how to overhead press

Overhead Press Guide: How To, Muscles Worked, Benefits & 11 Variations

September 04, 2021

The overhead press is one of the best upper body exercises for gaining muscle and overall strength in the shoulders. This compound exercise is considered of one the big four lifts that defines your strength. The overhead press is sometimes called shoulder press, press, military press(although not exactly correct) and is often abbreviated as OHP. The overhead press is an amazing movement to build shoulders, traps, triceps, upper chest and core. To have a strong upper body you must master the overhead press.

In this post we’ll cover how to do an overhead press, complete with common mistakes and tips to perfect the form plus you’ll learn about overhead press variations and how/when to do them. You’ll also understand what are the benefits of doing the OHP, muscles worked and how to program the overhead press into your workout routine.

overhead press muscles worked

What is an overhead press exercise?

The overhead press is one of the big boys when it comes to compound exercises. The overhead press is an upper body exercise where you will press a barbell upward over your head while standing up straight.

The primary movers of the overhead press are the deltoids, triceps, and traps while other muscles like the pecs, serratus anterior and abs also play a role. The purpose of the overhead press is to strengthen the shoulders and triceps.

The overhead press is included in pretty much every weightlifting program worth its salt that powerlifters or bodybuilders follow. Although the overhead press isn’t included in the big 3 of squats, deadlifts and bench press it is partially present in Olympic lifts where the weight is lifted overhead. At the end of the day apart from the bench press there is no better test of upper body strength than the overhead press.

Note: We will cover the all the muscles involved in the overhead press in this post as this is one of the biggest compound movements where multiple muscles contribute to lifting the weight above your head.

VARIATIONS OF THE OVERHEAD PRESS

There are multiple variations of the overhead press, such as the seated overhead press, push press, dumbbell press and more. The essential version of the overhead press is the standing overhead press.

In strength training the overhead press would be considered the main lift where as other variations of the overhead press like dumbbell presses and Arnold presses would be more of assistance lifts. We will get into the various overhead presses and the different tools you could use with them such as dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands and even combo of a barbell with bands and weight plates.

How to do an overhead press

The barbell overhead press is the primary shoulder press exercise so we’ll go in depth here on how to perform the overhead press with proper form. You should be able to apply many of these same form cues to other variations of the overhead press.

Standing Overhead Press:

  • Set the barbell on the hooks of a power rack at upper chest height
  • Stand up with feet shoulder width apart, toes pointed out slightly with your core engaged, glutes contracted, looking straight ahead
  • Grab bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width apart with the bar resting against the heel of your palms
  • Unrack the bar keeping your elbows tucked in with your wrists stacked above
  • Slightly arch your upper back while squeezing the upper back muscles then inhale to puff up chest to engage lats and triceps then squeeze shoulder blades together while keeping your elbows at 45 degrees then push straight up
  • As the bar is moving past your face start squeezing your shoulder blades and shrug your shoulders while you push your hips forward slightly and bring your chin back to avoid bar if needed
  • Once the bar moves past your head, shrug your traps and squeeze your shoulders as you fully extend your arms to lock out the weight
  • Lower the bar in a controlled manner through the same motion
how to do overhead press

Note: For the seated overhead press follow the same cues but make sure to sit on the bench with your core engaged and back straight throughout the movement.

Right vs wrong cues

Stand Up Tall: Many people have the tendency to lean back when doing the overhead press. Don’t do this! You should complete the entire lift with your back straight in a neutral position and with your core engaged. To help stay completely upright keep your glutes contracted throughout the lift.

Keep Core Tight: Keeping your core engaged throughout the overhead press helps you move more weight and maintains your spine in a neutral position. It helps to inhale before starting to push the weight up so that your core stays tight.

Look Straight Ahead: All too often people tilt their head up as they push the barbell overhead. It’s important to look straight ahead throughout the movement. To help with this you may want to fixate your eyes on an object in front of you before you begin the lift.

Press Bar in Straight Line: By pressing the bar upwards in a straight line you will be able to lift heavier weight as the mechanics of the body can produce the most force while keeping your elbows directly under your wrists as you push up. A few common causes of not pressing straight up are not starting the lift properly where you’re under the bar or not moving your upper torso back slightly as you press up.

Don’t Push With Legs: You should be contracting your glutes to help stabilize your body to complete the overhead press but avoid using your legs to generate power or momentum. If you can’t complete the movement without using your legs to aid you in getting the weight up then you should reduce the weight you’re using. However, we will go over a similar exercise called the push press later on where you will be required to use your leg power.

Overhead press tips

Properly Warmup: The shoulder joint is a complicated as it can move in such a wide range of motion so it is susceptible to injury. The shoulder joint has the capability for axial rotation so it’s paramount to perform some light mobility exercises in the entire ROM before trying to lift moderate to heavy weight. For your warm sets, start light and slowly increase the load.

Set Your Stance: Your legs should be locked in position to avoid using them to drive the weight upwards. Picture yourself screwing your feet into the ground before you start the lift.

Set Your Grip: The grip you use when doing an overhead press can make or break the overall lift. You should use a full grip with your fingers wrapped around the bar so that you can squeeze the bar as you press up, this can add some strength to the lift by engaging your muscles more. The full grip is also good for avoiding possible slippage, you wouldn’t want the bar to slip out of your hands at the top of the movement, would you?  The bar should sit at the meaty part of your palms so that you can press directly up without having to worry about your wrists bending back.

Your knuckles should be just behind your wrists with the bar resting on the meaty part of your palms, close to your forearms. The goal here is to mitigate the possibility that your wrists bend back, while also allowing you to push straight up from your forearms into the bar.

For the grip width, don’t go narrower than shoulder width as the load will be exceedingly placed on your shoulder joints. Use a shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width grip. If your grip is too wide than you’re reducing the triceps and delts participation. if your grip is too narrow your elbows won't be in the correct position.

