The overhead press is the grubby cousin of weightlifting exercises.
Most people know it exists, but rarely give it attention or pay it much respect. For years, it was considered the purest test of upper-body strength, much like the bench press is today, so why has it faded into obscurity?
Around the 1950s, bodybuilders began to prize chest development over shoulder size, so many weightlifters abandoned the overhead press for its supine counterpart.
Then, in 1972, the International Olympic Committee cut the overhead press from the Olympics, further decreasing its popularity.
Finally, bench press form is easier to learn than proper overhead press form and lets you move heavier weights, making it especially appealing to new lifters.
If you’re willing to go against the grain, though, and devote time, energy, and attention to the overhead press, you’ll be richly rewarded in ways the bench press can’t match.
The fact is if you want to build big, strong, well-rounded shoulders and muscular, defined arms as quickly and effectively as possible, you want to get strong on the overhead press.
And that’s what you’ll learn in this article.
Table of Contents
The overhead press (also known as the “OHP,” “barbell overhead press,” or simply “the press”) is an upper-body exercise that involves pressing a barbell vertically over your head from a standing position.
While the overhead press isn’t considered one of the “Big 3” exercises in powerlifting, it features heavily in other strength sports such as Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, and strongman because few exercises are a better indicator of upper-body strength.
As such, it’s also an excellent exercise for gaining muscle and strength, which is why it’s one of the primary exercises that I advocate in my training programs for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger.
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There’s no official definition of the military or overhead press.
Some experts (including strength coach and author of Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe) distinguish the two based on how much your lower body moves during the exercise. According to them, if your hips and back move, it’s an overhead press, and if your body remains motionless (apart from your arms moving overhead), it’s a military press.
Not everyone agrees, though, which is why most people use the terms interchangeably. For what it’s worth, I favor “overhead press” because it’s more descriptive than “military press,” and I’ll stick to Mark’s definition in this article.
Most people think of the overhead press as a shoulder exercise.
While it’s true that the overhead press trains the all three heads of the deltoids to a high degree, it also effectively trains several other major muscle groups across your entire body, including your upper and lower back, abs and core, glutes, pecs, and arms.
While you can get plenty strong doing overhead pressing exercises with dumbbells, the barbell overhead press is better suited to helping you gain muscle and strength because it’s more balanced, which makes it easier to handle heavy weights; it’s easier to set up, so you don’t have to waste energy or risk injury getting heavy dumbbells into position; and it allows you to add weight in smaller increments, which is important for long-term progress.
A closed-kinetic-chain exercise is any exercise where your hands or feet are fixed to a stationary object. The overhead press is a closed-kinetic-chain exercise because your feet are planted on the floor.
An open-kinetic-chain exercise is any exercise where your hands or feet are not fixed to something stationary. Examples of open-kinetic-chain exercises include the bench press, dumbbell shoulder press, and lat pulldown. In these exercises, a bench or machine supports your body, which means you could (though likely wouldn’t) lift your feet off the floor and still perform the exercise.
Experts generally agree that closed-kinetic-chain exercises, including the overhead press, are better at boosting sports performance than open-kinetic-chain exercises for three main reasons:
- They help you develop greater balance and stability.
- They more closely mimic the type of movements involved in sports. For instance, most sports require you to use your entire body to produce force while your feet are rooted to the ground and you’re unsupported by equipment such as a bench or machine.
- They train more “stabilizer” muscles. For example, the overhead press also requires you to contract your glutes, quads, abs, and lower back, whereas these muscle groups aren’t trained as much by the bench press.
The main muscles worked by the overhead press are the . . .
What’s more, the stronger you get on the overhead press, the more you’ll need to involve other muscle groups like your lats, rhomboids, serratus anterior, abs, glutes, and legs to stabilize your body, making it a full-body exercise when using heavier weights.
Here’s what the main muscles worked in the overhead press look like on your body:
The best way to learn how to do the overhead press is to split the exercise into three parts: set up, press, and descend.
Adjust the hooks in a power rack or squat rack so the bar is around the height of your collarbone like this:
Face the bar and grip it with your palms facing forward and thumbs wrapped around the bar, slightly wider than shoulder-width. To take a proper overhead press grip, hold the bar low in your hands, closer to your wrists than your fingers. Your wrists should be bent just enough to allow the bar to settle into the base of your palms, but not folded back at a 90-degree angle.
Here‘s how your wrists should look:
With the bar in your hands, bend your knees slightly and lean forward, positioning the bar on top of your shoulders and upper chest. Stand up, lifting the bar off the rack, and take one step back with each foot. Here’s how it should look:
Take a deep breath into your stomach, arch your upper back enough so the bar is directly over your midfoot and your head is slightly behind the bar, squeeze your glutes and the bar as hard as you can, and push it straight up.
As soon as the bar passes your eyes, push your head and chest forward and under the bar. Keep pushing the bar toward the ceiling until your arms are straight.
Here’s how that sequence should look:
Reverse the movement to return the barbell to its starting position on top of your shoulders and upper chest.
Don’t let the barbell fall back to the starting position or try to lower it slowly—the entire descent should be controlled but take less than a second.
Here’s how it should look when you put it all together:
Here’s an effective shoulder workout that prioritizes the overhead press and also includes other exercises that train all of your muscles:
- Overhead Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Arnold Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
- Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)
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The dumbbell overhead press (or “DB overhead press”) trains your shoulders, triceps, and upper chest similarly to the overhead barbell press. The main benefits of the dumbbell overhead press are that it’s good for finding and fixing muscle imbalances because both sides of your body must lift the same amount of weight independently, and it activates the deltoids more and has a longer range of motion than the barbell variation.
