Beginner’s Guide: The Overhead Press

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An individual’s definition of functional training corresponds directly to what their daily activities are; functional training is physical exercise or rehabilitation that will allow an individual to perform those daily activities better and pain-free. The way I incorporate functional training into my fitness regimen is performing exercises that will make me stronger at performing basic human movements against resistance.

A few examples of what I define as basic human movements against resistance would be carrying something heavy, picking something up off the floor, pushing or pulling something and putting something heavy above my head. When I lift functionally I train with a compound movements, that works out more than one joint and muscle group, and better imitates the resistance your body might have to overcome in daily activities.

Today I want to talk to you about one of my favorite compound movements that will certainly translate well into performing daily activities better, the overhead press. The overhead press is an incredible exercise that will help you perform the basic human movement of putting something above your head. Regardless if you’re helping your child climb a tree or putting away groceries, all humans need to be able to move an object above their heads pain-free, and the overhead press is in my opinion the best lift you can do to perform that movement better.

Muscles worked during the overhead press:
  • deltoids
  • hips
  • quadriceps
  • upper chest
  • biceps
  • triceps
  • core
Objects and equipment to use for overhead pressing:
  • barbell
  • dumbbells
  • resistance bands
  • kettlebells
  • sandbags
  • logs, rocks or anything you can find nature

How to overhead press with a dumbbell:

How you should press will be determined by what you use to press, the setup for pressing with a barbell or a sandbag is very different from pressing with dumbbells. For example, if you are pressing with a dumbbell:

  1. pick up your dumbbells and raise them until they are aligned with your shoulders
  2. keep your legs shoulder width apart
  3. keep your back straight
  4. gently lift up (puff out) your chest and squeeze your glutes
  5. keep your head straight looking forward  
  6. slowly press the dumbbells overhead, locking out your elbows
  7. then slowly lower the dumbbell until they are again aligned with your shoulders
  8. repeat from this position for as many repetitions as needed (a good rule of thumb is low weight high repetitions, heavy weight low repetitions)


If you are unfamiliar with overhead pressing, use the exercise equipment that you are most familiar with. As I will go into in a moment, you can use all sorts of things to practice the overhead press; regardless of whether it is a conventional piece of equipment like a barbell or dumbbell or unconventional like a sandbag or log, this type of lift will workout and strengthen a lot of muscle groups. However, overhead pressing isn’t something to be attempted casually, paying close attention to your form when lifting something above your head is a necessity. If you are new to this exercise start off with a light weight you can easily manage.      

My introduction to the importance of overhead pressing was humbling. After leaving the Navy and training in a conventional gym for a year and half, I decided to join and workout with a Strongman group. These guys were very strong and kindly coached me through all of their exercises, but I could barely keep up. My biggest problem, I quickly realized, was putting something heavy above my head. Up to that point I had been following training plans that incorporated a lot of isolated exercises like bicep curls and calf raises but little work with compound exercises like deadlifts and overhead pressing. Even though I worked out with the Strongman group only a few times, I learned some very valuable lessons, specifically that I absolutely had to rely on the compound (functional) exercises as my fundamental lifts.   

Shortly after working out with the Strongman group I decided to take a break from my ordinary gym (ordinary gyms are still awesome) and spent the summer working out with rocks and logs; practicing compound movements like squats, deadlifts and specifically overhead pressing with these odd objects. That summer was paramount in making me a stronger person and I learned that sometimes it is good to take an offbeat and individualistic approach to physical training. Now I am not suggesting that you should leave your to gym to go outside and lift rocks and logs over your head but I am encouraging you to explore all of your options and find something that works for you.

Go ahead and try out the overhead press and be safe about it. Learning the ropes to overhead pressing and functional training will take time but the rewards can be considerable. Adding this exercise to your training regimen will not only workout a lot of muscle groups but will give you a greater ability at performing that basic human movement, of putting something above your head.

As always cheers to your health! Please feel free to comment below with any questions or suggestions.

Thanks for reading!    

Disclaimer: Before starting any new diet and exercise program please check with your doctor and clear any exercise and/or diet changes with them before beginning. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian and do not claim to be so.The opinions and experiences I share are my own 

David Smith

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  1. I am hoping to start some weight training soon…I have lost about 40 pounds and have focused mainly on cardio the past 6 months…but this is great info and I hope to start some new exercises!

    1. Hi Jamie,

      Great job with losing 40 pounds, if you have any questions about weight training please feel free to email me. Cheers! Stay tuned for more post, we have a squat post coming up soon.


    1. Awesome Tara,

      I hope the best for you on strength training, please stay tuned for more fitness post and shoot us any questions you have.


    1. Hi Diana,

      There are days I feel too lazy also, thank you so much for commenting and passing these tips on to your husband. Cheers!


  2. I’ve been wanting to use weights to get in shape for a while now. Thanks for this post. I think I need to go out and buy some now. =)

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by, investing in weights is a good thing but there are plenty of bodyweight exercises you can do right now to condition your body: pushups and squats are two of the simplest but rewarding exercises you can do right now with no equipment. Again thank you so much for stopping by and please stay tuned for more fitness post.


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