Top 21 Best Overhead Press Assistance Exercises

When it comes to building a stronger overhead press, doing more overhead presses consistently is one of the best ways to improve.

With this in mind, what else can we do to build a bigger strict press?

Training the supporting muscles that assist in overhead strength, as well as stabilizing is what you want to do.

Here are the best overhead press assistance exercises you should do for a bigger press!

Overhead Press Muscles Worked

what muscles are worked while overhead pressing

The easiest way to pick the best assistance exercises possible; is by determining what muscle groups aid in that main lift.

For the strict press, there are quite a few different muscles that need to be stronger to excel at it.

Primary Movers

  • Shoulders (Front, Side, & Rear Deltoids) – Your shoulder muscles, or delts/deltoids, are the main muscle group that needs to be strong to build a bigger overhead press. The front delts are responsible for the starting position, the side delts help as your elbows start to flare out, and the rear delts help stabilize the shoulder joint overhead.

front side and rear delt muscles
  • Triceps (Medial, Lateral, & Long Heads) – The triceps are responsible for locking out the elbows during overhead pressing. Stronger triceps, easier lockout.

anatomy of lateral, long, and medial heads of the triceps
  • Upper Pecs/Chest (Clavicular Head) – The upper chest or the clavicular head, will also contribute to pressing the bar overhead. While it doesn’t work as much as an incline press, it still assists in pressing the weight overhead.

anatomy of the sternal, clavicular and costal heads of the pectoralis major

Stabilizing Muscles

  • Traps (Trapezius) – The traps have three different divisions – upper, mid, and lower. They help stabilize your shoulder which is important when pressing overhead.

  • Core/Low Back – Your core is responsible for stabilizing your trunk. The stronger your core and abdominal muscles are, the more power you’ll be able to transfer to the barbell.

  • Legs (Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves) – Your lower body is going to help stabilize you while overhead pressing.

  • Lats (Latissimus Dorsi) – When you’re in the starting position, your lats are flared out which gives your arms a solid platform to press from. Bigger lats, more stable starting position.

  • Biceps – The biceps help stabilize the shoulder, as well as the elbow.

Now that we know which muscle groups we need to get stronger, we want to pick 1-2 exercises that directly train each of them through a full range of motion. 

What Are The Best Assistance Exercises For Overhead Press?

Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

The seated DB Press is one of the best movements to improve shoulder strength. 

Because you perform it seated, you have more stability which allows for more tension on the muscles you’re trying to grow. 

This should be performed in the scapular plane as the traditional way people do it is all wrong for shoulder health and it’s just less effective at building the anterior delts anyways. 

You should also adjust your bench so that you’re not pressing in a complete 90-degree position. 75-85 degrees is going to be better and lengthen the anterior delts more.

Lateral Raises

This is the best exercise for training the side delts properly. You can do them with dumbbells or cables and even with one or two arms at the same.

The main thing you want to pay attention to is performing these in the scapular plane.

Doing so will give you much better shoulder stability and output from the lateral delts.

Y-Raises

Y-Raises are another awesome side delt builder.

These train them through an even greater range of motion while also training the lower and middle traps as you extend into the top position.

Rear Delt Row

The rear delt row is an awesome exercise that helps bias the posterior delts more than other row variations. 

All you need to do is set your wrists at a 45-degree angle and drive the elbows back at that same angle. 

Rear Delt Cable Fly

This is a great isolation movement that will minimize bicep involvement so you can train the rear delts directly. 

The same 45-degree orientation is what you want in this movement as well. 

Dips

Dips are one of the best exercises to train the chest, shoulders, and triceps especially!

Because they’re a compound movement, it allows us to train multiple muscle groups at once which is great training economy. Something we all should be paying attention to.

Dips can be done with bodyweight for higher reps in the 10-20 rep range and also by adding weight in the 5-10 rep range. 

