Push Press – Form, Muscles Worked, and How-To Guide

The push press is an upper body power and strength movement used in most strength, power, and fitness sports. All athletes can benefit from including the push press into their strength and fitness programs due to the wide array of benefits this exercise can offer.

The Push Press — an upper body strength, power, and hypertrophy movement — is used in Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman training to develop overhead strength and athleticism.

In this push press exercise guide we will discuss:

  • Push Press Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Push Press
  • Muscles Worked by the Push Press
  • Push Press Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations
  • Push Press Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Do the Push Press: Form and Technique

Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the push press.

Step 1: Assume a proper front rack position in which the hands are securely gripping the barbell (not held in fingertips) about shoulder width grip.

The barbell should be resting on the top of the shoulders, with the elbows up in front of the body. The barbell often is supported in a squat rack/stand (however this can also be done by lifting it from the ground first, such as a clean, to get it into the front rack position).Unracking the push press

Step 2: Breathe inwards to lift the diaphragm and expand that shoulders into the barbell, creating a stronger front rack.

By doing this, you will allow the barbell to stay closer to the body/neck in the rack position, to avoid the barbell sliding towards. Keep the elbows up (elevating in front of the lifter at least 30-45 degrees or more can help to secure the proper upright torso positioning).Starting the push press

Step 3: Stand up through the barbell so that you torso is erect and you un-rack the load. Once you have done this, stand erect with the chest, chin, and elbows high.

Failure to assume a firm front rack position from the rack can result in the barbell moving around on the lifter at the onset of the exercise. In doing this, a lifter must use energy (that should be used for the actual push press) to simply adjust the load, creating loss of tension, mental fatigue, and decreased exercise performance.

Step 4: The feet should be placed about shoulder width, so that the toes are slightly pointed out to allow for a firm and stable foot positioning.

This foot position is key for maximal balance and leg strength/power in the dip and drive phases of the push press.Dipping in the push press

Step 5: While assuming an upright, rigid torso, and correct breathing, you can begin bending the knees and hips at the same time, dropping the hips about 3-5 inches.

It is important that the elbows stay up (do not drop) during this phase. Additionally, proper dip heights can vary, but the main focus should be on feeling the entire leg (glutes, quadriceps, and some hamstrings) being loaded with the torso and upper body staying rigid.Driving in the push press

Step 6: Once you have descended a few inches, aggressively use your legs to push away from the floor through the full foot so that your torso and shoulders move directly vertical with zero horizontal movement the barbell.

If a lifter has dropped to this height and explode upwards, they should finish the movement by forcefully pressing out the barbell (like a strict press with knee bend). This may be limited by upper body and triceps strength.Extension in the push press

Step 7: With the barbell placed in the correct overhead position, briefly hold the load and find stability in the movement.

Then, lower the barbell down into the correct front rack position and repeat.

What Is a Push Press?

The push press is an upper body power/strength movement that can be done to increase shoulder, triceps and chest strength, leg power, and athletic capacities. It is often done with a barbell, however can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, and other types of free weight equipment.

Push Press – Muscles Worked

The push press targets many of the upper body muscles of the shoulder, chest, and triceps, with additional support from the quadriceps and hips (in the dip and drive section). The below muscle groups are targeted primarily by push presses, regardless of modality (barbell, dumbbell, etc.)

Shoulders

The push press targets the shoulders (deltoids) and is a key movement to build overhead strength and stability for Olympic weightlifters and strongman athletes. In addition, the push press (which is very similar to a military press or standing overhead press) can be used to increase training volume (more heavier lead or perform more reps) to develop muscle hypertrophy for bigger, stronger, shoulders.

Triceps

The triceps work to assist the shoulders and legs at completing the push press movement by forcefully extending the elbows at the top of the lift. By integrating the push press within a strength program, athletes and lifers can add functional strength and performance to the triceps that apply to many overhead movement (jerks, presses, snatches, handstand push ups, and more).

Quadriceps

The quadriceps are involved in the push press to assist a lifter in moving a heavy object to the overhead position. By using the quadriceps (and the glutes) a lifter can explosively extend the knees, hips, and ankles (triple extension) to produce force upwards through the load to increase vertical movement to assist the upper body in the lift.

