Exercise Essentials, Part 4: Overhead Press

In this series of posts, I am outlining several of the most basic lifts with which every lifter should be familiar.  I consider them the cornerstones of intermediate and advanced exercise programming.

See also – Part 1: SquatPart 2: DeadliftPart 3: Chin-Up

What is an overhead press?

The overhead press is in many ways the opposite of the chin-up.  Instead of pulling yourself vertically to the bar, you are pushing the bar vertically away from yourself.  Begin with weight in hands at shoulder level.  Press weight vertically over your head until elbows are extended.

barbell overhead press

Why overhead press?

Like the chin-up, the overhead press is an excellent upper-body muscle builder.  It recruits the deltoids (shoulders), particularly the anterior (front) deltoids, and the triceps as prime movers.  The muscles of the upper and lower back, the forearms, and the abdominals and other core musculature are required stabilizers as well.  Because of their emphasis on the shoulder musculature, many refer to overhead presses as “shoulder presses.”

Most overhead press variations can be performed either seated or standing.  Standing versions almost always involve the stabilizing muscles in the core to a greater extent, but the seated versions often allow for greater loading, and thus greater stress on the prime movers.

Types of overhead presses

Detecting a trend?  Like all of the exercise essentials, there are several variations of the overhead press.  Here are some common varieties.

  • Military Press (Barbell Overhead Press) – The barbell overhead press, commonly referred to as the military press because it forces you to stand “at attention,” begins with the loaded barbell held at collar-bone or neck height, and pressed overhead with strict form and no knee movement (knees straight or nearly straight).
    crossfit girl shoulder press
  • Dumbbell Overhead Press – Same as the above, but performed with dumbbells, rather than a barbell.
  • Push Press - The push press is generally performed with a barbell, although it may be performed with dumbbells.  It is identical to the military press, except that it is performed with the addition of a small, explosive “push” with the legs.  This allows for more weight to be used, as the momentum of the leg drive assists the upper body musculature in raising the weight overhead.
    barbell push press
  • Jerk (Split Jerk) - Similar to the above, but with increased emphasis on a large and powerful leg drive, generally allowing the lifter’s feet to come off the floor and land in a split jerk position.  The jerk is a very technical lift, requiring a high degree of strength, explosiveness, and technical skill, but allowing for a very high degree of loading.  It is most commonly performed as the second stage of the olympic Clean and Jerk (just the part starting from the shoulder level below).

Both the military press and the dumbell overhead press can be performed seated or standing.  As mentioned above, the standing variations recruit more core stabilizers; they also allow for the use of a push press if necessary.  Due to increased total body involvement, standing variations burn more calories, and may be better for fat loss programs.  Seated variations allow for most weight to be used than strict standing variations, which results in more stress on the prime movers (shoulders and triceps).

Performing an overhead press correctly

With any overhead press variation, there are several important things to remember about form.

  • Use a full range of motion – Each repetition should begin from collar-bone or neck level (below the chin) and end at full extension overhead.  No 4 inch reps allowed (unless you have a very good reason for training a specific range).
  • Brace your core – At higher weights, the tendency is to allow your lower back to arch and lean back, shifting stress onto your pectoral muscles (chest), which makes the lift easier.  Don’t do it.  Keep your abdominals tight throughout the lift to maintain strict upright posture.
  • Tuck your chin – At higher difficulty levels, lifters tend to want to stick their head and neck forward.  Keep your head back and neck in neutral (upright) position.  This has the added benefit of protecting your nose from being hit with the barbell (I’ve done this – it sucks).


Take home points on overhead pressing

  • Like the chin-up, the overhead press is a great upper body muscle builder with the added benefit of training the core when performed with good form
  • There are many variations of the overhead press (barbell, dumbbell, standing, seated, push press, jerk, and more) to fit different goals and provide variety