Whether you’re a powerlifter, strongman, weightlifter, a CrossFitter, or bodybuilder, you know about the big three — the bench press, deadlift, and squat. There is, however, one more movement that you should consider a must-do — the overhead press. A staple in every strength sport, the overhead press has more aliases than Danny Ocean.
You may know it as the shoulder press, strict press, military press, or standing press. Whatever you call it, the benefits remain the same: more upper-body strength, specific carryover to various strength sports, and bigger shoulders.
Like most exercises, the overhead press looks simple to execute but is more nuanced than it appears. Below, we’ll walk you through every step for a proficient overhead press and go over the move’s benefits, alternatives, and variations.
- How to Do the Overhead Press
- Overhead Press Sets & Reps
- Common Overhead Press Mistakes
- Overhead Press Variations
- Overhead Press Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Overhead Press
- Benefits of the Overhead Press
- Who Should Do the Overhead Press
- Frequently Asked Questions
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Overhead Press Video Guide
Check out this video tutorial on how to perform the overhead press — performed by Jake Boly and coached by strength coach and strongman Joey Szatmary.
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How to Do the Overhead Press
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the overhead press using a barbell. Bear in mind that this exercise is sometimes called the “military press”, categorized by placing your feet under your hips in contact with each other.
This guide will cover the standard foot position and posture.
Step 1 — Set Your Base
Set a barbell in the J hooks of a power rack so that the bar is level with your upper chest. Set your hands on the barbell so that they’re slightly wider than shoulder width apart. You want the barbell to sit in the meat of your hands, or palms. Unrack the barbell, keeping your wrists stacked over your elbows, and your elbows tucked in.
Coach’s Tip: Engage your upper back by retracting your shoulder blades and keeping your chest up.
Step 2 — Find Your Stance
Take two steps back from the rack and set your feet are roughly shoulder-width apart. Grip the floor with your feet by pushing your knees out and twisting your feet outward (without actually moving them). You should feel your legs get tense. Feel free to play around with a different stance. Some lifters may prefer to stand with their feet closer together, for example.
Coach’s Tip: Fully extend the knees and contract the glutes for added stability.
Step 3 — Tuck the Chin and Brace
Before initiating the press, contract the lats, brace the abs, and tuck the chin. This position will allow you to generate more power because you’re pressing from a stable base. Think about making a shelf with the lats and taking a belly breath that fills the obliques with pressure.
Coach’s Tip: Keep the chest up, and head pulled back as if you were making a double chin.
Step 4 — Push Your Head Through
Press the barbell by keeping it positioned in the meat of the hands and driving it directly overhead. Once the barbell passes the head, contract the shoulders and shrug slightly to push you head through the bar. Ideally, you the bar to be positioned overhead in alignment with the mid-foot and heel. Lower the bar back down to the starting position with control.
Coach’s Tip: Be sure to align the barbell over the midfoot, typically over the traps/back half of the head.
Overhead Press Sets and Reps
The press is versatile. You can use it to build upper body strength, beef up your shoulder muscles, or help you prepare for any real-world task life throws at you. As such, you need to ensure that your programming matches your goal. Here are a few different ways to implement overhead pressing.
- To Gain Muscle Mass: 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps, at a moderate rate of perceived exertion.
- For Max Strength: 5 to 8 sets of 3 to 5 reps, with at least two minutes’ rest in-between.
- As a Beginner: 3 sets of 5 reps, with a light weight and strong focus on your technique.
Common Overhead Press Mistakes
The overhead press is a movement that comes with a lot of small moving parts, so here are a few do-nots to keep in mind as you’re executing the movement.
Pressing Around the Head
The first overhead press mistake lifters can run into is pressing around the head, which is when one shifts the bar path to accommodate one’s head position. Typically, shifting the bar path means the joins won’t be stacked, and if they’re not stacked on each other, you won’t be as strong and stable.
Gripping the Bar Too Wide
Another common mistake is gripping the barbell too wide. A grip that is too wide can reduce your power output from the set as you’re essentially taking the prime movers and putting them into disadvantageous positions.
For a good rule of thumb, your forearm should be perpendicular to the barbell when you’re in the middle of your press.
