IF YOU CAN lift a heavy barbell over your head, congratulations: You’ve performed one of the most challenging lifts in the gym, a potent builder of shoulder muscle and impressive display of overall strength.
Even though a barbell overhead press appears simple at the outset—you’re just lifting a bar up over your head, after all—there’s much more going on mechanically in order to successfully complete this exercise. Overhead pressing takes full-body effort, from your shoulders and arms to core to lower-body stability, which is why it’s such a great challenge. That makes it a more difficult move than many beginners might be ready to accept.
Everyone from newbie lifters to advanced strength trainees can benefit from extra attention to the other muscles that you’ll use for a strong barbell overhead press. There are specific exercises you can add to your routine to help perfect the movement, according to Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., and Advisory Board member David Otey, C.S.C.S.
These five exercises may not all look as if they can help your pressing strength and technique at first glance, but after working them into your routine, you’ll learn their importance the moment you begin shattering PRs.
“The beautiful thing about these five exercises is they’re going to focus on the stability with the ground,” Otey says. “Do we have our ribcage in the right position? Do we have the core integrity that we need to when it comes to our pressing? And ultimately is our shoulder girdle both stable enough and mobile enough to allow us to press this weight overhead safely and effectively. If you can go through all five of these exercises and check all the boxes. You’ve really put yourself in a position to PR and expand your upper body strength as we know it.”
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
The Z press is an excellent variation to learn and understand pressing mechanics, since your lower body is totally out of the equation. Sitting on the floor with your legs out in front might prevent you from using heavy dumbbells or kettlebells, but the postural lessons are more important than the load.
The Z press requires a great deal of core integrity. Those not quite ready for the press might find themselves arching their back, which is a major issue once you have a majorly heavy load during the barbell overhead press. The seated position forces your core to stabilize, which will help to build strength.
Racked Kettlebell March
3 to 4 sets of 30 to 45 seconds
Working from the racked position allows you to work on the core positioning. Your forearms should be nice and tall and your elbow up against your rib cage.
Not only does this take stress of the shoulders, the compact setup should serve as a reinforcement to avoid flaring out your elbows when performing overhead presses. This will be important not only for your pressing strength—your shoulders will be in a safer position, too.
Alternating Incline Press
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
The alternating shoulder press, like others on the list, requires a multi-muscle effort even if it’s nominally a shoulder-building exercise.
The movement hits a wide range of the muscle groups you’ll need for the barbell overhead press—your front and side delts, pecs, triceps will get a lot of work—and if this move is one of your weaker points, you can adjust the working angle (the more vertical the more challenging) as well.
Your shoulder stability will be challenged as your loads and reps increase, as your non-working shoulder is going to fight you to lift off the bench. This will put your core to work as well.
Incline Bench Row
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 to 12 reps
Yes, it takes plenty of pressing strength to complete the barbell overhead press, but returning the weight to the starting position (your upper chest) will also provide a great challenge as well. This is why working on the upper back will help work on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the overhead press.
Angles matter with this lift, and the more vertically you adjust the incline bench, the more emphasis you place on you upper and mid-back (as well as your traps). Master this movement and stabilizing that weight as it descends down through the overhead press will get a whole lot easier.
Ab Wheel Rollout
3 to 4 sets of 10 reps
You probably never imagined that an abdominal exercise would be such a big influence for your shoulder pressing skills, but your core plays such a pivotal role that this can be a valuable movement. You’re going to need to protect your spine during overhead presses, requiring a great core challenge.
What makes the ab wheel rollout such an ideal barbell overhead pressing accessory move is that as your arms stretch and elongate the further you roll out. You’ll notice this actually mimics the overhead pressing movement.
The rollout also a very scaleable exercise, which means everyone can benefit, regardless of you shoulder mobility strengths or limitations. You’ll just have to limit the range of motion and work on extending each time you do the movement.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.