The downsides are that you probably won’t be able to lift as much weight on the dumbbell overhead press, limiting the amount you can overload your muscles and likely negating any muscle-building benefit you gain.
The main benefit of the seated overhead press over the standing overhead press is performing the exercise seated enables you to press about 10-to-20% more weight and progress to heavier weights faster, which is great for gaining muscle and strength.
The downside is that the seated overhead press is less demanding on the core, lower back, and glutes than the standing overhead press because you don’t have to rely as heavily on these muscles to stabilize your body and keep it upright, so it’s less of a full-body exercise.
The single-arm overhead press (also known as the “one-arm overhead press”) trains your shoulders the same way as the regular overhead press. The difference is that the single-arm overhead press forces your core to work much harder to stabilize your torso, making it a better ab and core exercise.
Using one arm at a time also reduces how much weight you can press, so the single-arm variation isn’t as effective at helping you gain muscle and strength as other overhead press variations.
Generally speaking, machines aren’t as effective as free weights for gaining muscle and strength, but the overhead press machine is a viable option if you’re working around an injury, or you just want to change up your training.
The Smith machine overhead press is similar to the seated overhead press, though it probably isn’t as effective at developing your upper-body muscles. That said, it’s a workable overhead press variation if you don’t have access to a barbell, if you’re new to weightlifting, or you simply don’t want to do the barbell version.
The overhead press works the . . .
- Pectoralis major and minor
As you get stronger, you’ll involve other muscle groups like your lats, abs, serratus anterior, glutes, and legs to stabilize your body, too.
“Strength standards” are objective benchmarks for gauging your progress.
You can find many different overhead press strength standards online, but my two favorites come from esteemed weightlifting coaches Tim Henriques and Mark Rippetoe.
Henrique’s standards are simple, don’t require any math, and work reasonably well for most people.
Here are his overhead press standards for men:
- Decent: 105
- Good: 165
- Great: 225
And here are his overhead press standards for women:
- Decent: 45
- Good: 65
- Great: 95
One problem with Henrique’s standards, though, is they don’t take into account body weight.
That’s why I use Henrique’s standards in conjunction with Rippetoe’s yardsticks, which factor in the person’s body weight. Rippetoe’s also include a few more “levels,” which give you more milestones to shoot for as you get stronger.
Here are his overhead press standards for men:
And here are his overhead press standards for women:
The overhead press trains shoulder flexion (moving your arms from your sides to above your head by lifting them in an arc in front of you), and one of the main muscle groups responsible for shoulder flexion is the pecs (particularly the sternocostal head of the pecs, or “upper chest”).
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The behind-the-neck overhead press is similar to the overhead press, except instead of touching the bar to your chest, you lower it as far as you comfortably can behind your head.
Many people say the behind-the-neck press is a dangerous exercise, guaranteed to cause shoulder injury, but the reality is less dramatic. Although those with poor shoulder mobility can irritate their shoulders and neck muscles with this exercise, many can do it without discomfort.
That said, the behind-the-neck press forces you to use significantly less weight and doesn’t offer any advantages over the overhead press, which is why I don’t recommend it.
Neither exercise is better or worse than the other.
Although both exercises feel quite different, they train the same muscles to a similar degree, so you can use them interchangeably in your workouts.
Of course, there’s no reason to choose just one. The best solution for most people is to include both exercises in your program.
A good way to do this is to include the overhead press in your program for 8-to-10 weeks of training, take a deload, then replace the overhead press with the shoulder press for the following 8-to-10 weeks of training.
Then, you can either continue alternating between the exercises every few months like this or stick with the one you prefer.
The point of the push press is to generate just enough momentum to help get the bar off the shoulders and through the first few inches of movement, where it’s most likely to get stuck. From there, your shoulders and arms do all the work.
This allows you to use heavier weights than with the standing overhead press without reducing the range of motion much, which helps you gain strength that you can use to improve your “strict” overhead press numbers.
Thus, the push press isn’t better or worse than the overhead press, but it’s a useful “accessory” exercise that you can use to boost your overhead press performance.
Cheick “Iron Biby” Sanou set the world record in the log press (a similar exercise to the overhead press that involves lifting a log from the floor, balancing it on your upper chest and shoulders, then pressing it above your head) with a 229-kilo (504.8-pound) log press at the Giants Live World Tour Finals on September 18, 2021.
+ Scientific References
- Saeterbakken, A. H., & Fimland, M. S. (2013). Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(7), 1824–1831. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E318276B873
- Kroell, J., & Mike, J. (2017). Exploring the standing barbell overhead press. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 39(6), 70–75. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0000000000000324
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954–2963. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958
- Soriano, M. A., Suchomel, T. J., & Comfort, P. (2019). Weightlifting Overhead Pressing Derivatives: A Review of the Literature. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 49(6), 867. https://doi.org/10.1007/S40279-019-01096-8
- Kwon, Y. J., Park, S. J., Jefferson, J., & Kim, K. (2013). The Effect of Open and Closed Kinetic Chain Exercises on Dynamic Balance Ability of Normal Healthy Adults. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 25(6), 671. https://doi.org/10.1589/JPTS.25.671
- Kim, M. K., & Yoo, K. T. (2017). The effects of open and closed kinetic chain exercises on the static and dynamic balance of the ankle joints in young healthy women. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 29(5), 845–850. https://doi.org/10.1589/JPTS.29.845
- Waller, M., Piper, T., & Miller, J. (2009). Overhead pressing power/strength movements. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 31(5), 39–49. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0B013E3181B95A49
- Schwanbeck, S., Chilibeck, P. D., & Binsted, G. (2009). A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(9), 2588–2591. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181B1B181
- Baig MA, & Bordoni B. (n.d.). Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Pectoral Muscles - StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545241/