An important consideration when you are doing any strength training exercise, whether overhead presses or otherwise, is how much weight you should be lifting and how many reps and sets of the exercise you should be doing.
In general, the loads, reps, and sets for any exercise are dependent upon your fitness level and your primary training goal.
So, with those factors in mind, you may be wondering, how many overhead presses should I do in my workouts?
In this guide, we will discuss how to do overhead presses and how to determine the number of reps, sets, and weights you should use based on your fitness goals to ultimately answer your question, how many overhead presses should I do in my training sessions?
Let’s dive in!
How Do You Do Overhead Presses?
Before we look at how many overhead presses you should do, let’s cover how to perform the overhead press, also called shoulder presses or barbell shoulder presses.
You can perform overhead presses with various types of resistance, but dumbbell overhead presses and barbell overhead presses are the most common ways to perform this shoulder exercise.
There is also an overhead press machine, typically called the shoulder press machine, and you can perform overhead presses with resistance bands, a cable machine, kettlebells, or other forms of resistance.
Here are the steps for how to perform the standing barbell overhead press:
How To Perform A Barbell Overhead Press
- Stand in the squat rack with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing forward (or the slightest bit outward), and the bar racked just below shoulder level.
- Grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing forward.
- Engage your core and glutes as you unrack the barbell and slowly lower it down to your upper traps with control. Do not hyperextend your back. Keep your core and glutes tight to maintain proper posture with your chest up.
- Powerfully press the bar back up overhead, keeping the back of your head out of the way and using a path of motion that is slightly tilted backward by retracting your shoulder blades.
How to Vary the Overhead Press
The dumbbell shoulder press is performed in the same manner as the barbell overhead press except that you hold a dumbbell with your palms facing forward just in front of the clavicles or shoulders in the starting position and then press each weight straight up.
The benefit of dumbbell overhead presses vs barbell overhead presses is that you have to control each dumbbell with that arm, meaning that you can’t allow your dominant or stronger side to take over the brunt of the workload.Because the dumbbells are not attached to one another in the way that a barbell is one fused unit, shoulder presses with dumbbells also require greater activation of the stabilizing muscles in your shoulders, rotator cuffs, upper back, serratus anterior, and core muscles.
You can also perform single-arm overhead presses with a dumbbell.
The unilateral shoulder press requires even more core activation, particularly with the obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae group in the lower back, and deep transversus abdominis muscle.
This is due to the fact that these muscles have to contract isometrically to provide enough stability and rigidity to your torso to prevent lateral bending or twisting caused by having only one side of the body moving and loaded with the dumbbell.
However, the benefit of barbell vs dumbbell overhead presses is that you can lift more weight because of this inherent stability and the bilateral nature of the exercise.
This can potentially trigger greater increases in muscle protein synthesis for improvements in strength and hypertrophy.
This is why the barbell overhead press is common in many major strength training programs as it is a foundational pressing exercise.
How Many Overhead Presses Should I Do For Solid Strength Gains?
There are several factors to consider when deciding how many overhead press reps you should do.
#1: Fitness Level
With all strength training exercises, your fitness level or training level will impact how many reps of the exercise you should do.
Beginners are advised to do fewer sets of an exercise and use lighter relative loads so that they first master the proper movement mechanics and do not overload the muscles too much too quickly.
If you try to jump right into the hypertrophy or strength rep range recommendations, along with the ascribed guidelines for the loads you should be using based on those training goals, you will be setting yourself up for an increased risk of injury.
You need to give your body time to adapt to strength training and give your neuromuscular system time to become more adept at how to perform overhead presses properly.
Aside from considering your fitness level, the number of reps of shoulder presses you should do is only one part of the programming of the exercise into your workouts.1Mangine, G. T., Hoffman, J. R., Gonzalez, A. M., Townsend, J. R., Wells, A. J., Jajtner, A. R., Beyer, K. S., Boone, C. H., Miramonti, A. A., Wang, R., LaMonica, M. B., Fukuda, D. H., Ratamess, N. A., & Stout, J. R. (2015). The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiological Reports, 3(8), e12472. https://doi.org/10.14814/phy2.12472
You also need to consider the number of sets of overhead presses that you perform and the weight of overhead presses that you are using to determine the overall training load for the exercise.
#2: How Much Weight You Are Lifting
The number of reps of overhead presses that you can and should do in a set or shoulder workout overall will be largely dependent on how much weight you are lifting with the exercise.
The load for shoulder presses refers to the weight that you are using relative to the maximum amount of weight you can possibly lift with proper technique for one repetition of the overhead press exercise.
