Like the song says – Push it real good – preferably overhead, with a barbell in your hands! The strict press and push press should both be part of a well-rounded weightlifting program. Moving weights overhead is an essential element of sports performance training, CrossFit and life! Olympic lifters, CrossFitters and fitness devotees can all reap the benefits from completing these movements, particularly with a solid understanding of the differences and the progressions.

Why You Should Lift Something Heavy Over Your Head

Both the strict press and the push press are fantastic shoulder exercises, but they also offer a number of further benefits. The press is a seriously underrated compound movement that helps to develop strong shoulders, chest, core and arms while also working the rest of your body. Let’s look at the benefits in a bit more detail:

Upper Body Strength & Muscle Growth

The presses are great tools for building both upper body strength and size, as a result of the large amounts of weights that can be lifted relative to total body strength.  These are great exercises to help develop strength in your shoulders, rotator cuff, scapula, and upper back (amongst everything else) which plays a big role in protecting you against injury.

Enhanced Athletic Power

The push press is a movement that combines strength and power. Lower body strength combined with the ability to use power and explosivity are essential physiological qualities for most athletes. In addition, the press is a brilliant support drill for most sports where you have to transfer force from the ground through your hands – e.g. baseball, rugby or football.

Application to Olympic Weightlifting Movements

Push presses are key tools for developing shoulder strength and stability necessary for more complex movements such as the jerk and the snatch. The mechanics of the hips, knees and torso during the push press are also identical to the mechanics of the jerk.

Improved Overhead Stability and Strength

Both pressing movements work on overhead strength and stability, two elements that are vital for almost all athletes. Furthermore, better shoulder strength and stability can be of great benefit to pushing strength and resilience to injuries.

The Strict Press

The strict press (sometimes referred to as the shoulder press) is the base movement in all overhead lifts. The objective of the strict press is to isolate your shoulders by pushing weight overhead without using momentum. The strict press stimulates the other joints in your body and is a great tool for developing overhead strength and stability.

The points of performance for the strict press:

Set up

  1. Hip width stance: your feet must be within the width of your shoulders.
  2. Hands just outside the shoulders: Your shoulder flexibility will determine the best grip for you. Go for a hand position that is comfortable and lets you rest the weight on your collar bones/ top of your shoulders easily.
  3. Elbows must be slightly in front of the bar. If your elbows are behind or even directly under the bar, you will struggle to find the correct position for the shoulder press. 
  4. Maintain a solid grip on the bar. Keep your thumbs wrapped around the bar, this will reduce the risk of the weight sliding out of your hands while overhead and it lessens pressure on the wrists.
  5. Spine must be in a neutral position and knees in full extension, core tight and gaze ahead.

Execution

  1. Heels stay in contact with the ground – this will stop you from using momentum throughout each rep. It also helps maintain a steady balance. As the name suggests, this is a strict press so there will ne no use of a dip to produce power from the legs.
  2. Keep the bar on a straight path.  In order to allow for a clear path it is necessary to shift the head backwards (like you are trying to give yourself a double chin) so that you do not have to move the bar around your head. Of course, once the bar clears your head you can relax back into a neutral position.
  3. Complete the movement in a full elbow extension overhead.
  4. You return to the start position by reversing the motion.

Key Tips:

  • Always maintain a tight core. Many people arch the lower back when they are in full extension which puts unnecessary stress on the lumbar spine.
  • The bar should be placed in the palm of the hand, not in the fingers. This will provide much more stability and help to protect wrists.

Muscles Worked by the Strict Press

The strict press chiefly targets the shoulders, however there are further benefits associated with this lift. All of these muscle groups are worked by strict presses.

  • Shoulders (Medial and Anterior Deltoids)
  • Upper Traps
  • Chest (Upper Pecs)
  • Scapular Stabilizers
  • Abdominals and Erectors

The Push Press

The push press is similar to the strict press, but it brings in the lower body. You begin a push press with a dip in the legs and then shift the momentum in an upward drive that assists to push the bar from shoulders to the overhead position. The dip drive is a very rapid movement, that provides just enough momentum to get the bar moving. A push press will let you lift a lot more weight than a strict press. The addition of the hip drive makes this a full body exercise, which is a great tool for general strength development.

Execution

  1. Set yourself up with your feet shoulder-width apart and grip the bar with your fingertips, elbows pointing forward. Rest the bar on the front of your shoulders.
  2. The movement starts with a slight bend in the knees, dropping into a shallow squat. Keep weight centered under the barbell.
  3. Press up from your heels and explode upwards.
  4. Drive the bar directly overhead until your arms are in a locked-out position.
  5. Lower the bar down to your chest following the same trajectory.

Key Tips:

  • Keep your spine in a neutral position throughout the movement. 
  • Once the bar moves off the shoulders the lift becomes almost exactly the same as the strict press, and the arms push with all the strength they can gather.
  • The grip differs from the strict press – you want to keep your thumbs wrapped around the bar in the push press and keep a firm grip throughout.
  • One of the biggest errors amongst beginners is to squat down too low. This is not a front squat. You only need to drop enough to allow your legs to explode up and power the movement.

