How to Do the Z Press for More Muscle and a Stronger Press

The Z press may just be the best overhead press variation that you're not doing. Here's what you need to know.

This article will explore one of the most functional (and challenging) overhead pressing movements. Whether you decide to use a barbell, kettlebells, or dumbbells, the Z press will surely help you gain upper body strength, stronger abs, and better overhead pressing mechanics.

The Z press can build strength, improve posture, and enhance pressing stability and performance in sports like weightlifting, powerlifting, and strongman. Additionally, it is a great exercise to reinforce proper scapular control and tension to aid in injury prevention of the shoulders during most pressing movements.

Z Press Video Guide

Check out our video tutorial below for more in-depth Z press tips. Pro strongman and one of the strongest presser ever, Rob Kearney, walks you through it. 

How to Do the Z Press

Here’s an in-depth, step-by-step breakdown of how to do the Z press optimally. 

Step 1 —  Set a Strong Base

Z Press set up

First, create a strong base to press from on the floor by sitting with straight legs, an upright torso, and heels grounded/dug into the floor. Similar to the overhead press, the upper back should be tight with the lats creating a strong shelf to press from. The core and hip musculature should be engaged, as the spine should remain as rigid as possible when loaded. The Z Press starting position can be performed in a power rack with a barbell or flat ground with dumbbells or kettlebells. 

Form Tip: Spend 5-10 extra minutes stretching and opening the hip before performing the Z Press, even if you already feel warmed-up. Sitting down with your legs extended will challenge your hip and hamstring mobility.

Step 2 — Brace Downwards and Press Up

Z Press Pressing Stage

Similar to any overhead press, the Z Press will require the upper back to be fully engaged when pressing while keeping the implement close to the body. The elbows should remain under the wrists in the press, and when locking out, the arms should be fully extended, with the head coming through the “hole” at the top.

To start the press, think about compressing the ribcage downwards to activate the obliques and abdominals. As you do this, you should then try to press upwards through the weights, not allowing the ribcage to expand/flare outwards.

The body will more than likely want to press with the weight slightly in front of it to build better balance, but this should be resisted by maintaining core tightness. 

Form Tip: If you’re falling forwards or backward during the Z Press, then more than likely, your bar path may be wonky. For those experiencing this, try using dumbbells and working mobility longer in warm-ups. 

Step 3 —  Lockout and Descend

Z Press lowering phase

Once you’ve locked out the weight overhead, you’ll bring down the press with control, so the core remains upright through the whole range of motion. If you find that you’re wavering and losing balance during the descent, then try to slow your tempo, as this can help clean up the bar path.

Form Tip: Pay close attention to the body and try to feel working hardest to stabilize the body. For example, if the hips are aching or tightening, then more than likely, this is an area that requires a little extra work for Z Pressing with ease.

Benefits of the Z Press

Below are four benefits of the z press. It is important to note that depending on the variation selected (see below), some of the below benefits may be more drastic than using another variation.

Increased Upper Body Strength and Size

Press more weight more often, and any pressing variation will improve your pressing strength. However, the Z press takes your legs out of the equation, so your shoulders are doing almost all of the work. You’ll also better isolate your deltoids, which can help pack on mass to the area.

Improved Scapular Stability

Pressing any implement from a seated position is going to create an extra layer of instability. As a result, your scapula, which helps stabilize the shoulder, will have to work harder. More stable scaps, however, will carry over to any other press you perform. 

More Core Strength and Control

The core is a foundational muscle group that allows the lifter to press the weight. A strong core bridges your upper and lower body and helps you stabilize. When doing the Z press, the lifter cannot use any additional force and stability from the legs and hips. It’s also harder to compensate for weakness with poor form, which isn’t good but something that does happen. The Z press removes all aids from your overhead press, which will only make you stronger and better able to control the weight you’re moving. 

Better Overhead Pressing Performance

The Z press leaves very little margin for error when taking a load from the chest to the overhead position. By performing Z presses, the lifter cannot excessively lean backward, fall forward onto toes, or use any leg and hip dip to help gain momentum. This will force the lifter to use upper back and upper trap strength to take the barbell in the exact plane it needs to travel. It is important to note that this is extremely challenging. Be sure to continually practice the press, maintaining smooth and full control at the tip of the lift, and stay as upright as possible.

Muscles Worked by the Z Press

The Z Press targets many muscles within the upper body and core. By forcing the lifter to be seated in an upright position, without using the legs for added stability and base of support, you force your upper body muscles to work far harder. Therefore, the below muscle groups are highly targeted throughout Z Presses and the below variations.

Man doing Z Press

Shoulders (Deltoids)

The shoulders, primarily the anterior (front) head of the deltoid, are responsible for most of the force to press the loads overhead. While the triceps and upper pec do assist in this movement, the shoulders are the prime mover.

Scapular Stabilizers

The scapular stabilizers and muscles that help to promote thoracic extension are called upon to support the integrity of the spine while Z pressing, as well as help stabilize the weight as it is held overhead.

Latissimus Dorsi

The lat muscles are used isometrically to help maintain an upright posture and the stability necessary to press and support loads overhead. Additionally, they help aid in lowering the load back down to the body.

Obliques and Abdominals

The obliques and rectus abdominis work to anteriorly compress the rib cage during all phases of the Z press. This is key to help stabilize the spine and promote core stability for nearly every movement overhead (as well as most types of squats and pulls).

Erectors Spinae (Lower Back)

The erector spinae contracts to maintain the lower back’s rigidity during the pressing and overhead aspect of this movement. 

