How to Press

The bench press has taken over modern popular culture for upper body strength and development. I’d like to talk about both bench pressing and its often overlooked step brother, the overhead press. The later ironically used to be the measuring stick for upper body strength when resistance training was popularized by old time strong men way before the idea of lying down on a bench and pressing an object off your chest was popularized.

So, let’s give overhead pressing its due respect and start there since it’s the eldest of the presses.

Strict Overhead Press

The undeniable king of overhead presses is the walk out, standing strict overhead press. For starters, place the barbell in the rack at around chin height. Then, unrack the bar, step back, press it overhead and return it to the rack (or drop it on the floor if you have bumpers and don’t care about loud noises). It sounds simple but there are a few important cues needed to execute this lift at a high level.

Let’s start with the unrack. Walk up to the bar and using around a shoulder width grip, grab the barbell. Squeeze the hell out of the barbell like you’re trying to crush it to dust. Which, unless your Thanos, won’t happen. From there either keep a full grip meaning all fingers and thumbs are fully wrapped around the bar or pull the thumbs out in favor of a false grip. Either way you’re still squeezing the bar with your fingers and hands with every ounce of strength you have. Now, wedge yourself in between the barbell and the earth putting all of your body weight into the bar and tensing from your feet up through the quads and glutes, torso/core, lats and arms. The second to last step is essentially performing a bodybuilding lat flare and slightly externally rotating at the shoulders because of the lats flaring/flexing. This will create a “shelf” for your arms and the bar to sit on and provide stability. The final set up is a big breath of air and bracing/shoving the air down into your belly. Once you’ve done all this unrack the bar and walk out.

Square Stance OHP

Maintain all your tightness pushing up into the bar. Regain any air you lost right before the press and then again squeeze your entire body from quads, glutes, abs, lats, and fingers gripping the bar and blast the weight up. You’ll want to keep the bar as close to midline as possible which means moving your big Jimmy Neutron head back out of the way by tucking your chin back away from the bar like your going to get punched in the face and you’re moving your head back away from the fist. Once the bar clears your head, shove your head back through your arms which are now extending up over head. This again helps keep the bar in midline of your body and helps distribute load throughout all three deltoid heads and not just the anterior head. This would happen if you to keep your head back away which creates a bar path that slowly tracks out in front of you. Pushing the head through creates stability in the shoulder socket by engaging the upper back muscles and those handy dandy external rotators. Now, bring the bar back down and perform another rep or return the bar to the rack.

You may choose to use a square stance or a staggered/split stance for strict pressing. If you experience lumbar lordosis or a hyper extension of the low back then a split stance is probably a better option for you. The split stance helps fully contract 1 glute and lock the pelvis into extension creating stability from the hips up into the spine. In this exercise mobility should be coming from the shoulders not the spine. Pushing the head through is the other key to mobility/stability puzzle.

Split Stance OHP

Push Press

Push press is the exact same setup top to bottom with the addition of losing the “strict” part of the press and allowing the knees and hips to bend a bit into flexion which provides leg drive to the start of the movement. The lifter will be able to handle more weight using this technique but may lose some mechanical tension from the shoulders in the low end of the lift. At the same time, the midrange and lockout will be overloaded compared to a strict press because of the extra weight handled. This exercise is fun to add in for variety and to get more confident with heavier weights but isn’t a “must” for physique goals in my mind. But I could be wrong… what the hell do I know?

Seated overhead press

The seated overhead press takes the bad ass-ness out of the overhead press altogether and I really don’t use them much because 1. They’re a pain in the ass to set up in a power rack and 2. As Jim Wendler says “If you stand to piss, you stand to press,” Ladies you are more than welcome to join in that motto too and stand to press because it’s the strong thing to do. At least with a barbell. Seated DB press I think is great. Are you confused yet, because I am?

