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Home » OSL Blog » How to Overhead Press: Benefits, Form, and Variations

How to Overhead Press: Benefits, Form, and Variations

November 16, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. The overhead press has been a staple of bodybuilding and weightlifting for decades.
  2. The overhead press is a great upper body exercise that also uses the lower body for stability and balance.
  3. There are benefits to the overhead press, including building strength and muscle mass, improving your posture, and functionality of other exercises.
  4. If you don’t know how to perform the overhead press with proper form, a lot can go wrong and cause injury.
  5. If you are new to the overhead press, get a spotter who is experienced in the exercise to assist you until they are confident you can perform it on your own.

If you’ve always wanted to try the overhead press but haven’t, then today’s post is for you. We’re going to talk about the overhead press and provide you a step-by-step guide on performing it correctly.

Bodybuilder Doing Overhead Press

The overhead press is a great upper body exercise for bodybuilding and weightlifting. This exercise has long been performed in gyms, going back earlier than the Golden Era.

Needing only a barbell with weights, any serious bodybuilder can perform the overhead press.

If you’ve never tried the overhead press before, we urge you to read this article first. It will help you:

  • Understand the proper form
  • Tips and tricks to performing the overhead press correctly
  • Ways to avoid injury

What is an Overhead Press?

The overhead press can also be called just a press or shoulder press. It’s an exercise used to strengthen the upper body primarily but also benefits the lower body.

The basic movement starts with the barbell in the racking position, which is then pushed up until the elbows lock.

Now, it’s really not that simplistic, and there are training and proper form required to get it right. Today, we’re going to give you the entire breakdown on the overhead press, including:

  • The muscles used during the overhead press
  • The different types of press variations
  • The benefits of the overhead press
  • The different weights you can use
  • Proper form and technique of the overhead press
  • Alternatives to the overhead press

What Muscles are Used Performing the Overhead Press?

The overhead press is an upper-body compound exercise. A compound exercise uses more than one muscle or muscle group at the same time.

Outline of Muscles Used

During the overhead press, the following muscles get used and strengthened as a result of this exercise:

  • Trapezius (traps)
  • Deltoids
  • Pectorals
  • Triceps
  • Rotator cuff
  • Abdominals
  • Lower back
  • Hips
  • Thighs
  • Glutes
  • Legs

The lower body is used to a lesser degree than the upper body when performing the press. Still, the lower body adds stability and balance while allowing you to hold up the weight in the press.

Different variations put different loads on the muscle groups, and some may be omitted completely. Later, we’ll take a look at the press variations and how they affect the muscles.

The 6 Benefits of the Overhead Press

There are benefits to performing the overhead press other than just offering a great upper body workout. Let’s take a look at some of the other benefits to consider when adding the press to your workout routine.

1. Superior Shoulder and Traps Activation

One of the great things about the overhead press is the ability to hit all three deltoid heads of the shoulder. Not only does it really focus on the shoulders, but also the traps as well.

Bodybuilder Showing Upper Body

In this study, researchers wanted to determine which scenario had the greatest shoulder activation:

  • Standing or seated
  • Dumbbells or barbells

Fifteen men participated and they found that standing using dumbbells provided the greatest deltoid activation. It’s important to note that using dumbbells over a barbell means you can’t put up as much weight.

In this study, it was found that to really activate the traps, barbell shoulder presses are the way to go. It just goes to show that different press variations can help create a well defined upper body.

2. Improves Core Strength

Not only is the upper body getting a great workout when doing overhead presses, so are the core muscles.

Standing overhead presses require core stability to keep you from falling over or dropping the weight.

When standing, the overhead press can be considered a full-body workout. The press is also a functional exercise and can be used in rehabilitation. Dumbbell presses are especially good at strengthening the erector spinae and ab muscles.

3. A Great Full-Body Workout

As we touched on before, the overhead press is a great full-body workout. Yes, it primarily works the upper-body, but you can’t discount the lower-body benefits either.

Man Approaching Barbell

Your lower body stays flexed, even though it doesn’t move, throughout the exercise. You may feel your upper-body muscles activate during the exercise, but see how your lower-body feels the next day.

Chances are, your glutes, along with your core and legs, will be pretty sore. That’s how you know you got a quality workout, all from one exercise.

4. Increase 1RM Bench Press

As a functional exercise, the shoulder press can also improve the performance of other exercises. The bench press is more of a chest focused exercise.

As we discussed, the shoulder press emphasizes the shoulders and traps.

Man Lifting Barbell Above Head

The overhead press also has a superior concentric velocity load on muscles compared to the bench press. This means that you have more lifting power with the overhead press vs bench press.

