exercise Series 3: The Overhead Press

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  • Exercise Series 3: The Overhead Press

Overhead presses are one of the six most popular weightlifting exercises that your gym members will likely want to perform during workouts. As such, it’s important that you, as a gym owner, understand what proper form looks like and what equipment your patrons will need to stay safe.


The overhead press movement works the arms, shoulders, upper back, and core muscles. Though you may feel like you’re doing a solely upper body exercise, you are using the muscles in your back and abdomen to stabilize the heavy weight overhead, which makes the overhead press an excellent choice of exercise for improving core strength, stability, and overall functional fitness.

Because the overhead press articulates multiple joints and recruits muscles from your entire upper body, it is one of the best upper body movements you can do if you’re aiming for optimal workout efficiency.

As a complex movement done under heavy resistance (usually with a weighted barbell), this exercise is great for sculpting the upper body, building muscle, improving strength, and burning calories.


Most of the time, you will want to start with the barbell resting on a rack at shoulder height. This allows you to step under the bar and pick up the weight from a comfortable beginning position to start the press movement.

If a rack is not available, or if you prefer to add complexity and difficulty to your workout by doing a deadlift and clean to get the bar into position before pressing, you may start with the barbell on the ground.

For the purposes of this explanation of form, however, we will assume you have the bar at shoulder height on a suitable barbell rack.

Place your hands on the bar at shoulder-width and step under the bar so it rests on the front of your shoulders. Note that the bar should pass in front of your neck, not behind as it would if you were doing a standard barbell squat.

Lift the bar from the rack and stabilize your core. You should feel steady and balanced before you begin to press the weight upward. When you’re ready, use your arms and shoulders to raise the weight overhead.

Resist the urge to use your legs for extra "oomph." Ideally, the overhead press should not involve your legs at all, other than for balance.

Keep your back as straight and neutral as possible, and hold your core tight. You don’t want to allow your back to curveforward or backward, since it will be stressed under heavy weight.

Once you have the bar balanced overhead, straighten your arms and stiffen your elbows. Don’t overextend your elbows until they can’t go any further, but do "lock" them in place using yourarm strength.

Shrug your shoulders upward to complete the movement, and hold for one second before you return the weight to its starting position on the front of your shoulders.

What equipment will your clients need?

Your most advanced gym patrons will need:- A barbell- Weight plates- Safety clips to hold weight plates on the bar- A rack that holds the barbell at shoulder height- Enough space to safely perform the overhead press without trip hazards

Beginners, and other exercisers who feel intimidated by lifting heavy barbells will likely appreciate:- Dumbbells- Resistance bands- Cable pulley systems that replicate the overhead press movement- Overhead press machines

What should you watch out for in terms of safety?

As we have covered in previous articles in the exercise series, your primary functions when it comes to enforcing safety for liability reasons in your gym are to make sure your equipment is in good working order and your trainers are teaching good form to their clients. Everything else, for the most part, is secondary. But if you keep a close eye out while you’re observing patrons working out, you might notice a few other red flags that you can intercept to prevent injuries:- Patrons working alone (without trainers) who are not keeping good form. They might be letting their spines curve too much, overextending their elbows at the top of the overhead press movement, or failing to keep a stable core. All of these things could contribute to injury and should be pointed out when you notice them. – Exercisers forgetting to use safety clips. Clips keep weight plates from sliding off the ends of the barbell. When experienced weightlifters get cocky or feel rushed for time, they may be tempted to forego using these critical safety features. You can help keep them accountable by providing plenty of easily accessible clips in every barbell area and pointing out that the use of these clips is mandatory in your gym. – Lifters dropping barbells. Some experienced lifters form the bad habit of dropping barbells to the ground instead of lowering them carefully after completing a particularly difficult set. This can be very dangerous to other people working out in the area, not to mention damaging to your equipment. Enforce "no drop" rules to keep everyone safe and to maintain your equipment in good working order. – Unsteady balance. When users go for high weight or maximum repetitions, sometimes balance can falter. As a gym owner, it’s your responsibility to make the call when you feel a member is not making safe decisions about their capability. Speak up if you notice someone pushing too hard to the point where they are unable to lift safely and maintain proper balance throughout the whole movement. – Trip hazards. Since the overhead press is such a top-heavy movement by nature, trip hazards in the exercise area are a huge concern. There should not be any clutter on the floor where someone is lifting a heavy weight over his or her head! Water bottles, weight plates, additional barbells, towels, cell phones, and other items need to be kept clear of the spaces near weightlifting racks. If this is a recurring problem in your gym, consider installing shelves along walls so members have a place to store loose items during workout sets.

A note on liability

Some gym owners shy away from allowing patrons to do the "big six" weightlifting exercises. There is an increased concern for safety and liability when users do complex movements with heavy weights. If you have any hesitation about whether you can provide a safe environment for heavy lifts such as this one, consider implementing signs and liability waivers for users who choose to use the barbell areas of the facility.

However, with good planning, a solid understanding of how the movement should be performed, and careful observation to make sure your members are following safety guidelines, you can make your gym a safe and convenient place for your gym members to perform overhead presses as part of their workouts.


How to Overhead Press with Proper Form: The Definitive Guide

Exercise Series 1: The Squat

Exercise Series 2: The Deadlift