Note: Some prefer using a Bulldog grip where the bar will sit in the heel of your palm like the full grip above but the fingers should be bent and pressing against the bar with your thumbs wrapped around the bar. Your hand should resemble a Bulldog’s paw.

Set Your Elbows & Forearms: Forearms should be vertical, with elbows slightly inward so that they don’t wing out. Most people also make the mistake of keeping their elbows behind the bar the whole time, this makes it so that your forearms aren’t exactly vertical. If your forearms are on a minor incline then the path of the bar won’t be straight up and down. Start with your elbows just in front of the bar.

Tuck Chin: As you press the bar up don’t lean or sway to move the bar past your face. Tuck your chin (try to make a double chin even if you don’t have one) and move your head back slightly to clear your face then push your head through the window to complete the lift.

Stay in Line: Your whole body should be in-line throughout the movement. From a side view your body should keep a vertical alignment. Keep your core tight by bracing for an imaginary punch to the gut. You can also try to use a weight lifting belt so that your abs have a surface to push against. Your lower back should remain in a neutral position throughout the movement to avoid hyper-extending it and causing injury.

Shrug Shoulders: Shrug your shoulders at the top of the movement to finish the lock out phase and activate the upper back muscles.

Contract Upper Back: Flex upper back muscles in scapular area as you’re completing the lockout.

Benefits of Overhead press:

Bigger Stronger Shoulders: The overhead press allows for the biggest load to be moved by your shoulders. Through the concept of progressive overload, we know that we need to increase the stress placed on the muscles in order for them to grow, this is a great exercise to get that process underway. This exercise improves shoulder health and can help prevent future injuries if done correctly. All three deltoids are activated in the shoulder press so you will be training your deltoids evenly. Oftentimes the lateral deltoids and posterior deltoids are under-trained when compared to the anterior deltoids so this can help to correct some muscle imbalance. However, we do advise to get some extra rear and side delt work added into your workout routine because the front delts get enough work in as they are involved in many ppressing exercises such as bench press.

Full Body Exercise: Even though the overhead press is considered an upper body exercise it works several muscles throughout your body. Besides your shoulders the overhead press requires your triceps, upper chest and back to actually move the weight while your core and lower body muscles need to be contracted without moving (isostatically contracted) throughout the movement to keep your body stabilized. To really execute the overhead press in the most powerful and efficient manner, the glutes and core play large roles in keeping proper form with your body in alignment.

Transfer of Strength: The overhead press transfers gains made over to the bench press because many of the same muscles are at play. The shoulders and triceps are primary movers in the overhead press and they’re assistance muscles in the bench press. Your bench also improves because the overhead press trains your body on enhancing the lockout portion of the lift. At the top of the overhead press, you should lock out your elbows to finish the move in the same way you would in a bench press. Say goodbye to getting stuck at those last few inches next time you hit the bench press.

Improved Overall Functionality: Just going through daily life involves bending, twisting and lifting things. The overhead press helps to improve our core strength resulting in better body stability while it also aids in building power and strength in the shoulders which translates to being able to perform some activities better like lifting objects over our heads when putting things away. The overhead press boosts core stability, supports correct posture and keeps the shoulder joints healthy and mobile.

Bone Density: Weight bearing exercises are the only way we know of that maintains our bone density as we age. With the overhead press being one of the best weight bearing exercises for the upper body it is not to be skipped. Lift strong loads build stronger bones, enough said.

Testosterone: The overhead press enables us to press heavy weights which can have the affect of boosting natural testosterone. This is why you'll often hear people in the fitness world say it's vital to perform big lifts like bench press, squats and deadlifts. The more testosterone your body produces the more muscle and strength you can gain.

Barbell OHP vs Dumbbell OHP

This study conducted in Norway compared the standing and seated barbell overhead press with the standing and seated dumbbell overhead press by measuring electromyographic activity (EMG) when doing the exercise for a 1RM. The participants were 15 healthy men with an average of 5 years of strength training. The initial theory was that if the exercise required more stability (standing dumbbell overhead press compared to seated barbell press) that the 1RM would be lower but the EMG would be similar in the shoulder muscles. The EMG was tested on all three deltoids (anterior, lateral, and posterior), triceps brachii and biceps.

There was a total of four testing sessions that were separated by 3-5 days of rest. Each session had the following goals:

Session 1: Determine 1RM for seated and standing barbell presses

Session 2: Determine 1RM for seated and standing dumbbell presses

Session 3: Using 80% of 1RM each participant did 5 reps on each exercise in a random order

Session 4: Added EMG measurements to the 3rd session’s objective

What were the results?

Front Deltoid

  • Standing DB vs Seated DB: Muscle activation 8% greater for standing dumbbell
  • Standing Barbell vs Standing Dumbbell: Muscle activation 15% greater in standing dumbbell
  • Seated Barbell vs Seated Dumbbell: Muscle activation 11% greater in seated dumbbell press

Side Deltoid:

  • Standing barbell vs standing dumbbell: Muscle activation 7% greater for standing dumbbell
  • Seated dumbbell vs standing barbell: Muscle activation 7% greater for standing barbell

Rear Deltoid:

  • Standing barbell vs seated barbell: Muscle activation 25% greater for standing barbell
  • Seated dumbbell vs standing dumbbell: Muscle activation 24% greater for standing dumbbell

Biceps:

  • Seated dumbbell vs standing dumbbell: Muscle activation 23% greater for standing dumbbell
  • Standing barbell vs standing dumbbell: Muscle activation 16% greater for standing barbell
  • Seated dumbbell vs seated barbell: Muscle activation 33% greater for seated barbell

Triceps:

  • Standing Barbell vs seated barbell: Muscle activation 20% greater for standing barbell
  • Standing barbell vs standing dumbbell: Muscle activation 39% greater for standing barbell

Other key takeaways from this study are:

  • Overhead press performed standing had a lower 1RM than seated
  • Standing overhead press that requires more stability (dumbbells) equals more muscle activation
  • Standing barbell overhead press engages the triceps and biceps more than seated barbell and seated/standing dumbbell press
  • The standing dumbbell overhead press had the lower 1RM but had the greatest deltoid muscle activation

Overhead Press Muscles worked

Multiple muscles go to work to pull off the overhead press as it’s one of the big compound lifts that works the shoulders, triceps, traps, abs and more. If you want to build big broad shoulders then the overhead press is a must do exercise. This study showed the maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) of the deltoids was: front delts 33%, side delts 28% and rear delts 11%. The front and side delts are the main movers during the overhead press vs the rear delt which acts as more of a stabilizer muscle.

