The overhead press and the bench press are both exercises that involve pressing a barbell. But they’re actually pretty different.
The overhead press works the upper chest, the front and side shoulders, triceps, and even the abs/serratus muscles. The overhead press can be done with dumbbells or kettlebells, but with a barbell, the weight is stabilized, and it allows you to lift a bit heavier.
The bench press will work the lower chest, some front shoulder work, and the triceps. Depending on how much you flare your elbows out will change the mechanics of the bench. If you flare your elbows out more, you’ll hit more of the pecs more evenly. If you tuck your elbows in more, you’ll hit more of your triceps and hit more of the bottom parts of the chest. (For this reason, you’ll see variations like the wide grip bench and the narrow grip bench.)
So which lift is better—overhead or bench? Well, it depends on your goals.
Overhead For Shoulders, Bench For Lower Chest
If you’re trying to build broader, wider, and more muscular shoulders, you should spend more time doing the overhead press compared to the bench. The bench press will hit your chest more, and so if you’re looking to build a bigger chest, particularly the lower chest, you should bench more.
Personally, I am not big on the “bencher’s chest” look with a big lower chest. To me, it screams “bodybuilder, bro.” I much prefer a more developed upper chest, which looks like a shelf and looks more athletic to me.
Steve Reeves, a famous bodybuilder from the 1940s, felt the same way. This is why he always started with the overhead press and then would switch to the incline barbell press so that his lower chest wouldn’t get too developed.
Vince Gironda had a similar view as Steve Reeves. From what I’ve read, it seems like Vince had banned the bench press from his gym, and the only option was to do the guillotine bench press, which naturally hits the upper fibres much better.
So if you’re trying to build bigger, wider shoulders, like most men are, I’d say the overhead press is the clear winner over the bench press. Put it earlier in your workout, give it a priority in terms of volume and weight, and reap the rewards.
If you are looking for a fuller lower chest, then you should give priority to the barbell bench press.
Shoulder Pain And the Overhead Press
If you’re avoiding the overhead press due to shoulder pain, here’s what I’d recommend:
- Switch to the dumbbell overhead press.
- If that doesn’t help, switch to the standing dumbbell Arnold Press, which will ease the tension on the shoulders
- If that still doesn’t work, switch to a seated dumbbell Arnold Press, which is the easiest on the shoulders.
I haven’t met someone unable to do the seated dumbbell Arnold Press yet, but if that was too hard on the shoulders, you could do some rehab work with the landmine press with a light weight and high reps, some breathing exercises to get your rib cage down, and clean up your diet, to help restore tendon and ligament health.