How do I program both benching and dumbell overhead press with the goal of getting better at both?

  • There has been a close vote on this question as "unclear what you're asking". I disagree with whoever voted this, as the question is quite clear.
    – Alec
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 11:47
  • @Alec The title is a different question from the story which is unrelated to the last paragraph's first question, which is unrelated to the last paragraph's section question. Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 12:42
  • 1
    @DaveLiepmann - I edited the title to coincide with the question in the last paragraph. I wouldn't be opposed to editing away the anecdote as well. But marking it as unclear seems wrong. I'd agree that the first question is too broad, but the last question is obviously the core of the post, and quite clear.
    – Alec
    Commented Nov 25, 2015 at 12:45

3 Answers 3


Congrats on joining the big plate club!

When it comes to progressing at several different exercises, there's really no magic to it. You just make sure you do both of them.

I don't know what kind of program you're using, but for someone with a small frame such as yourself, I'd probably do a full-body program, or at most a 2-split (leg day, upper body day).

Whenever you do pressing movements, do both bench press AND overhead press. Whichever you do second will feel heavier since you've already used a lot of the same muscles on the previous exercise, so what you can do is just alternate which one you do first.

Remember, don't think that you're wasting your time with the second movement. Doing an exercise when you're already exhausted is great!

Don't skip the important stuff!

Training legs is the most important thing you do. It builds core strength, and makes sure your soon-to-be big torso isn't causing imbalances and damage to your back. Also, leg day directly affects your overhead press, since all your power has to go through your entire core and legs.


It sounds like you already had some good progress. Hitting a milestone like that 135 lb bench is a real validation of the work you've put in. You have two questions, but one of them I think you have more concerns with.

Relative Strength

The concept of equating the effort that a 150 lb young man does with a 230 lb man does is actually a fairly complicated subject. My old coach wrote a very good article on the subject (ref). Some of the high points (quoted) are:

  • The most common method people use to compare relative strength is strength/bodyweight ratios. However, this standard is horribly flawed.
  • The formulas used to compare relative strength in powerlifting (most notably the Wilks formula) have their own issues. The two biggest problems with the Wilks formula are that it’s not regularly updated, and it’s notably biased against middleweight lifters.
  • Allometric scaling is an alternative to strength/bodyweight ratios and formulas like Wilks. It has strong theoretical support, and it works very well in practice.
  • I also developed another formula to compare relative strength that fixes some of the main problems with the Wilks formula.

Instead of worrying about where size increases don't yield as much return on strength, worry about putting on clean mass. In other words, slowly increase how much you weigh so that most of that weight is muscle. Fat doesn't actively move things, so just try to stay under 15% body fat as a general rule.

Emphasizing Two Pressing Movements

I think this is the real question you are asking. You can either follow a specific program which already has the balance, or you can play "Beat the Book". The goal is to see improvement over time. Improvement isn't just more weight on the bar.

Forms of improvement:

  • More weight
  • More reps
  • More sets
  • Less rest
  • Less time for the same work

I personally alternate emphasis for pressing days. One day is bench emphasis, another day is overhead emphasis. Overhead work helps build the shoulders and keeps them healthy, so don't neglect it completely. Also, don't neglect curls. As you push heavier and heavier weights, the curls prevent tendonitis.

Programs suitable for beginner to intermediate lifting:

  • Starting Strength
  • Greyskull
  • 5/3/1 (and the variant 8/6/4)
  • Starting Strongman

Those are just templates that have worked for a large number of people. If you find they aren't for you, then there are lots more out there to choose from.

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    That's an excellent answer, only thing I would add along with the excellent point about curls is the need for upper back work (rface pulls, rows, etc.) to keep the shoulders healthy. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 13:16
  • Agreed. I was running short on time. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 15:11

You need to do yourself a service and get out of your head the idea that you need to work maximally in order to make progress. It will help you not get hurt (which will lead to a longer, more productive lifting "career") and get stronger by ingraining proper technique. What do I mean by that:

When you do a lift "fresh", you will be able to lift more weight. Every time you do a set, the weight you can lift diminishes. In that sense, your 5th set of bench isn't much different than your 1st set of shoulder press: your muscles are fatigued, they can lift less. And that is completely ok: research shows that what actually matters is the total overall volume (that is a somewhat abstract way of describing the amount of work done by a muscle, usually calculated as sets x reps x weight) that you inflicted on your muscles as well as the average effort of your lifts (that is whether you go close to mechanical failure). The volume part of the equation is tampered by the fact that you need to recover from it, so doing 100 sets of chest exercise is pointless if it leaves you paralyzed for 2 weeks because you could have done 200 sets in that same time frame if you cut it up in smaller portions which are easier to recover from. The effort part of the equation is tampered by the fact that you need to stay far enough from failure to maintain perfect technique, lest you will just ingrain bad technique, and that will lead to injury, which is why it is often recommended to leave one or two reps in the tank at all times.

What does that mean for you? It means that if you bench first, you are inflicting some of that volume on your chest, shoulders and triceps (the prime movers in the bench). When you shoulder press, you are inflicting some volume on your shoulders and triceps, but those are already prefatigued from the bench. Instead of looking as a negative ("shit, I can't lift as much, I must be getting weaker/stalling") look at it as a positive (more volume => more progress) because you are winning on both sides:

  • Volume-wise, you can get away with using less weight because your bench will drive your shoulder press up, and vice versa.
  • Effort-wise, you can get away with using less weight because you are already fatigued, and thus it will be easier to reach a high effort (one or two reps from failure) with it.

If you are worried, just do that experiment: take a few days off pressing (to allow your fatigue to clear out) and then train a few weeks by shoulder pressing first and you will see that it has been going stronger all along without you noticing it.

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