Erector Spinae (Lower Back)

As with most loaded movements, the erectors (lower back muscles) must work isometrically to support proper posture and spinal stability throughout this front loaded strength and power movement.

Upper Traps and Scapular stabilizers

The push press is a loaded overhead movement (which can be done with high amounts of loading) and therefore can be used to increase overhead stability and control. While it is not necessarily a corrective or scapular specific movement, a potential training outcome of the push press is that a lifter will increase upper back, trapezius, and scapular strength (assuming they are placing the barbell in the correct overhead position).

5 Benefits of the Push press

Below are five (5) benefits of the push press. Note, that nearly all the benefits below are not specific to any one push press variation (with the exception of the application of Olympic weightlifting).

Upper Body Strength Muscle Growth

The push press can increase upper body strength and size due to the large amounts of loads that can be lifted relative to total body strength. In addition, the push press can be done using a wide array of repetition schemes for muscle growth, power, strength, and endurance, making it an optimal exercise for inclusion in most programs focusing on strength and muscle hypertrophy.

Athletic Power

The push press is a strength and power lift that integrates powerful hip extension. Leg and hip strength and explosiveness are key physiological attributes for most athletes, making the push press a good total body lift to improve these properties.

Olympic Weightlifting Technique

Push presses are a great upper body accessory movement to increase shoulder strength and stability specific to the jerk and snatch. In addition, the hips, knees, and torso mechanics during the push press are identical to the jerk (up until the foot movement that occurred after full triple extension). It is for this reason that the push press is often used in most, if not all weightlifting programs.

Improved Overhead Stability and Strength

Overhead strength and stability are two outcomes of performing push presses (all variations), which are key for nearly all strength, power, and fitness athletes. In addition, improving shoulder strength and stability can have carry-over to overall pushing strength and injury resilience.

Segue into More Advanced Overhead Training

Movements like the jerk, for example, require strong overhead position and stability, proper load placement, and total body coordination and stability. The push press can be a good movement progression for beginner and intermediate lifters to transition from the strict press into more explosive based jerk exercises.

Who Should Do Push Presses?

The below section breaks down the benefits of the push press based on an lifter’s/athlete’s sport goals and abilities.

Push Press for Powerlifters

The push press can be a great accessory exercise to develop general upper body strength and explosive strength for powerlifters. While the overhead movements are not a competitive lift of the upper body (only the bench press is), the push press targets many of the key muscle groups needed to be developed for stronger and more forceful muscle contractions (shoulders, triceps, and chest). Including this into a training program can maximize overall athletic potential and help to increase strength, power, and muscle mass.

Push Press for Strongman Athletes

The push press is a key movement for strongman athletes as they must typically hoist heavy objects overhead repetitively. The push press is a movement that allows a lifter to place heavier loads overhead relative to their strict press potential, which means it can be helpful for overloading the shoulders and triceps in training and/or as an efficient movement to place heavier loads overhead during competition.

Push Press for Weightlifters

The push press is a staple strength exercise for Olympic weightlifters due to the movement specificity and its relation to the jerk mechanics and overhead positioning. Athletes who lack upper body strength, leg and hip explosiveness, and/or have issues with proper jerk mechanics can use the push press as a regressed and/or assistance exercise to improve jerk performance. Additionally, coaches can use the push press on a regular basis due to the knee, hips, and overhead mechanics being nearly identical patterning to the competition lift (jerk).

Push Press for CrossFit/Competitive Fitness Athletes

Competitive fitness and CrossFit athletes can benefit from including push presses within their training program for many of the same reasons seen above with powerlifters, strongman athletes, and olympic weightlifters (as the sport goals are fairly similar). In addition, the push press can often be used as a movement to get a load locked out more efficiently overhead during WODs, which can improve overall work output and performance. Lastly, the push press can be done to assist athletes who may lack fundamental triceps and shoulder strength to perform gymnastic movements like strict and kipping handstand push ups.