Let’s have a look at all the muscles involved with the overhead press below:

  • Anterior Deltoid: The front deltoid is the largest of the deltoid muscles that sits on the front of the shoulder. Muscle activation is greatest in this deltoid when doing the overhead press. The front delt is responsible for raising the arms in front of the body and above the head.
  • Lateral Deltoid: The side deltoid is found on the side of the shoulder and it’s the second most activated deltoid when performing an overhead press. The side delt is responsible for lifting our arms out to the side and helps to press the weight above the head.
  • Posterior Deltoid: The rear deltoid is located opposite of the front delt on the back of the shoulder. This deltoid is often overlooked in many people’s training routines so it’s important to directly target it apart from exercises like the overhead press in order to avoid creating any muscle imbalances.
  • Trapezius: The traps is a back muscle that plays a role in many pulling exercises but in the case of overhead presses they help to stabilize the shoulder joint and finish out the movement.
  • Pectoralis Major: The pecs are involved with executing an overhead press properly as you should puff up the chest to help press the weight up. However, if you’re looking to build a big, strong chest then you should focus more on the bench press and its variations.
  • Core: When doing a standing overhead press the core is engaged to keep the body stabilized in an upright position. Compared to the other main compound lifts of bench press, squats and deadlift, the overhead press stimulates the abs more according to this study.
  • Triceps: To press the weight up over our heads the triceps are activated. Both the lateral and medial heads of the triceps are put to work. However, to target all three heads of the triceps you’re better off doing isolation exercises such as overhead extensions or skull crushers.
  • Supporting Muscles: The overhead press requires a number of other smaller supporting postural muscles such as the serratus anterior, teres minor, infraspinatus and supraspinatus. Strengthening these muscles helps to improve overall shoulder health and mobility.
  • Legs: Though the overhead press doesn’t require leg power to get the weight up over your head, it is needed to keep our bodies balanced and upright. Your calves, ankles, thighs and hips get some isometric engagement. However, if you attempt to do a push press (which we cover later) you will have to use the power in your legs to get the weight lifted.

Best Sets, Reps & Loads for Overhead Press

Your fitness level and ends goals will determine how to best program overhead press into your training routine.

For beginners most training programs will include the compound lifts like overhead press and employ sets and reps that are consistent but the load variable will change as you progress. This linear progression is perfect for beginners as the gains should come a little faster and easier compared to intermediate and advanced lifters who might need to frequently switch up their sets, reps and loads to get past stall out periods. At the end of the day progressive overload is needed for all lifters to see any type of strength or muscle gain.  

Beginners can usually do well in the rep ranges of 6-12 in order to gain strength and size.

Intermediate and advanced lifters may need to change things up with sets, reps and loads to break through plateaus or to hit specific goals.

The normal rep and load ranges for many compound lifts including overhead press are:

  • Power- 1-3 reps 90%+ 1RM
  • Strength 4-6 reps 85%-90% 1RM
  • Hypertrophy 6-12 reps 70%-80% 1RM
  • Endurance 12+ reps >60% 1RM

Training Variables for Overhead Press

The original standing overhead press has a plethora of possible variations that you can change up from time to time in order to make your training more interesting and in some cases more efficient depending on your end goals. The training variables that can determine various overhead press exercises are:

  • Body positioning
  • Grip positioning
  • Equipment
  • Load placement

We can assure you that you won’t get bored on days you’re training shoulders if you mix up some of these training variables. Just remember the main lift and king of the shoulder exercises is the overhead press and that other variations of it can act as assistance lifts to improve your OHP. Variations of the overhead press can be used to target and strengthen specific muscles that need the extra work to make your overall musculature function better as a cohesive unit.

Body Positioning:

This refers to how you alter the position of various bodyparts to complete the lift.

When considering body positioning for the overhead press it can refer to the grip you use or if you’re standing or seated. The stance you use can range from the standard feet shoulder width apart or Military press style with your feet next to each other.

Another body positioning variable that can change in the overhead press is whether or not you’re doing the exercise standing up or seated. Doing the overhead press while standing will force you to use more stabilizing muscles to keep your body in the correct form. You might be able to lift heavier weight when doing a seated overhead press but you will stimulate your muscles more if done standing as they have to work harder to complete the lift.

Grip Positioning:

Changes in the grip can include the normal overhand grip, wide/close grip, Bulldog grip, underhand grip in a reverse press or neutral grip if using dumbbells. By changing your grip, you will elicit a different response from different muscles some of which we will cover below in the overhead press exercise variations.

  • Overhand Grip: This is the standard grip for overhead press that places the emphasis on your front and side delts with your rear delts used to stabilize the weight.
  • Underhand Grip: This grip flips your wrists 180 degrees so that your palms are facing towards you which places more tension on the front delts and the upper chest while reducing the tension on the side delts.
  • Neutral Grip: This grip has your palms facing each other like you'll see in the hammer press below. With this grip you will emphasize the front delts more but requires some effort from the side delts.
  • Bulldog Grip: This grip is similar to the overhand grip as your palms are facing away but your fingers aren't fully wrapped around the bar. By using the Bulldog grip you will reduce the chances your wrist bend back and you can ensure that the weight is stacked directly above the forearms when pressing up. This grip will take some time to get used to but it offers some great benefits.
  • Wide Grip: Some people find a wider grip more comfortable when doing the overhead press. However, with your hands placed out wider you won't be able to press as much weight.
  • Narrow Grip: Just like the wide grip overhead press some people might find the narrower than shoulder width grip more comfortable but once again this will limit the amount of weight you can press.