Assuming a Narrow Stance
A narrow stance can, often, cause lifters to lose stability and balance, so bringing one’s stance wider is often a better bet for success. Again, play around with this and pay attention to how you feel while pressing. A little narrow is okay, but you should feel grounded and strong.
Overhead Press Variations
The overhead press is a highly technical movement and shouldn’t be taken lightly when first learning its form. To help progress you to perfect presses, we recommend working with some overhead press variations below.
Dumbbell Overhead Press
The overhead press with dumbbells is a great first option for learning the overhead press. Dumbbells are slightly easier to work with when it comes to nailing form and joint sequencing required for the overhead press. The carryover won’t be perfect to the barbell, but it’s pretty close, and it’s the concept of pressing that is the focal point with this progression.
Seated Overhead Press
Now that you’ve conquered the dumbbell press, it’s time to move to the barbell. Before performing standing overhead presses, you can perform seated overhead presses to acclimate yourself to the barbell.
It’s important to note that you definitely can progress to the traditional overhead press following dumbbells. Still, some lifters enjoy perfecting their seated overhead press, then working standing. It’s a matter of preference in the learning of the press that should take control over exercise selection.
Shoulder Pin Press
This overhead press variation is done in a squat rack with a barbell resting on pins at the chin level. The starting height can vary based on the sticking point of your overhead press or area of weakness. This is a good way to develop concentric strength, address sticking points, and overload a specific angle for increased strength or emphasis on a muscle.
Overhead Press Alternatives
Below are three overhead press alternatives that can be done to increase power, strength, and hypertrophy or add variety to a training program.
For more advanced lifters who have nailed their overhead press form, the push press with a barbell can be a great option for developing upper body strength and power. The push press entails many of the same movement mechanics as the overhead press but has you dip your legs for more momentum.
With the subtle dip to generate power, you can move more weight overhead, which is why strength athletes implement the push press into their regular training for power and strength goals.
Landmine Shoulder Press
Outside of performing the overhead press with dumbbells, the landmine press is another fantastic shoulder pressing variation for accumulating more volume. This variation is fantastic because it loads the shoulder joint differently from the directly overhead axial (on-the-spine) loading that comes with the standard overhead press.
The Z Press is a seated overhead press with dumbbells (or kettlebells or a barbell) that targets the upper body pressing muscles, along with the core and hips.
Since you’re in a seated position while performing the Z Press, the body has to work exceptionally hard to stabilize itself for success. If you’re trying to improve hip mobility, core strength, and pressing mechanics, then employ the Z Press into your shoulder workouts as an accessory. Start with dumbbells and progressively overload with weight, volume, and tempo.
Muscles Worked by the Overhead Press
The below muscle groups are strengthened and trained during the barbell overhead press. Many of the same muscle groups are also targeted when performing the overhead press with kettlebells and dumbbells.
One small difference that comes with the overhead press than isolation exercises and other pressing variations is that it can be a fantastic movement for passively targeting the core. Though they’re not mentioned below, the quads, glutes, and core muscles will all need to work to stabilize the body when moving weight from a dead stop position to overhead.
The shoulders are the primary muscle group used when performing overhead pressing, specifically the anterior head of the deltoid.
The triceps are responsible for elbow extension during the pressing movements. The triceps become more involved at later stages of the overhead press and aid in elbow lockout of the overhead press.
The upper pecs assist the shoulders and triceps in the pressing of the weight overhead, specifically during the initial phase of the lift. The greater degree of back extension (leaning backward) in the setup, increases upper pec usage (similar to that of an incline barbell press)
Overhead pressing is dependent on scapular stability muscles to help create tension to support the shoulders, triceps, and upper pecs.
Proper shoulder stabilization will also help position the barbell properly overhead and minimize injury compared to a more unstable scapular position.
Benefits of the Overhead Press
There are a ton of reasons why you should be overhead pressing regularly. Below are four of the many reasons why the overhead press should be a staple in your training program.
In general, the overhead press is one of the best movements for obtaining upper body strength as a whole. Compared to other pressing movements, the overhead press will target the most muscles, translating to total body pressing strength. Outside of hitting the prime movers (the deltoids), the overhead press will also hit a plethora of stabilizers and synergist muscles.
