How to Train Your Rower: Overhead Press

Will Ruth

Part 1: The Squat

Part 2: The Deadlift

The overhead press is one of the best upper body exercises for rowers. Not only will it help you go “up and over heads,” the overhead press is a great exercise for scapular function and strengthening the whole upper back and shoulder muscles. However, this lift is often executed incorrectly in ways that fail to reap the rewards of this great exercise and have the potential to cause injury. Quality execution is critical in all exercises to gain the full benefit of strength training.

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In the previous articles, I explained my system of teaching a large group of rowers the basic barbell exercises by breaking each down into 3-4 parts to simulate the commands of “arms-body-legs-catch.” You’ve seen videos from my clinic for the back squat, front squat, and deadlift. Now we will cover the final barbell exercise and main pressing exercise I use with rowers—the overhead press. In addition to tight hip flexors, many rowers have mobility restrictions in their mid back, or thoracic spine. I first instruct the athlete as best I can, then prescribe scaled-down versions of the exercise while the athlete works to develop mobility. Scaled-down versions of the overhead press include the unilateral dumbbell overhead press and the incline bench press, but the goal is that each athlete can do an overhead press safely and effectively.


Watch the strict overhead press and push press cues, then watch the instructional video.

#1: Rack position—“Walk it out”

The rack position for the overhead press is one of the harder positions for athletes to master, particularly rowers who often have restricted thoracic spine mobility. I first instruct athletes on what a “packed” shoulder feels like. “Packing” refers to putting the scapulae in a position of depression and retraction. If you know anatomical terms, great. If not, extend your arm straight overhead, then bend at the elbow and reach down to grab the tag of your shirt. Take note of what your scapula does when you do this—it should go “back and down” into a position of depression and retraction. Watch this video for a demonstration. Try to get back to this position when you unrack an overhead press. It often helps for athletes to begin the press with the barbell at chin level, imagining creating a shelf with the latissimus dorsi. Several attempts may be necessary to find the right position. Many athletes will want to point the elbows out to the sides in a position of internal rotation. Cue these athletes to point their elbows “up and in,” similar to a front squat but less extreme. You can see me do this with Carl in the instructional video to get him to create a better rack position.

#2: Halfway up—“Foreheads, ready UP”

The next instruction is to press the barbell to forehead height, or halfway up to lockout. This allows me to check that the bar is close to their forehead, not pressed out in front of them, and that they are maintaining a braced torso and neutral spine. Most rowers who exhibit faults in this position tend to have poor thoracic spine mobility, poor starting position, or shoulder/mid-back weakness in maintaining the packed shoulder position.

#3: Finish—“Lockout”

Unlike in the squat, many athletes exhibit poor form at lockout for the overhead press. Athletes with restricted thoracic spine mobility will struggle to lock the bar out straight overhead without compromising the neutral spine. These athletes need to improve their thoracic mobility and find other pressing variations they can do in the meantime. Others will be able to reach the correct position when cued to do so. Make sure you provide complete instruction and give the athlete a few chances to get it right before diagnosing a mobility restriction.

ohp posture.png

Common postural faults at the lockout of the overhead press. Lack of torso bracing at left, lack of thoracic mobility at right

#4: Down—“Down”

As with the deadlift, I emphasize the down position because it helps them find that correct rack position to start the next repetition. I cue them to initiate the descent with the elbows, going from locked out overhead to aiming them forward, then bending the arms into the rack position. This controlled descent makes it much easier to hit the same rack position for each rep and teaches the shoulder a correct range of motion.

Using this system, I have instructed 30+ rowers on the basic lifts in less than two hours on several separate occasions. I had the help of a graduate assistant for the most recent time, but in the past have just enlisted the help of veteran rowers who already have experience lifting and have mastered basic technique. If you are teaching a brand-new group of 30 or more, I would recommend breaking them up into at least two smaller sessions. Quality instruction leads to quality execution, which is the biggest factor for effective strength training. You can find cues for all the main exercises I use in aScreen shot 2015-10-22 at 2.10.19 PM rowing program in my free exercise guide. This guide was the basis of the Rowing Stronger Companion DVD that Rowperfect produced last year with additional content from my coaching, including video errors of barbell exercises and a demonstration training session with World University Games rower Carl Smith.

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