Death and taxes, it is said, are the only certainties in this life. If you regularly lift weights, there is a third; someone will ask you, “How much do you bench?”
The bench press is comfortably established in the popular mindset as the strength lift. True connoisseurs would suggest that the squat or the deadlift should really take that title, but it is undeniable that the bench press is the rockstar of the big three.
But what if I told you that not only is the bench press not the most important lift you can do in the gym, it is also not even the best pressing movement?
Step forward, overhead press.
Overhead press: a little history
The bench press has been tied to the idea of strength in popular culture since the late 1940s and the burgeoning ‘Golden Age’ of bodybuilding. Images of tanned, muscular Californian Adonises were seen in magazines the world over lying on their back pressing big poundage.
The lift itself was fairly obscure until Bob Hoffmann, the owner of York Barbell, standardized a ragged collection of lifts known as the ‘pullover and press’ to avoid arguments over who was truly the best, and who was a cheat.
The original ‘pullover and press’ was created by Estonian powerhouse George Hackenschmidt, and usually performed lying on the floor. Under Hoffman’s eye, this evolved during the 1920s and 30s and then arrived at the form we now recognize, immediately after WWII.
The overhead press, however, has been around in some form or other since Ancient Greece. It really came in to its own in the Victorian Era, when strongmen would perform huge feats of strength, hoisting items including dumbbells, people and safes overhead for paying crowds night after night.
The lift as we know it, was standardised by the British Army in the 1860s (which is why it is sometimes known as military press) using dumbbells and made its way into the Olympics at the start of the 1900s, where it stayed until the 1970s as the third of the Olympic lifts.
So far, so good. Both lifts are clearly prestigious and steeped in lore.
However, the Bench Press grew and grew in popularity, while the overhead press dwindled. By the early 2000s it was rare to find anyone in an average gym pressing any sort of weight overhead.
Recently, due to the popularity of training modalities like Strongman and Crossfit, the overhead press has returned to our gyms once more. But for many, heavy and consistent overhead pressing is still not a regular part of their routines. Here is why it should be.
Reason 1: variation
The Bench Press can be performed with dumbbells, or a barbell. You can adjust the incline. You can even do it on the floor (Floor Press) but that is where the tinkering ends.
Overhead Press, however, has myriad adaptations that make it a far more satisfying lift.
You can do it standing or seated. With barbells, dumbbell, axle, or kettlebell. At the 2020 Europe’s Strongest Man, atlas stones were pressed overhead! It can be in front of the neck, or behind. You can perform strict press or push press. You can start from the rack or clean it up from the floor. You can press from the clavicle or the chin or perform partials from eye level upwards.
Quite simply, the lift contains multitudes. Whatever you need from upper-body strength training, a variation of the overhead press can provide it.
Reason 2: health and flexibility
Quite simply, barbell Bench Press is not a great lift for your body.
You will almost certainly have seen the huge beasts in gyms who can press 400lbs but can’t put their hands straight above their head. These behemoths are perfectly adapted to lying on their back and pressing huge weight directly above them, but without regular and targeted corrective work can often find they lose basic shoulder mobility and get that tell-tale kyphosis (a forward head position and ‘hunched’ back).
Anecdotally, I knew a guy who won ‘bodyweight bench for reps’ competitions regularly at strength expos but had so little flexibility in his shoulders that he couldn’t put his hands behind his head, not ideal if you like napping in hammocks or have run-ins with the police…
Regular overhead pressers, on the other hand, are often in much healthier positions as the range of motion required to lock out a press means they can get their arms straight upright and their head ‘through the window’.
In fact, the Overhead Press can employ up to 50% more range of motion in the shoulders than the Bench Press. Both lifts are intensive on the front delts, but a well performed overhead press can actually be corrective on the shoulder and contribute to good shoulder health
Reason 3: the “cool factor”
This one is probably the most controversial, but at Herculean Strength we like to challenge you.
Quite simply, most modern lifters have neglected the overhead press to such an extent that a bodyweight strict press is perhaps one of the most impressive feats you can perform in a gym today. A one and a half bodyweight strict press is frankly superhuman. If you can combine that bodyweight strict press with cleaning it off the floor, you will be communing with the ancestors.
Yes, a big bench is very cool and a clear status symbol, but with powerlifting style arches and wide grips, often the reality of the lift is no more than 4 or 5 inches from chest to lockout.
A full range of motion strict press will go from your clavicle to a full lock overhead. You will use every muscle in your body, from your calves to your glutes to your triceps to fire it upwards against gravity. At the moment you lock it out and put your head through the gap in your biceps, you have transcended man and become a god. Well, perhaps not. But it is very cool.
Be prepared for wondrous looks from gym bros scattered around the weight room.
As you can tell, I love the overhead press.
I also love the bench press, and both have a place in my routine.
But for aesthetics, muscular development, and downright fun the overhead press wins hands down.
After 17 years of training, the lift that I have found hardest to develop and had to fight for every pound is the overhead press. Gains don’t come easy, and overhead press gains come hardest of all.
If you haven’t dedicated any time to getting seriously strong overhead, it’s not too late. Start now but leave your ego at the door.
This isn’t a lift you can do lying down!
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