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8 of the Best Weightlifting Exercises to Improve Your Overhead Performance

A typical weightlifting diet involves taking the barbell overhead frequently. The classic lifts, known as the snatch and the clean & jerk, both share the functional purpose of lifting the barbell to overhead in the finish. It’s an integral part of the sport of weightlifting that’s more difficult than it looks at a glance. 

Lifting overhead is an expression of both your shoulder and core strength. There are precise techniques used in overhead lifting, which result in the perfect balance of the barbell on straight arms.
woman performing single-arm squat
By practicing the right lifts, your overhead strength can become your strongest asset. These eight lifts are among the very best for getting strong overhead.

Best Overhead Exercises for Weightlifting

Barbell Strict Press

The strict press is a classic overhead lift: simple, yet effective. In the lift, you take the bar from your shoulders to overhead using only the strength of your upper body. When it comes to pure overhead strength, the more strict presses you do, the better. 

Benefits of the Strict Press

How to Do the Strict Press

Start the strict press by placing your barbell in the squat rack. Go to the front rack position with the bar resting on your shoulders. Stand on straight legs with your feet hip-width apart.

Brace your core and push up vertically against the barbell. After the bar clears your head, push your head through as you straighten your arms to finish the lift. Carefully lower the barbell to your shoulders and do anywhere between 3-10 reps per set.

Note: You can also do the strict press with dumbbells

Barbell Push Press

The push press takes the overhead press up a notch. Your leg strength plays a part in this lift by generating speed in the initial dip and drive of the bar. It’s a highly powerful lift, which allows you to add more weight when going overhead.

Benefits of the Push Press

  • Adding weight to the press increases your overhead strength capacity.
  • The timing of the drive is transferable to the timing of the jerk.

How to Do the Push Press

Take the barbell to the front rack position out of the squat rack. Stand on straight legs with a tight core. While keeping your torso upright, dip your legs to a quarter squat position. Rapidly change direction and drive the barbell upward off your shoulders while extending up on your toes. Finish the lift by returning your heels to the floor and pressing the barbell to straight arms overhead at the same time. 

Push Jerk

The jerk takes the barbell from the shoulders to overhead in one prompt motion. In the lift, you use primarily your leg strength to drive and catch the weight, which allows you to add more weight than a press

There are a few different styles of the jerk, but the push jerk is the best for targeting your true overhead stability and balance. In the push jerk, you don’t move your feet, which keeps the focus of your lift on nailing your perfect vertical drive overhead. 

Benefits of the Push Jerk

  • The high power of the lift adds intensity to your overhead work.
  • Training a fast catch improves your lifting speed. 
  • The catch on bent legs enhances your balance. 

How to Do the Push Jerk

Start the push jerk with the barbell in the front rack position. With an upright torso and elbows up, dip to a quarter squat position and drive the barbell rapidly off your shoulders. After the bar passes your forehead, drop underneath the barbell to catch it, and then stand up.

Single-Arm Press

Adequate overhead strength requires balance and symmetry. If imbalances are present, bilateral movements using the barbell may now fully address any single-side weaknesses. This unilateral movement trains each arm individually for valuable overhead stability and strength.

Benefits of the Single-Arm Press

  • It addresses weaknesses that may be present on one side. 
  • Extra stabilization is required overhead which should translate to other barbell lifts. 
  • It trains your core to brace against an uneven weight distribution overhead.

How to Do the Single-Arm Press

Find your dumbbell of choice. Do this exercise while standing for the best overhead strength result. Take the weight to your shoulder and brace your core. Drive the weight vertically overhead. Carefully lower the weight back to your shoulder.

Note: You can also perform single-arm push presses for some added intensity

Behind-the-Neck Press

Lifting from behind the neck is a staple of overhead strength training for weightlifters. Starting from this position stacks the barbell directly over your spine and helps with your bar path. The unique starting placement builds a strong base for your mobility and strength. 

Benefits of the Behind-the-Neck Press

  • Encourages pushing up underneath the barbell with the proper head placement. 
  • Works slightly different muscles than front rack pressing, leading to more hypertrophy.