Equipment:

Next training variable is the equipment you can use for the overhead press. There are multiple variations of the overhead press that might include:

The equipment you use when doing an overhead press can drastically change how different muscles are stimulated during the movement. As we touched on above the equipment use can produced different stimulus to your muscles. For instance, doing dumbbell overhead press requires your stabilizer muscles to go into overdrive thus activating them more than using a barbell.

This study used 23 healthy College aged students to perform overhead presses with dumbbells and kettlebells then measured the muscle activation of the anterior deltoid and pectoralis major with EMG. The researchers conducted this study because dumbbells and kettlebells are common tools to use when doing overhead presses and they wanted to see if there was a difference in muscle activation because the dumbbells have a more balanced and stable weight when compared to the kettlebell. When doing an overhead press with a dumbbell the center of mass is in line with the glenohumeral joint of the shoulder whereas the kettlebell has a center of mass that’s posterior to the glenohumeral joint. The results showed that the dumbbell produced more muscle activation of the anterior deltoid when doing the overhead press. So, long story short if you want to work on the primary movers when doing an exercise like the overhead press you should choose equipment that is more stable and has a center of mass that’s in line with the shoulder.

Load Placement:

The standard overhead press requires the load to be placed in front of your body starting from the upper chest then extending straight overhead. The only other load placement with regards to the barbell overhead press is a variation called the Behind The Neck Press where the bar starts behind you before being pressed upwards. These two load placements alter the muscles worked as the Behind The Neck Press involved the upper back muscles more to lift the weight compared with the regular overhead press that puts the onus on the deltoids to lift the weight up.

11 Overhead Press Variations

1. Barbell Overhead Press

barbell overhead press

The barbell overhead press is the king of shoulder presses. This exercise is the cornerstone of all shoulder exercises.

We covered the how to regarding barbell overhead press above and the muscles worked so we won't repeat that here. We will however show some examples of various barbell overhead press techniques below.

Seated Overhead Press

This exercise is the same as the overhead press with the body positioning variable changed to being seated rather than standing. Due to the fact you’re performing this exercise seated less muscles are put to work. Your abs, lower back and legs aren’t engaged with the same intensity to stabilize you and the bar. The seated overhead press can be used to increase the weight you lift over head which can help with shoulder and arm strength gains. When doing the seated overhead press it’s best to use a flat bench without relying on a backrest so that you’re still able to somewhat stabilize the lift with your core muscles.

Sometimes when going too heavy on the seated overhead press people have the inclination to lean back and over-arch the back which can create lower back issues. Sitting on a bench when doing overhead press means the glutes aren’t contracted so it makes it difficult to lock out the back and keep a neutral spine during the lift. This plus the fact your hips can’t move forward adds to the chances you hyper-extend the lower back by putting too much pressure on the discs. Keep your back neutral!

seated overhead press

How To:

  • Grab the bar with both hands using an overhand grip, just wider than shoulder width apart
  • Unrack the weight then sit on bench with your back straight
  • Starting with the bar on your upper chest press up through your forearms until the bar is directly over head with your arms locked out
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

Smith Machine Press

The Smith Machine press is exactly the same as the seated overhead press except you won't need to use your stabilizer muscles much as the bar moves in a fixed vertical path. You might be able to lift more weight using a Smith machine but don't use this as a crutch. Use the Smith Machine sparingly or for some sets to try to push heavier loads than you normally could've.

smith machine overhead press

How To:

  • Set up bench with enough room so the bar has enough room to pass by your face
  • Set up the bar a little higher than shoulder level
  • Sit down and reach up to grab the bar using an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width apart
  • Unlatch the bar then press straight up over your head until your arms are extended
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps
  • Rotate and re-latch

Note: Using the Smith Machine for overhead press reduces the amount of work your stabilizer muscles have to do to keep the bar stable.

Overhead Press with Bands

Loop resistance bands or bands with handles can be a good tool to do overhead press at home or when you're on the road. The bands can apply the resistance without being overly impactful on the joints.

 

resistance band overhead press

How To:

  • Step on the band then grab with both hands using an overhand grip
  • Bring the band up to shoulder level then press straight above until your arms are fully extended
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

Wide Grip Overhead Press

With this variation of the overhead press your hands will be placed much wider than a standard OHP. This hand placement may provide some relief to people who have shoulder pain when doing an OHP. The wide grip means you won't be able to press as much weight because your forearms aren't stacked directly under your wrists. Your side delts will take on more of the force in this position.

wide grip overhead press

Military Press

The military press is often mistaken for the overhead press as people think they are one in the same exercise but that’s not the case. The military press is a stricter form of the overhead press in a military stance with your heels together and toes pointed out slightly. In this exercise you shouldn’t be moving your hips forward at all plus you have a narrower base. These two factors make the military press harder to do which means you’ll lift less weight. You can try the military press if you really want to challenge yourself but overall, the overhead press is a more complete exercise that will lead to better results.

How To:

  • Grab the bar with both hands just wider than shoulder width apart using an overhand grip with your feet close together
  • Unrack the bar, start with the bar at your upper chest
  • Press up until your arms are fully extended and the weight is over your head
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

Note: You can also do the military press with other tools such as bands, dumbbells or kettlebells.

2. Dumbbell Overhead Press

This variation of the overhead press requires more stabilization to keep the dumbbells moving in a straight line above the head. With the dumbbell overhead press there’s no need to press your head back to move your face out of the way because the weights aren't passing your face. Using dumbbells for overhead press has its pros and cons because you don’t necessarily need to lean back or move your head or hips to clear your face but it is more difficult to keep the dumbbells moving in a straight line. By having to control the path of the dumbbells this exercise might be a little more challenging for beginners when just starting out.

