Antonio Robustelli explains how to perfect the overhead press, a fundamental exercise for athletes

The overhead press represents a useful exercise for generic sports conditioning, especially for athletes. The requirements of optimal athletics performance necessitate the ability to perform overhead tasks safely and effectively during repetitive movements over time.

Track and field or throwing athletes are examples of those required to perform the overhead press optimally and repeatedly over time. As stated by American strength coach and author Mark Rippetoe: “The overhead press is not just an upper-body exercise. All sports that require the use of upper-body strength transmit that strength along a kinetic chain that starts at the ground. Any time an athlete pushes against an opponent, throws an implement, uses a racquet or club on a ball, or transmits force to an object, that force starts at the ground. The kinetic chain, the parts of the body involved in the transmission of force from the places where it is generated to the places where it is applied, starts at the ground and ends at the bar in the hands when performing an overhead press.”

However, the overhead press is one of the most poorly performed strength training exercises because of its high demand on thoracic mobility, optimal scapulohumeral function and the high coordination of the entire body. This is why an accurate preliminary assessment for postural integrity and fascial function is important.

The overhead press is useful as a basic strength exercise in athletics specialties like pole vault, shot put and hammer where the requirement is the use of all the muscles in the body. Force is generated against the ground by the hips and legs, transmitted up through the trunk and then applied through the arms and shoulders in an overhead position.

The exercise is not only for upper-body strength because of the involvement of the entire body. By pushing the feet against the ground, the body is stabilised by the hips, legs and trunk muscles, while the upper body muscles (shoulders, arms and upper chest) press the barbell overhead. This is the longest possible kinetic chain for the human body.

Technique

Start with the barbell at the rack placed at the same height as for a squat and precisely at about the middle of the sternum.

Grip the barbell just outside shoulder-width – having too wide a grip can place undue stress on the shoulders and make it dificult to press in the plane of the scapula. The plane of the scapula is defined as a shoulder position of approximately 30-45 degrees anterior to the coronal plane of the body.

The overhead press must be performed in the scapular plane as this position provides for the greatest scapula upward rotation and it allows more freedom for the rotator cuff tendons to pass under the acromion.

Once the grip is set, unrack the bar and rest it on the top of the anterior shoulders. At this point the elbows should rotate slightly forward and up just enough so the forearm is vertical as it drives the bar up. The wrists should also remain neutral to minimise wrist hyper-extension as the barbell drives up. The foot stance can be shoulder-width or a slightly split stance, with one foot slightly forward of the hips and the other just behind.

Now, with the chest lifted up, take a big breath and start to press the barbell up in a straight line over the head and actively shrugging and upwardly rotating the scapulae at the top. In this position the elbows must be completely locked and the barbell should lie in a vertical plane with the scapulae and mid-foot. During the descent the elbows must rotate back in so that they are tucked back and angled forward once you return to the start position.

COACHING TIPS

» Barbell at the rack placed at the same height as for the squat
» Barbell grip just outside shoulder-width
» Chest up, thoracic extension and glute squeezing during the movement
» Pressing in the scapular plane
» Actively shrug and rotate the scapulae at the top

PLANNING AND PROGRAMMING

WHEN
» General preparatory phase for hypertrophy purpose
» General and specific preparatory phase for maximum strength

HOW
» 3 sets of 6 reps @75-80%1RM with 3-minute rest for functional hypertrophy
» 3-4 sets of 4 reps @80-85%1RM with 4-minute rest for maximum strength

» Antonio Robustelli is a strength and conditioning coach and sport performance consultant as well as expert in the monitoring and management of recovery and physical stress (training@antoniorobustelli.com)