The overhead press, also referred to as the shoulder press or strict press, is a weight-training exercise that works the shoulder muscles. It involves pushing a weight directly upwards from the shoulders until the arms are extended overhead.
This overhead press movement makes it a great exercise to improve upper body strength, specifically targeting the shoulders and triceps. Developing strength within these muscle groups can transfer over to assist in other lifts, such as the bench press or Olympic lifts.
Away from the gym, overhead strength and mobility plays a key role in our daily lives. From placing items on shelves to lifting heavy boxes over your head, moving weight overhead safely helps build a baseline for these daily tasks.
What Is An Overhead Press?
The overhead press is an upper-body compound exercise that can be completed with a barbell or free weights, and is one of the best exercises to improve the strength and size of the shoulders and triceps.
The exercise can be done seated or standing, with the key focus being on the upper body; therefore, no assistance should be provided from the lower body to help lift the weight.
This isolation of the upper body helps place a greater emphasis on the working muscle groups, along with testing the pure overhead strength of an athlete.
What Are The Benefits Of The Overhead Press?
The overhead press should be a staple compound movement in any weight training program and has numerous benefits to including it in your training.
Benefits of the overhead press include;
Strengthens your shoulders, traps, and triceps
Improves core strength, balance, and stability
Carries over to push activities and exercises, such as the bench press and Olympic lifts
Builds upper body power and strength
Works multiple muscles and joints through a full range of motion
How To Do A Barbell Overhead Press
Despite looking like a simple exercise, incorrectly performing the overhead press can lead to injury, specifically in the shoulders and lower back.
Therefore, taking your time to achieve the correct form with the overhead press should be a priority, before increasing the weight and volume.
How to do the overhead press:
Begin standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, gripping the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width, with the bar just under your chin.
Keep your knees soft to aid stability, but do not use them to assist with the lift.
Keep your core engaged, glutes tight, and a neutral spine throughout the movement.
Press the bar straight up overhead by extending your arms until they're fully extended overhead, be sure not to lock out your elbows or hyperextend.
Pause, then slowly lower the bar back to your shoulders to complete one rep.
Ensure the bar path stays vertical, and don't lean back as you press.
Variations of the overhead press:
There are many variations for the overhead press, from a dumbbell shoulder press to a seated plate-loaded shoulder press.
The general movement of the overhead press can be completed using various resistance-based equipment, making it one of the best shoulder exercises for building muscle and strength.
Tips for the overhead press:
To ensure the correct form, it’s always best to begin learning a new exercise with just the bar, or a lightweight. Working on the correct movement pattern within a higher rep range, allows you to practice the correct form without becoming overly fatigued.
Although the bar travels close to the chin and head, ensure you are paying attention to the bar path to avoid making unwanted contact with your head or chin.
Use a squat rack to set the bar at a suitable height, this makes adding weight and re-racking the bar much easier than putting it back on the floor after each set.
For best results, include the overhead press along with upper body and shoulder exercises for well-rounded strength and aesthetics.
What Are The Muscles Worked In The Overhead Press?
Due to the barbell overhead press being a compound exercise, it works several muscle groups through multiple joint movements. The main muscles targeted in the overhead press are;
The overhead press also targets the following muscles, to a lesser degree;
Traps & Lats (upper back)
Abdominals (core stability)
Pectoralis Major (upper chest)
Push Press vs Overhead Press: What's The Difference?
For the most part, the push press and overhead press have similar steps to completing the exercise. The main difference, however is the push press involves force generated from the legs to help lift the bar overhead and extend the arms.
The push press places less emphasis on pure upper body strength, instead becoming an explosive full-body exercise utilizing a knee jerk to help move more weight and volume, an exercise often used amongst Olympic lifters.
Here is an example of the barbell push press:
Is The Overhead Press and Military Press The Same?
These two exercises are incredibly similar, if not identical; therefore, differentiating them can be almost impossible. Essentially, the overhead press and military press are the same exercises.
Historically, the military press name is said to come from upper body strength testing originating in the army, where the lower body is kept immobile for a true upper body strength test.
The overhead press terminology, on the other hand, comes from the weightlifting and bodybuilding world, and, again was an exercise introduced to test upper body strength, with no movement from the lower body. The overhead press is also sometimes referred to as the strict overhead press.
Overhead Press vs Shoulder Press: What's the Difference?
Despite the difference in their names, the overhead press and shoulder press are actually the same exercises, utilizing the upper body muscles to lift weight above the head. So now you know, if you hear someone refer to one or the other, you know exactly what they mean!
Is It Better To Do An Overhead Press Sitting Or Standing?
Varying the overhead press through sitting or standing can have varying effects, however the main emphasis on the shoulders and arms remains the same.
Standing Overhead Press:
The standing overhead press requires the legs to be immobile and not to assist with the lift. Standing, however, may further engage the core, developing balance and stability.
Seated Overhead Press:
The seated overhead press takes away the temptation to use your legs to assist with the lift, along with providing added stability and support. This may help if you suffer from lower back pain, or have a lower-body injury.
The seated overhead press may also reduce core activation during the exercise, however, it can improve isolation to the working muscle groups when performing the overhead press in the seated position.
So, now you know the benefits of including the overhead press within your training program and have a step-by-step guide on how to execute the exercise with the correct form.
We've answered all the common questions, and exercise name terminology along with variations to try when targeting your shoulder muscles, so you can hit the gym hard for your next shoulder session.
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WRITTEN BY: CHRIS BECK
Chris Beck is Senior Editor at Gymshark, with a passion for curating informative conditioning and health content. Chris is an experienced Personal Trainer, with qualifications in Nutrition, Sports Performance, and is a certified Crossfit Level 1 Trainer.