You should be able to press more weight using a barbell for overhead press which results in more muscle and strength gain. The dumbbell overhead press requires more stabilizing muscles to move the weight so the weight you lift will likely be considerably less than you can lift when using a barbell. For example, if you can do an overhead press of 100 pounds with a barbell then using dumbbells it’s almost certain that you couldn’t press two 50lb dumbbells. It’s more likely that you will lift 20-30% less when using the dumbbells.

Another important thing to note is that with dumbbells it might be a little more difficult to linear progress because the increments the weights increase at are higher when compared to a barbell. For example, if you tried to go from 25lb dumbbells to 30lb dumbbells you would be increasing 16% which is a big jump for the stabilizer muscles to handle. Some would argue that dumbbell overhead press is a little more dangerous compared with using a barbell. If you can’t complete a rep with the barbell you’re able to lower the bar back to your upper chest/shoulder area but if you get stuck in a dumbbell press then you might have some difficulty controlling the weight on the way down which could lead to possible injury.

Overall, dumbbell overhead press is a great assistance exercise to help improve your overhead press.

dumbbell shoulder press how to

How To:

  • Grab dumbbells with an overhand grip then sit don on bench(preferably without backrest)
  • Bring weights up next to your ears with elbows bent
  • Press straight over your head so that the weights almost meet in the middle and arms are fully extended
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

Note: This can also be done with kettlebells and bands.

Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

You will follow the same method from above as the seated dumbbell overhead press but this variation is a tad more difficult because you will recruit more muscles to keep you standing with a vertical alignment. Your lower back, spinal stabilizers, obliques and transverse abdominis are engaged to perform this with proper technique.

dumbbell shoulder press

Alternating Dumbbell Press

The alternating dumbbell press is a great shoulder press variation that allows you to focus in on one side of the body at a time. By doing this exercise unilaterally you have to actively engage your core so that your torso doesn't lean towards one side or the other. This exercise can help to balance out possible weaknesses that are present on either side. 

alternating dumbbell shoulder press

Single Arm Dumbbell Press

Pressing the dumbbell up with one arm at a time will produce similar benefits as the alternating dumbbell shoulder press but with this variation you won't be holding a equal weight dumbbell in the other hand. This version requires even more muscle activation in the core to keep the torso straight. This can be a great exercise for people coming back from an injury or for those who need more work on one side of the body. You can improve your limb control with this exercise and if you want to make yourself more stable you can always place your hand on your opposite hip as shown in the image below.

one arm shoulder press

Half Kneeling Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The half kneeling position in this dumbbell shoulder press variation results in benefits such as improved trunk stability. In this position your base is narrow which requires you to stabilize reflexively throughout the body to remain stable. You won't be able to compensate with any movement in the lower body making all the work go to the shoulder and core. This is a good position for someone who has lower back pain because it minimizes the the extension in the lumbar spine.

kneeling shoulder press

Exercise Ball Dumbbell Shoulder Press

This dumbbell shoulder press is no walk in the park. It requires balance and stabilization to press the weights straight up while sitting on the exercise ball. Your core and lower back will be tested here so make sure you have your feet planted firmly on the ground and start with a lighter weight than you would normally use for a seated dumbbell shoulder press. If you want to make this exercise even more difficult try pressing the dumbbells one at a time. You must keep your core actively engaged throughout this movement.

exercise ball shoulder press

3. Overhead Press with Hanging Bands

This exercise is a more difficult version of the traditional overhead press because of the unstable weights that are dangling off the sides of the bar. It is no easy task to control the bar and the hanging weights as you press the bar upwards. Muscles you didn’t even know you had will be forced into action to complete this movement. When performing this variation start with a lower weight than you think you can manage. Using loop resistance bands to hang the weights on the bar means you should move with caution to reduce the bouncing of the weights. Stay focused from the time you unrack the bar until you put it back down.

barbell shoulder press

How To:

  • Loop bands through weight plates then hand on the collar of the barbell
  • Get under the bar to unrack by gripping the bar just wider than shoulder width apart with an overhand grip
  • Starting with the bar at your upper chest, press up in a controlled motion until your arms are fully extended
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

4. Push Press

Earlier in this post we spoke about not using leg drive to assist in lifting the weight above your head but when it comes to the push press that’s exactly what you’ll be doing. The push press takes advantage of your leg power to help lift the weight up. You will be able to lift more total weight with the push press but your shoulders won’t be doing as much of the work when compared to regular overhead press. The push press uses more overall muscles to press the weight including the legs and hips therefore taking away some of the tension from your shoulders.

Using the push press can increase the weight you lift but if you’re always training with the push press you may still run into problems when attempting the overhead press. So, what we’re saying is the push press is a good assistance exercise that you can mix into your workout routine but don’t rely on it to make your overhead press better. The push press works by getting you past the common sticking point in the overhead press with momentum.

