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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
November 09, 2021
Overhead pressing strength is something we should all try to obtain. Witnessing a lifter hoisting a heavy-ass barbell above their head is something to marvel. However, this movement is notoriously one of the hardest to perform due to decreased body mechanics and less muscle being used. BUT, it can be done and one of the ways to increase your overhead pressing strength is the seated military barbell press.
The seated military barbell press is simply the military barbell press...but seated. It is an excellent movement that you can use to increase both pressing strength and muscle hypertrophy of the deltoids. As you sit down for the movement, it brings certain benefits over the standing military barbell press (which is still an awesome move though!) and that’s what you’re going to learn in this article.
In this guide to the seated overhead barbell press (aka military press), we will cover:
The seated military barbell press is a fairly common strength movement that is primarily used to increase overhead pressing strength but also contributes to the growth of the shoulder and triceps muscles. Sitting down brings both benefits and drawbacks to this movement regardless of what method you choose. Before looking at the pros and cons of the seated barbell press, here is how you perform this movement:
Option #1: Use a rack and bench chair: The first, and generally best choice, is to use a rack and bench chair to set up the barbell at the appropriate height. When choosing the height to set the j-hooks, the barbell should sit at your upper chest area. Remember that you need to be able to unrack the bar. When placing the seat, you want your chest to be almost in line with the rack. Place it so that you only need to lean forward slightly.
Option #2: Use a seated barbell press bench:The second choice is using a specific seated barbell press bench (some gyms will have this type of bench). However, you will quickly find these to cause issues as no bench can possibly be appropriate for everyone. Either the seat is too low or set too far back; something is almost always wrong. Regardless, you just have to deal with it.
For both versions, using a partner to help rack and un-rack the barbell is also always a great option and can help a lot which we’ll discuss later.
Once you’ve figured out your set-up, you’re ready to go. You first bring your chest to the barbell and lay it across your clavicle. You then grab the barbell evenly with your grip.
Now you’re ready to press. From here, the movement is exactly like the standing barbell press. You’ll want to keep your elbows tucked under the barbell at all times. Your forearms should be completely vertical. Next, you're going to drive the barbell up. When the barbell gets to your chin, you’ll need to tuck your head back to allow the barbell to pass. You then push until the barbell is above your head with arms completely extended.
*Very important!!! You are not leaning back into the backrest, especially your upper back. The backrest is there merely to offer light support, not to take 100% of your weight.
Note: You also have the Smith Machine Seated Military Press, which is an effective alternative to the free weight seated barbell overhead press. However, it is less of an all-around pressing exercise as the fixed barbell eliminates the need for stability, which is an important aspect of building overhead pressing strength. This makes using the Smith machine more of a hypertrophy-based isolation exercise.
The muscles used by the seated military barbell press will primarily be the pushing muscles, which are the deltoids and triceps. However, you’ll also get some activation in your upper back for stabilization while your biceps get a decent workout acting as the antagonist to the triceps.
The anterior deltoids are going to be the primary muscle used during overhead pressing. Studies show they consistently get the highest EMG readings on just about any variation that you use. This is because they’re main function is shoulder flexion which occurs as your humorous is thrust upward.
Related: Best Anterior Deltoid Exercises
The medial deltoid’s main function is the abduction of the shoulder like when you lift your arms out to the side as in jumping jacks. While there is more shoulder flexion than abduction, the medial deltoid still assists and elicits the second highest EMG readings of the three deltoid heads.
Related: Best Medial Deltoid Exercises
The posterior deltoid is primarily used for pulling exercises. Therefore, it gets the least muscle activity in overhead pressing movements, including the seated barbell press. The barbell press is an awesome movement, but you should definitely incorporate other exercises to train your posterior deltoid.
The triceps are the main extensor of the elbow. Therefore, it’s always used in pressing movements either in front of you or over your head. Its role becomes much more critical as the elbow reaches shoulder level and the triceps must start extending the arm overhead.
The upper back, including the traps and rhomboids, are used in overhead pressing movements to add stability to the scapula and shoulder girdle. Without a stable joint structure, you will not be able to move any considerable weight and put yourself at risk of overstressing your shoulder and elbow.
