Z Press vs Overhead Press – Which Is Best for Strength and Sport?

In an earlier article we discussed the Z Press and the impact it can have on overhead strength development, movement integrity, and scapular stability/overhead health for strength and power athletes. In this article, however, we will compare and contrast the Z press with another popular pressing movement, the overhead press. Both movements are discussed below, complete with movement demonstrations and a full breakdown on the  Z Press versus overhead press results.

The overhead press can be done with a wide array of equipment (like the Z Press), however some of the most popular forms include the barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell overhead press. Like the Z Press, this movement works in the vertical plane, challenging overhead strength and stability of the shoulders and scapular stabilizers (posterior shoulder and upper back). Below is a video tutorial on how to perform the standing overhead press by Brian Shaw, “Silent” Mike Farr, and Mark Bell.

Z Press vs Overhead Press

For the sake of this comparison we compare the barbell Z Press with the barbell overhead press to keep the equipment that was used constant and to rule out any other differences not depending on the actual movement of the lift (benefits of kettlebell training vs barbell training). It is important to note that this comparison is solely looking at the exercise and the movement itself, both the additional differences and benefits of whether a barbell or dumbbell/kettlebell was used. Below are five training variables that are compared between the Z Press and the overhead press.

Maximal Strength

When maximal strength is a concern, both of the movements can be used to diversify pressing strength, teach proper overhead mechanics with heavy loads, and help lifters brace with the core; all of which necessary for the heaviest of barbell overhead presses. That said, maximum strength requires a lifer to lift the heaviest amount of load, and therefore the standing (or seated) barbell overhead press will often allow more for kilos (or pounds) on the barbell relative the the Z Press.

Muscle Hypertrophy

When looking to beef up the deltoids, upper traps, and upper back muscles that assist in overhead pressing, I find it best to use both movements equally in a pressing program. Both of these movements, while overhead pressing in nature, do target slightly different muscles groups, and therefore can accompany one another in a well written program. Performing Z Presses prior to your overhead presses can also help to prep the overhead pressing mechanics and really activate the stabilizer muscles of the upper back.

Movement Patterning

While anything overhead (done correctly) can help to increase shoulder movement, restore stability overhead, and help to increase core strength, the Z Press does offer more benefits in relation to movement patterning. Due to the lifter not being able to push the loads too forward or backwards since doing so will result in the heavy load being lost out front and the lifter losing balance, the Z Press can do a better job at isolating poor movement mechanics and reinforce better ones.

Joint Health

Building stronger muscles and sound movement patterning throughout a full range of motion can do wonders for joint health. For those reasons, I do believe that both movements can promote better joint health and injury, however the Z Press does have a larger margin for error, meaning that those who may have slight movement issues/imbalances may not be able to performing Z Presses yet still be find with overhead pressing. Therefore, I feel it is best to incorporate both movements into a pressing program as either main strength lifts, accessory lifts, or simply primer sets to take place prior to overhead pressing.

Sport Specificity

Overhead pressing may have the slight edge here when it comes to sport specificity only in the most strength and power sports involves a lifter to use the overhead press or similar movement (jerk, bench) as the metric in which their sport is measured. That said, strength and power athletes do rely on joint integrity and muscular balance (between the back and front of the body), making the Z Press a fine training exercise to build all of the above attribute above.

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Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

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.

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