Conjugate for Strongman: Overhead Press Variations
In the sport of Strongman, the overhead press is one lift that could be considered a staple lift similar to the bench press for a powerlifter. Just as a powerlifter must have a strong bench press to make a competitive total, a strongman competitor must possess a strong overhead press to win.
Overhead press is one of those exercises that athlete's either develop quickly or have difficulty advancing. Much of an individual's success with their overhead press will come down to their genetics. Many physiological factors such as torso length, arm length, leg length, shoulder width, and other physiological factors play a decisive role in an individual's ability to develop the overhead press.
At Westside, we have worked with athletes with many different physical builds to improve their overhead press strength. Whether it's strongman competitors, CrossFit competitors, powerlifters, or Olympic weightlifters, we have helped them develop their overhead press capabilities further.
How do we do this? The use of the overhead press and overhead press variations to avoid accommodation and supply the body with the stimulus it requires to deliver us the training adaptations we seek.
Here are a few of the go-to overhead press variations we use at Westside Barbell to help athletes take their overhead press to the next level:
Push Press vs. Minibands
This exercise is one of the first exercises we will have an athlete new to Westside Barbell perform when the goal is to improve the overhead press. Likely, it will be the first time they have pressed a barbell overhead with bands attached, so it allows us the opportunity to ensure they are safely executing this exercise.
However, just because this exercise takes a bit of skill to execute does not mean you should avoid it. By having the bands attached to the barbell, you will speed up the eccentric phase of the push press, allowing you to move more explosively during the concentric phase and improve their rate of force development.
This variation is an excellent way to increase an athlete's absolute strength, power, or conditioning.
When performed for 1-3 reps at 90%+, you can focus on developing absolute strength. You can replace your speed bench day with speed overhead press day using the push press vs. minibands as the selected exercise to increase power and bar speed. When performed for multiple sets of 8 reps or more, this exercise is a great way to improve your overhead press rep capabilities while raising your overall conditioning levels.
Incline Axle Bar Overhead Dead Press
This exercise is used as a max effort upper exercise to improve overhead press absolute strength. It is easy to set up; you will need an incline bench, an axle bar, and a squat rack with pin settings.
You will want to set the axle bar so that the barbell sits at a height just at the bridge of your nose. The goal is simple; you want to overhead press the heaviest axle weight possible from a dead stop position. This exercise will significantly improve an athlete's ability to press off of the chest.
To focus more on triceps lockout in the overhead press, you can set the pin to have the bar rest at mid-forehead level or slightly higher. Feel free to attach bands or use a different specialty barbell for additional stimulus. At Westside, we typically perform this exercise for singles working up to the heaviest weight possible for that training day.
The Z press is another overhead press variation we have used extensively to improve the overhead press of strongman competitors. If you are not familiar with the Z press, it is simple to execute. Basically, instead of performing a seated overhead press with the support of a seat, you will perform the seated press sitting on the ground.
This forces the athlete to create greater levels of thoracic stability to create a foundation strong enough to press the barbell without any external support. This exercise works as one of those "weakness solvers," considering no weakness will go unnoticed or untrained while performing this exercise.
The barbell rotation will vary between a regular power bar, a squat bar, or an axle bar. This exercise can be used as a max effort main exercise or an accessory exercise. For max effort, we will typically work up to a max single. As an accessory exercise, we will keep reps between 5-8 with moderate weight or 12-15 with lighter weight.
Think Outside of The Box
The exercises mentioned above could be considered irregular for some coaches. You may ask why an individual should focus on any movement outside the conventional overhead press? Well, competition changes, the events change, and an athlete must gain the strength and ability to win regardless of the circumstances.
From a programming standpoint, the increased variation will allow an athlete to avoid accommodation further, exposing them to the right amount of stimulus to make continued gains throughout training.
Don't fall into thinking your programming must be as simple as possible. Are we saying you should purposely complicate your training? Of course not.
We are saying that a coach or athlete should use every tool at their disposal to improve as efficiently as possible. Embrace new training ideas, expose yourself to new training stimuli, and reach new strength and conditioning levels.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.