5 Exercises to Increase Your Overhead Press and Build Big Shoulders
The overhead press is an exceptional compound push exercise for building shoulder size and upper body strength. Once considered the golden standard movement for measuring upper body strength, this exercise engages muscle groups from head-to-toe.
Although the overhead press is not a competitive lift in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, or CrossFit, it does have high carryover to the bench press, jerk, and push press, respectively. When performed appropriately the overhead press can pack some serious mass on to the shoulders of bodybuilders looking to build an X-frame physique with a balance of muscle size and symmetry.
The overhead press is a compound movement targets the anterior or front deltoid muscles. The anterior deltoid assists in shoulder abduction, flexion, transverse flexion, and internal rotation. 
Strong and broad shoulders will contribute to an aesthetic X-frame physique as well as well as improve your athletic performance both on and off the field. The clavicular head of the pectoralis major (a.k.a. upper chest), triceps brachii, lateral deltoid, trapezius (lower and middle), and serratus anterior (a.k.a. boxer’s muscle) are the supporting muscle groups assisting the target muscle during the movement.
The long head of the triceps, short head of the biceps brachii, upper traps, and levator scapulae (a.k.a. rear neck) act as stabilizers during this exercise.  Stabilizer muscles help maintain a posture or fixate a joint by contracting without significantly moving. 
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The overhead press can be performed seated or standing using a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, Smith machine, lever machine, or plate-load sled machine. If performed standing your glutes, abdominals, and lower back also stabilize the torso during the movement.
The five exercises below are going to increase your overhead press strength as well as increase the size and strength of the muscles used to execute the movement. The overhead press progresses slower than most other upper body compound movements so do not expect your max to increase 20lbs in a week; slow, steady, and sustainable progression is key with this movement.
The 5 Best Exercises for Increasing Your Overhead Press
#1 – Overhead Press Variations
To blast through overhead plateaus and stagnation you should first incorporate variations such as the partial repetition, lockout hold, negative repetition, and scrape-the-rack. These variations reinforce proper form, expose muscle weaknesses, bring up muscle imbalances, and prime your central nervous system with low injury risk.
Most lifters struggle during the middle portion of an overhead press repetition, when the barbell is moving between the chin and forehead. Instead of starting in the usual rack position with the bar resting on the delts, set the safety pins so that the barbell is resting at or slightly above the chin. Perform the remaining portion of the lift and fully lock out the repetition.
Ensure each rep begins and ends with the barbell resting on the safety pins. Limiting the exercise’s range of motion and performing these partials will reinforce the need to stay tight and get your head under the bar as quickly as possible while also spurring serious hypertrophy in your deltoids and triceps. With the safety pins, you can perform more repetitions or use slightly more weight with decreased injury risk.
Lockout holds are an excellent tool for building confidence with heavier weights and stability at the top of the repetition. The overhead press lockout utilizers numerous small stabilizer muscles in the shoulder girdle and upper. Build confidence with a heavier weight by loading up the bar, setting your starting position, unracking the bar, push pressing or jerking the bar in to the lockout position and holding for 5 to 15 seconds.
This technique will not only help you break through the psychological barrier of a heavier weight but it will also increase upper back engagement and prime your central nervous system for your working sets. Alternatively, you can hold the lockout of the last repetition of each overhead press warm up and working set.
Negative or top-down repetitions are an excellent variation for increasing time under tension, improving central nervous system activation, and overloading the active muscle groups in the overhead press. Set the safety pins to shoulder height; carefully start the set by push pressing or jerking the bar in to lockout position. Slowly lower the bar to your shoulder height, rack position, or safety pin height.
Focus on keeping your glutes squeezed, abdominals flexes and shoulders engaged. Complete for the desired number of repetitions. Negative reps can be extremely taxing on the central nervous system and muscles so use with caution and program the movement according. The later in the workout you use it the lower the weight will need to be.
Scrape-the-rack press is a variation used by bodybuilder John Meadows to increase shoulder, tricep, and upper back size despite having injury-prone shoulders. Set up in a barbell rack as you normally would for standing overhead press. When you unrack the barbell, instead of stepping away from the rack, pressing the barbell up and against the rack.
By pushing against the rack while simultaneously pushing upwards and getting your head underneath the bar, you should notice serious muscle fiber recruitment in your entire shoulder girdle. Many lifters with shoulder injuries and rotator cuff issues find this movement to be more comfortable and stable compared to conventional overhead press. Increase this movement’s safety by setting the safety pins to at or slightly below shoulder height in case you reach muscular failure.
#2 – Behind the Neck Press
Behind the neck press is a controversial exercise but I believe it is one of the most effective movements for increasing your overhead pressing strength and shoulder size. Unlike other overhead pressing variations, I feel it engages my side and rear deltoid muscles to a greater degree. You can perform this movement seated or standing but I typically recommended seated for those looking to maximize shoulder hypertrophy and minimize injury risk.
