A commonly asked question, “How Far Apart Should Your Hands Be For Overhead Press?”
The overhead press is definitely one of the most athletic compound movements.
Plus, there are more technical aspects to the lift than you may first imagine.
This is not as simple as just picking a barbell up and pressing it overhead.
In fact, if your hands aren’t placed correctly on the bar you won’t have the desired effect on the target muscles, and you may even risk injury.
So, allow me to explain proper hand placement for the overhead press.
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How Far Apart Should Your Hands Be For Overhead Press?
The distance your hands are apart for the overhead press will vary from person to person. However, your forearms should always be vertical in the bottom position. In fact, your aim is to maintain a straight line from your elbows to your wrists throughout the movement. You should always retract and depress the shoulder blades to activate the lats before pressing. So, if your grip is either too wide or too narrow it will be more difficult to properly activate the lats.
1. Your Forearms Should Be Vertical in the Bottom Position
The most important cue when it comes to hand position for the overhead press is that your forearms should be vertical in the bottom position.
There’s actually a lot of conflicting information when it comes to how far apart your hands should be.
I guess the most common thing you’ll hear is to “have your hands slightly outside shoulder-width”
With that being said, “slightly outside” seems to vary depending on where you got the information from.
Plus, let’s not forget that not everyone has the same size shoulders.
So, what may constitute a “normal” grip for one person could be considered narrow or wide for another.
Therefore, the best advice I can offer is that when you start the movement and also lower the bar to the bottom position you’ll want your forearms to be completely vertical.
2. Maintain a Straight Line From Elbows to Wrists
Another great cue when it comes to ensuring that your forearms remain vertical is to maintain a straight line from your elbows to your wrists.
In fact, if you make sure that these joints are aligned throughout the entire overhead press movement then you can’t go wrong.
I will also say that if you keep the elbows and wrists in a straight line, this allows you to create the most power possible.
And of course this is essential when it comes to pressing heavier weights.
You’ll often see trainees who allow their elbows to flare out to the sides when returning the barbell to the bottom position.
However, much the same as the bench press, this is not something you want to happen.
You will lose a lot of power in the movement and your shoulders won’t be in the optimum position to press a heavy weight.
So, make sure that your wrists and elbows are always in line with each other, and this will also help to keep your forearms ramrod straight.
3. Retract & Depress the Shoulders to Activate the Lats
Even though the overhead press is a shoulder exercise your lats do play a part.
With that being said, they play a supporting role, so you don’t specifically want to “feel” your lats during the movement.
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In effect, your lats (and your triceps) are providing a shelf that you can “rest” on in the bottom position of the overhead press.
Therefore, it’s important to activate the lats beforehand.
You simply do this by retracting the shoulder blades and then depressing (pulling them down) too.
It’s almost as though you’re trying to tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets.
You’ll immediately know if your hands are too wide or too narrow if you don’t feel your lats providing adequate support in the bottom position.
The Best Cue For Scapula Retraction
4. Too Wide Has Less Impact on the Delts & Triceps
I would hazard a guess that most trainees have their hands a little too wide for the overhead press.
This is probably because we are typically told to grip the bar slightly “wider than shoulder-width”.
And often this just causes confusion
However, if you go too wide you definitely won’t adhere to many of the points I’ve mentioned so far.
Basically, if you try to maintain vertical forearms and a straight line between your elbows and wrists you’ll find that your elbows will flare out to the side.
Plus, this will also feel very unnatural and is likely to place undue stress on the joints.
It will also limit your ability to press heavier weights with good form.
You’ll find that having too wide a grip takes a lot of the emphasis off your shoulders and triceps.
Now considering that these are the prime movers in the overhead press it makes sense to utilize them correctly.
So, if you want to hit the target muscles properly, don’t have too wide a grip in the overhead press.
5. Too Narrow Risks Injury
I’ve spoken about retracting the shoulder blades in order to activate the lats.
This will then provide adequate support for the “load” that you are holding.
The danger of having your grip too narrow is that the shoulders are more likely to become internally rotated.
So, in effect, the complete opposite of what you want.
Your shoulder blades end up turned inwards and pulled down.
Something you should always for when pressing overhead is to have your chest puffed out and held high.
This will be impossible to achieve when your shoulders are internally rotated.
Furthermore, this can lead to shoulder impingement and a variety of other shoulder injuries.
There is also no way that you’ll be able to maintain perfect wrist, forearm, and elbow position when your grip is too narrow.
Basically, this is just an injury waiting to happen.
6. Thumb Position & Bar Placement For Overhead Press
Once you have your hands in the optimum position for the overhead press there are a couple of other factors to take into consideration.
Firstly, if you’re new to the overhead press I would suggest that you wrap your thumbs around the bar.
This provides full control over the bar and a modicum of safety.
Basically, there’s less chance of losing the barbell in front of or behind the body.
However, my preferred method is the suicide grip where your thumbs and fingers are on the same side of the bar.
I just feel that this helps me adhere to better form, plus it actually feels more comfortable too.
Additionally, you want to hold the bar in the meaty and fleshy part of the hand, just above the thumb joint.
This will ensure that your wrists stay as neutral as they possibly can (there will always be a slight wrist bend with the overhead press).
Plus, this will definitely make the lift more efficient.
There is a tendency to place the bar too high in the hands.
This typically involves placing the bar on the finger pads and overextending the wrists.
You definitely don’t want to be doing this.
Wrist Overextension in the Press
I hope you have a better understanding of how far apart your hands should be for the overhead press.
The best hand position will always see your wrists, forearms, and elbows in perfect alignment.
You can tell if you have the right grip-width in the bottom position.
If your grip is too wide the exercise becomes less effective for the main target muscles, i.e. the shoulders and triceps.
Whereas, too narrow a grip will place undue stress on the shoulder joints and can lead to injury.
You should also keep your chest held high and have your shoulders retracted.
This will ensure that your lats provide a “shelf” for additional support.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.