A popular approach in strength training is to mix up or “undulate” your sets and reps with each workout. When done right, this creates a well-rounded training program that allows your body to become stronger and more resilient. It’s that whole “done right” bit that trips people up.
It’s an underappreciated truth of strength training that not every movement is ideally suited for every rep range. Translation: Go too heavy on the wrong moves, and you’re simply begging for bad things to happen.
In “The Complete Guide to Rows,” I laid out a different approach: Pick the exercise variations that fit best with certain rep ranges, then cycle those rep ranges. It’s a technique that can give you a lifetime’s worth of workouts—if you have adequate variations to choose from.
That’s where I come in! In this guide to pressing, I’ll help you increase your upper-body strength and build better, more comprehensive workouts by picking the right pressing exercise for each training session.
The Rules of Pressing in Any Rep Range
Regardless of which pressing variation you use or which direction you’re pressing in, these general technique guidelines can help you get the most out of each rep.
- Maintain a stable spinal position with a normal curve throughout each rep.
- Keep your elbows directly under your wrists throughout.
- Keep your wrists straight; do not allow them to bend backward at any time.
- Demonstrate deliberate control throughout the range of motion. Focus on the working muscles in each exercise, and maintain strict form without “cheating” by using additional movements or momentum.
Best Variations for Low Rep Ranges: 1-5 Reps
Sets of 1-5 reps are perfect for training with a strength focus. In this rep range, perform the concentric portion of each exercise using as much force as you can. Although the weight is heavy and forces you to move slowly, you should still push as fast as possible without cheating the rep. Be sure to maintain a controlled eccentric (lowering) portion on each rep.
When done correctly, the following movements teach whole-body tension and build whole-body strength—which is what low-rep strength training should be about.
Barbell Push-Press: This is more of a total-body pressing exercise, because you’re using your legs to help you get the weight up. That’s why I prefer to use the barbell overhead push-press instead of the barbell overhead press when it comes to lifting heavy loads in this rep range.
One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Push-Press: This is a unilateral version of the barbell push-press, which also involves a contribution from the legs. This total-body pressing element makes this exercise more of an athletic movement than the single-arm dumbbell overhead press. If you’re going to do strict dumbbell presses, you’re better served going lighter. There’s a lot of whole-body strength to be gained with this move, especially if you control the eccentric.
One-Arm Rotational Dumbbell Push-Press: As the name implies, this is a rotational version of a single-arm dumbbell push-press. The added element of the torso and hip rotation increases the athletic demand of this exercise. It may take a little time to master the movement, but once you’ve got the coordination down, you can go surprisingly heavy.
Bench Press: The bench press is often used by sports teams to test 1RM, 3RM, and 5RM strength, so people often train it in these rep ranges. That said, it’s also common for people to do dumb stuff in the gym. When lifting this heavy on the bench press, don’t do it without having a capable spotter.
Dumbbell Bench Press: No, this doesn’t mean you have to grab those 120s and grind through singles for the dumbbell bench to be effective. It works great at 3 sets of 10 or higher as well. But it’s also a solid choice when going heavy for low reps.
One-Arm Push-Up: The one-arm push-up is another athletic, whole-body pushing strength exercise. It’s also a great compliment to the bench press, as it promotes unilateral strength and heavily involves the core, hips, and lower body. Get strong at it, and every other push will go up, too.
For those studs and studettes who are able to do more than five one-arm push-ups on each arm, there are a number of ways to make it more difficult. Two of my favorites are to use a weighted vest and/or to elevate the feet.
One-Arm Angled Barbell Press With Band: I broke this move down in detail in “The 6 Grittiest Shoulder Moves You’re Not Doing.” The name may sound complicated, but the move is simple and strong. The angled barbell press with a landmine helps to create full-spectrum pushing strength in multiple angles because it requires you to push the load at a diagonal.
As you press the barbell and it becomes more upright, the lever arm gets shorter and the load actually gets lighter. Because of this, it makes sense to add a light band to increase resistance over the course of the lift. Anchor the band underneath your leg on the side you’re pressing with (right arm/right leg or left arm/left leg), and you’re good to go.
One-Arm Angled Barbell Push Press With Band: This is a more total-body version of the angled barbell press, so it allows you to use even heavier loads. When increasing the weight in either variation, I recommend keeping the same level of band resistance and simply adding more or larger weight plates.
Best Variations for Medium Rep Ranges: 6-12
Every exercise I’ve listed so far could also be used in this rep range. However, the opposite isn’t necessarily true. When it comes to the exercises covered in this section, lightening the load just a bit can make a big difference in the quality of each rep.
Barbell Overhead Press: When it comes to strict shoulder-pressing variations, I prefer to go no lower than 6 reps per set. Many people have a tendency to hyperextend at their low back when trying to press a heavy load above their head in a strict manner, even for just a couple of reps. However, when you use loads in slightly higher rep ranges, you know to stop the set when you can no longer press without overextending.
Dumbbell Overhead Press: The same rational provided for the barbell overhead press also applies to the dumbbell overhead press in this rep range. Don’t chase 1RMs or 3RMs here!
Rotational Dumbbell Shoulder Press: This is the strict (i.e., no leg involvement) version of the rotational push-press. You can do it with two arms, or one at a time. This exercise involves rotation at the hips and torso, but when the weight is heavy, people still have the tendency to lean back and overextend at their low back when relying on only the shoulders to press the weight up. Once you cut out the legs, I truly believe you should bump up the reps.
