Overhead Press (How To, Muscles Worked, Benefits)
The Overhead Press, also commonly known as Standing Barbell Shoulder Presses is one of the best movements for building overhead strength.
In fact, it’s one of the best lifts overall for building upper body strength. Standing Shoulder Press also has the added benefits of balance and core stability that you don’t get from other big upper body lifts like Bench Press.
In this guide, I’m going to coach you on how to do Overhead Presses along with explaining what muscles it works. Finally, I’ll give you a few variations and alternatives in case you need to change up this exercise.
How To Do Overhead Presses
- Bumper Plates or Iron Plates
- The grip should be shoulder-width apart.
- Elbows should be under bar.
- Torso should be erect.
- Move the bar off the rack.
- Keep your chest up.
- Push the bar up to full elbow extension.
- As soon as the bar passes the head – ‘pull the head through’ – so that the bar is being locked out directly over the ears.
- Keep elbow pointing out to the side until arms are fully extended.
- Do not forcefully lock out the elbow.
- Lower the bar slowly and under control to shoulder level.
- Do not jerk or bounce at the bottom.
Coaching Points (Common Mistakes)
The biggest mistake I see with Overhead Presses is overarching the back and leaning back way too much (hyperextension of the spine). This places too much unnecessary stress on the low back that should be avoided.
Personally, I like to use a staggered stance because I feel it helps me to keep from leaning back too far and placing that stress on the low back. It’s a technique I’ve used often with athletes as well experiencing the same problem. If that’s an issue for you as well I would definitely recommend giving a staggered stance a try.
The other common mistake that I see is bending the knees and using the legs too much. A slight bend is okay, especially when trying to squeeze out that last rep or two of the set. But, if the exercise starts to resemble more of a Push Press as opposed to a Shoulder Press then the weight should be lowered.
Benefits of Overhead Press
The Overhead Press is a compound exercise that is used to strengthen the muscles in the shoulders, arms, and upper back. Some of the potential benefits of this exercise include increased upper body strength, improved posture, and increased hypertrophy.
How Many Reps?
The reps and sets used for Front Press will be dependent upon the goal of the lifter. Is the lift being used to build strength or more building muscle mass?
In general, I will program Front Press as 3 to 5 sets of anywhere from 4 to 12 reps per set. Reps will be on the lower end of that range if the focus is strength and on the higher end if the focus is hypertrophy.
The Overhead Press is what would be considered an upper body compound movement. This means that this exercise works multiple areas. Muscles worked in the Overhead Press include:
- Anterior and Medial Deltoids
- Upper Pectorals
- Upper Trapezius
- Serratus Anterior
Overhead Alternatives & Variations
The Overhead Press has a number of alternatives that can be performed by simply changing the starting position and/or change the equipment being used. The following exercises are Overhead Press Alternatives that only require a slight change in starting position.
Seated Military Press
By using a bench (typically elevated up to 90 degrees) you can easily turn an Overhead Press into a Seated Military Press. The form essentially stays exactly the same outside of the difference in body position.
A much less common Overhead Press variation is an Overhead Press from a seated position on the floor. This exercise is called a Z Press
Start seated on the floor with both legs straight out in front. The safety bars on a squat rack make an excellent starting position for the bar to be racked in and out of. Sit up tall with good posture and perform Overhead Presses the same way you would if standing.
What you’ll quickly learn is that this position puts a much larger emphasis on core strength and stability (not to mention hamstring flexibility).
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
If you don’t have a barbell, the best replacement for Overhead Presses is to use dumbbells and do a Dumbbell Shoulder Press instead. You can also change up starting positions (Seated, Floor) just like with the barbell.
In addition, you can also work one arm at a time – either Single Arm DB Shoulder Presses or Alternating DB Shoulder Presses. The Single Arm version can be a perfect substitution for someone that is limited to only being able to use one arm because of an injury limitation.
Best Exercise To Superset With Overhead Press
Looking to pair up Front Presses with another exercise for a Superset?
Barbell Upright Row
Barbell Upright Row is my favorite exercise to superset with Overhead Presses for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a perfect push/pull combo that makes for a great Superset pairing. Second, not only are they both done with the bar – most lifters will use a very similar weight for both exercises.
This allows the lifter to be able to quickly transition from one movement to the next without changing areas, equipment or, in most cases, even the weight on the bar.
Finally, this is a great Superset because it flat-out works. Throw this combo in on a shoulder day to absolutely blast everything from the chest up.
More Links and Info
If you’d like to see more shoulder exercises, head over to the Upper Body Strength section of our Exercise Library. There you’ll find dozens of chest, back and shoulder exercises – all with step-by-step instructions.