Building a Powerful Shoulder-to-Overhead for CrossFit

Updated October 21, 2023

The shoulder-to-overhead CrossFit movement (often abbreviated S2OH) is one of the most fundamental lifts in CrossFit. Mastering the shoulder to overhead will build strength throughout your core, upper body, and improve your overall athleticism. This guide provides everything you need to dominate shoulder to overhead in your next workout of the day (WOD).

Shoulder-to-Overhead Exercises

The shoulder-to-overhead category includes several exercises that involve lifting a barbell from the shoulders up overhead. The main variations are:

Strict Press

The strict press is the most basic shoulder-to-overhead exercise. It involves lifting a barbell from the shoulders to overhead in one smooth motion while keeping your torso upright. The strict press primarily works your shoulders, triceps, and traps.

Push Press

The push press is similar to the strict press but allows a slight leg drive to help lift the bar overhead. Bend your knees and hips slightly and push into the floor with your legs to generate momentum to press the bar up. The push press works the same muscles as the strict press but allows for heavier weights.

Push Jerk

The push jerk also uses leg drive but explosively to get the bar overhead. Dip into a quarter squat and drive the bar up with your legs and shoulders in one powerful movement. As the bar reaches face level, quickly drop into a quarter squat and catch the bar overhead with arms extended. The push jerk requires speed, timing, and the ability to catch heavy weights overhead but allows for the heaviest loads of all the shoulder-to-overhead exercises.

Mastering all three shoulder-to-overhead CrossFit exercises – the strict press, push press, and push jerk – will enable you to lift efficiently and powerfully. Include a combination of these exercises in your strength and conditioning program to build a solid shoulder to overhead.

Benefits of Shoulder-to-Overhead

The shoulder-to-overhead exercises provide many benefits that translate beyond the gym. Some of the main benefits include:

Improved Shoulder Mobility and Strength

Shoulder-to-overhead exercises require a full range of motion in your shoulders to lift the bar into the overhead position. Regularly performing these exercises helps increase shoulder flexibility and strength through the upper range of motion. Solid and mobile shoulders are essential for many everyday activities and sports.

Works Your Core and Full Body

Although shoulder-to-overhead exercises primarily target your shoulders, triceps, and traps, they also engage your core and lower body. Your core muscles keep your torso stable as you lift the weight overhead. Your legs provide a solid support base and help generate momentum for the push press and push jerk. So, shoulder-to-overhead lifts provide a great full-body workout.

Translates to Real-World Movements

The ability to lift heavy weights overhead translates well to many real-world movements. Things like lifting boxes over your head, putting luggage in an overhead bin, or grabbing an item off a high shelf all require shoulder mobility and strength. Shoulder-to-overhead exercises help build strength and power for these types of everyday movements.

Including shoulder-to-overhead lifts in your routine 2-3 times a week will provide all these benefits. Be consistent; over time, you’ll build strength, increase your range of motion, and become more powerful from the ground up.

Shoulder-to-Overhead Workouts (WODs)

Once you’ve mastered the shoulder-to-overhead exercises, incorporate them into your WODs to build strength and power. Here are a few classic CrossFit workouts that feature shoulder-to-overhead lifts:


Fran is a benchmark WOD that includes thrusters and pull-ups. The thruster combines a front squat and push press in one movement. For Fran, you’ll do 21-15-9 reps of thrusters and pull-ups for time. The shoulder-to-overhead component in the thruster will challenge your shoulders and require an efficient technique to complete all the reps.


The DT WOD includes 5 rounds of 12 deadlifts, 9 hang power cleans, and 6 push jerks. The push jerk is a powerful shoulder-to-overhead exercise that demands speed and accuracy to lock out heavy weights overhead. DT is a great workout to build power and test your maximum shoulder-to-overhead strength.

Memorial WODs

Many Hero WODs (workouts dedicated to fallen military service members) also incorporate shoulder-to-overhead lifts. For example, “Ricky” includes push presses, and “Kutschbach” include push jerks. These workouts are a great way to honor service members while building strength and power with shoulder-to-overhead exercises.

When starting out, focus on simpler WODs with lower weights for your shoulder to overhead lifts. As your technique and strength improve, you can progress to more complex workouts with heavier loads. The key is to start light, build slowly, and always focus on quality of movement over the quantity of weight.

Scaling Shoulder-to-Overhead 

If you’re new to shoulder-to-overhead lifts or have an injury, scaling the weight and range of motion is essential. Here are some tips for scaling shoulder to overhead exercises:

Use Lighter Weights and Higher Reps

Start with an empty barbell or PVC pipe and focus on form. Build up the weight slowly in 5-10 lb increments. For workouts, reduce the prescribed weight and do more reps. This allows you to practice the movement pattern with less intensity.

Do Push Presses Instead of Push Jerks

If you struggle with the speed or catch phase of the push jerk, do push presses instead. The push press has a smaller range of motion so that you can lift heavier weights with better control. As your strength and skills improve, you can progress back to push jerks.

Reduce Range of Motion

If shoulder mobility is limited, don’t lift the bar into a full overhead position. Stop at eye level or slightly above your head. Over time, as your flexibility improves, you can increase your range of motion. It’s better to do a modified lift than risk injury by forcing a full range of motion. 