Push Press for Formal Sports Athletes

The push press is often used with formal sport athletes like football, rugby, and other strength and power specific athletes due to its proven abilities to produce lower body power; which may increase vertical jump height (a key metric for athletic performance). In addition, it can improve total body pressing strength, power, and muscle hypertrophy..

Push Press for General Fitness

Recreational lifters and the general population can benefit from push presses for many of the same reasons discussed in detail above. The ability to move dynamically under load can enhance functional strength, injury resilience, and help to enhance muscle development, decrease body composition, and even improve exercise output (do more work and challenge more muscles in less time).

Push Press Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Below are four sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the push press specific to the training goal. Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming.

Movement Integrity – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

Proper overhead placement and stability is key for long-term development of the push press. The below rep range can be used to increase overhead strength, stability, and develop proper technique with beginner lifters.  

  • 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions with light to moderate loads, at a controlled speed (focusing on proper eccentric/lowering of the weight), resting as needed

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

Increasing muscle mass (hypertrophy) is often influenced by training volume. Performing moderate to high volumes with moderate to heavy loads may be an athletes best choice for increasing shoulder and triceps strength and size. The below ranges are recommendations and can be modified based on the coach’s and/or athletes specific type of muscle hypertrophy (sarcoplasmic or myofibril) goal.

  • 3-5 sets of 6-10 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads OR 2-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions with moderate loads to near failure, keeping rest periods 45-90 seconds

Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

Increasing push press strength is important for nearly all strength and power athletes (powerlifting, strongman, and Olympic weightlifting). The below sets and rep ranges are general guidelines that can be used to allow lifters to attack overhead strength and sport performance.

  • 3-5 sets of 1-5 repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed

Muscle Endurance- Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

Some competitive fitness, CrossFit, and fighting athletes may want greater shoulder endurance and endurance power, which can be developed using lighter loads and higher repetitions. This can also be another method for increasing muscle hypertrophy as well.

  • 2-4 sets of 12-20 repetitions with light to moderate loads, keeping rest periods under 30-45 seconds

Push Press Variations

Below are four (4) push press variations that coaches and athletes can use to increase overhead strength, stability, and athletic performance.

Kettlebell Push Press

The kettlebell push press is a unilateral variation of the push press involving the kettlebells; a specific modality that has uneven weight distribution (when compared to the dumbbells). The benefits of the kettlebell push press are similar to the standard push press motion, however can further increase unilateral shoulder strength and scapular stabilization.

Dumbbell Push Press

The dumbbell push press is another unilateral push press variation that can be used to address muscluar developement assysmteties and movement impabalaces, as well as increase unilateral coordination during the push press.

Single Arm Push Press

The single arm push press, which can be done with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or other forms of weight is a unilateral variation that can increase strength and stability.

Behind the Neck Push Press

The behind the neck push press (done with either snatch or jerk grip) is often seen in Olympic weightlifting programming and used to develop stronger overhead positioning and stability necessary for the jerk and/or snatch.

Push Press Alternatives

Below are three push press alternatives coaches and athletes can program within training plans to bring about similar benefits for athletes as the push press.

Thruster / Squat Press

The thruster (also called the squat press) is a total body movement that is very similar to the push press, with the main exception that the lifter descends into a full front squat and transitions into an overhead press. This differs from the push press in that the lifter can use more leg strength and build greater momentum upwards, often resulting in being able to perform heavier lifts than a standard push press.

Strict Overhead Press / Military Press

The strict press is an alternative that can be used for lifters who want to isolate the shoulders and triceps strength and/or have lower body (knee, hip, and ankle) injuries.

Power Jerk / Push Jerk

The power jerk / push jerk (power jerk entails a lifter to jump their feet out to catch the load overhead, where as the push jerk has the lifter rend and squat under the load). Both of these movements are nearly identical to the push press, however a lifter is able to rebend the knees and hips to receive the load at a lower height. In doing so, you minimize the amount of upper body pressing strength you need (since the load is not pressed out but rather caught overhead). This can still be beneficial for increasing overhead strength and stability.

Featured Image: J2FIT on YouTube

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Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.