However, the bench press offers a more eccentric velocity load, which means more weight can be pressed.

The point is that you can focus on building your shoulder and trap strength with the overhead press. Then, work on the chest using the bench press.

Strengthening your other muscles will allow you to increase your bench press over time.

5. Improve Your Lockout Strength

Fully-extending your elbows during the overhead press will improve your lockout strength. Why does this matter?

Have you ever struggled under the heavy load of weight and risk not completing your reps? Then that means you could stand to improve your lockout strength.

This is what helps you power through the rest of your reps, and even increase to the next weight.

Better lockout strength will also help improve your bench press.

6. Improve Your Posture

Not only is the overhead press a great full-body exercise, but it can also help improve your posture. As you’ll see in the next section, your body has to be in balance to maintain stability throughout the press.

Bodybuilding Posture

If you’ve ever seen someone performing an overhead press, then you probably noticed their posture. You must be in perfect alignment to balance the weight during the lockout, which means your posture can’t suffer.

As your erector spinae strengthens, your posture will naturally improve as well. If you feel that your posture could get better, then you’ll want to add the overhead press to your routine.

Now that we’ve gone over the benefits, let’s take a look at the equipment you’ll need. Then, we’ll go over the process of performing an overhead press properly.

The Equipment Needed for the Overhead Press

To do just a traditional overhead press, you only need a barbell with weights. If you are just starting out, you may want to consider a squat rack to hold the weight between sets.

Barbell

However, if you want to perform a variation, you might need:

  • Dumbbells
  • Kettlebells
  • Bench
  • Smith machine

When we discuss the variations in a later section, we’ll let you know what equipment is needed.

How to Perform the Overhead Press with Proper Form

Now that we know the benefits and are prepared with the right equipment, let’s complete the exercise.

If you’ve never done an overhead press before, then start with a seated dumbbell press first. It can help with shoulder movement and range of motion. Plus, you’ll learn how to properly align your back to avoid injury.

When you’re ready to complete the standing overhead press, start with an unweighted barbell.

Ready to get started?

Completing the Overhead Press

  1. Body: Stand up straight and engage your core. Be sure to look straight ahead throughout the press.
  2. Hands: Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, keeping your forearms straight throughout the movement. Hold the bar with an overhand grip so that your palms are facing away from you. Grab the bar with your lower palm and wrap your fingers around in a bulldog grip. This helps prevent injury to your wrist.
  3. Bar: The bar should be at your shoulders, right in front of your throat. Keep your elbows at 45 degrees, then lift straight up and down while performing the press.
  4. Breath: Inhale and exhale when the bar is down. Hold your breath during the press to keep the strength in your upper body.
  5. Chest: Right before you begin to lift the bar, arch your upper back (lower back remains neutral). Take a breathe and puff up your chest, engage your lats and triceps. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and shrug your shoulders slightly as you begin to raise the bar.
  6. Torso and Head: As the bar begins to move up, push your hips forward slightly. You may need to bring your chin back, but keep your head in line with your spine. You want the bar to travel straight up, without your head in the way.
  7. Lock and Shrug: Raise the bar up in a steady motion, maintaining a straight line. As you reach the top, lock your elbows, squeeze your shoulders, and shrug your traps. The shrug will help avoid shoulder injury known as shoulder impingement.
  8. Down: Once you’re ready, come down in a controlled motion exactly as you lifted the bar up. You don’t need to move slower here, controlled and even just like you went up is key.

Practice and Progress

Practice your form with an experienced spotter or in front of the mirror. Only once you’ve got it down perfectly should you add any weight to the bar!

Now, you’ve got the choice to perform the press with a barbell or with dumbbells. Make sure if you use dumbbells to maintain your form.

The dumbbells/kettlebells will start just above your shoulders, next to your ears. That is the only variation in form when performing the dumbbell/kettlebell overhead press.

Want to know more options other than the overhead press? Here are eight alternative variations that you can try out once you’ve got the press form down.

8. Overhead Press Variations

There are numerous variations of the standard overhead press. The traditional overhead press uses a barbell, but you can also use dumbbells or kettlebells.

1. Seated Press

The seated press is performed the same way as the overhead press. The main difference is that you are seated on a bench rather than standing.

This alternative might be a good option if the ceiling is too low to perform the overhead press.

The lower body takes on a lesser role during the seated press. If you are looking for a strictly upper body workout or have leg restrictions, try the seated press.

However, use caution when doing the seated press, especially if you are using a flat bench. People tend to arch their lower back too much, which is an easy way to cause a back injury.  