Seated barbell OHP is best done in a piece of equipment made specifically for that. If you’re doing it in a power rack, have patience setting the lift up because the bar, the bench and your ass needs to be in the perfect spot to unrack and execute the lift so that it doesn’t feel like shit. Let’s assume you have a seated press rack and everything is perfect. Grip cues remain the same as standing OHP. The major difference is where you legs and ass are located now. Your feet need to be driving into the floor and up into the bench. Your back needs to be tight against the bench behind you because that’s providing full body resistance in direct response to your leg drive. The glutes need to be contracted still even if you’re sitting on them. So, drive your feet into the ground, legs and glutes tight and begin to leg drive by pushing into the back pad. Grip tight and unrack the bar (which will now be starting extended overhead in most situations which gives you some advantage with the added eccentric component of the lift.) Bring the bar down and move the bar around your face. Reverse the bar back to lockout.

Incline Bench Press

The incline bench set up will be similar to seated OHP, but you won’t be directly driving your back into the pad. Ideally I’d prefer the incline bench seat to be up very high so the legs have plenty of room to be slightly more extended and capable of providing full body tightness. With very low seats this becomes harder to do. But none the less the equipment you have is the equipment you have. Again, leg drive into the ground and contract the glutes. Pinch your shoulder blades together (the opposite of OHP ) and squeeze the hell out of the bar like you’re trying to rip it apart from left to right/East to West. Unrack the bar, let the weight settle and descend. Touch your chest and return to full extension. The bar should travel in a ~straight line against gravity or slightly back towards your face NOT perpendicular to the bench pad and away from the bodies center mass.

In most commercial gyms the incline bench is a usually a fairly steep incline. This means the deltoids will be more involved with this kind of incline press. A lower incline will reduce the delts workload and increase the recruitment of the pecs. This is something to remember when picking angles based on your individual needs and goals. For clients who need more delt development, but don’t want to do too much chest training, incline bench (barbell and dumbbell) is a great option.

Flat Bench Press

The flat bench press will be the lift that activates the pecs the most of all the presses. To execute correctly, you will lie down on the bench and line your eyeballs up with the barbell. You can now set your back up a few different ways that ultimately do the same thing, but I’ll list both.

1.Place your feet on the bench and lift your butt and low back totally off the bench like a glute bridge. All of your body weight should be distributed solely into the bench from your upper back. Place your feet down on the ground and recreate that pressure or better yet keep that pressure never letting it go. This is how you create an arch.

2.Place your feet on the ground and create leg drive. Grab the post of the bench/rack or underhand grip the barbell and use them to pull your torso up off the bench and create an arch in the upper back. Push yourself down into the bench with said resistance from bench post/rack or barbell. Keep that tension and grab the barbell with your grip.

Grab the bar with either a close, moderate or wide grip. Closer will be more triceps while wider will be more chest. Squeeze the hell out of the bar and pull from left to right or East to West. This will aide in scapular retraction and keep the chest/sternum up.

Close grip

Wide grip

Begin to descend the barbell down to the chest. Do not tuck the elbows or overly externally rotate the shoulders. Just focus on scapular retraction and maintaining your arch via your leg drive and full body tightness. Pull the barbell down to your sternum area (grip width will effect where you touch). Press the barbell back up in as straight a line as you can which will still slightly resemble a small reverse J curve.

Flat bench press with arch

Flat bench press without an arch

Dumbbells

All of these exercises can also be performed with dumbbells as well. Dumbbells are very useful for limiting overall load and stress to the athlete while allowing joints to move freely, specifically the wrists and shoulders. They also provide an increased range of motion and allows the limbs to be trained unilaterally at the same time, or unilaterally only. DB’s will require more overall stability from the athlete as well.

Key takeaways

There’s a key points to understand for each of these pressing movements:

  1. These presses are full body movements and need to be treated as such. Meaning, you place as much energy and intent into the setup as the execution.
  2. From vertical to horizontal pressing, the main movers will be deltoids down to pecs as the athlete goes from overhead presses to bench pressing.
  3. From closer grip to wider grip, the athlete will use more triceps to pecs/delts depending on #2 above.
  4. The back needs to be placed into a proper position on all of these exercises whether the scapula is retracted (as in benching) or protracted (as in BB OHP.)
  5. Last but not least, do not neglect the upper body “pulling” muscles and give them plenty of attention and work. Work in the form of compound and isolation exercises to build up the shoulders external rotators and strength and size of the back in order to support the “pushing” muscles.