Behind the neck press on the Smith machine is an option but I find a free weight barbell allows for the most natural movement pattern while engaging more stabilizer muscles. Set up by taking a false grip (thumbs and fingers on the same side of the bar) around the width of the smooth knurlings. During the lowering of the rep focus on retracting and the scapula and depressing the trapezius muscles.
Lower only to the depth that you feel comfortable; some may find it effortless to lower to the upper traps but many will find it most comfortable to stop when the barbell is in-line with the ears and the forearms are perpendicular with the floor. Press upwards in a controlled motion until you reach the lockout position, getting your head underneath the bar as soon as possible. To decrease injury risk use a spotter or set the rack pins so that they are at or slightly above the height of you trapezius muscles.
I typically perform standing overhead press using sets of 3 to 5 repetitions but for behind the neck press I recommend sets of 8 to 12 repetitions. By increasing the repetition requirement you are forced to decrease the load which decreases your likelihood of injury in case of form breakdown or if you reach muscular failure. If you experience pain or discomfort during this movement, then terminate the set immediately and choose another exercise until you can safely perform the behind the neck press.
#3 – Push Press
The push press is an explosive movement used to overload the shoulder and tricep muscles. This barbell or dumbbell movement allows you to use 10 to 20% more weight than a strict overhead press. The push press primes your central nervous system to increase pressing speed from the bottom of the rep, blast through the problematic mid-point commonly experience with strict overhead press, and improve lockout stability.
Leg drive differentiates push press from overhead press. Unrack the barbell and take the same hip width stance used for strict overhead press. Instead of initiating with the shoulders, flex at the knees and hips no more than quarter squat depth but do not pause. In a smooth yet explosive motion, switch directions by pushing through your heels and extending your knees and hips as quickly as possible.
During this extension, you will notice a transfer of energy and momentum to your upper body; take advantage of this by simultaneously pressing the weight out of the starting position and locking out the repetition as quickly as possible. In a controlled motion lower the weight back to the starting position and complete for the desired number of reps.
Implement push press in two ways – before your usual overhead press and at the end of the set after you’ve completed as many strict overhead press repetitions as possible with good form. The former technique will prime your central nervous system, making the overhead press weight feel lighter, while the latter will increase time under tension and induce muscle hypertrophy.
The push press is an explosive and taxing exercise so form breakdown can occur quickly; to maximize performance and minimize injury risk perform this exercise using sets of three to six reps. Alternatively you can add 1 to 3 reps at the end of each overhead press working set.
#4 – Unilateral Arnold Press
The unilateral Arnold press is a dumbbell movement that not only incorporates all the muscle groups used in overhead press but also offers an increased range of motion and time under tension. As a result, you will be placing more stimulus on the target muscle groups while also balancing out any size and strength weaknesses between your two shoulders.
Set up by choosing two dumbbells of equal weight. If desired adjust the bench so that it is almost or exactly vertical to offer lower back support.
Hoist the dumbbells in to the starting position – your shoulders should be away from your ears, your chest should be up, your grip supinated so that your palms are facing your shoulders, forearms are perpendicular with the floor, and the dumbbells are in-line with the shoulders. Initiate the movement by using your front deltoids to push the dumbbells upwards; as you begin pressing rotate the dumbbells so that your palms are pronated (facing away from you) at the top of the repetition.
Repeat for the desired number of repetitions; I typically recommend sets of 8 to 15. Perform this exercise by alternating arms or pressing both dumbbells simultaneously. If you have never performed this movement before then get ready for some great pumps in the shoulders and biceps.
#5 – Facepulls
The rear deltoid muscles are one of the most neglected yet one of the most important muscles in the human body. Big and strong rear delts significantly contribute to the X-frame physique, proper posture, shoulder health, and athletic performance. The cable facepull is a quintessential exercise for beefing up the rear delts as well as strengthening the small stabilizer muscles in the shoulder.
Set up for the movement by attaching a double knobbed rope to a cable tower and setting it to shoulder height. Take a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and hold the rope just under each knob. Take a few steps away from the cable tower while holding the rope; when your arms are fully extended the weight plates should be just above the resting position. Initiate the movement by retracting your shoulder blades, flexing your elbows and pulling the rope until your elbows and upper arm are in-line with your shoulder.
During the pulling movement try to pull both knobs as far away from each other as possible. At the top position the knobs should be slightly above shoulder height. To increase rotator cuff and stabilizer muscle involvement you can pull the knobs to slightly above forehead height.
Use facepulls as a warm-up exercise, in-between working sets of heavy compound movements, and/or as a finisher exercise for sets of 20+ reps. Because the rear delts of most athletes are underdeveloped, this movement is easy to set up, and recover from, it can be performed almost every day.
1) Griffing, James, et al. “Deltoid (Anterior).” ExRx.net. N.p., 2016. Web.
2) Griffing, James, et al. “Barbell Military Press.” ExRx.net. N.p., 2016. Web.
3) Griffing, James, et al. “Kinesiology Glossary.” ExRx.net. N.p., 2016. Web.