Overhead press isn’t powerlifting, despite what most people think.
Most people don’t realize that powerlifting, olympic weightlifting, and strongman are 3 different sports. They just see photos of people lifting big weights and think “powerlifting!” Why? Because “powerlifting” sounds right. Something about the word “power” just makes it stick in people’s heads.
Of course, we all know powerlifting is neither weightlifting nor strongman. In fact, strongman’s the one with all the crazy overhead press records. Powerlifting and weightlifting don’t have OHP in competitions at all. However, that wasn’t always true.
Why did weightlifting and powerlifting get rid of the OHP?
Overhead Press Origins & History
Overhead press wasn’t controversial at first. Up until the late 1800’s, it was considered a pretty standard pressing movement. That all changed in 1898, though, when George Hackenschmidt started experimenting with other ways to get the weights overhead. Most famously, the floor press.
Hackenschmidt’s floor press paved the way for experimentation with other pressing movements which culminated in the 1950’s, when bodybuilders invented the modern bench press. That’s where trouble started for the OHP as a competitive lift. Athletes used the bench to get a better range of motion, which over time led to athletes leaning further and further back in their OHP technique.
This blurred the line between a true overhead press and an incline press. Judges eventually agreed that there was no good way to draw a clear line between the two. It was too ambiguous. Nobody could agree how much to allow an athlete to lean back. So, they decided to scrap overhead press from competitive weightlifting entirely, leaving only the clean & jerk and the snatch.
Shortly after, powerlifting began as an offshoot of weightlifting. Since weightlifting no longer included the overhead press, neither did powerlifting.
If not in competition, why not in training?
That history explains why overhead press isn’t in competition anymore, but why not use it in training? Powerlifters use all kinds of accessories and variations during prep. Why not overhead press?
In my opinion, the overhead press is simply too taxing on its own to be a sustainable accessory for intermediate and advanced lifters. Can it be beneficial to weaker lifters? Of course. The added tricep and shoulder work helps improve your bench at the beginning, but the costs quickly start to outweigh the benefits as you get stronger.
The tricep and shoulder work the overhead press offers comes at the expense of a ton of fatigue which, as you get stronger, starts to negatively impact your performance on bench. Remember, the whole point of a compound movement is to get the most “bang for your buck,” right? Well, think of it this way. The bench press builds total upper body strength: triceps, shoulders, and pecs. The overhead press, though, only focuses on triceps and shoulders. Fewer muscle groups = less bang for your buck.
As an alternative, I would suggest doing more dedicated tricep, pec and rear delt/upper back work in addition to refining technique to increase pressing strength.
Lastly, I’d like to add that the overhead press isn’t an inherently “bad” exercise. It’s just not the appropriate one for most powerlifters. While a perfectly safe compound lift, the overhead press will not automatically make you a great bencher. At the end of the day to increase your bench you need to bench more and build up the musculature utilized in it.
Hopefully, this mini history lesson clarifies the reason why the overhead press isn’t a part of powerlifting and how the movements differ from each other. Remember, we need to refine bench technique with as much repetition as possible. And repetition leaves little room for an extra compound lift like the OHP in powerlifting.