Perfecting the Barbell Military Press

Man performing barbell military press

The bench press is arguably the most popular strength training exercise, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, before the 1950s, the bench press didn’t exist.

Lifters who wanted to do presses while lying on their backs did floor presses. For this exercise, picture a bench press but performed flat on the ground. 

Floor presses can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. While not as popular as it once was, the floor press is still a useful exercise as it’s easier on the shoulders than bench presses. Powerlifters use floor presses as a bench press assistance exercise.

Before the 1950s, lifters who wanted to test their pushing strength did overhead presses. There are lots of overhead pressing variations, most of which are lumped together under the banner of shoulder presses, as the deltoids are the muscles doing the majority of the work.

However, when it came to overhead pressing, it was the barbell shoulder military press that was considered the gold standard. This exercise is so-called because you stand with your feet together, like a soldier standing to attention. 

In this article, we discuss how to do the barbell military press and why it deserves to be part of your workouts.

Barbell Military Press

How To Barbell Military Press

To get the most from this or any other strength training exercise, you must do it properly and take the right supplements. Correct exercise performance will make your workout safer and more effective.

In contrast, doing any exercise incorrectly increases your risk of injury and could also mean that your results aren’t as good as they could be.

1. Place your barbell in a squat rack set to just below shoulder-height, so you can unrack it without standing on tiptoes. No rack? You’ll have to power clean the bar up into position. 

2. Grip the bar with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Walk forward and press your shoulders up against the bar. Your elbows should be directly below your hands. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.

3. Unrack the bar and take 1-2 steps back. Stand with your feet together, legs straight. Tense your legs, glutes, and core for stability.

Barbell Military Press

4. Without bending your knees, lean back slightly and press the bar up and overhead. As the bar passes your head, push your head forward between your arms. Push the weight up to arms’ length above your head.

5. Lower the bar back down to your shoulders and repeat. 

Some people find this exercise easier with a false or thumbless grip. Just place your thumbs on the same side of the bar as your fingers. Your grip won’t be as secure, but you may find that using a false grip takes the pressure off your wrists. 

What Muscles Are Worked?

Military presses are a compound exercise, which means they involve several joints and lots of muscles working together. The main muscles involved in barbell overhead presses are: 

Deltoids

There are three deltoid or shoulder muscles; anterior (front), medial (middle), and posterior (rear). Military presses work all three but emphasize the anterior deltoid. 

Triceps

Located on the back of your upper arm, the triceps extend your elbows. Military presses are a very good triceps exercise. 

Trapezius

Known as the traps for short, this is the large diamond-shaped muscle of your upper back. During military presses, you use your traps to pull your shoulders down and back and prevent them from being pushed downward.

Core

The term for all the muscles of your midsection, including your rectus abdominis, obliques, and erector spinae. Working together they stabilize your lumbar spine.

Woman with muscular core

Glutes, Quadriceps, and Hamstrings

While military presses are undoubtedly an upper body exercise, your legs are also strongly involved. You’ll need to contract your lower body to ensure you have a stable platform from which to push the weight up. 

Benefits

The military press is a challenging exercise, but it provides a lot of bang for your buck. The benefits of military presses include: 

Increased Muscle Size

The military press is one of the best upper body exercises for building bigger shoulders. Big shoulders give you a V-shaped torso and even make your waist look smaller in compassion.

Big woman trying to increase muscle size

Increased Strength

Done with heavy weights for low reps, the overhead press will strengthen your upper body and core. Your legs also get a small but beneficial workout.

Because you have to stabilize yourself during military presses, this exercise is arguably more functional than many other pressing exercises, especially the bench press. 

Better Posture

Military presses force you to adopt and maintain good posture. Posture is the alignment of your joints. Good posture makes you look taller and slimmer and also takes stress off things like your neck and lower back.

Bigger Arms

Barbell military presses are a very useful triceps exercise. The triceps make up about 60% of your upper arm mass, so training them will add extra size to your arms. 

Improved Sports Performance

Many sports involve overhead actions, including tennis, football, and basketball. Working on your military press may help improve sports performance.

Basketball performance dunk

Are Military Presses Bad for Your Shoulders?

Overhead presses are not for everyone. For some, pressing a weight overhead causes shoulder pain. Barbell presses are especially problematic because they lock your hands into a fixed position which could aggravate existing or cause new shoulder problems.

There are a few ways to minimize the risk of chronic and acute shoulder pain, including:

  • Use dumbbells instead of a barbell 
  • Do seated presses using a bench set to about 80-degrees 
  • Use a wider grip 
  • Do not do behind the neck presses 
  • Do single-arm dumbbell presses instead of two-handed military presses 
  • Try using a trap bar with a neutral (palms facing in) grip 

Barbell Military Press Variations and Alternatives

While the military press is an excellent exercise, it’s not the only way to build stronger, more muscular shoulders. Keep your workouts interesting and productive with these variations and alternatives:

Seated Military Presses

Take your legs out of the exercise and use a bench to support your lower back.

Seated barbell military press

Dumbbell Overhead Presses

Seated or standing, using dumbbells allows your arms to move independently. Use this exercise to fix any left-to-right imbalances and take the stress off your shoulder joints.Standing dumbbell military press

Push-Press

Use your legs to help you lift more weight. Descend into a quarter squat and then explosively stand up. Use this momentum to drive the weight up and overhead. Lower it normally and then repeat.

Single-Arm Press

Identify and fix left-to-right strength imbalances by training one arm at a time. They can be done with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell.

Woman doing single arm dumbbell press

Z-Press

Seated overhead presses done without an exercise bench. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. This variation works your core as well as your shoulders and triceps.

Pike Push-Ups

No barbell or dumbbells? No problem! Do push-ups with your hips raised to mimic the overhead press. Viewed from the side, your body should resemble an inverted V. Alternatively, you can kick your feet up against a wall and do handstand push-ups. 

Kettlebell Overhead Presses

With kettlebells, the weight sits across the back of your forearm, which studies reveal increases anterior deltoid activation. You can do kettlebell overhead presses seated or standing and using one or both arms.

Woman doing overhead kettlebell

Bottom Line

Overhead pressing is a true test of upper body strength. Unlike the bench press, during which the bench supports your back and shoulders, there is no such assistance during military presses. As bodybuilders like to say, it’s all you, bro! 

The military press used to be one of the Olympic lifts but fell out of favor during the mid-1960s. That’s because the lifters of the day used to lean back, turning what should have been an overhead press into something that looked like a standing bench press.

While this maneuver did allow them to lift more weight, it was also dangerous and hard to judge. The overhead press was eventually dropped from competitive weightlifting. 

Despite this, the military press is still a very valuable exercise and one that deserves to be part of your workouts. It doesn’t matter if you are training for muscle strength or size; the overhead barbell press will help.

Done with your feet together, the military press is a very strict exercise, and that makes it harder. The good news is that, for building muscle and getting stronger, harder is invariably better!  

Build the upper body of your dreams by adding the military barbell press to your workouts.

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