The first half of the overhead press, moving the bar from your upper chest to your nose is almost pure shoulder strength so if you want to improve your overhead press you must do more overhead press. If you can't complete an overhead press rep without using your legs then the weight is too heavy.

push press vs overhead press

How To:

  • Grab the bar with an overhand grip a little wider than shoulder width apart then bring up to your shoulders
  • Stand with your legs shoulder width apart, knees bent in a quarter squat position
  • Explosively straighten your legs to create momentum, once your legs are locked immediately press the bar upwards until your arms are fully extended
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

Kettlebell Push Press

The kettlebell push press follows the same cues of the regular push press where you'll be using your leg power to help drive the weight up. The major difference here is that there is some rotation happening in the wrist and shoulders. By starting in a neutral grip at the bottom then finishing with your palms facing away at the top, your side delts and rotator cuff muscles come into play more.

kettlebell shoulder press

 How To

  • Grab the kettlebells with a neutral grip then bring up to your shoulders
  • Stand with your legs shoulder width apart, knees bent in a quarter squat position
  • Explosively straighten your legs to create momentum, once your legs are locked immediately press the kettlebells upwards while rotating your wrists until your arms are fully extended with your palms facing away
  • Slowly lower to starting position
  • Repeat for desired reps

    5. Clean & Press

    In this exercise you start with the bar at floor level then clean (lift it up to your shoulders) where you then finish it off with an overhead press. Essentially the Clean & Press is a power clean plus an overhead press. Before the implementation of the Power Rack this was the only way you were able to do an overhead press. This exercise was part of the Olympics until 1972 then it was removed because it was difficult to judge proper form. The correct technique required the lifter to press the weight with locked knees and without too much lean back making it hard to see due to the explosive nature of the lift. Nowadays the Clean & Jerk and Snatch are events in Olympic weight lifting.

    barbell clean and press

    How To:

    • Stand with feet shoulder width apart, reach down grab the bar with an overhand grip a little wider than shoulder width apart close to your shins
    • Starting with your hips down, chest up and core engaged drive through the heels and pull the bar up along your body then flip the wrists as you make it to your upper chest with your elbows forward
    • Immediately press up until your arms are fully extended
    • Slowly return to starting position by reversing the movement
    • Repeat for desired reps

    Note: This is a complicated lift that will take time to learn and master, start with light weights.

    6. Standing Behind the Neck Press

    The Behind The Neck Press mimics the overhead press except for the fact you’re starting with the load placed behind you rather than in front of you. This exercise has risks associated with it as it puts more stress on the rotator cuff muscles. We don’t advise you do this exercise unless you have complete range of motion in the shoulder and you don’t try to go too heavy with this exercise.

    This study looked at both exercises to see what the impact was in regards to the shoulder range of motion (ROM) and the spine posture. The conclusion was the shoulder ROM should be increased before attempting to perform Behind The Neck Press version and that females tended to show greater spine movement in the thoracic spine, suggesting that trunk strengthening may help with overhead presses. If you choose to attempt the behind the neck press then you should have an ideal ROM in the shoulder and have good trunk stability. All too often people attempt the behind the neck press and end up injuring the rotator cuff.

    behind the neck shoulder press

    How To:

    • Start with the weight behind your shoulders while gripping the bar with both hands using an overhand grip wider than shoulder width apart
    • Press the weight up until your arms are fully extended
    • Slowly lower the weight to starting position
    • Repeat for desired reps

    Seated Smith Machine Behind The Neck Press

    Following the same cues as above for the standing behind the neck press this exercises reduces the need for the stabilizing muscles to work as the bar is on a fixed track that moves up and down. Try to do this exercise with a bench that doesn't have a backrest so that you still have to utilize your core muscles.

    smith machine behind the neck press

    7. Standing Bradford Press

    This exercise requires great shoulder mobility because you’re starting with the weight in the front of you and pressing the weight up then lower down behind your neck before pressing up and then lowering down to the starting position. The Bradford press is a combination of the overhead press and the behind the neck press in one exercise. There will be constant tension on your delts in this exercise so you'd be using less weight compared with a OHP or a behind the neck press.

    bradford press

    How To:

    • Start with the weight in a similar position to the OHP
    • Press the bar up until it’s a few inches over your head then move it backwards to lower the weight behind your head until your elbows are at 90 degrees
    • Immediately reverse the movement and push up and over your head bringing the bar back to starting position. This is one rep
    • Repeat for desired reps

    8. Hammer Press

    The hammer press requires the elbows to be tucked in to the sides so the tension is focused on the front delts. You can do these unilaterally or both at the same time. If you decide on pressing one dumbbell up at a time then you can focus on working one side at a time while your core will also be engaged to keep you balanced.

    overhead press variations with dumbbells

    How To:

    • Grab dumbbells with both hands using a neutral grip
    • Sit down on bench (preferably without backrest to engage core more)
    • Bring dumbbells up to shoulder height
    • Press through elbows until arms are fully extended
    • Slowly lower to starting position
    • Repeat for desired reps

    Note: Try doing this exercise standing if you really want to work your stabilizing muscles and core.

    9. Arnold Press

    Named after the king himself Arnold Schwarzenegger, this shoulder press moves you through multiple planes of motion so it's great for strengthening all three delts. The Arnold press is also great for the stabilizer muscles which are needed in the overhead press. Use this exercise as an assistance lift to the OHP as it will enhance the muscles needed to execute a proper OHP. You can activate the delts and stabilizer muscles even more if you do this exercise standing.

    dumbbell shoulder press

    How To:

    • Sit down on a bench and grab dumbbells with an underhand grip then bring them up in front of you at shoulder level, palms facing towards you
    • Open arms out to the side and press up while rotating your wrists until the weights are above your head and your palms are facing away from you
    • Slowly return in the same motion until you reach starting position
    • Repeat for desired reps

    10. Landmine Press

    This unilateral exercises is good to work the shoulders at a different angle because you aren't pressing straight up. You can take some pressure off your shoulder joint but still get a great workout in for the front delts and scapular stabilizer muscles. An added benefit of doing the landmine press is that your core has to work hard to keep you balanced so you can get a shoulder and core workout in with one exercise.

    shoulder barbell press
    How To:
    • Kneel on the ground with your right knee with your left leg forward
    • Grab the end of the bar with a neutral grip using your right hand
    • Start with the bar at the front of your right shoulder then press out and away from you until your arm is extended
    • Slowly return to starting position
    • Repeat for desired reps

    Note: If you use both hands to do this exercise you will transfer most of the work to the upper chest rather than the front delts.

