Trying to overhead press with a low ceiling is an obstacle that many of us garage gym owners have run into.
My garage back in Philly had about a 7-foot ceiling. It was low enough that I could easily reach up and touch the ceiling, even without a barbell loaded with plates in my hand.
Needless to say, traditional overhead pressing was not going to be an option.
Considering overhead pressing is of the top three exercises for upper body strength training, I had to figure out a solution to my low ceiling problem. The good news is…
There are plenty of ways to overhead press with a low ceiling if you get a little creative. Sitting on a bench, on the floor or using specialized equipment are all ways to still overhead press with slight variations.
In this article, I’m going to give you 10 ways you can still overhead press even if the low ceiling in your home gym is barely high enough to park your car in.
Let’s go ahead and get the most obvious substitute for standing overhead presses out of the way first.
By using a power rack and a bench, you can easily set up and do seated presses instead.
By lowering the starting point, a seated overhead press is the easiest way to get a bar overhead and avoid the issue a low ceiling causes.
If you don’t have a power rack, you can opt for dumbbells rather than a barbell because trying to sit down while holding a barbell would be pretty challenging at best and flat out not safe at worst. (not to mention getting back up)
If you have an adjustable bench, you can raise it all the way up to get back support for your seated overhead press.
If you don’t have an adjustable bench (or even if you do) you can sit on a flat bench to get more core engagement – similar to what you would get if you were doing a standing overhead press.
What if you don’t have a bench at all?
I was introduced to seated presses from the floor by another strength coach a few years back and I absolutely love them.
I then learned that many people refer to these as a Z press. I’m not really a fan of the name Z press, cause I think the idea of the lift resembling a Z is a bit of a stretch, but I digress…
To perform a Z press, setup a barbell on the power rack that will be about shoulder height if you were sitting on the floor.
Next, sit on the floor, legs straight out in front – close enough to the rack where you can lean forward and unrack the weight.
Sit up tall, with good posture, and overhead press from this seated position.
What you’ll find is, one, if you’re not very flexible you may have trouble even sitting in this position which is something you should work on.
Two, it takes a good amount of core strength to maintain your posture and hold proper form from this position while you try to press.
If you’ve never tried this before, I highly recommend them.
Kneeling Overhead Press
Kneeling overhead presses are an overhead press variation that I feel often gets overlooked, but is one of my favorites both for myself and to use with my athletes.
These can be done with a barbell, again using a power rack to help get the bar to the starting position. Sit on one knee as you would for a hip flexor stretch and press from that position.
Doing kneeling overhead presses with a barbell is good, but I really like to do them with a single dumbbell. Alternate between pressing with the arm opposite the knee down and on the same side with the knee that is down.
This now brings an added dynamic of balance and core stability that is very unique to the kneeling overhead press.
Finally, if you really want a challenge, try these with a kettlebell “bottom up”. Now, your grip strength and shoulder stability will also really have to work to keep the kettlebell from falling over.
(Just be careful – when that kettlebell does fall to one side it can give you a pretty good whack in the wrist)
Overhead Press with a Cambered Squat Bar
If you don’t know what a cambered squat bar is, don’t worry, it’s a pretty specialized piece of gym equipment that is not very common, at least not in the general fitness community.
Unlike a regular Olympic barbell that is a single straight bar, a cambered bar drops down to the side and then straight back out at the end so weights can be loaded.
They’re typically used by powerlifters and sometimes athletes to take the stress off of the shoulders, by allowing the lifter to grab the bar much lower down.
If you’ve had shoulder surgery, you’re probably very aware that being able to comfortably hold a barbell for squats is something most of us take for granted and this is where this bar comes in.
More importantly, though, how can a cambered squat bar help with a low ceiling?
If the ceiling height is high enough to where just the plates are what is touching at full lockout, a cambered squat bar can work perfectly because the weight plates are never higher than the part of the bar you’re pressing.
Now, before you run out and buy one, you need to know that using one of these bars isn’t going to feel exactly the same as overhead pressing a regular bar.
Because the weights do basically hang down below the bar, they are prone to swing slightly while you’re using it. This will really make you emphasize controlling the weight through every rep.
Use Smaller Plates
Another option if you just need to buy yourself enough room to keep your plates from hitting your low ceiling is to try to use smaller plates.
Do you have enough 10s and 5s that you can stack on the bar to give you enough weight to still do a standing overhead press without modifying anything other than the weight plates you’re putting on the bar.
Even a cast iron 25 can save you a few inches vs bumper plates.
Don’t have a boat load of extra 10s and 5s laying around?
Use resistance bands.
I get it. It’s just you working out in your own home gym. Why would you have 4 pairs of 10lb plates?
If you’re familiar with using resistance bands for exercises like bench press and squats, you can use them the exact same way for a standing press.
A pair of green resistance bands, along with a 10 and 5-pound plate on each side can give you quite a bit of resistance for an overhead press.
Stand Off Of Your Gym Flooring
Like using smaller diameter plates, taking a step off your gym flooring isn’t going to save you much room (3/4 of an inch if you’re using stall mats), but let’s say you combine these two modifications.
A cast iron 25 has roughly an 11″ diameter (10s are even smaller) vs bumper plates that are a little over 17.5″. Combine that with standing on your concrete floor vs your gym flooring and you’ve now just saved yourself over 4 inches.
Need just a tiny bit more room to not hit your low ceiling?
Take off your shoes.
A landmine attachment is a super versatile rack attachment that gives you the ability to do a whole host of exercises.
One of those is being able to do a single arm overhead press.
If you’re not familiar, a landmine attachment is essentially a metal tube that connects to the bottom of your rack and then your barbell is inserted to it. (Although you can make your DIY Landmine with just a tennis ball.)
The landmine attachment pivots freely which allows you to do a lot of rotational movements (what this attachment is used for the most in my experience), but you can also do single arm jerks and presses.
And, because you’re pressing at a slight angle instead of straight up overhead, it may give you all the room you need to fit in under your ceiling.
If your home gym is in your garage, then this can be a pretty simple solution. When it’s time to overhead press, take it outside.
Sure, there can be drawbacks to shifting your workout outside like when it’s 10 degrees outside or if you just don’t want to be that guy (or girl) out lifting weights in their driveway.
But, it’s only for 3 or 4 sets and if you really love to overhead press and doing it seated or with a weird bar doesn’t sound appealing, take your presses outside.
Plus, you can get some natural light and fresh air for a few minutes while you show off your gains to all the neighbors.
I understand that if what you’re really wanting to do is just load the bar up and overhead press that all of these options I’m providing you come with small sacrifices in some form or fashion.
But, it is what is and you have a low ceiling. So, figure out a way to either modify the overhead press itself, by using an overhead press variation like seated overhead presses or a kneeling overhead press.
Or try to change the equipment that you’re using to give you a little more room. Use smaller plates, try a squat cambered bar, add in resistance bands – all small modifications that when combined may give you the room you need.
Finally, ditch the low ceiling completely and go outside.