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

Incline DB Pressing is one of the best assistance exercises for overhead pressing and bench presses in general.

Using dumbbells allows you to press up and in which stresses the pecs even more than a fixed barbell path will allow for. 

Using both and rotating through them is a great idea overall.

Upper Back Rows

The upper back is best trained with a standard overhand grip and braced with either a chest supported or cable row variation. 

The more stability you have, the easier it will be to build up the upper back musculature. 

The main thing with an upper back row is to drive the elbows back as far as you can to fully shorten your upper back. 

Pullups

For those that can do pullups, you know just how great they are at building forearms, upper back, lats, biceps, and overall upper body strength as well.

I recommend doing as many variations as you can to build as much muscle as possible through your entire back.

Training these with body weight with the correct form will take a while to improve over time.

Once you can do more than 10 reps with bodyweight, add weight slowly. 5 lbs each week so form stays consistent as you get stronger is key. 

Overhead Plate Raises

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Plate Raises are much different than a standard front raise which only trains the anterior delts.

It trains the traps, upper back, and front delts in a way that many other exercises can’t replicate.

You can use a little more momentum with these or keep them super strict. 

Bent-Over Flies/Reverse Pec Deck

Most people think bent-over flies and the reverse pec deck are rear delt exercises. And while they do train the rear delts, they’re much better at training the mid traps as they have horizontal muscle fibers that have a clear line of pull. 

This is one of those movements where you can perform them super strict and try to fully pull the shoulder blades together, or you can do a swinging variation until the range of motion is impossible to maintain. 

Both work and both have their places.

One Arm Lat Pulldown

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The lats don’t have any leverage above 120 degrees of shoulder flexion. 

With this in mind, the best lat pulldown variation isn’t even a vertical pulldown at all. 

Lining up the cable around 45 degrees using an adjustable bench or even kneeling, will allow you to train the lats directly through a full range of motion. 

Plus, by using a one-arm variation, you can focus hard on driving the elbow down toward your hip. 

One Arm Lat Cable Row

The one-arm lat cable row is the same deal as the pulldown. 

One arm at a time to focus on your execution, use a bench to brace against, and pull the elbow to the hip. Simple. 

Ab Wheel

The Ab Wheel is probably the best core exercise you can do to build your ab strength up. You have to go through a huge range of motion that strains your abs with anti-flexion, and even rotation depending on how you do them.

The other awesome thing is that the ab wheel forces you to be in a similar position compared to standing up with a loaded barbell above your head. The stronger your abs are, the stronger your overhead press will be.

If you continue to develop upper body strength but you feel like you’re weak in the middle. It’s probably your abdominal strength and poor abdominal bracing as well.

Also, starting the ab wheel from a kneeling position and doing lower rep sets to start (sets of 3-8) is a good idea for your first couple of sessions.

Back Extensions

Back extensions train the low back, glutes, and hamstrings. It’s a very solid assistance exercise that allows you to load with plates, chains, bands, and even a barbell if you prefer. 

It’s also incredibly lower back friendly as you have a ton of bracing against the pad. 

Bicep Curl Variations

You know what a curl is. Use an EZ Bar, dumbbell, or cable; curl the weight and lower it under control. 

Hammer Curl

Hammer curls train the brachialis and forearms. Bigger and stronger forearms allow for a better grip on the barbell. 

Same as standard bicep curls, use cables or dumbbells, Curl hard, lower under control, repeat. 

Accessory Exercises For Overhead Press

Accessory exercises are very similar to assistance exercises but are a closer variation of a compound exercise. Front Squats are an accessory for Squats, RDLs are for Conventional or Sumo Deadlifts, etc.

Here are the best options I’ve found for improving the Overhead Press.

Push Press

The push press is pretty interesting as it’s more of an explosive movement. However, it really is great for getting used to moving heavy weights overhead.

It’s basically just a standing strict press with leg drive to move the weight more explosively.