    Related: 11 Best Landmine Exercises for Each Muscle Group

    11. Reverse Grip Press

    The reverse grip press starts in the same position as the Arnold press with your palms facing towards you but instead of opening the arms and rotating the wrists, you will press straight up. This exercise is good for targeting the front delts, triceps and the serratus anterior.

    shoulder dumbbell press

    How To:

    • Grab dumbbells with both hands using an underhand grip
    • Bring the weights up to shoulder level with palms facing in
    • Press straight up until arms are extended
    • Slowly return to starting position
    • Repeat for desired reps

    EZ Bar Reverse Grip Press

    This exercise works in the same way as the seated reverse grip press but you will also have to engage your core muscles to keep you upright. Using the EZ bar combined with a reverse grip you will take some tension off of the shoulder joint and move it to the front delts. People that have shoulder pain when doing standard overhead press should give this exercise a try.

    ez bar close grip reverse press

    How do I increase my Overhead Press?

    To increase your overhead press you should do more overhead press. Through consistent practice you will improve your form and technique which will allow you to press more weight over time. Try to add 5-10 pounds to your overhead press every 4 weeks and/or increase the number of reps you’re doing.

    To increase your overhead press you can mix in some overhead press variations such as:

    • Dumbbell overhead press
    • Push press
    • Seated overhead press
    • Behind the neck press

    Once you have the overhead press down pat then you can focus on strengthening the individual muscles that enable you to do the overhead press. Assistance lifts can enhance your body’s mechanics to do the overhead press. Some of these assistance and accessory lifts include:

    • Incline bench press
    • Push ups
    • Close grip bench press
    • Upright rows
    • Front raises
    • Lateral raises
    • Triceps extensions
    • Shrugs
    • Pullovers
    • Hanging leg raises

    How often should I OHP?

    We usually recommend that you try to do the OHP and/or a variation 2-3 times a week. Multiple studies have shown that you will gain the most strength and muscle if you hit them twice a week with up to 20 sets total.  

    Related: How Many Exercises, Sets, and Reps Should I Do Per Muscle Group & Workout?

    How to incorporate OHP into your routine

    You should aim to include OHP into your workout programming 2-3 times a week especially if you’re a beginner. With this frequency you’ll be able to get adequate reps and sets to stimulate muscle and strength gains while also allowing your muscles proper time to heal and recover. If you’re intermediate or advanced then you might need less frequency but with more intensity. It’s best to do this big compound lift towards the beginning of your workout session when your muscles are fresh. Rest times should be 1-2 minutes between each set.

    Let’s see how you can put this into practice depending on your workout programming assuming hypertrophy is your end goal.

    Upper/Lower Split

    With an upper/lower body split you’ll most likely be training 4 days a week, 2 days will consist of upper body exercises and two days of lower body exercises. You can choose a schedule that fits your lifestyle, just make sure it gives you enough time to recover before working the same muscles.

    Monday and Thursday for Upper Body Days

    Monday

    • Bench Press: 3 sets x 4-8 reps
    • Lat Pull Down: 3 sets x 8-12 reps
    • Overhead Press: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
    • Bent Over Rows: 4 sets x 10-12
    • Lateral Raises: 3 sets x 8-12 reps (each side)
    • Skull Crushers: 2 sets x 10-12

    Thursday

    • Seated Overhead Press: 4 sets x 10-12 reps
    • Pull Ups: 3 sets x 10 reps
    • Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 sets x 8-10 reps
    • Shrugs: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
    • Pullovers: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
    • Bicep Curls: 2 sets x 15-20 reps

    Push/Pull/Leg Split

    In this split you will do overhead press and/or variations of it on the push days either once or twice weekly, for example:

    • Push Press: 5 sets x 4-6 reps
    • Bench Press: 4 sets x 5 reps
    • Standing Shoulder Press: 4 sets x 6 reps
    • Dips: 3 sets x 8-10 reps
    • Upright Rows: 3 sets  x 10-12 reps
    • Overhead Triceps Extensions: 2 sets x 10-15 reps

    Bodypart 5 Day Split

    This split sometimes referred to as the “Bro Split” targets a different bodypart each day so a shoulder day might look like:

    • Overhead Press: 3 sets x 6-8 reps
    • Arnold Presses: 4 sets x 8-10 reps
    • Lateral Raises: 3 sets x 10-12 reps
    • Front Raises:  2 sets x 8-12 reps
    • Rear Delt Flys: 4 sets x 10-12 reps
    • Shrugs: 3 sets x 8 reps

    Fullbody Split

    In this program you will train 3 days during the week and hit each major muscle group in every session with a rest day in between each workout session. You will do an overhead press and/or a variation of it each workout.

    Monday

    • Standing Overhead Press: 5 sets x 5 reps

    Wednesday

    • Seated Dumbbell Press: 4 sets x 6-8 reps

    Friday

    • Military Press: 3 sets x 8-10 reps

    Pain From Overhead Press

    Even though the overhead press might look simple from an outside perspective, it is one of the more difficult and technical compound lifts. With this complexity of the overhead press also comes the possibility of injuring yourself or experiencing pain, it can’t be understated how important proper form and technique is. You must always make sure your shoulders are warmed up with some shoulder mobility exercises before performing the overhead press. Here’s some of the common pains or issues people can experience when doing overhead presses:

