There are a few strength training exercises that stand out among the rest because of their effectiveness, and the overhead press is definitely on that list! You’ve probably done it yourself or seen lifters at the gym doing it as a part of their routines since it’s a staple strength training exercise for those looking to build bigger and stronger shoulders. To perform an overhead press and any of its variations, you only need free weights such as a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells - or you can even use a long resistance band if that’s what you have available! Ideally, you should try different variations with all kinds of weights to get a good workout that targets different muscle groups, and we’ll tell you all about the best alternatives that you can try… But first, let’s talk about why the overhead press is so effective for a muscle-building journey!
Why you should try the overhead press
Also known as the shoulder press, this compound exercise challenges your upper body (with help from your lower body) by lifting a weight over your head, as the name suggests. It helps build shoulder strength by engaging your deltoids, trapezius, and other smaller shoulder muscles, as well as your core and legs for stability, and your upper back and lower back muscles for support. Not only does it help develop a stronger and more toned upper body, but it also helps build overall stability and form while you move the weight in a controlled manner. Additionally, core strength plays a very important part in this exercise, since you’ll be using it to help you lift the weight instead of only your arms and shoulders, so it’s almost an all-in-one!
The most common variation of this movement is the barbell overhead press. This is usually the exercise that people do when they talk about performing overhead presses, and there’s a good reason why! The barbell overhead press uses a bar as the weight to be lifted which recruits more muscles, and even though it’s the staple overhead press variation, it’s still hard to perform since you need to have proper form to be able to do it correctly. Lifting a barbell is never the easiest, but mastering it for the overhead press is key for building bigger and stronger muscles! It’s one of the best ways to challenge your upper body muscles, but also your core as we previously mentioned because you need to be able to fully engage it to protect your spine when lifting the heavy bar.
For bigger and stronger shoulders, here’s how to correctly perform the barbell overhead press:
- First, stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and a barbell placed in a rack in front of you. The bar should be at chest level so you can pick it up comfortably without reaching or bending.
- Grasp the bar with both hands and place it over your shoulders with both elbows pointing down and slightly forward while keeping your back straight and your hips fully extended.
- Begin by driving the barbell overhead in a controlled manner, pressing with your shoulders through your arms, and stabilizing yourself with your core, back, and legs until the bar is straight up over your head.
- On the top position with your arms fully extended upward, squeeze your muscles while you hold for a second or two, then lower the bar to your chest, and repeat.
The barbell overhead press variation can be incredibly effective for your muscle-building goals, but it’s not the only variation that you can try, so let’s get into that...
Overhead press variations
Whether you’re just a beginner and can’t work with a barbell yet, or you’re an advanced lifter who needs more of a challenge, the overhead press offers a wide range of variations that you can try according to your fitness level and your different specific goals, whether it’s focusing more on your core strength or fixing a shoulder muscle imbalance. Here are a few of the best overhead press variations that you can add to your strength training routine:
Dumbbell overhead press
This variation is a great option for beginners who want to master proper form before getting into the barbell overhead press. Depending on your fitness level, you can go for lighter or heavier dumbbells and keep making progress that way until you’re ready for a bigger challenge. The dumbbell shoulder press targets the deltoid muscles of your shoulders, mainly activating the front deltoid, and helps you fix any muscle imbalances that you may have by having a weight for each arm instead of one for both.
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your back straight while holding a dumbbell in each hand. To get into the starting position, lift the dumbbells to your shoulders with your arms open at your sides, so that the palms of your hands are facing forward while holding the weights. Begin the movement by pressing the dumbbells upward, until your hands are over your head and your arms are at full extension. Squeeze at the top, then go back and repeat.
Even though the overhead press is also commonly known as the military press, also called the strict press, there’s a key difference between the two. The regular overhead press keeps your stance wider, with your feet at a shoulder-width distance, but the military press is performed with your feet together (like a soldier stance) to challenge your stability. This will make you engage your core a lot more to keep the movement controlled, using primarily your abs and oblique muscles to help lift the weight. Military presses are done with less weight than regular overhead presses because of the stability factor, but they’re still a killer core workout and can be done with dumbbells if you’re a beginner!
How to do it: Instead of placing your feet shoulder-width apart, place them together on the floor with your back straight and the barbell in a rack in front of you. Pick up the bar with an overhand grip and place it over your shoulders. Keeping your core and glutes tight, press the bar upward until your arms are fully extended over your head. The movement should be controlled so that the bar doesn’t tilt to one side since your feet will be close together, challenging your stability. Squeeze at the top of the movement, then go back to the starting position and repeat.
Another good practice for beginners, the kettlebell press is a single-arm variation that will challenge your shoulders before getting into heavier weights. The regular kettlebell press will have the ball of the kettlebell against your arm throughout the movement, forcing you to stabilize the offset weight with one arm to keep proper form, particularly targeting your rotator cuffs and other supporting shoulder muscles. For an added challenge after you’ve mastered the kettlebell overhead press form, grab the weight by the handle with the ball facing upward to perform a bottom-up kettlebell press which adds instability to the movement and further challenges your muscles.
How to do it: To do the standard kettlebell press, start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell in your right hand. Place the kettlebell in front of your right shoulder, with your wrist straight and your elbow pointing downward, directly below your wrist. You can keep your left arm out to the side for stability, or place the left hand on your hips. With the ball of the kettlebell resting on your arm, begin by lifting the weight until your arm is fully extended over your head. Squeeze at the top, then go back and repeat.
