The overhead press is sometimes called the shoulder press, but that’s a bit misleading because heaving a weight overhead is working far more than just your shoulders – it’s a serious mass builder for your entire upper body.

Pressing a weight overhead will test the strength and stability of all three heads of your shoulder musculature, your shoulder girdle (the muscles surrounding your shoulder blades), and your core (both your abs and lower back) and, if you are performing standing variations, you will also train your glutes, quads and hamstrings to add stability to the lift.

Working Up To The Overhead Press

Seated dumbbell shoulder press

If you are new to the overhead press, you should start with the seated dumbbell shoulder press. Using an upright bench will provide stability during the movement to stop you overarching your lower back and allow you to concentrate on keeping tension through your shoulders when pressing the weight. Using dumbbells allows for greater control and range of movement, both of which are ideal for learning new movement patterns of an exercise and can allow you to add weight quickly.

Overhead Press Form Guide

Stand with your body upright and core muscles braced, looking straight ahead. Hold the bar on your upper chest, gripping it with hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Press the bar directly overhead. Don’t tilt your hips forward during the move.

Common Form Mistakes

  1. Don’t drop the bar lower than your upper chest on the negative portion of the lift because this places too much stress on your shoulder joint.
  2. Keep your elbows forwards, parallel to your shoulders. This will make you stronger and prevents injury.
  3. Focus on keeping your abs engaged at all times. Not only will this boost the amount of weight you can lift, but it also helps to take the stress off your lower back.

Overhead Press Form Tips

1. Don’t arch your back too much

When bench pressing it’s good to have a slight arch in your back, but a back arch when performing a standing overhead press isn’t advisable. The full force of the weight is coming down on your spine as you lower the barbell, so an overarched spine can cause bad back pain. Try to keep your core solid and your back straight throughout the move to avoid injury.

2. Use the full range of motion

Make sure that you employ the full range of motion. Bring the bar all the way down to your torso on each rep so that you really hit your deltoids. Lower the bar to around eye level, then return to the finishing position to make the move a bit easier while loading your triceps more than your shoulders. This added range of motion will help to increase the time your muscles spend under tension as each rep will take around twice as long, which also means the release of more hormones that are important for burning fat and building muscle.

3. Don’t press in front of your body

The press is a vertical push loaded over the spine. A slight shift in position that moves the bar away from alignment directly over the spine creates unwanted shearing forces on the back and shoulders. When you press, finish with the bar directly above your neck, looking through the “window” that you’ve created with your arms up.

Overhead Press Variations

The traditional overhead press has two closely related cousins: the military press and push press.

With the military press you stand with your feet together, meaning you have a less stable base to press from, which forces you to use all your core strength and stabilising muscles throughout your whole body to stay upright.

With the push press you drop into a quarter squat at the start of each lift to provide added momentum as you drive up to press the weight overhead. This means you can lift heavier and the move becomes more of a full-body test of power and co-ordination.

Additional reporting by Adam Wakefield (@AdamWakefieldPT)