Most Bang for Your Buck
If you’re tight on time and need to cut your workout short, the overhead press should be at the top of your list. Since this movement targets so many muscles, it’s a great option for lifters that want the most bang for their buck at the gym. As opposed to isolation pressing exercises which can be limited in nature, the overhead press has a much higher ceiling for total growth and progression.
In short: Why target just your shoulders or triceps when you could hit your shoulders and triceps (and chest and upper back) with one movement?
Application to Strength Sports
If you compete in strength sports, especially strongman, weightlifting, and CrossFit, then you should be overhead pressing — even powerlifters can benefit from overhead pressing in their off-seasons. This movement will have carryover to total body strength when moving barbells overhead, a must for nearly every strength sport.
Who Should Do the Overhead Press?
The overhead press isn’t for everyone, but it almost is. If you’ve been sold on the movement, double check to make sure you fall into one of these categories before you make a run for the squat rack.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes use the renegade row to increase shoulder and upper body strength, muscle hypertrophy, and scapular stability. Powerlifters can use it as an accessory to develop their bench press, while Olympic lifters and strongmen both take weighted implements overhead all the time as part of their sport.
As such, working the overhead press, especially with a barbell, is a great way to mimic the demands of your competition movements.
For the same reasons listed above, any gymgoer can benefit from this movement. The overhead press will add more mass to your shoulders (if that’s your goal), improve any other pressing movement in your repertoire, and enhance your ability to reach overhead, which is a basic movement pattern that you engage in daily.
If you aspire to look better — or step onto a bodybuilding stage — at some point, you’ll need big shoulders. They cap off your torso and help improve your v-taper, so you should probably have at least one form of vertical press in your bodybuilding workouts.
You may not need the standard, standing barbell version of the press, but it’s always a safe jumping-off point.
Press the Issue
Everyone likes to bench. Taking a bar off your torso and to arm’s length is all well and good when you’re lying down, but doing so while standing is another beast altogether.
The overhead press separates the wheat from the chaff in the gym. It challenges your stability and control from head to toe — literally. If you’re looking for a lift that commands attention in the weight room, helps you develop rock-solid bodily control and big muscles, you needn’t look any further. Step into the ring and get to it.
There’s no shame in having a few lingering questions about the overhead press. With so many moving parts, you want to make sure you’re getting it right from the get-go.
What muscles are worked with the overhead press?
The overhead press works a variety of muscles and is often referred to as one of the best movements for building a strong upper body. Some of the muscles the overhead press works include:
- Scapular Stabilizers
- Upper Pec
In addition, the overhead press will work a variety of stabilizer muscles include the core, upper traps, and many more!
What's the difference between an overhead press and military press?
The overhead press and military press are both barbell pressing exercises, however, there’s a tiny and subtle difference when referring to each with their respective definitions. The military press will entail positioning the feet close together, while the overhead press has a wider stance.
Can beginners overhead press with a barbell?
Yes, but it’s a good idea to consult a coach or trainer. Of all the barbell compound movements, the overhead press can be slightly more complicated to nail perfectly when beginning barbell training, so the use of a coach can be a great tool to ensure technical proficiency.
If you don’t want to hire a coach, then it’s a great idea to try the overhead press with dumbbells first, and once you move to the barbell video sets to watch bar path and form.
Why should I do the overhead press?
The list of benefits that come with the overhead press will be individual per different athletes. Still, a few of the bigger benefits that come along with performing overhead presses with a barbell include:
- Carryover to strength sports and traditional sports.
- Improved overhead stability and strength.
- Targets multiple muscles at once.
- Fantastic for building a strong upper body with fewer variations, a.k.a. you get more juice for the squeeze!
How wide should my grip be for the overhead press?
There are two ways to scale grip width for more recreational lifters to get the most out of your form and potential power production.
When assessing grip width, check if it falls into the following range:
- Just outside of shoulder width.
- Wrists stacked over the elbows when in a rack position.
If you’re wider than either of these, then there’s a good chance you’re gripping too wide!
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