Note: Your serratus anterior will also be activated well with overhead presses. AND, you upper chest (clavicular head) will also be worked to a degree as it acts on shoulder flexion. The more you lean back when doing overhead presses, the more the upper chest will be activated. Try to keep your body more upright to place emphasis on your delts.
Since you’re smart, lifting a ton of weight is probably enough reason for you to start using the seated military barbell press. However, we’re still going to fill you in on why this is such a badass movement.
1. PERFECT FOR STRENGTH BECAUSE YOU CAN PUSH A LOT OF WEIGHT
Studies have shown that out of all the different variations of performing an overhead press, a seated barbell press allows the most amount of weight to be pushed. Some people may believe that they can press more while standing yet they are probably using some leg drive during the movement. When doing a 100% strict standing shoulder press, the seated barbell press always comes out on top.
The reason being is that when performing this movement standing OR using dumbbells (seated or standing), you are far less stable, which requires more energy to stabilize the weight. As you’re sitting, you are 100% stable and all of the energy goes into pressing the barbell. This makes it perfect for strength building.
However, because you are so stable, you get less muscle activation as the same studies have also shown this variation to cause the least amount of EMG ratings. Therefore, this award would go to the exact opposite; the standing dumbbell press.
Thus when training, you should use the seated barbell shoulder press with heavy weight (>85% 1RM) for strength development and the standing dumbbell press with lighter loads (<80% 1RM) for muscle hypertrophy.
2. IMPROVE SHOULDER AND THORACIC SPINE MOBILITY
You may find that at first, you are unable to press as much over your head while sitting down. This is likely due to having poor mobility in both the shoulder girdle and thoracic spine. When you are performing the standing barbell press, you are able to lean back or push your hips forward slightly to compensate for any mobility issues that you may possess. Because you're standing, you are able to offset the center of balance of your body, so these movements aren’t an issue.
When you are sitting, you can’t do this. If you were to lean while performing the seated military barbell press, you’re going to put all of the stress on your core and you will fall backward. Further, your torso is planted and legs are out in front, which rates even more tension all the way up your back. In other words, the seated barbell press will unmask any mobility deficiencies.
This isn’t a bad thing though because it is going to teach you what you need to improve. Ignoring mobility issues is just going to make it worse. Therefore, you may need to start performing the seated military barbell press by using light weight first while you work on improving your mobility.
3. GREAT FOR THOSE WITH BAD BACKS OR RECOVERING FROM INJURY
If you have hurt your back before or are recovering from injury, performing the seated military barbell press is a great exercise to use. As you are sitting down, a significant amount of stress is taken off of your lower back. When performing the standing barbell press, you are more prone to hurt yourself as we tend to push our hips forward and lean back to press more weight. As mentioned above, this isn’t happening with the seated barbell press.
Further, you do have a back support. If you have (or had) a lower back injury, you can sit a little tighter to the seat to get more support; almost like a brace. To be clear, you still need to use good form as you can still hurt yourself performing this movement, it’s just less likely.
4. CORRECTS POOR FORM
Similar to the above benefits, sitting down while performing this movement doesn’t allow poor form. Think about it as being a wall squat (facing the wall while squatting) as it will uncover not just mobility issues but faults in biomechanics in general. If you are new to overhead pressing or simply need to check yourself, you should definitely throw some seated military presses into the mix. Your shoulders will thank you.
No one is perfect. Here are some drawbacks of this movement. You’ll notice the main issue centers around the need for a partner to optimize the movement.
EASIER TO PERFORM WITH A PARTNER
Because you are sitting when performing this movement, you are far less mobile and are limited in the amount you can move when setting up. As mentioned earlier, the set-up of the movement can be cumbersome when unracking the barbell, especially when pushing heavy weight. When you are by yourself, this can become a larger issue. To be clear, you can definitely train this movement alone, it just tends to be easier with some assistance.