For the bottom-up kettlebell press, the movement will be the same, with the difference that you need to focus on keeping the ball pointing up at all times so you don’t lose control of the weight during the movement.
Seated dumbbell press
This beginner variation of the overhead press is essentially the same upper body movement as the dumbbell overhead press, with the difference that it’s performed while sitting. While variations are often used to either turn the difficulty up or down a notch or hit a different set of muscles, this particular variation is often performed by those who have leg injuries or need to keep their lower body at rest. It’s a great alternative since you only need to move your upper body, helping you get your workout done on the days that you need to take care of the lower part of your body. This movement can also be performed with a barbell for a bigger challenge!
How to do it: Sit on a bench in a comfortable position, keeping your legs separated and your back straight. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, get into the starting position by lifting the weights to your shoulders with your arms open at your sides. With the palms of your hands facing forward while holding the weights, begin the movement by pressing the dumbbells upward until your hands are over your head and your arms are fully extended. Squeeze at the top, then lower the weights and repeat.
This advanced movement engages your legs for a more explosive overhead press. To perform a push press, you bend your knees slightly and then push through your legs to help you lift the barbell over your head. It requires speed, stability, and enough strength to help you get through the movement without losing control of the bar. This exercise helps you build bigger shoulders, but it also develops your leg and core strength greatly and improves your weightlifting technique by helping you lift with more control.
How to do it: First, stand upright and place your feet shoulder-width apart and your back straight. The bar should be in a rack in front of you at chest level. Take the bar with both hands at a comfortable distance and bring it to your shoulders with an overhand grip, so your palms are facing forward. Get into a quarter squat position by slightly bending your knees, just enough so that the knees are in line with the tip of your toes. To begin, explosively push the weight upward through your legs and then through your arms and shoulders, placing the weight overhead with your arms and legs fully extended. Pause for a moment, then lower the bar and repeat.
Barbell Z press
The barbell Z press is another type of seated overhead press, but this time your legs will be fully extended in front of you. If you’re a beginner, you can try this exercise with dumbbells or kettlebells, but to get the most out of it a barbell is the ideal equipment. This movement will challenge your upper body strength and improve your pressing mechanics and stability while enhancing your posture, all at the same time. It mainly targets your front delts, triceps, and your upper pecs while challenging your scapular tension and control.
How to do it: Sit on the floor at a power rack with your legs extended in front of you, separated at a comfortable distance to create a strong base for your movement. Keeping your back straight, grasp the bar on the power rack with both hands shoulder-width apart and place it in front of your shoulders. Your core should be fully engaged to keep your spine from moving throughout the movement. Begin by lifting the bar upward until it’s over your head at full arm extension. Hold for a moment, then lower the weight back to the starting position and repeat.
Single-arm landmine press
Like the kettlebell press, this unilateral exercise works your muscles one side at a time. This is an intermediate movement that goes up and forward in an angled path instead of directly going over your head, making it easier on your shoulder joints and back. It’s still an overhead press variation, but it’s a better alternative for those with shoulder mobility issues and injuries, and it’s great for spotting and fixing muscle imbalances. It mainly targets your triceps, chest, and shoulder muscles, while engaging other upper body muscles for stability and control, and it’s usually performed standing but can also be performed half-kneeling for a more challenging workout.
How to do it: For the standing single-arm landmine press, start by getting into a split stance, with your left leg on the front and your right leg on the back. Make sure that the landmine is loaded with appropriate weight and locked on a corner or a power rack so it doesn’t slip. With your right hand, grasp the upper part of the landmine and hold it close to your shoulder with your elbow bent. Begin by pressing the landmine up and forward in a straight line until your arm is fully extended, without tilting the weight to the center. Squeeze, then lower the weight and repeat.
If you want to try the half-kneeling variation, get into a lunge position, fully placing the bottom knee on the floor for stability and the opposing foot firmly planted. Grab the landmine close to your shoulder as you would in the standing position and begin pressing, keeping the movement controlled so you don’t lose your form and stability.
Clean and press
This advanced bodybuilding exercise originated as an Olympic lift, and it involves using your whole body to lift a bar from the floor all the way over your head. The clean part of the movement, or the lower part, targets your hamstrings, glutes, and hips, and the press or upper part of the movement works your shoulders, back, arms, and chest. Besides working this wide range of muscle groups, the clean and press is a killer exercise for developing your power, endurance, and stamina, which is why it’s a weightlifting favorite!
How to do it: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a barbell on the floor directly in front of you. Center your body with the bar, bend your knees, and hinge at the hips so you can place your hands on the weight, just outside of your legs with an overhand grip. Begin by explosively lifting the bar from the floor, driving the weight up through your legs until it’s over your shoulders. Make sure not to let the weight fall onto your chest by keeping the movement controlled. From this middle position, start pressing the bar upward with your upper body until it’s over your head with your arms fully extended, as you would with a standard barbell overhead press. Hold for a moment, then lower the weight down to the floor without letting it drop and repeat.
And there you have it! These overhead press variations will help you get far in your strength training journey, so keep them in mind next time that you’re at the gym. And always remember to use an appropriate weight for your current fitness level to avoid any accidents or injuries. Make progress little by little and you’ll get where you want to be in no time!
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