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The overhead press is one of the best shoulder exercises because it trains all three deltoid heads (anterior, lateral, and posterior delts), your chest, triceps, and lats. Also, when pressing heavy weight, you’ll be improving your size, strength, and flex appeal.  

Here, I’ll dive into all things overhead press for all your bolder shoulder needs, along with form tips and variations from a longtime certified personal trainer (CPT), me.

Grab your barbell, and let’s get pressing. 

RELATED: Best Olympic Barbell

How to Overhead Press

  1. In the standing position, grip the barbell with an overhand grip and set it up at shoulder height in the squat rack. 
  2. Then, place your hands just outside of shoulder width and ensure your elbows and forearms form a straight line.  
  3. Place the barbell in the heel of your palm, and your wrist is in neutral. 
  4. Press overhead until lockout.
  5. Slowly lower to the starting position and reset and repeat for desired repetitions. 

Trainer Tips for Form

The standing barbell overhead press is a full-body exercise, as many moving parts need to work together. If you’re a beginner, a landmine press, a resistance band, or a dumbbell overhead press is a good start. Here are some CPT tips (CPTips?) on good barbell overhead press form.

RELATED: Landmine Exercises

Correct Set-Up 

The set-up is critical to press overhead with good form. Having the barbell in the heel of your palm and wrist in neutral is your strongest pressing position, and aligning your elbow and wrist allows for a better and straighter pressing path.  

Good Shoulder Mobility

Pressing overhead and getting your biceps by your ears without excessive compensation from the anterior core and lower back is key for a safe press. Yes, you can still do it without, but be warned that your shoulder and back will eventually be unhappy. 

Woman pressing using the Living.Fit Chrome Barbell

Brace It Baby

Having your anterior core engaged and your glutes locked in will give you a better base to press and stop the body compensations mentioned above. 

Use a Spotter

You may not think of the overhead press as a “spotter exercise.” However, you can get an assist from your training partner by having them stand behind you and brace your upper arms as you press. They may also be able to keep you from stumbling backward.

RELATED: How to Be a Good Spotter

Common Overhead Press Mistakes

The biggest overhead press mistake is forcing a square peg into a round hole. If it doesn’t feel good for your shoulders or you lack the shoulder mobility to make it happen, perform a variation more suited to your needs. For instance, unilateral landmine presses. 

Here are a few common mistakes to watch out for when trying to build better overhead press form and reduce your risk of injury.

Grip It

Not having the correct grip width means your wrists and elbows are aligned, and the barbell is not sitting in your hand well. If your hands are not just outside shoulder-width apart, elbows and forearms are not vertical, and the wrist is hyperextended, say hello to poor pressing form. 

RELATED: Grip Strength Exercises 

Loss Of Position 

If your rib cage flares out and your lower back hyperextends in an attempt to press overhead, you’ve lost the ideal pressing path and increased your injury risk. 

Your Head Is In The Way

You obviously cannot press the barbell through your head, and pressing around it messes up the pressing path. Similarly, not tucking your chin or moving your head forward at lockout messes with your bar path and reduces your range of motion.

Narrow Stance

Having your feet too close together doesn’t give you a stable base of support because it reduces your stability. Can you imagine losing your balance with weights overhead? Yes, I should stop now. 

Standing Overhead Press Benefits

Besides getting stronger and looking fantastic, here are a few vital benefits of the overhead press. 

Better Core Strength

Your anterior and posterior core muscles will strengthen when you prevent an excessive arch in the lower back and a flaring rib cage. Performing the overhead press well will strengthen your shoulders and improve your core stability and strength. 

Hypertrophy

Performing lateral, front, and posterior delt raises will add some size and shape to your deltoids, but that will only take you so far. Heavier weight and progressive overload are needed, which the overhead press provides as it trains all three deltoid heads hard and heavy for bigger shoulders.  

Better Pressing Technique

A solid overhead press will help your bench press and Olympic lifts because both use similar muscles from different angles. Upper back strength plays a vital role in the overhead press, and strengthening the upper back (lats, trapezius, and rhomboids) improves your bench press pressing path for more efficient technique. Upper back strength is also great for the deadlift as it keeps the barbell close to your body for a safer pull.  

RELATED: Deadlift Muscles Worked

Overhead Press Variations

The standing barbell overhead press is an excellent exercise, but it helps to change things up to prevent overuse injuries and reduce training boredom. Here are a few variations to add to your exercise toolkit. 

Single-Arm Overhead Push Press

Why do it: Bilateral lifts like the barbell overhead press may hide strength imbalances. By pressing one side at a time (or unilaterally), you can help correct and strengthen both sides and potentially reduce an imbalance. Additionally, pressing with a dumbbell or kettlebell engages the rotator cuff because of the extra stability needed. 

RELATED: Best Dumbbells

How to do it:

  1. Hold one dumbbell or kettlebell by your shoulder with a neutral grip and wrist and elbow aligned.
  2. Engage your anterior core and glutes. 
  3. Dip your knees, explode up, and press overhead until your bicep is by or behind your ear. 
  4. Slowly lower down to the starting position, reset, and repeat for desired reps. 
Kettlebell push press

Seated Overhead Press (Military Press)

Why do it: The seated overhead press gives you more stability and focuses on the upper body because there is no lower body drive. This is an ideal variation if your lower back is bothering you.

How to do it:

  1. Sit upright on a bench (or chair) in front of a power rack with the barbell at shoulder height. If you don’t have a power rack, you can also perform this movement with dumbbells.
  2. Take a wider-than-shoulder-width grip and get your elbows underneath your wrists.
  3. Unrack the barbell and get your shoulders down and chest up.
  4. Press overhead until your biceps are behind or by your ears.
  5. Slowly lower down to the starting position, reset, and repeat for reps. 

Trainer’s note: This variation is another great opportunity to recruit a training partner or spotter for extra support. 

seated dumbbell shoulder press

Overhead Press: FAQs

What does overhead press work?

The overhead press trains the primary muscle groups of the pecs, triceps, and shoulders. The secondary muscles trained are the core, glutes, and upper back when performed standing. 

What is the difference between a shoulder press and an overhead press?

There is no major difference between the shoulder press and overhead press exercises, just different names. Both are excellent strength training exercises to build upper body strength.  

RELATED: Benefits of Strength Training

What is overhead press best for?

The overhead press is an excellent shoulder workout for adding size and strength to all shoulder muscles while improving the size of your triceps and upper chest. An added benefit of the overhead press is it builds rock-solid core strength when performed with proper form. 

Is overhead press worth doing?

Yes, the overhead press is worth doing because this movement helps add size and strength to your shoulder region. There is one caveat: you require good shoulder mobility to go overhead, or you may end up experiencing shoulder injuries and pain. So, to incorporate this dynamic movement into your training sessions, make sure you’re using the proper form.

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