Use Resistance Bands

Resistance bands are great for building shoulder strength and mobility without loading your joints. Loop a resistance band around a rack and practice the shoulder-to-overhead motion. Start with a lighter band and more reps, building up as your shoulders adapt.

The key to scaling shoulder to overhead exercises is to start light, be patient, and focus on the quality of movement. Build up your strength and range of motion over time through gradual progression. It’s always better to scale a workout than risk injury by pushing beyond your current abilities. With consistency, you’ll gain the mobility and power to do full-range shoulder-to-overhead lifts.

Coaching Cues for Shoulder-to-Overhead

Proper technique is essential for safe and effective shoulder-to-overhead lifts. Keep these coaching cues in mind when performing shoulder-to-overhead exercises:

Keep the Bar Close to Your Body

As you lift the bar from your shoulders, keep it close to your body. Don’t let the bar drift forward. A close bar path helps you lift more weight and reduces strain on your shoulders.

Dip into a Quarter Squat

Dip your knees and hips into a quarter squat to generate momentum when doing the push press or push jerk. Then, explosively drive your legs and hips to help propel the bar overhead.

Drive the Bar Straight Up 

Power the bar up with your legs and shoulders in a straight line. Don’t let the bar track forward or backward. A straight bar path is the most efficient and safest for your shoulders.

Catch the Bar Overhead with Arms Extended

For the push jerk, catch the bar overhead with arms fully extended and a neutral wrist position. Your biceps should be aligned with your ears. This finish position ensures you have properly locked the bar out overhead. 

Engage Your Core

Keep your core engaged throughout the entire lift. Your core helps stabilize your torso so you can transfer power efficiently from your legs to the bar. An engaged core also helps prevent arching your back, which can lead to injury.

Focusing on these coaching cues will help you lift safely and powerfully overhead. If your form starts to break down at any point, stop and reset. It’s always better to do one quality rep than struggle through several poor reps. With practice, these cues will become second nature, and your shoulder-to-overhead technique will shine through.

Common Mistakes

Despite the best coaching cues, shoulder-to-head lifts can be challenging to master. Watch out for these common mistakes:

Not Keeping the Bar Close to Your Body

If the bar drifts forward of your shoulders as you lift, it puts extra strain on your shoulders and makes the lift less efficient. Keep the bar close to your body for the safest and most powerful lift.

Not Driving the Bar Straight Up

If the bar tracks forward or backward as you lift, it can throw you off balance and increase the chance of injury. Focus on a straight vertical path to lockout overhead.

Not Catching the Bar Overhead with Arms Extended

You need to extend your arms overhead to complete the lift properly. Extend your arms fully and pause briefly at the top to ensure control before lowering the bar back to your shoulders. 

Not Stabilizing Your Core

If your core is disengaged, your torso cannot correctly support the weight overhead and your lower back arches. This puts excessive strain on your spine and shoulders. Keep your core engaged throughout the entire lift for safety and power.

Rushing the Lift

Trying to lift too quickly, especially when the weight gets heavy, often leads to mistakes in technique and form. Lift with control and focus on the quality of movement. It’s not about speed; it’s about executing each lift precisely.

The shoulder-to-overhead lift requires patience and practice. Focus on one technique area at a time and be consistent with your training. Over time, with repetition, the proper form will become second nature, and the mistakes will fade away. Keep at it, and your shoulder to overhead will continue to progress safely and powerfully.

Shoulder-to-Overhead for Beginners

If you’re new to shoulder-to-overhead lifts, start with the basics. Focus on learning proper technique before progressing to higher weights or more complex variations. Follow these tips to build a solid foundation in the shoulder to overhead:

Start with an Empty Barbell or PVC Pipe

Begin by practicing the shoulder-to-overhead motion with an empty barbell or PVC pipe. This allows you to focus on form without worrying about the weight. Do 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps to groove the proper movement pattern.

Focus on Form Before Adding Weight

Spend time practicing and refining your technique before progressively overloading. Add weight in small increments of 5-10 lbs at a time. If your form starts to break down at any point, drop back to a lower weight—quality over quantity.

Do 3-4 Sets of 5-8 Reps

For beginners, higher rep ranges are ideal for learning techniques. Shoot for 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps of strict presses, push presses, or push jerks. This provides enough volume to practice the movement without fatiguing your shoulders or back.

Start with the Strict Press

The strict press is the simplest shoulder-to-overhead exercise and the easiest to learn. Master the strict press before moving on to push presses or push jerks. The strict press teaches proper bar path, core engagement, and shoulder alignment to overhead.

Ask for Feedback

Ask a coach or experienced training partner to evaluate your technique. Getting feedback from another person can help identify any areas that need improvement. Be open to constructive criticism – it will only help you progress faster.

Building a solid foundation in the shoulder to overhead takes time and patience. Start light, focus on quality reps, and progressively build your strength and skills. With regular practice, the proper technique will become second nature, and you’ll be lifting heavier weights overhead quickly.

The shoulder-to-overhead is a fundamental movement pattern for building strength and power. By mastering the strict press, push press, and push jerk, you’ll develop shoulders of steel and a solid base of power. Use this guide’s coaching cues, scaling options, and beginner tips to build a safe and effective shoulder to overhead. Start light, focus on quality reps, and consistently train.

Over time, as your skills and strength improve, you’ll be crushing heavier and heavier weights. Make the shoulder-to-overhead a priority in your routine, and you’ll be dominating your WODs in no time.

WOD Planet