SAFER TO PERFORM WITH A PARTNER
Because you are sitting down with your legs out in front, you are more likely to hurt if you miss a lift. When standing, you can move back and forth to either try and save a lift or move out of the way. That’s not happening while sitting down, plus your legs are out in front of you, which a barbell could land on. Now, this rarely happens, but it can.
The other time where a partner can come in handy is reracking a heavy barbell. Again, generally speaking you are far less mobile and have less options when trying to re-rack the barbell. This is especially true when using an overhead barbell press chair and the rack is at a fixed location. Keep this in mind when training heavy and be sure you’re comfortable with the racking and re-racking process before you push your limit.
REQUIRES LONGER SET-UP
The last drawback has to do with the set-up again and that’s the time needed. This primarily concerns when using a rack as you have to go find a chair and bring it over and yadda yadda. It is what it is and there’s not much you can do to fix it so just keep that in mind.
As mentioned above, the seated military barbell press should primarily be thought of as a strength movement to improve upper body pushing power. While the volume accumulated will still contribute to increasing muscle hypertrophy, there are better options to use as your primary movement to increase your shoulder muscle mass. Further, if you use lighter weight, you are wasting one of the main benefits of this exercise, which is it allows for heavier weight loads.
Obviously, this movement should be used on either your pushing session or shoulder session (depending on how you run your program) and should be performed towards the beginning of the workout. Either as the first exercise or the second exercise with a heavier horizontal pressing exercise (bench press, floor press) first. Use weights of 85-95% 1RM with 3-5 sets of 1-5 reps. Again, you should pair this with a dumbbell exercise for shoulders such as the standing dumbbell press or Arnold press.
The seated military shoulder press is awesome but you know what they say, variety is the spice of life. Or something like that. Here are some great alternatives to the seated military barbell press.
The Z-Press is the evil little brother that takes the seated barbell press one step farther and has you sitting on the floor. This movement is performed by getting your butt dirty and your legs straight out in front of you. If you thought you had great mobility, the Z-Press is going to show you that’s a lie.
Because you are seated with your legs straight out front and have no back support, your posterior chain is pulled tight and you have ZERO room to lean back. One little slip-up and you're falling backward. You may hate this movement at first but after some work, you’re going to love it and your PR’s are definitely going to go up. There’s a reason this is a favorite exercise of strength athletes.
Based on the safety benefit of the seated barbell press, the kneeling shoulder press is another incredible movement for those who have issues with lower back pain. This movement is performed with one knee on the ground and one leg up for support. It also uses dumbbells and allows you to work bilateral or unilateral. Because you're kneeling and using dumbbells, you'll have awesome support for the back and can get a great shoulder workout. These are generally best with lighter weights in the hypertrophy range.
We discussed this a bit above but that doesn’t mean we’re going to leave it out here. One of the greatest rules to follow when training for strength and hypertrophy is to always pair a barbell movement with a dumbbell movement. Bent over rows with dumbbell rows. Bench press with dumbbell press. Barbell shoulder press with dumbbell shoulder press.
The great thing with the dumbbell press is you can perform it either standing or sitting to get the desired effects. However, as you are sitting with the barbell, you might as well make it as different as possible and perform them standing.
The last great alternative is using the overhead cable press to perform single arm overhead presses. Because the force is coming from underneath you at an angle (you can’t stand directly above a pulley system), the stabilizer muscles must kick into overdrive to help stabilize the load. You can perform these either standing or kneeling and can also change the angle of the load for unique stimuli. For example, you can stand back from the pulley while falling towards it. This is going to want to pull your arm forward meaning your posterior muscles are going to fire to pull back.
Related: Cable Shoulder Exercises
We know you hate the overhead press but that’s probably because it's weak and no one likes doing what they’re not good at. We get that. Overhead pressing is, without a doubt, the most challenging movement to put up good numbers. That being said, it's no excuse not to train it. To increase your barbell military shoulder press, you need to train it and you need to use variety. Dumbbell, barbell, sitting, standing, jerk presses, Swiss bar overhead pressing, heavy, light, EMOM….basically any type of overhead pressing.
The sitting military shoulder press is just one piece to this puzzle but it’s a damn big piece. So, start implementing it now to see some massive increase in your overhead pressing strength.
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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