Overhead Pressing in gyms with low ceilings.

In Equip Your Gym, Guides, Plan Your Gym by Tim Steward

Last updated on July 7th, 2021 at 01:34 pm

In its many forms, the overhead press is one of the best compound lifts you can do when training with weights. After the “big three” (bench press, squat, and deadlift), some consider the overhead press a very close fourth when it comes to critical lifts.

While there are a significant number of variations of this lift, all of them require you to press weight over your head. This can present problems for people training in a gym with a low ceiling.

Overhead pressing in a home gym with a low ceiling requires that the exercise is done from a seated position, on a bench, or from the floor. This can be accomplished with a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells. When overhead pressing from these positions, emphasis must be placed on proper form so as to avoid injury.

Many people simply forgo the movement if their home gym doesn’t have the height needed to perform a traditional overhead press. This is a mistake. There are various ways to address this and effectively overhead press in even the lowest ceilinged rooms.

*By the way, if you have a gym with a low ceiling, make sure not to miss our article with some really awesome tips straight from gym owners dealing with this exact problem. You can check it out here: 11 Ways to Train in a Gym with a Low Ceiling – Real Tips From Real People.

Overhead pressing with a barbell in a home gym with a low ceiling

For purists, the overhead press using a loaded barbell is the preferred variation of this movement. It’s also the hardest to do in a home gym with low clearance overhead. This is especially true with the current popularity of bumper plates.

There are many reasons to buy bumper plates for your home gym (see my full article here if you are in the market for bumper plates), but having a gym with a low ceiling may not be one of them. A bumper plate’s wide diameter makes a standing overhead press impossible without a good amount of clearance.

The same problem presents itself when using 45 lb iron plates. These plates have a similar diameter to bumper plates and prevent barbell overhead presses in a room with low clearance.

Use smaller diameter weight plates.

For those that want to stick to a standing barbell overhead press, one possible solution is to go with smaller diameter plates. Using smaller diameter iron, rubber, or urethane plates will shave up to 4”-6” from the overall height of your press.

Two completely different sized 10 lb plates

This doesn’t sound like a lot, but for many people with 7’ or 8’ ceilings, those few inches may make all the difference in the world.

The drawback of this method is that you need a lot more plates. To replace one 45 lb bumper plate, you’d need four 10 lb plates and one 5 lb plate. 

Not only is this more expensive, but you may run out of room on your bar before reaching your desired weight. Not to mention, most of us will quickly run out of 10 lb plates too!

For these reasons and the fact that it doesn’t gain you a ton of clearance, I don’t love this option.

Replace the standing overhead press with the Z Press.

This is an option that I love! The Z press is an overhead barbell pressing variation done from the ground. And, honestly, I prefer it to the standing overhead press regardless of your ceiling height.

To do a Z press, you sit on the ground with your legs out in front of you, feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, knees straight. You can use your power rack to ready the loaded bar and hold it in position. You then sit up tall, brace hard, and press from this seated position.

The benefit of a Z press is that you simply can’t cheat the movement by recruiting other parts of your body. You are genuinely focusing on just the shoulders, arms, and core. That makes this a much more effective movement at a much lower weight.

One change I’d make to what they do in the video above is to make sure you set up your safeties. If you lack the core stability to stay braced with this movement, you want the ability to bail backward and have your rack catch the bar for you.

Overhead press from a seated position on a bench or box.

Much like the Z press, this overhead barbell pressing variation is done from a seated position so that you won’t have issues with a low ceiling. Instead of sitting on the floor, you will be sitting on your bench.

This is one of many movements where you’ll be happy to have a quality adjustable bench (see my bench recommendations here). A good bench will allow you to raise the back pad as high as 85 degrees, perfect for this movement.

Adjust your seat up and sit firmly against the back pad. Drive your feet down and out for stability. Use the power rack to get your bar in position. Then proceed to press the bar overhead.

The nice thing about this movement is that it’s a little easier than the Z press, yet it still concentrates the results of the movement in the same place, your upper body.

I like this variation for those that can’t do a Z press or those that want a little more weight on the bar than they can handle with the Z press.

As with the Z press, the one change I’d make to the video I linked is to set up your safeties. Overhead pressing can get real tough real quick. Having your safeties in place to set the bar down on if needed is an excellent idea.

Overhead press using a landmine attachment.

While most people can figure out that sitting down to do overhead presses is one possible solution, there is another much more overlooked solution to using your barbell to overhead press.

The landmine attachment is one of my favorite barbell accessories. There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t use mine. You can get them to attach to your rack, or you can get one that mounts right inside a couple of bumper plates stacked on the ground.

I prefer the latter version as it’s more versatile in its placement (see the one made by Fringe Sport that I use here). But either way, you’ll open up a whole new world of barbell movements by adding one to your gym.

One of those movements is the landmine overhead press. These can be done standing and in a double or single-arm format. If your ceiling restricts you from doing this, you can do them from a tall or half-kneeling position.

My favorite is the single-arm version done from a half-kneeling. These can be loaded heavy for power or light for explosiveness. 

One of the best things about using a landmine attachment for movements like this is that it is much safer than the standard barbell variety. The bar is anchored at one end and forces the lifter to use a safer and more stable movement plane. 

Pro tip… Make sure you have some type of pad to kneel on. This inexpensive little accessory is a lifesaver for any kneeling type movements. In a low ceiling gym, kneeling may become a regular part of your week, so it’s best to have something like this to protect your knees. I use these that I bought on Amazon, and they work great!

Overhead press with something other than a barbell.

Now that we’ve started talking about single arm alternatives to the traditional overhead press, we open up a wide range of implements that can be used instead of a barbell.

Dumbbells and kettlebells are your two most useful and most versatile options. Which you choose is more of a personal choice than anything else.

The primary difference between the two is the steps between weights. Typically, with a nice set of adjustable dumbbells (see which I recommend here on my recommended dumbbells page), you have weight adjustments in 2.5 lb increments.

With kettlebells, the steps are usually further apart (in old school Russian kettlebells, the bells are typically 18 lbs apart). I won’t get into the nuances of training with each, but both can be very effective.

When dealing with a low ceiling, kettlebells are the better choice.

A racked kettlebell pressed overhead is no higher than your raised hand. In fact, your knuckles would hit the ceiling before the kettlebell did.

Here you can see the height difference between pressing a kettlebell vs a dumbbell

I’m a huge fan of kettlebells and have been using them much longer than I’ve been training with a barbell. If you want to try them out, see my recommendations of which are the best to buy here.

Don’t skip the overhead press!

Many people may be tempted to skip the overhead press. Whether it’s due to a ceiling height restriction or the simple fact that they are challenging, it’s a movement that is often overlooked.

With proper form, they can build upper body strength like almost no other movement. Very few other exercises can hit as many upper body muscle groups as the overhead press can.

With the variations in equipment, starting position, and load listed above, you can start where you are capable and work your way up.

And this is just one more example of how a great home gym can be built in any home, including one with a low ceiling!

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