This load is known as the one-rep max or 1RM.
The strength continuum provides a quantitative framework by which the appropriate load to lift can be determined based on the number of reps that you are performing.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the following table shows the percentage of your 1RM you should use for the given number of reps of an exercise:2TRAINING LOAD CHART. (n.d.). https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/61d813865e264c6e852cadfe247eae52/nsca_training_load_chart.pdf
|Maximum Number of Reps||Percent of 1RM Load|
To interpret this strength continuum, look at the number of reps of an exercise that you want to do and then determine the relative load that you should use in the column next to your desired number of reps.
For example, if you want to do 12 reps of overhead presses, the recommended load is 70% of your 1RM while if you are only doing six reps, you should use 85% of your 1RM.
#3: Your Fitness Goals
Aside from your training level, your primary training goal is the other key factor that will affect how many shoulder presses you should do.
This is where we return to the concept of the strength continuum to choose the right weight for shoulder presses and then combine that into the context of your primary strength training goal.
The following table provides recommendations for how many reps to do and how much weight to lift for different strength training goals based on the average guidelines from the American Council on Exercise 3(ACE)How Many Reps Should You Be Doing? (n.d.). Www.acefitness.org. https://www.acefitness.org/resources/everyone/blog/5867/how-many-reps-should-you-be-doing/ and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.4Sands, W., Wurth, J., & Hewit, J. (2012). The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) BASICS OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING MANUAL. https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/116c55d64e1343d2b264e05aaf158a91/basics_of_strength_and_conditioning_manual.pdf
|Training Goal||Sets||Reps||Rest Period||Intensity|
|General Fitness||1-3||12-15||30 to 90 seconds||Varies on exercise and ability level|
|Muscular Endurance||3-4||>12||Up to 30 seconds||<67% of 1RM|
|Hypertrophy (building muscle mass)||3-6||6-12||30 to 90 seconds||67% to 85% of 1RM|
|Muscle strength||4-6||3-6||2 to 5 minutes||>85% of 1RM|
|Power||3-5||1-5||2 to 5 minutes||85%–100% of 1RM|
From here, you can use the strength continuum table to determine how much weight you should be lifting after you determine how many reps of the exercise you should do based on your training goals.
Here are some suggestions:
- A good starting place for beginners is two sets of 10-12 reps per leg. Build up to three sets. Once you can do 10 to 12 reps, you can increase the weight.5Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine, 51(10). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01490-1
- If your goal is to increase shoulder strength, use a weight that corresponds to at least 85% of your 1RM, or a weight that you could manage for just 3 to 6 overhead press reps. Aim for 4 to 6 sets with at least 90-120 seconds of rest in between sets.6de Salles, B. F., Simão, R., Miranda, F., Novaes, J. da S., Lemos, A., & Willardson, J. M. (2009). Rest interval between sets in strength training. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 39(9), 765–777.
- If you are doing shoulder presses to build muscle, do 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps. Use enough weight that you can manage all of your reps but that you feel fatigued by the last 1-2 reps of every set.7Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2018). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 51(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001764
If you are mostly interested in how many overhead presses you should do to build muscle, check out our muscle-building guide here.
- 1Mangine, G. T., Hoffman, J. R., Gonzalez, A. M., Townsend, J. R., Wells, A. J., Jajtner, A. R., Beyer, K. S., Boone, C. H., Miramonti, A. A., Wang, R., LaMonica, M. B., Fukuda, D. H., Ratamess, N. A., & Stout, J. R. (2015). The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men. Physiological Reports, 3(8), e12472. https://doi.org/10.14814/phy2.12472
- 2TRAINING LOAD CHART. (n.d.). https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/61d813865e264c6e852cadfe247eae52/nsca_training_load_chart.pdf
- 3(ACE)How Many Reps Should You Be Doing? (n.d.). Www.acefitness.org. https://www.acefitness.org/resources/everyone/blog/5867/how-many-reps-should-you-be-doing/
- 4Sands, W., Wurth, J., & Hewit, J. (2012). The National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) BASICS OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING MANUAL. https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/116c55d64e1343d2b264e05aaf158a91/basics_of_strength_and_conditioning_manual.pdf
- 5Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Medicine, 51(10). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01490-1
- 6de Salles, B. F., Simão, R., Miranda, F., Novaes, J. da S., Lemos, A., & Willardson, J. M. (2009). Rest interval between sets in strength training. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 39(9), 765–777.
- 7Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2018). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 51(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001764