Who Should Do the Z Press

This movement is great for building shoulder and core strength, packing on shoulder mass, and improving the hips’ mobility and strength. Below, we’ve included three types of athletes who can benefit from the Z Press for specific reasons.

Strength and Power Athletes

Strength athletes like powerlifters, strongman competitors, and weightlifters can all benefit by performing the Z Press. All of these athletes can gain shoulder/core strength and hypertrophy with the Z Press, which is key for success in each of their respective sports. Here’s more specific information for how the Z press can help certain strength athletes. 

  • Powerlifters: Great for improving hip mobility, which can be an issue for many athletes during heavy squats.
  • Strongmen and Strongwomen: Awesome variation to train the shoulders/core without causing an accumulation of fatigue in a program that is probably already heavy with log, strict, and other big pressing variations.
  • Weightlifters: Fantastic movement for improving hip mobility/strength and increasing the ability to maintain an upright torso with a strong core, which is a fundamental aspect of the snatch and clean and jerk.

Functional Fitness Athletes

Functional Fitness athletes, such as CrossFitters, are often faced with multifaceted workouts. The Z press is a multifaceted exercise that can tick many boxes often needed in these workouts. The Z Press improves strength and hypertrophy in the upper body. Still, it’s also great to use for improving muscular endurance capacity, which is a vital characteristic of successful functional fitness athletes.

General Population

The Z Press can be useful for the general population and recreational lifters for two major reasons. First, it can help teach correct pressing mechanics, as the form must perform this movement. Therefore, it’s great for beginners trying to learn and feel what it feels like to have proper pressing form. Second, it can help build a strong foundation of core strength and hip mobility, which are two keys that can translate to longevity in the gym.

Z Press Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

The Z press can be used in training in a variety of ways. Here are four different programming recommendations for using the Z press.

man overhead pressing
Andy Gin/Shutterstock

To Warm Up

Z presses are a great way to prime overhead movements like jerks and push presses or reinforce proper torso alignment and rigidity for moves like overhead squats and front squats. If you are using the Z press as a priming movement, be sure to not go overboard with volume (sets and reps) or loading so that you don’t fatigue out before doing the main work sets of the day. Do two to three sets of five to 10 reps with a light to moderate load, working on control and movement coordination.

To Gain Strength

For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets. Do four to six sets of three to six repetitions, resting two to three minutes between sets. The important thing here is never to lose tension in the core and really focus on keeping the ribcage tucked in and down to allow for maximal recruitment and assistance from the obliques and rectus abdominis for added structural stability.

To Build Muscle

For increased muscular size and hypertrophy, the below repetitions can be used to increase muscular loading volume. Do four to six sets of six to 12 repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between heavy to moderate loads. You can mix in tempos and overloading principles like drop sets or supersets (with other shoulder/back movements) to enhance muscle growth further.

To Increase Muscle Endurance

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (mainly for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended. You can also hold for pauses and add time to the set (see pause pull-ups below). Do two to three sets of 12 to 20 repetitions. Ideally, you want the set to last 45 to 60 seconds, so adjust your rep count accordingly. Rest for 60 to 90 seconds between sets.

Z Press Variations

The below Z press variations can elicit a different feel for a lifter and also offer up a much-needed change in programming from time to time.

Barbell Landmine Press

The barbell landmine press is done with a lifter using a barbell (either loaded or unloaded) as the resistance. This can be a good starter movement as it does not require as much individual coordination of the hands.

Barbell Overhead Press

The barbell overhead press trains the same movement pattern and muscle groups as the Z press. However, it can more easily be performed in a way that compromises core strength and posture (for example, many lifters will hit a sticking point and flare the ribs cage).

Kettlebell Z Press

Kettlebells dangle lower than dumbbells when held, and this off-centered load creates an added stability challenge. Also, kettlebells are generally thought to be more comfortable on the wrists. 

Unilateral Z Press

Also known as a single-arm Z press, this variation allows one side of the body to catch up to the other if it’s weaker. You’ll need to use a kettlebell or a dumbbell for this press. 

Z Press Alternatives

Below are five common Z press alternatives that can be done to vary programming up, challenge lifters, and more.

Barbell Sots Press

The barbell sots press is similar to that of the Z press. However, the lifter performs a strict overhead press while at the bottom of the front squat. This is a great movement to reinforce stability in the bottom of the squat while simultaneously promoting proper overhead mechanics and postural strength. 

Single-Arm Kettlebell Sots Press

This is a unilateral variation of the sots press, which is performed with a kettlebell. This is a great exercise to increase the core’s lateral stability, increase overhead stability, and help lifters who may struggle to place both hands overhead at once in the standard sots press.

Double Front Rack Kettlebell Carry

The double front rack kettlebell carry is a loaded carry movement that can increase the isometric strength and control of the scapular stabilizers, lats, and core. While this exercise entails no overhead pressing movements, it helps lifters promote the Z press’s same postural benefits.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who invented the Z Press?

The exercise was invented by Strongman Zydrunas Savickas (Big Z), hence the name Z Press (also called the Savickas Press by some). 

What types of equipment can you do a Z Press with?

Traditionally, the z press is performed with a barbell, however, you can train the z press movement using a wide variety of equipment like kettlebells, dumbbells, and sandbags. 

Is the Z Press safe for individuals with bad shoulders?

While we always suggested you refer to your doctor and medical professional for questions like this, it is often advisable for individuals with poor pressing mechanics to use the z press to strengthen the upper back and learn to promote overhead strength without sacrificing the stability of the core and upper back. If you experience pain, however, you either need to use lighter weights or stop performing this movement and consult a trained professional.