Here’s how I used to do it to improve my Overhead Press over 200 lbs!

I would work up to my top set for the strict overhead press, and then afterward, I would start adding more weight to the Push Press.

This setup allows you to get all the benefits of a standing press, while also getting heavier weights overhead to assist with lockout.

If you plan to do the Push Press in your training, stick with lower rep sets between 3-5 reps and heavier weight.

This is the best way I’ve found to incorporate the Push Press so try it out!

Close-Grip Bench Press

Performing a bench press with a closer grip is another accessory movement for overhead presses. 

You don’t need to use a super narrow grip, just enough to keep your forearms close to your sides is enough. 

This will help overload the anterior delts and triceps for a bigger overhead press. 

Incline Bench Press

The Incline Bench Press is once again another great accessory movement and allows for a ton of carryover for all pressing variations. 

You can do 30, 45, and 60 degrees on your adjustable bench but make sure to track them as different variations. 

The main thing you need to make sure you do is press with the elbows tucked at 45 degrees as this will line up the upper pec fibers the best.

Seated Overhead Press

Performing the overhead press seated is very similar to a standing overhead press, but you have much better stability. This will allow you to overload the same muscle groups even better.

I guarantee if you get stronger at a seated strict press, your standing overhead press will get stronger and vice versa as well.

Overhead Press Progression

The right overhead press progression will be determined by what your main goal for the movement is. 

Do you want to build more muscle mass using the overhead press?

Or do you want to get stronger at it?

The answer to these questions will help you decide what style of progression you should follow.

Overhead Press Hypertrophy Progression

If you’re mainly using the overhead press for hypertrophy, it’s super easy to program and progress.

All you should be focusing on is getting stronger in the 5-8 rep range. 

If your form breaks down, the set is over.

To set this up is simple, pick a weight that allows for 5-8 reps to hit failure. 

If you do more than 8 reps, that’s fine. Add 5 lbs the following week and push to failure. 

If you don’t hit 8 reps, keep the weight the same next time and beat your reps. 

Here’s how this progression might look!

  • Week 1 – 95×8

  • Week 2 – 100×6

  • Week 4 – 105×8

  • Week 5 – 110×7

When you hit a plateau and can’t add weight or reps for a couple of weeks, back the weight off and start doing backoff sets. 

The top set will be 5-8 reps, and then back off 8-10. 

Let’s say you’ve plateaued on 150×7. Back the weight off 20% and work back up. The backoff can be around 10% lower to start. 

  • Week 1 – 120×8, 105×10

  • Week 2 – 125×6, 110×9

  • Week 3 – 125×8, 110×11

  • Week 4 – 130×7, 115×8

The same rules apply. Add weight once you do 8 or more reps on the top set and 10 or more on the backoff set. 

Throw in a couple of the assistance exercises shown in this article and try to get stronger at them in the same manner. 

As long as you do that, you’re going to build a ton of muscle as you get stronger. 

Overhead Press Strength Progression

Training the overhead press for strength is just as easy as training for muscle growth, luckily. 

Work up to 1 all-out set in the 3-10 rep range.  

However, since we want to focus on getting stronger, I recommend a slightly faster eccentric to conserve energy and the strongest/most explosive concentric you can manage to lock out. 

You also want to stay 1-2 reps away from failure for maximal recovery.

Once the bar speed slows or the form breaks down, call it there. 

Here’s how this progression might look for somebody starting with 200 lbs. 

  • Week 1 – 200×10

  • Week 2 – 205×9

  • Week 3 – 210×8

  • Week 4 – 215×7

You basically just add 5 lbs and push the set hard, but not to FAILURE; an important distinction from hypertrophy training. 

Once you drop below 3 reps, you back the weight off 10-20% and try to beat your old PRs back to your plateau.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Conclusion

Which exercises are you planning on using to improve your overhead press?

Let me know in the comment section below, right now!

Until next time,

-Dante

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