How to Do the Behind the-Neck-Press

Place the barbell behind your neck, on your traps in a high-bar position. Put your hands either outside your shoulders, or in a wide snatch grip. Stand on straight legs and point your elbows down towards the floor. Push the barbell off your shoulders to overhead, with leg drive or without. 

Overhead Squat

You can never go wrong with using the overhead squat as a strategy to improve your overhead lifting. Not only do you take the weight overhead and hold it, but you perform a squat to full depth while keeping the weight secure. It challenges your full mobility to its furthest extent while requiring absolute strength. 

Benefits of the Overhead Squat

How to Do the Overhead Squat

Start by taking the barbell behind your neck. Find your snatch grip. Do a behind-the-neck push press to hold the barbell overhead. Adjust your feet to a proper squat stance. 

While pushing up against the barbell with straight arms, complete a full squat, then return to a standing position. Stay balanced and tall underneath the barbell and keep your arms straight the entire time. 

Snatch Balance

When you’re ready to be fast and aggressive underneath the barbell, the snatch balance pays off tremendously. In this lift, you rapidly drop underneath the barbell and catch it in a deep overhead squat position. 

Benefits of the Snatch Balance

  • It mimics and trains the footwork of the snatch.
  • It reinforces how to properly drop underneath the barbell in the snatch. 
  • It improves confidence with heavy weights overhead. 

How to Do the Snatch Balance

Find the start position by taking the bar behind your neck to a snatch grip on straight legs. Perform a dip and drive identical to a push press. 

As the barbell comes off your shoulders, slide your feet out to a squat stance and push yourself underneath the barbell to a deep squat. You should catch the lift quickly with straight arms. Balance and hold the bar overhead in the bottom catch, and finish the lift by standing up. 

Isometric Overhead Hold

When going overhead, you have to be able to hold the bar in the first place. A thorough lockout is needed for the finish of every overhead lift, especially in competition. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, so some extra practice can go a long way. 

Benefits of the Isometric Overhead Hold

How to Do the Isometric Overhead Hold

For the barbell overhead hold, start in the front rack position and press the bar overhead. Hold the weight for your desired amount of time. For example, do 4-5 sets for 30 seconds. You can also do the overhead hold in the snatch grip. For this variation, start with the barbell behind the neck before pressing overhead. 

The overhead hold can also be done with dumbbells. Practice both arms with a dumbbell in each hand, or do single-arm holds for unilateral stability work. 

How to Program Overhead Strength Work

If you’re a weightlifter, these overhead exercises are likely already present in some way on your program. Depending on your experience level, some will be more challenging than others. Your overhead strength training should, though, be individualized to your goals.

Start by assessing your overhead mobility. Grab a dowel rod and work through some presses, squats, and pass-throughs. When that becomes comfortable, advance to presses with the bar, from both the front and back rack position. When this feels good, go on to the overhead squat. Upon mastering the press and overhead squat, you’re ready to introduce the high power lifts such as the push press, jerk, snatch balance, etc. 

While training the overhead lifts for a few days or weeks, observe your strengths and weaknesses related to going overhead. Identify which exercises need the most work, and talk with your coach about including a combination of them in your plan.

Select 3-5 of the best exercises for you, and repeat them for progression. 

How to Warm Up for Overhead Lifts

Prime your overhead lifting with a full warm-up. You should begin with light cardio to prepare your body for exercise. 

Since you’ll be extending your arms overhead, start with dynamic shoulder stretches and exercises such as banded pulls, arm circles, overhead reaches, or side bends. If your shoulder muscles are tight, engage in tissue release with a foam roller or massage ball. At the end of your warm-up, your shoulders should feel “activated” and warm.

Warm up for your lift with the empty barbell for 2-3 sets. Especially when going overhead, start light and gradually add weight. Make incremental jumps to your working weight for best results. 

More Overhead Training Tips

Now that you’re an expert on these overhead lifts, check out these other resources for maximizing your overhead strength abilities. 

Featured Image: Srdjan Randjelovic / Shutterstock

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