The Differences Between the Push Press Vs. Overhead Press Explained

Both pressing variations will build incredible upper-body strength. Here's how to pick the right move for your goals.

Pressing weight overhead is a surefire way to increase overhead strength, add more mass to your deltoids, and reinforce shoulder mobility. None of that is new news. The more pressing question becomes which press you should do to enhance your overhead strength — the push press or the overhead press? 

There’s a lot to elaborate on — which we do below — but the quick lesson is this: The push press has you dip your knees to drive more weight overhead. It’s a great strength-building movement. The overhead press doesn’t let you use as much weight, but it focuses on your shoulders more. Both exercises are great, but to choose the right movement for you, you need to understand better how and why they work. Let’s dig in. 

The Push Press Vs. Overhead Press — Form Differences 

The push press requires you to use the momentum of your body to thrust a barbell overhead. Because of this, you’ll be able to use heavier weight on the push press than other shoulder exercises. The dip and drive of the push press make this more of a concentric movement — which means the focus is on pressing as much weight as quickly as possible overhead. You purely focus on the concentric (or up portion) of the movement. It’s a great movement to enhance force production and strength. 

The overhead press is the same movement as the push press but without the dip of your knees. You’ll use just your upper body to move the weight, focusing on your shoulders and triceps. Building muscle requires times under tension, and that’s achieved by focusing on the concentric and eccentric (lowering phase) of a lift. Bodybuilders gravitate towards the overhead press since they can control the weight more with this variation and, as a result, produce more muscle-building tension. 

How to Do the Push Press 

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  • Grab the barbell with a shoulder-width grip and rest it on your collar bone. 
  • Squat down slightly, like a couple of inches, and then explode with your legs and hips to drive the barbell overhead with your shoulders.
  • Fully extend your arms at the top of the movement and put your head through your arms. 
  • Slowly lower the weight back down to your collar bone. 
  • Repeat. 

How to Do the Overhead Press

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  • Grab a barbell with a shoulder-width grip and rest it on your collar bone. 
  • Raise the barbell overhead in a controlled motion. 
  • Fully extend your arms at the top of the movement and put your head through your arms. 
  • Slowly lower the weight back down to your collar bone. 
  • Repeat. 

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The Push Press Vs. Overhead Press — Similarities

Although both movements follow a slightly different approach, they have a lot of similarities. For one, they both engage your shoulders to explode your deltoids, but they also both work your chest, triceps, and traps

Though the overhead press is better for building muscle mass and the push press allows for more strength gains, both movements build mass and strength. Compared to dumbbell exercises, either of these barbell movements allows for more weight to be used. 

The form of each movement is similar as well — they both follow these primary cues:

  • Shoulder-width apart stance. 
  • Shoulder-width apart grip. 
  • Barbell resting on your collar bone for the starting position. 
  • Extend arms overhead. 
  • Put your head through your shoulders at the top of the movement. 

The Push Press Vs. Overhead Press — Performance Differences 

Both the push press and overhead press work your shoulders, but they can impact your performances in different ways. Here’s how.

Man doing overhead press
Andy Gin/Shutterstock

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Power Development 

If your goal is more power, then you need to focus on moving the most amount of weight possible as quickly as possible. The push press is the best variation for creating power. That’s why strongmen use it to drive logs and axle bars overhead. That dip creates momentum, and that momentum releases more speed to transfer into the weight.  

Maximal Strength 

Getting stronger is all about incrementally moving the most amount of weight possible. The push press, overall, lets you use more weight. That said, there’s something to be said for eccentric strength or lowering something under control. Also, seeing that maximal strength is often expressed at low velocities, an athlete must have the ability to promote high amounts of force to accelerate a rested object, making the strict press a vital part of that equation. With that in mind, the push press is better for overall strength, while the stricter overhead press will build you more shoulder strength. In short: Do both exercises for strength.

Athletic Potential 

The overhead press is a component of the push press, but the push press is more complete as a singular movement. It requires a lifter to engage the lower body and use hip drive to press the weight overhead. Athletes needs to be strong and fast and capable of engaging their bodies as a single unit to produce power.

For example, a football player doesn’t stand completely still and extend his or her arms to block an opponent. The player assumes an athletic stance and drives their hips forward to put their weight behind their arms. With that in mind, which move do you think has more sport-specific carryover. 

Once an athlete has learned the overhead press, the push press is ideal for maximal athletic potential. (It’s still important to have athletes train the overhead pressing during hypertrophy blocks or warm-up sets to isolate the shoulders fully.)

Muscle Hypertrophy 

Many components affect muscular hypertrophy, including loading, training volume, and metabolic demands. Since both the strict press and push press recruit all of these components, it’s best to include both movements in a hypertrophy-based training program. The push press can be used to increase power and overall loading volume, while the strict press can drive maximal strength and increase time under tension — both of which can work to enhance muscle and performance.

The Push Press Vs. Overhead Press — When to Use Each

Deciding on when to use the push press or overhead press comes down to your personal goals.

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If you’re a CrossFitter or weightlifter, it’s best to stick to the push press after you build a solid pressing foundation from the overhead press. That’s because many movements CrossFitters and weightlifters do, including the clean and jerk, snatch, and squat press, rely on the use of your total body strength and power to maneuver the weight. If you’re a football player or any other athlete who relies on power and explosive hips, then the push press should be your go-to movement. 

However, if you’re a regular gym-goer just looking to add some size and definition to your delts, the overhead press is a bit easier to do and will add more muscle to your shoulders. The same is true if you’re a competitive bodybuilder. Also, the strict press is a less risky movement since you’re lifting less weight and have more control. 

The Bottom Line

Both of these pressing movements have value. Not only that, but they can also strengthen one another. The strength and power you can gain from the push press can allow you to lift more weight for more tension on the overhead press. On the flip, the control and mechanics you’ll gain from the overhead press will allow you to learn the push press without looking like a fish out of water. Both work. It’s up to you to prioritize your goals and choose which press deserves more of your attention. 

More Pressing Tips

Now that you’ve gained some insight into the push press vs. overhead press debate, here’s some more content to help you with your pressing endeavors.