If you want to perform the seated overhead press, then consider using a Smith machine and a spotter. The spotter can help ensure your back is straight to avoid injury.

2. Dumbbell Overhead Press

Using dumbbells rather than a barbell, you can use one arm or both to do the dumbbell overhead press. If you want to focus on the anterior deltoid development, consider using dumbbells over kettlebells.

Dumbbell Press

This is a great option if you want to work just one arm to gain muscle symmetry in a specific muscle group. You can also use the dumbbell overhead press to check for muscle strength and potential imbalance.

Simply use both dumbbells simultaneously, paying close attention to the activated muscles. If you notice that one arm or shoulder feels weaker, then you can use a one-arm press for correction.

3. Push Press

This variation employs the lower body to a greater degree than the overhead press. There is a form change as the legs are employed to help lift the weight.

The push press starts in the same position as the overhead press. Before the lift begins, the knees bend into a quarter squat, then the lower body helps push up the weight.

Push Press

Keep in mind, the push to start will reduce the amount of work your shoulders do. You might be able to lift more weight, but you won’t gain as much strength or muscle mass this way.

If you want your lower body to have more action, especially the hips, this variation could work.

4. Military Press

Often confused for the overhead press, there is a key difference.

Military Press

The military press has the legs together, rather than spaced apart to maintain balance and stability. Comparing the overhead press vs military press, you get a greater core and glute activation in the military press.

Due to the instability in the lower half, you’ll want to lower the weight in the military press.

5. Arnold Press

The Arnold press is named for the Golden Era bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger. It uses dumbbells and is best performed sitting on a bench.

Arnold Seated Press

Hold the dumbbells so that your palms are facing each other in a supinated grip. Lift your arms up and rotate so that when your arms are straight, your palms are pronated or facing out.

Check the link above for a how-to on performing the Arnold press for greater shoulder activation.

6. Kettlebell Press

This type of press variation is a great way to make sure that your wrists are in the correct position. The weight on the kettlebell is on the back of the wrist, making sure your arm pushes up straight.

Kettlebell Overhead Press

If you notice that your wrists are sore doing the overhead press, grab a kettlebell and work on form.

7. Behind the Neck Press

As the name indicates, this press variation places the bar behind the neck rather than the front of the shoulders.

Neck Press

Use caution with this press variation; it’s a great way to tear your rotator cuff. The shoulder muscles are not in the best position with a limited range of motion.

Not everyone has the shoulder flexibility to pull this one off anyway.

If you want to do an overhead press, then stick with an overhead press. If you must do the behind the neck press, then test you have excellent shoulder mobility first.

8. Olympic Press

Also called the clean and press, this variation was included in Olympic weightlifting until 1972. The exercise was removed because consistent judging criteria could not be met.

Olympic Overhead Press

The clean and press sees the barbell picked up from the floor and placed in the press position. From there, the overhead press is performed.

7 Tips to Perfecting the Overhead Press

  1. Let your shoulders do the work. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and slightly shrug up before you start lifting. Keep your shoulders engaged the entire time, which will help control the downward movement as well.
  2. Keep your chest up. This will help maintain a strong upper back and avoid shoulder injury. It also helps with a smooth transition going up and down so your arms don’t waver.
  3. Elbows in line with the wrists. You need a lot of strength to force the bar up. Your elbows may move slightly outward but should still remain in line with your wrists as you move the bar.
  4. Don’t move your grip. You may want to go wider on your grip like a bench press. Resist the urge! A wider grip will weaken your lift and increase your chances of a shoulder injury.
  5. Keep your eyes on the prize. Focus your eyes on the same point, looking straight ahead throughout the whole press. This will help keep your head in line and avoid neck injury.
  6. Keep your knees locked. If you want to use your legs, you are doing a push press. An overhead press means your legs and knees will stay locked for stability. This will actually work your leg muscles during the press.
  7. Maintain a neutral lower spine. Your lower spine should not arch at all when doing the press. If it does, you could risk bulging disks and derail your fitness goals. Instead, squeeze your abs as tight as you can and take a deeper breath before you start to press the weight up.

Final Thoughts

The overhead press is not a beginner exercise. You must first have some core and lower body strength to help hold up the weight of the barbell.

It’s always advised to have a spotter when you’re first starting who is experienced in the overhead press.

They can help you with the weight if you get fatigued and provide tips to avoid injury. Plus, they can make sure you have proper form.

If you’ve been wanting to give the overhead press a try, we hope this guide has helped you. This compound exercise is a great way to increase shoulder definition and work the triceps and posterior chain.

Do you use the overhead press as part of your workout routine? Any tips that we forgot to mention? Let us know in the comments section.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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