    • Neck: We briefly touched on this point above but it’s important to reiterate the fact you should keep your neck straight and neutral throughout the movement. Don’t look up, to the side or anywhere else but straight ahead as you do overhead presses. It’s also important that you don’t poke your neck forward too much to finish locking out the lift, keep your head in line with your spine.The bar should be directly over your shoulders at the top of the lift not behind you. You might experience a shooting pain in your neck or traps if you twist, tilt or poke your neck as you’re pressing up. Lastly, always make sure to warm up before you get into your working sets. You can start with an empty bar for 5 reps then increase the weight accordingly to do another two warm up sets of 3-5 reps.
    • Shoulders: The shoulder is a unique joint with a wide range of motion that can be injured easily if you aren’t vigilant about your form. When doing the overhead press you should shrug at the top of the movement to reduce the chances of shoulder impingement. The reason you should shrug your shoulders at the top is so that the rotator cuff muscle tissue isn’t squeezed between the upper arm bone and the AC joint.  Once the bar is at the top of the movement be aware that it should sit directly over your shoulders not in front or behind.
    • Wrists: Wrist pain usually happens in overhead press when the grip being used is incorrect. The key to avoid wrist pain is to have the bar at the bottom of the palm and keep your wrist straight when pressing up. You might want to try using the Bulldog grip to help reinforce the positioning of the weight so that it sits directly above the forearms.
    • Lower Back: Some people hyper-extend their lower back to aid them getting the weight up. Don’t do this! If you don’t keep your back neutral throughout the overhead press there’s a chance you injure your lower back. Unfortunately, a common tendency is to lean and arch the back when pressing up a heavy weight but this can lead to back pain and even herniated discs. To help keep your back neutral you should squeeze your abs, glutes and quadriceps. You can also consider wearing a weight lifting belt to help brace your core area even though it won’t necessarily fix bad form.

    Stretches For Shoulders

    Before you exercise you should always start with some dynamic stretches or mobility exercises to get the blood flowing and the muscles warmed up. Once your workout is completed you should perform some static stretches as a cool down so that you can reduce soreness as the muscles recover.

    Here are some stretches for the shoulders that can be done on the days you will be doing overhead press or any type of shoulder exercise. These stretches will work all three heads of the deltoids and the rotator cuff.

    Arm Circles

    This a simple dynamic stretch that can warm up the shoulder girdle and get the blood flowing to your muscles that are involved in the OHP. We like to do 5-10 small, medium and large circles in each direction before our shoulder workout. Not much of an explanation is needed here, bring your arms out to your sides then move them in a circular motion.

    overhead press shoulder warm up

    Doorway Shoulder Stretch

    This is a great static stretch to really open the chest and shoulders. Static stretches should be done after your workouts to help keep the muscles pliable so they recover better.

    Stand in the middle of a door way in a staggered stance. Reach up with your arms and place palms on the wall you you form a Y shape. Gently lean forward to place pressure on your arms. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds.

    shoulder stretches for overhead press

    Shoulder Flexor Stretch

    Use this stretch for the shoulder flexors i.e. your front delts. Place your arm behind your back with your elbow bent at 90 degrees with your fingers pointing up and your palm facing away from your elbow. Use your inactive arm to gently lift your active arm's forearm to feel a stretch. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds then repeat on the other side.

    how to fix shoulder pain

    Reverse Shoulder Stretch

    You can get a good stretch in your front delts, upper chest, biceps and forearms with this one static stretch. To do this stretch, stand in front of a raised platform (bench, table, desk) then reach behind you with your arms extended and palms facing down. Slowly squat down by bending at the knees until your palms are on the surface of the platform. Try to go as low as you can so that your arms are shoulder level. Hold in this position for 20-30 seconds.

    shoulder stretches to fix shoulder pain

    Cross Body Shoulder Stretch

    This stretch can help to improve the rear delt flexibility and mobility. The cross body stretch can also help to improve the horizontal adduction ROM and increase glenohumeral joint internal rotation, both of which are vitally important for overhead exercises. To do this exercise simply reach across your body with one arm over your chest then place your other arm under it with your elbow bent. Gently apply press with your bent arm's forearm to the stretched arm. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds then switch sides.

     

    overhead press stretches

    Arm Down Rotator Stretch

    Unfortunately many people suffer from rotator cuff injuries or pain at some point in their lives, this can somewhat be attributed to the lack of stretching. Because the OHP recruits some of the rotator cuff muscles this is a vital stretch to do. Grab a stick with one hand then place it behind the opposite shoulder. Reach back with your other hand and grab the stick with your palm facing behind you. Gently press apply press the top of the stick. Hold for 20-30 seconds then switch sides.

    shoulder stretch for OHP

    How to Fix Pain From Overhead Press?

    Treatment of pain from overhead press will be dependent on what the pain is and where it’s located. As long as the pain you’re suffering from isn’t a major injury like a muscle tear or herniated disc the treatment protocol will usually include rest, icing and/or heat treatment, trigger point massage and stretching. Performing the overhead press with proper technique and form will go a long way in helping you to avoid experiencing any type of pain.

    To perform myofascial release for shoulder pain from overhead presses, simply use a lacrosse ball or massage ball to apply pressure to the trigger points and move in small circles for 20-30 seconds. Repeat this a few times a day until pain is gone.

    Related: How to Release Neck and Shoulder Tension

    How Much should I be able to Overhead press?

    There’s not an exact formula to determine how much weight you should be able to overhead press. However, ExRx has collected data since the 1950’s regarding average 1RM for various lifts including the overhead press.

    Let’s look at the average adult male and female estimated 1RM in pounds in the US:

    Male: 20 years old, stands at 5 feet 9 inches and weighs 198 pounds with a BMI of 30

    Female: 20 years old, stands at 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 170 pounds with a BMI of 26

     

    Untrained

    Novice

    Intermediate

    Advanced

    Elite

    Male

    85

    115

    145

    175

    235

    Female

    50

    65

    75

    105

    135

     

    Note: The numbers above are a rough baseline to work from whereas you might be able to lift more or less depending on your genetics and stature. Don’t be discouraged if your lifts don’t match up, with hard work and dedication your lifts will improve over time as long as you’re following the concept of progressive overload and eating and sleeping right.

    benefits of overhead press

    Final Note

    The overhead press is an essential upper body compound exercise that can add some serious strength and size to the shoulders if done properly. You will get better and stronger at the overhead press if you practice. Add in some OHP variations and switch up other training variables so that you don't get bored with your training. Try to include the OHP and/or its variations 2-3 times a week in your routine and throw in some assistance and accessory lifts that will help to boost your overhead press.

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