How to Z Press – Muscles Worked, Exercise Demo, Benefits, and Variations

The Z Press is one of the most functional (and challenging) overhead pressing movements done across most power and strength sports. 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 health.

In this Z Press guide, we’ll cover multiple topics including:

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

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

Step 1: Find Your Base

To start, 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 upright as possible when loaded.

The Z Press starting position can be performed in a power rack with a barbell, or on the flat ground with dumbbells and kettlebells. 

Coach’s Tip: Struggling to get in position? Spend 5-10 extra minutes stretching and opening the hip before performing the Z Press even if you already feel warmed-up. 

Z Press Guide
Z Press Guide

Step 2: Press

Similar to the normal overhead barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell 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 “keyhole” at the top.

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. 

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

Z Press Guide - Press
Z Press Guide – Press

3. Lockout and Descend

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

Pay close attention to the body and try to feel what is 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.

Z Press Guide - Lockout
Z Press Guide – Lockout

Z Press Exercise Video Guide

The video below is of the barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell Z Press. To start, take a loaded barbell in similar to hand placement on a front squat or standard overhead press while in the power rack or in front of  squat rack.

By sitting with the legs in a straight position, with heels pressing through the floor, the lifter should extend the spine vertically, brace the core, and press the bar/load overhead so that the biceps are by the ears and the bar over the back of the cranium/neck.

Benefits of the Z Press

Below are four benefits of the Z Press in which coaches and athletes can come to expect when performing any of the below versions 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 that if using another variation.

1. Upper Body Strength

Like most pressing movements, when done correctly using moderate weights to build muscle mass and increasingly heavier loads to increase strength, benefits are sure to be had. The Z Press can really increase strength due to the limited involvement of the legs and any momentum in the press, making the lifter learn to brace and accelerate the load in a stable and vertical path.

2. Upper Trap and Scapular Stability Development

Proper overhead pressing mechanics will do wonders form scapular stability and upper trap development. By using the wide array of Z Press variations below, you can work to increase strength and stability of the upper traps and the entire shoulders. Without strong upper traps and scapular stabilization, the load will either be lost out front or will go to far bending forcing the lifters to fall backwards.

3. Core Strength and Control

The core is a foundational muscle group needed to first allow the lifter the press the weight. In the Z Press, the lifer cannot use any momentum, not additional force and stability from the logs and hips, and/or any type of movement patterning to help compensate for weaknesses in strength, overhead mobility, or core strength. The Z Press has a way of forcing lifters to fully contract the abs, obliques, and lower backs so that the lifter can find the most rigidity in the set up.

4. 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 lifer cannot excessively lean backwards, fall forward onto toes, or use any leg and hip dip to help gain momentum on the barbell. All of this will force the lifter to find upper back and upper trap strength and movement to take the barbell in the exactly plane it needs to travel. It is important to note that this is extreme 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

The Z Press targets a great deal of muscle within the upper body and core. By forcing the lifter to be seated in an upright position, without the usage of the legs for added stability and base of support, you force upper body strength and postural control to a greater degree. Therefore, the below muscle groups are highly targeted throughout Z Presses and the below variations.

  • Anterior Deltoid
  • Upper Pectorals
  • Upper Traps
  • Rhomboids
  • Erector Spinae
  • Posterior Shoulder
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Obliques
  • Rectus Abdominus

Who Should Perform the Z Press

In reality, nearly everyone can benefit from performing Z Press. This movement is awesome for building shoulder and core strength, working shoulder hypertrophy, and improving mobility and strength of the hips. Below, we’ve included three types of athletes can benefit from the Z Press for specific reasons.

1. Strength Athletes

Strength athletes like powerlifters, strongman competitors, and weightlifters can all benefit by performing the Z Press. Every one 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. Although, there are a few reasons we like the Z Press for these athlete, which are mentioned below!

  • Powerlifters: Great for improving hip mobility, which can be an issue for many athletes from repetitive heavy loaded squats.
  • Strongman Athletes: 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 for success in the snatch and clean & jerk.

2. Functional Fitness

Functional Fitness athletes have the most varied workout asks, so using the Z Press can be a great variation to tick a ton of boxes often needed in these workouts. The Z Press improves strength and hypertrophy in the upper body, but it’s also great to use for improving muscular endurance capacity, aka a huge characteristic of successful functional fitness athletes.

3. 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 bar, dumbbell, and kettlebell mechanics, as form must be perfect to perform this movement. Therefore, it’s great for beginners who are 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

Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when programming Z Presses into workouts. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program pull-ups.

General Strength– Reps and Sets

For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.

  • 4-6 sets of 3-6 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets

For increased muscular size and hypertrophy, the below repetitions can be used to increase muscular loading volume.

  • 4-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between, with heavy to moderate loads

Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (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).

  • 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions or for more than 45-60 seconds under tension, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)

Z Press Variations

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

Barbell Z Press

The barbell Z 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 as the kettlebells and/or dumbbells.

Dumbbell Z Press

Dumbbells can be used in the Z Press to challenge unilateral strength, stability, and increase overhead performance.

Kettlebell Z Press

Kettlebells can be used in the Z Press to increase similar benefits as the dumbbells, however they can also increase wrist and shoulder stability due to the uneven loading of the kettlebell.

Unilateral Z Press

Unilateral Z Presses has a lifter or athlete only using one limb during the press, rather than loading both hands. By doing so, this will drastically increase the need of core stabilization and body awareness.

Asymmetrically Loaded Z Press

By using uneven (asymmetrical) loading, many of the same benefits seen in the unilateral Z Press occur. In addition however, the asymmetrical loaded variation does help to add quality load to both sides at once and can be extremely challenging on the nervous system and body awareness, necessary for heavier lifts using barbells, etc.

Creative Shoulder Strengthening Exercises

Check out some of the below articles discussing creative ways to increase shoulder strength and health!

Featured Image: @pgilles on Instagram

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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