The Importance of Overhead Work

Article written by Jace Derwin

Pressing and jerking are foundational movements in the strength game, and have existed as a form of strength exhibition ever since guys with swirly moustaches started getting together and see who could hoist the most weight. Putting weight overhead is a staple of being a strength athlete. It is the most expressive form of barbell domination and crucial to train if you want to be the strongest beast you can be. It is often neglected for how difficult the movements are to accomplish, which is exactly why only the beasty-est of men and women set in to train it extensively.

Overhead work is a prime piece of strongman and olympic weightlifting. Both olympic lifts end with the bar in an overhead position, and strongman contains multiple events consisting of locking out a number of different implements overhead. Needless to say, if you aim to compete, boosting your ability to put weight over your head is imperative. Even if you aren’t a competitor, developing the strength and skill in the overhead position is a dynamic element worth investing in. Not only will you develop shoulders made only from the finest marble stone, but you’ll increase stability and function in the shoulder girdle, help develop coordination, and build strength and stability of the spine and torso.

The three best methods of developing overhead strength and power are the press, the push press, and the jerk. All three can be done in with axles, barbells, dumbbells, or logs. Most commonly done from the front rack position, performing these movements with a barbell behind the neck in a snatch grip can transport you to a Ron Swanson-esque state of being.

All three overhead movements are effective, yet they all play a different purpose and have different results. A quick break down of the movements to relieve any confusion goes as such.

Press – Move the bar from the front rack to an overhead lockout. No bounce, sway, or assistance from the legs. Just pure raw strength.

Push Press– Similar to a press but can be loaded with a slight dip in the legs to help power the weight before pressing into lockout. More weight can be lifted than the press due to assistance and skill of the leg drive.

Jerk– Loaded the same as a push press but using an explosive extension of the legs after the dip, followed by a quick extension of the arms to “catch” the weight in full lockout. The movement has no true pressing action and is most demanding on speed, timing, coordination, and athleticism. The jerk also allows for the most weight to be lifted.

While all three are noble pursuits of strength training, exclusively training one doesn’t necessarily help the others.

The press is a pure strength movement. Developing the press will add to your maximal force production, setting a base for how much strength one can recruit through the full range of the pressing action. Building up your press strength will add more hypertrophic benefit than the other two due to how long the muscles spend time under heavy tension. This will also help protect tissues that make up the shoulder girdle and rotator cuff by forcing them to adapt to high levels of stress from the force and time of contraction.

While great at boosting raw strength, the press offers little benefit directly into success in the jerk or other explosive overhead movements. The speed and coordination needed in the jerk and its variations take away from how much raw press strength is really needed. Getting talented in the jerk will help cultivate better proprioception in all parts of the body, and increase the speed at which strength is recruited to be explosive. The demand of the arms in the jerk is to act as more of a guide for the bar rather than the driving force. The arms need to put the bar in the right position and be completely locked out to receive the weight as the lifter’s body drops into a split position. The main point of power is derived from the legs as they dip to load the explosive hip action. Raw strength is important, but not as imperative as it is to be as fast and accurate as possible. This doesn’t mean that you can neglect strict press work, but consideration to how the legs help assist the movement should be made in your training.

This is where the value of the push press comes into play. The push press is the connection between the press and the jerk. It helps develop the timing between leg drive and a strong recruitment from the arms. As the lifter dips and drives the legs, momentum is added to the bar right as the arms begin to press and reach full lockout. Essentially, it’s a cheated press by adding drive from the legs or a cheated jerk by not catching the weight in a full lockout. On its own, it is a great training tool to help get stronger and more dynamic at the same time. As the bar gets heavier, the timing between press strength and leg drive need to be at their most cohesive to complete the lift. A quick and powerful leg drive sets up the whole success of the movement. Weak leg drive or trying to press too early will typically leave you high and dry. Perfectly timed hip extension with a strong and accurate press is crucial to its success and the main factor in getting a skill transfer from the press into the jerk.

You’ll benefit your ability on the jerk the more you can improve your push press, and your push press will build with a bigger press. The push press is the keystone to this progression, because it allows you to practice both strength recruitment, timing of the leg drive, and speed and control of the bar as it travels overhead into lockout. Mess around with all three and find where you are weakest, or if you are just starting to add these movements in, try progressing from the press to push press to jerk. Get a feel for each lift and explore the wonders of overhead excellence.

Jace Derwin, CSCS

Sports Performance Specialist at

Co-Captain of AJAX Weightlifting Team

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