Muscles Worked by the Push Press

The push press works many of the muscles of the upper body but what differs from the strict press is that the quads and hips also play a role. The below muscle groups are targeted primarily by push presses:

  • Shoulders
  • Triceps
  • Quadriceps
  • Erector Spinae (Lower Back)
  • Upper Traps and Scapula Stabilizers

4 Athletic Qualities that can be Impacted by Both the Push Press and the Strict Press

Power Training (Push Press)

The push press is a fantastic tool for working on power production, as it requires an athlete to use their legs, hips and upper body to get heavy loads overhead with speed. The push press has shown to be amazingly effective for athletes whose sport requires jumping, as this movement works on lower body explosivity. Power training is something that anyone looking to boost overall athletic performance can benefit from.

Muscle Hypertrophy (Both)

Loading, training volume, and metabolic demands targeted on a muscle all instigate hypertrophy. Both the strict and the push press work on all these aspects, so it is best to include both in a hypertrophy-based training program. The push press is great for working on power and overall loading volume, while the strict press is great for driving maximal strength and getting more time under tension.

Maximal Strength (Strict Press)

In contrast to the push press, the strict press does not employ the lower body at all and requires the athlete to start the movement from zero acceleration, which needs a lot of concentric strength. Maximal strength is often delivered at low speeds, which means that an athlete must be able to generate large amounts of force in order to shift a rested object.

Athletic Potential (Push Press)

Learning the strict press is fundamental for the push press, however the push press as a movement is both complete and compound and has huge benefits. The mixture of hip explosivity, power, strength, and the capacity to transfer force rapidly is required for many sports. The strict press too has great benefits, but the added hip drive combined with the ability to move greater loads makes the push press the better choice for all round athletic performance.

The Role of the Abs in the Overhead Lifts

From an athletic standpoint, the key role of the abs is midline stabilization, not flexion of the trunk. The core is essential for swimming, cycling, jumping and running, but their role as stabilisers is particularly important when it comes to driving weights overhead.

It goes without saying that the heavier the weight, the more significant the core’s role becomes. It is clear to see when an athlete is not correctly engaging the core in an overhead lift – the body begins to arch and pushes the hips in front of the bar.

This is where athlete’s must be very careful and attentive that they do not let this happen. Perform core activation exercises to aid in stabilizing the midsection and prevent injury.

Common Overhead Mistakes, and How to Fix Them

Overhead presses can be one of the most challenging movements for beginners to conquer. Without careful attention to form, it can be relatively easy to displace power and strength.  As the loads begin to increase these challenges become greater. Here are a few common mistakes and some tips for fixing them (these apply to both strict and push press):

Pressing in front of your body

The press should be a vertical movement, directly over the spine. For a good movement, in the lockout position of the bar the joints should all be aligned to create the most efficient position.

Poor bar path can cause several problems. To begin with, a bar path that is not vertically aligned with the athlete’s centre of gravity cause them to lose their balance, and in turn their ability to stay strong beneath the bar. It will also put unnecessary load on the shoulders and back.

The Fix: Recording your press from a side-view can be a great tool in order to see the trajectory of the bar. Ideally, the bar should finish overhead between the middle of your foot and your heel. Poor bar path can often be caused by lack of shoulder mobility. If mobility is lacking it often translates into poor movement mechanics.

Overarching your back

Unlike the bench press, a notable back arch is not beneficial for the overhead press. The force of the weight is being loaded directly over your spine, and an excessive arch can cause back pain.  If you have a marked back arch when pressing overhead, try these three training tweaks:

  • Strengthen your core – if your abs are not strong enough they will not be able to maintain your pelvis in a neutral position through contraction, causing it to slip forward into an unhealthy forward tilt.
  • Tight hip flexors – can also cause the pelvis to be pulled into a forward tilt. Release these by stretching and using foam rollers.
  • Shoulder Mobility – this can again cause problems, if you don’t have sufficient range of motion in your shoulders your body will find a way to compensate.

Too Much Weight

When lifting (and this applies to any lift) you should be working with a weight that you can lift with correct form for the prescribed number of repetitions. If you find yourself struggling to get the weight overhead, you are setting yourself up for a mess! You will compensate in any way necessary to get the bar overhead: pitching forwards, falling backwards, using momentum to drive the barbell up while simultaneously pushing it away from your body and so on. Form must always come first.

The Fix: The push press must not be thought of as a traditional strength drill, but a power move. When power is the goal, speed is imperative. If you load up with too much weight, this will slow you down, which is counterproductive for building power.

Not using full range of motion

You cannot reap the benefits of a movement if you are not working through the full range of the exercise. To fully execute an overhead press your arms need to be locked out at the top of each rep, with the barbell directly over your head. When lowering the barbell back down, it should come all the way down and finish at the top of your chest.

Fix it: Mobility will often play a role in range of motion. Work on gaining more mobility through your shoulders.

Not warming up

If you have a desk job and struggle to get your arms overhead, you are by no means a minority. Warming up properly before working on overhead lifts is key. Sitting in a chair all day will cause your shoulder to round forward, which brings your scapula’s forward and causing forward flexion of the thoracic spine. The overhead press works on the total opposite of these movements, so a good warm up will go a long way to achieving better range of motion, better technique and will serve to help avoid injuries.

Fix it: Take some time to warm up correctly, stretch and mobilize the shoulders and back before performing any overhead press.