The Top 8 Overhead Press Accessory Exercises

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We’ve all seen the barrel-chested guys waddle over to the bench press station for the 18th time this week, lay back, and casually rep out 20 or so reps at 225

Those dudes are beasts no doubt about it.

…but how many of those guys have the requisite shoulder strength to push the same heavy weights overhead when they have to perform from a standing position?

Stuff starts to get real when you don’t have a bench to push off or brace against.

You want to really show off your upper body strength? Get really good at the strict press, standing press, overhead press…whatever you want to call it. However, you’re going to have to do more than just pushing a barbell overhead all morning…

overhead press accessory exercises
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Today, we’re gonna look at the best assistance exercises for overhead strength development. I’m confident that by the time we’re done, you’ll actually switch out your Monday bench pressing for overhead pressing (blasphemy, I know!)

The Best Overhead Press Accessory Exercises: So Much More than 

So…why are overhead press accessory exercises so important?

The overhead press / shoulder press is a complex movement that demands a lot from your body, most notably proper form, stability, and power. Accessory lifts work to “fine tune” these aspects. They target specific muscle areas or work on certain mechanics that directly translate to improved performance in the main lift. 

Let’s look at the main reasons why you should prioritize accessory work in your regimens:

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  • Muscle Imbalances: They correct muscle imbalances which can improve form (via promoting appropriate range of motion) and reduce the risk of injury.
  • Hypertrophy & Strength: By increasing muscle mass, they contribute to hypertrophy and provide additional strength to carry over to the overhead press.
  • Stabilization & Mobility: Improved stability and range of motion facilitate better technique and barbell control during the press.
  • Upper Body Strength: Accessory exercises build comprehensive upper body strength, contributing to better performance in other compound lifts (yeah, you’ll be able to bench more, to).

Why Incorporate Overhead Press Accessory Exercises?

When it comes to integrating accessories into my workouts, I carefully consider the muscles involved in the movement. For the overhead press, this (primarily) means targeting my delts, triceps, and upper back for a well-rounded strength foundation. 

Here’s how I select my accessory exercises:

1. Balance: I make sure to pick variations that promote balance in my muscles. This prevents overdeveloping one side and underutilizing another, which could lead to compensations and a higher risk of injury. Or looking like this guy:

2. Shoulder Mobility: In the long run, exercises that improve shoulder mobility can make a huge difference. Enhanced mobility allows for a full range of motion and better forms when pressing. To be honest, as I get older, I need to work especially hard to keep my shoulders as mobile as I would like for them to be. Any exercise that can strength them while also assisting with their mobility is…like…the best of all possible worlds.

3. Grip Variations: Switching up my grip, as simple as it sounds, has had a positive impact for hitting different parts of the triceps and deltoids. NOTE: When I talks about “switching my grip”, I specifically mean moving my hands narrower or further apart on the barbell. I always use a pronated grip when pressing.

4. Core Involvement: I can’t overstate the importance of a strong core. My selection often includes movements that require core engagement. Straight up, if your core strength is weak, it won’t matter how strong your shoulders are…your pressing strength will be weaker than it should be.

5. Assistance Work: Accessory lifts, such as pin presses, allow me to handle heavier loads safely. These are excellent for improving my lockout.

6. Specificity: I keep in mind the principle of specificity. The accessories I choose are close enough in movement pattern to the overhead press to have significant carryover to the main lift. Although, to be fair, at times, the overhead press itself becomes the “accessory” movement (when I am more focused on improving my push press or push jerk).

The 8 Best Overhead Press Accessory Exercises

Here are my personal top 8 overhead press accessory exercises. Of course, your list might look slightly different given where you’re at in your lifting career and when your priorities are!)

  1. Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press
    • The seated position keeps your feet planted and your back supported, allowing for focused shoulder and tricep work. Dumbbells require each side of your body to work independently, leading to balanced muscular development. Can be performed as a single-arm press or by pushing both dumbbells simultaneously.
  2. Incline Bench Press
    • While primarily targeting your upper chest, the incline bench press also hits the shoulders. It complements your overhead work (although it can be incorporated as a primary lift on occasion), strengthening the angle at which your bench transitions to an overhead press.
  3. Arnold Press
    • This twist on dumbbell pressing involves rotating your palms as you lift and target the shoulders from multiple angles (see above). Arnold (obviously) knows a thing or two about building impressive shoulders.
  4. Dips
    • Whether you opt for bodyweight or weighted variations, (or dips on the rings or using designated dip bars) dips are vital for developing tricep strength…which transfers into your overhead pressing strength.
  5. Pulling Movements
    • Your overhead accessory work should include both pushing and pulling. Pulling movements will develop an additional cache of strength which is crucial for promoting stability in the overhead press.
  6. Handstand Push-Ups
    • The best of all bodyweight exercises? The handstand push-up builds shoulder and tricep strength while the core works overtime to brace itself and maintain balance and position.
  7. Overhead Pin Press
    • Set up in a power rack (or, if necessary, a squat rack) and press from pins (j-cups in the squat rack) at different heights to overcome sticking points. This allows for target specificity within your press and safe lifting, as the pins catch the bar if needed. Excellent for strengthening your lockout position.
  8. Z Press
    • Performed sitting on the ground with legs straight in front, the Z-Press demands core stability and isolates the shoulders and triceps by eliminating leg drive. Closely related to the also great “Filly Z Press” (thanks Marcus!)

Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s take a look at some niche questions that you might have if…you have niche questions.

While free weights are typically preferred for building functional strength, there are instances where specialty machines can be beneficial in accessory work. For example, the Smith machine allows greater focus on lifting without the need to focus as much on stabilization efforts. However, it’s important for me to remember that machines are never going to offer the same range of motion that free weights can/will.

Pairing the overhead press with accessory exercises can help me develop a more balanced and robust shoulder girdle. Incorporating push presses for power development and dips for tricep strength can complement my strict overhead press, leading to better overall upper body strength and stability.

When You Gotta Get Better at Getting a Barbell Overhead…You Don’t Always Need a Barbell…

Hopefully I’ve not only convinced you of the importance of overhead pressing strength (and how, as much as bench press bros may argue, is actually more impressive, and functional, than benching strength), but have inspired you to improve it.

However, mindlessly trying to press a heavy barbell over your head, over and over again just ain’t gonna cut it.

Thankfully, the best overhead press accessory exercises range from being “interesting” (Z-Press, Pin Press) to downright fun (handstand push-ups). 

I don’t know what else I would need to tell you to get you interested in these exercises to get you to perform them, but…I can assure you that Graciano puts in his sets.

If you’re interested in blowing up your shoulders without using any weight, check out our review of the top bodyweight CrossFit workouts. Nobody can argue with calisthenics bros upper body strength…nobody.

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AUTHOR

Tom, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, ISSA-CPT, PN1-NC, DPA, CAPM has been CrossFitting for over 10 years. He has participated in a number of team and individual CrossFit competitions across Europe and the United States. He was the 2012 Chick-fil-A Race Series champion (North Georgia Circuit) and has put together a few gnarly garage and basement gyms in his time!

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