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.

In this push press guide, we’ll cover multiple topics including:

  • Push Press Form and Technique
  • Benefits of the Push Press
  • Muscles Worked by the Push Press
  • Who Should Do the Push Press?
  • Push Press Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
  • Push Press Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…

How to Perform the Push Press: Step-By-Step Guide

The push press can be performed with a variety of equipment (barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, specialty bars, etc). The below step-by-step guide demonstrated proper barbell push press technique.

1.
Assume an Upright Front Rack Position

Start by assuming the same front rack positioning you would take in a jerk or front squat.

To do this, grab the barbell with a full grip (not fingertips) slightly wider than shoulder width. Squeeze the barbell and press the barbell close to your body as it sits on top of the shoulders. The chest, chin, and elbows should remain pressed upwards in front of the barbell to combat forward movement (rolling) of the barbell.

Coach’s Tip: Think about pushing you chest up through the bar to keep the weight of the barbell from collapsing your upright position.

2.
Smooth Dip

The dip phase of the push press is identical to that of the split, power, and push jerk. The lifter must assume a perfectly upright torso position (think about keeping the body up against a wall as you dip) as dip downwards 4-6 inches. The dip should be balanced throughout the foot with the knees and hips bending together, so that the glutes stay directly above the heels.

The dip does not need to be extremely fast, however it should be smooth and fluid to allow the lifter to remain in control of the positioning during the deep and seamlessly change directions into the drive phase.

Coach’s Tip: You must remain in this locked and upright position throughout the dip – loading of the legs) phase. Any forward or backwards collapsing will negatively impact steps 3-4.

3.
Aggressive Drive

Once you have completed the dip, you should aggressively change directions by pushing you torso and chest upwards through the barbell and using the legs forcefully drive yourself upwards. The arms and elbows should stay locked in the original set up position until the barbell as been pushed off the shoulders (by using the power and strength of the legs and hips).

As you stand up, think about pushing the chest and shoulders up through the barbell.

Coach’s Tip: The key to the drive up phase is to master the tempo and depth of the dip. The better you can assume an upright and stable position in the dip while adding on some downwards acceleration in the dip will allow you to use the stretch reflexes of the muscles and joints of the lower body to further enhance push press performance.

4.
Strong Lockout Position

Assuming you have stayed upright in steps 2 ad 3, this final press out phases should begin with the barbell just about face level. You need to push through the barbell with all of your upper body strength (without bending the knee) to assume a locked out overhead position.

Once overhead, the barbell should be placed slightly behind the head, over the back of the neck. This will allow you to use the bigger muscles of the bar (traps and upper back) to help support the load.

Coach’s Tip: To ensure the completion of the final lockout phase, all three previous steps must occur in sync. If you are having issues with the final lockout position, be sure to review steps 1-3 and/or address more triceps specific exercises (close grip bench, dips, etc).

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).

1. 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.

2. Enhanced 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.

3. Application to Olympic Weightlifting Movements

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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

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).

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.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength and power athletes can benefit from push pressing and its applications to weightlifting and strongman overhead movements. Below is a deeper dive into how the push press can help to improve performance in the respective strength and power sports.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Olympic 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).

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.

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..

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 main 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.

Explosive Power – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

Push presses can be used as the main explosive/power movement of a day, and has been shown to produce similar power outputs as squat jumps (making it a good alternative at times). That said, the movement should be done with moderate to heavier loads, yet not heavy enough that vertical velocity stalls in the movement.

  • 3-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads
  • Start by using 60-75% of your one-rep maximum to keep the loads relatively heavy yet not negatively impacting power outputs.

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
  • If done for strength, the push press should be completed towards teh beginning of most sessions, or immateriality after power lifts and the main strength movement (squats or deadlifs) of the day.

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
  • Heavy and lighter loads can both be used to stimulate well rounded muscle growth.

Muscle Endurance – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

Increasing push press endurance can increase overall shoulder stamina, upper body pressing performance, and muscle endurance for athletes who may rely heavily on the upper body during sports like boxing, fighting, and other endurance-based sports. Additionally, increasing fatigue resistance of the upper body (shoulders and arms) can help fitness enthusiasts build leaner physique and perform at higher intensities during some workouts.

  • 2-3 sets of 10+ repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed
  • Higher volume push press training can also enhance muscle hypertrophy of the shoulders as well.

4 Push Press Variations

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

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

3 Push Press Alternatives

Below are three (3) push press alternatives coaches and athletes can program within training plans to bring about similar benefits for athletes as the push press.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Want a Better Push Press? Build Stronger Legs!

Check out some of the below articles discussing ways to increase leg strength for weightlifting, powerlifting, and more!

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.

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