As a powerlifting coach, I frequently get asked: Should I include the overhead press in my training if I’m a competitive or recreational powerlifter? As with most questions in strength and conditioning, and by my most I mean almost all, the answer is that it depends. There are reasons to use the overhead press and reasons not to. There’s also more appropriate times than others to include it, and times when it would be completely counterproductive to your goals. All of this depends on training history and time of year in your training calendar. I’ve outlined three considerations to think over when deciding if including the overhead press in your training is appropriate or not.
If you’re new to powerlifting, or have been lifting recreationally, but inconsistently for a while and just recently focused your training, your main concern should be to build as much muscle and general strength as possible. Not only is the overhead press a fantastic way to build a great deal of muscle, it also helps build balance and pressing strength in a different plane than that of a bench press.
Newer lifters don’t need as much specificity in their training as veteran lifters do. This means they can add more variety and different movements to build a bigger and more balanced base of strength. This type of training can be done much more frequently, in much higher doses, than for someone who has been training for 10 years.
However, if you’re a very experienced or elite lifter, your exercise selection becomes more specific to the competition lifts over time. This is especially true the closer it is to competition. In general, less time needs to be devoted to general hypertrophy work for the veteran lifter, and more time is instead focused on training the movements as they are done in competition. Although elite lifters still need variation during certain phases of training through the training year, their exercise selection usually remains a bit more specific than that of a novice lifter.
So, although a more a novice lifter may include the overhead press in a strength cycle just 12 weeks out from competition to ensure they are building as much muscle and general strength as possible, an advanced lifter would choose a different alternative more similar to the classic bench press such as incline or narrow grip press.
Time Relative to Competition or Training Cycle
If you just competed in a powerlifting competition or went through a heavy peaking cycle to max your lifts in the gym, chances are your training leading up to it was very heavy and very specific. You focused your training on the three lifts as done in competition. Your volume was low, but you were handling weights very close to limit loads.
Most lifters need variation in their training after a training cycle like this for two reasons. The first is that the more a particular exercise or modality is done, the less effective it will become. You become resistant toward the stimulus. Training doesn’t necessarily need to be varied too drastically, too often, however. You can continue to improve by varying the lifts just slightly along with an appropriate manipulation of overall volume, intensity, and reps per set. But if you spend a good amount of time in a highly specific peaking cycle, mixing in overhead press for a general strength/hypertrophy cycle of training can really help force healthy and helpful adaptations.
The second reason for variation is that movement patterns must be changed to avoid excessive, prolonged exposure to repetitive motion. If a motion is performed repetitively exactly the same, over time, excessive stress can be placed on connective tissue and injuries to these soft tissues can potentially occur. This is as true for intermediate lifters as it is for advanced lifters. A drastic change in motion from a standard bench press, such as the overhead press, is great to implement after an active rest period for all classes of powerlifters.
Current Training Cycle
As I already mentioned, the further away from planned competition, the more general and less specific training will look. When planning your training calendar, the first block of training should prioritize the building of muscular size and strength/work capacity, especially in beginner and intermediate lifters. The overhead press is a great choice to include in this block. It builds overall strength, stability, and, most importantly, muscular size in the shoulders and entire shoulder girdle. Developing these qualities is a primary goal in a general/hypertrophy cycle.
Using lifts and exercises that build up the same musculature used in the competition lifts should be the focus in such a block, rather than training the same motor pattern done in competition. Even elite lifters can use the overhead press in the early off season with great results, if it is far enough away from competition, just as they can following competition.
When designing powerlifting programs and intelligently arranging training cycles, it’s vital to keep the demands of the competition in mind. Specificity of training should be placed first. But general strength and muscular size also must be trained. Understanding how and when to place great exercises, like the overhead press, into training will lead to long-term success.