I’ve gotten several questions about the overhead press since posting my video about my favorite accessory lifts. As a recap, I basically said I rarely do overhead work. This has some people up in arms because in the past 3-4 years the importance of the press has been preached from a variety of sources, effectively to the point that its necessity for improving one’s bench is taken as gospel truth. Luckily, I ignored those recommendations, dropped all direct shoulder work from my training, and put about 80 pounds on my bench in about 8 months. Lo and behold, to bench more, I needed to bench more. Revolutionary. My bench has since stagnated. Why? Because I got really tired of benching and have dropped to 2-3 times per week instead of 4-6. If I ever decided I care about benching more, guess what I’ll do? Suck it up and bench more often again.
This is not to say I think overhead is a worthless exercise. I’d say it’s better for athletes than bench, by a broad margin. If done correctly, it’s probably more conducive to long term shoulder health than the bench as well. If you get really strong overhead, you’ll probably have a huge bench. The key there is “really strong.” As in, pro strongman or OL strong. Doing overhead once or twice per week for a modest amount of volume, on the other hand, isn’t going to give you a huge bench, nor will it probably help your bench much at all, in most circumstances.
There are circumstances where overhead is probably conducive to benching, however. One such circumstance is the person who tucks their elbows a lot, touches low, and misses benches right off their chest because they can’t get the weight back over their clavicle for lockout. Overhead is perfect for that situation.
Another is for people who lack the strength to keep their scapulae retracted and depressed under heavy weight. If you consistently can’t keep your scapulae pinned, and as the bar reaches your chest your shoulder itself elevates and rotates slightly downward (not your humerus, but the glenoid cavity itself), overhead fits the bill for you too.
If you can’t bench without pain, but can overhead without pain, then by all means overhead instead (should be a no-brainer).
Finally, if you simply hate bench but still want to put up respectably numbers (though achieving an elite level of bench strength isn’t a priority), then you can certainly do that with overhead work. My fiancee is a perfect example of that. She benches once or twice a month at most, but does some sort of overhead work almost every day she’s in the gym (including a sick 135 behind the neck push press). As a result, she can bench 135 at will to embarrass other women and weak men if she so chooses.
That’s basically my position on overhead press. It’s certainly a good exercise in it’s own right, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with pressing for a huge press. But if your priority is bench, then practice like you play.