Watch as I teach the rotational press to Steve Weatherford in this video:
Angled Barbell Shoulder-to-Shoulder Press
This is a unique pressing variation, not just because of the angle you’re pushing at, but also because it shifts the weight such that one arm is a primary mover and the other is secondary. Then, on the next rep, the arms switch. It’s not a one-arm or two-arm press—it’s somewhere in between.
You can perform this with a band or without. If you use one, anchor it under both feet and keep a parallel stance.
Machine Shoulder Press or Chest Press
In “The Complete Guide to Rows,” I explained that I actually like machine rows in low (1-5 reps) ranges. Not so with presses, be they vertical, horizontal, or on an incline.
I’m not a fan of going too heavy with machine presses, since you’re unable to start with the eccentric action allowed by free-weight exercises. If you start a heavy rep that’s suboptimal, you’re more likely to hurt yourself. However, when you’re not using close to maximal loads, it’s less likely you’ll get injured if you attempt a rep and decide you need to readjust your starting position.
One-Arm Standing Cable Press: Why put this movement here? Because it’s close to impossible to go any heavier! Loads below 6RM are too heavy to perform without getting pulled off of your feet.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go heavy at all on this underappreciated move, though. It just means you should do it right, which involves both choosing the right cable attachments and positioning your body correctly. I show how to do both in this video.
Band Push-Up: The resistance level of the band you use and your ability to perform push-ups will determine if this exercise fits here or in an even higher-rep protocol.
That said, I don’t recommend using a resistance band so that’s so thick and strong it limits you to the 1-5 rep range. A band of that strength is usually too awkward to even get set up around your back to perform push-ups.
Plate-Loaded Push-Ups: This movement requires a bit of planning to get right, but it’s worth it. You’ll probably need a training partner to place a weight plate on your back, and perhaps to hold it in place while you’re performing push-ups.
I prefer to center the weight on the mid back, rather than the lower back, and have a partner hold it in place. Like band push-ups, whether this exercise fits within this rep range or a higher rep range is dependent on your strength level and your band.
Stability-Ball Pike Push-Up: Think you’re a pro at push-ups? Try this humbling variation! It begins with a horizontal press with your feet on a ball, but as you press up and go into the pike, the action becomes more of a diagonal-to-vertical pressing action. Then, that motion is reversed as you lower yourself back down to perform the next rep. Maintaining control of your body gets seriously tough as the reps climb.
This approach certainly means you’ll perform fewer reps than you would with traditional push-ups, but whether this exercise fits within this rep range or a higher rep range is dependent on your strength level.
Best Variations for High Rep Ranges: 13-20+
Every exercise I’ve listed so far could also be used in this high rep range. However, I’ve found these variations fit especially well here. Get set and start chasing reps.
Standing Band Step and Press
This is a unique upper-body pushing exercise because it’s a horizontal-pressing exercise that also involves the legs. Most other pressing exercises that involve the lower body are vertical-pressing actions. It’s somewhat similar to the one-arm cable press, but the band allows you to perform it in a more dynamic fashion, similar to a step and punch.
Also similar to the standing cable press, the level of band resistance, along with your body weight, will create limitations on how heavy you can go. Rather than find out the hard way that you’ve gone too heavy (i.e., being pulled off your feet), I recommend sticking to higher reps.
Like medicine balls, resistance bands allow you to move fast without battling against the momentum of free weights. When the focus is on movement speed, I recommend trying to perform a full rep per second.
Alternate Arm Standing Band Speed Press
This works with two light bands, or a single J-hook-style band, both of which allow you to move quickly without the band sliding around between reps. Technique-wise, it starts from the same split stance as a cable press. However, since you’ll perform presses with each arm, I recommend performing half the reps with the right leg forward and the other half with the left leg forward.
Other than that, the only focus is on movement speed. I recommend trying to perform one pressing cycle—that means one rep right, one rep left—per second.
I highlighted this unique movement in “7 Best Shoulder Exercises You’re Not Doing.” You can also perform it using a dumbbell, but it works best with a kettlebell due to the grip.
Similar to the landmine shoulder-to-shoulder press, this unique exercise shifts the weight so that one arm is the primary mover and the other is secondary. I feel the kettlebell version works best only in higher rep ranges, as the motion isn’t conducive to pressing against heavier, more challenging loads while maintaining good control.
Sure, you can use it for lower rep ranges if you’d like, but I’d recommend embracing it as the great burnout move it is.
Push-Ups: If you can only do 10 push-ups, then of course they don’t belong here for you. That said, if push-ups are relatively easy for you to do, it would be silly to program them for lower rep ranges. You need a higher rep range to provide a stimulus challenging enough to create a training effect. Alternately, you can start your set with an 8-10-second hold in the bottom position, like I recommend in “The 6 Grittiest Chest Moves You’re Not Doing,” and then rep out afterward.
How To Program Presses
I like to use a three-cycle undulating set/rep strategy like this:
- Workout 1: Medium rep range
- Workout 2: Low rep range
- Workout 3: High rep range
This works well repeated 4-6 times using the same exercises while progressively increasing the load demand each week. After 4-6 cycles, switch to different exercises, but use the same framework.
Below are four different permutations of the same undulating cycle. Plug it into your program, and this could be enough to last you for months of solid press training.
- Press workout 1: Machine chest press 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Press workout 2: One-arm push-up 4 sets of 2-5 reps per side
- Press workout 3: Standing band step and press 2 sets of 24-30 reps total
- Press workout 1: Angled barbell shoulder-to-shoulder press w/band, 3 sets of 7-12 reps per side
- Press workout 2: One-arm angled barbell press w/band, 4 sets of 4-5 reps per side
- Press workout 3: Kettlebell shoulder-to shoulder press, 2 sets of 14-30 reps total