Barbell Shoulder Press & Military Press – Muscles Worked, Benefits, and Sport Considerations

The barbell shoulder press/military press is a compound barbell movement that builds serious upper body mass, strength, and can boost performance for strength, power, and fitness athletes. In this article we will discuss who would benefit from performing this exercise, what they can expect, and how those athletes can start integrating the barbell shoulder press (also called the military press) in their current training program.

Muscles Worked in the Barbell (or Military) Press

As the name implies, the shoulder press / military press primarily targets the shoulders, however the benefits do not stop there. Below is a listing of the muscle groups worked by shoulder presses / military presses.

  • Shoulders (Medial and Anterior Deltoids)
  • Upper Traps
  • Upper Pecs (Chest)
  • Tripcase
  • Scapular Stabilizers
  • Abdominals and Erectors

Barbell Shoulder Press / Military Press Exercise Demo

Below is a video demonstration of the barbell shoulder press / military press. Note, that there are two variations of this lift (standing vs seated shoulder press).

Barbell vs Dumbbell Shoulder Press / Military Press

Dumbbells offer a wide array of benefits (unilateral training, correcting asymmetries, etc), however the barbell shoulder press / military press offers athletes some huge benefits. When performing with a barbell, strength and power based athletes (powerlifters and weightlifters specifically) can work with the exact equipment they use in sport competition, offering them a very sport-specific movement pattern that mimics the competitive lift. Additionally, most athletes are able to handle heavier loads (due to less shoulder stabilization needed than with dumbbells), which can play a large impact on overall strength development (if this is the goal). It’s important to understand that using a barbell vs dumbbells for the shoulder /military press is not a better than / worse than situation, but rather coaches and athletes can use this information to vary training and better target the primary training goal.

Who Should do the Barbell Shoulder Press / Military Press?

Below are four groups who can benefit from integrating the shoulder press / military press into training routines.

Strongman and Powerlifters

Pressing strength and and overhead performance is a key component of strongman training (and powerlifting, despite not placing a barbell overhead). Strict presses are a great way to increase general pressing strength and develop the shoulders, upper chest, and triceps; all of which are necessary for bench pressing, clean and presses, circus pressing, and more.

Olympic Weightlifters

Olympic weightlifters are required to have strong and stable overhead positions as they place snatches and jerks overhead. The strict press helps to increase upper body pressing strength and muscle mass which can help during jerks and the overhead stabilization as a lift is caught overhead. While pressing out is not a valid lift in weightlifting, the more triceps and shoulder strength a lifter has will often help them to resist elbow and/or shoulder buckling under heavier loads.

Competitive Fitness Athletes

Competitive fitness athletes must display overhead strength, weightlifting abilities (snatch and clean and jerk) and have a wide array of skill sets in which the overhead stability and strength is tested (handstand push ups, handstand walks, thrusters, etc). The strict press / military press can be a great accessory movement for these athletes to focus on building muscle mass and strength in the shoulders and triceps (specifically) to the allow them to transition into more sport-specific movements.

General Fitness and Daily Life

While we may not find ourselves needing to press 100+ pounds overhead on a regular basis outside the gym, this doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t! The ability to be strong in the overhead position will allow us to have greater submaximal performances and resist injury from poor posture (assuming you also address poor posture issues), repetitive low load movements with poor form, etc. General fitness goers should focus on building stronger shoulders and improve overhead performance because it is one of the key movement patterns we do as humans (squat, hinge, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull, anti-rotation, carry, crawl, walk, run, etc).

4 Benefits of the Barbell Shoulder Press / Military Press

Below are four (4) benefits of the barbell shoulder press / military press.

Shoulder Strength and Hypertrophy

As discussed above, the barbell shoulder press / military press can build serious shoulder hypertrophy and strength, which regardless of your strength/power/fitness sporting needs is almost always a great thing.

Overhead Performance

Overhead performance can improve your shoulder health (proper shoulder stability and positioning of lifts), jerk strength/power, and even impact your ability to perform more skill-based movements like handstand exercises and gymnastics.

Shoulder Health

The ability to safely and strongly support loads overhead, move one’s body in the handstand, and control the eccentric positions of the lift; all can play a significant role in injury resilience. The barbell shoulder press / military press is a great way to build stronger, more resilient shoulder muscles and joint mechanics.

Application to Strength and Power Sports

If you skimmed your way here odds are you may have missed the section above where I break down the specific sports performance benefits (for strongman, powerlifters, weightlifters, etc.). Conclusion…nearly every one of us can benefit from having stronger, more stable shoulders for our sports.

How to Program the Barbell Shoulder Press / Military Press

Programming shoulder presses / military presses into workout routines can be done in similar format as squats, bench presses, and other large compound barbell lifts. For strength athletes, they can be used to build maximal strength and/or used to deliver improvements in muscle hypertrophy (moderate load and high volume). For Olympic weightlifters, the shoulder press / military press can be done in moderate rep ranges with moderate to heavy loads to increase shoulder strength yet still allow for acceleration of the elbows to occur. Other sporting athletes can use a mixture of the two depending on the emphasis of that program/session (strength, muscle hypertrophy, muscular endurance, etc)

More Shoulder Training Articles

Take a look at the below shoulder training exercise guides and articles below!

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