Adding the overhead press, also known as the military or strict press, to a workout routine increases upper body strength. The overhead press is a compound movement that targets the anterior and lateral delts, upper chest, and triceps. If performed standing, it also helps improve core strength.
The lift has great carry-over to other movements, such as the clean and jerk, snatch, push press, and bench press. Overall, the overhead press is a very functional exercise that can benefit athletics and daily activities.
It’s important to note that performing the military press with proper form requires good shoulder mobility before attempting to press a lot of weight overhead.
The overhead press is safe when applying proper form. This article will explain how to apply correct technique, including tips and common mistakes to avoid.
How to Perform the Strict Overhead Press with Correct Form
- A squat rack, Olympic-sized barbell, and plates are required. Dumbbells or a Smith machine may also be used, but this example will cover the barbell press.
- Set squat rack height to 3-4 inches shoulder level, place barbell on rack, and add weight plates.
- Face rack with feet approximately hip-width apart in a standing position.
- Grip barbell with hands shoulder-width apart, bend down to set barbell on top of shoulders and raise elbows up. Stand the bar up.
- Take 2-3 steps away from rack and assume a hip-width stance. Shoulder blades should be down and back at starting position.
- Push bar overhead by extending arms. Once the barbell clears the top of head, press barbell slightly backward keeping neck and gaze neutral.
- At the top of the movement, push head forward between arms to complete the lockout.
- Before lowering bar back to shoulders, move head slightly backward to return to starting position.
Watch this video from Jeff Nippard to see how to overhead press with proper form:
Table of Contents
- 1 Frequently Asked Questions
- 2 Other Exercise Posts
- 2.1 Romanian Deadlift Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 2.2 The 5 Best Benefits of Planks
- 2.3 The Top 10 Pull-up Muscles Worked
- 2.4 Leg Extension Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 2.5 Incline Bench Press Muscles Worked and Benefits
- 2.6 Arnold Split Workout + Example Spreadsheet
- 2.7 How to Front Squat with Proper Form
- 2.8 How to do Bulgarian Split Squats with Proper Form
- 2.9 Lat Pulldown Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 2.10 The 6 Best Gym Machines For Weight Loss
- 2.11 The Top 5 Bench Press Muscles Worked
- 2.12 The 5 Best Gym Machines for Chest
- 2.13 The 8 Best Deadlift Benefits
- 2.14 The Top 5 Leg Press Muscles Worked
- 2.15 Arnold Press Benefits and Muscles Worked
- 2.16 Seated Cable Row Benefits, Form, and Muscles Worked
- 2.17 The 8 Main Muscle Groups Worked by Squats
- 2.18 How to Squat with Perfect Form
Overhead Press Form Tips
- Use appropriate grip width
- Brace core
- Move head
- Contract glutes
- Keep wrists straight
Use appropriate grip width
Normally, a shorter range of motion means lifting more weight, but that isn’t the case for the strict press. A wide grip in the overhead press misaligns your wrists, elbows, and shoulders to the hips, weakening core foundation and reducing power output.
Additionally, using a wide grip may place excessive tension on the elbows and wrists, leading to injury over time. On the other hand, using a narrow grip can also negatively impact your performance because it’s a larger range of motion.
Hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Ensure the elbows are tucked close to the body and aligned with the wrists. Feet should be hip-width apart. Work on shoulder mobility to address any challenges in this position.
The core plays an important role in nearly every exercise, but especially with the standing overhead press. Failing to tighten the core may result in back injury and weight limitation.
Protect the spine and improve performance by bracing the abs first. Proper breathing is also crucial for proper bracing. Take a deep breath and push the air into the belly first. Then exhale at the top of the movement. As the barbell returns to the starting position, inhale to prepare for the next rep.
Consider wearing a weightlifting belt to assist with bracing, especially as the weight gets heavier. If back is excessively arching, push the ribs down to the navel or lower the weight.
Moving ther head slightly forward and backward while performing the overhead press can assist the lockout and helps avoid hitting your chin with the barbell. Moving the entire head rather than lifting up the chin allows for a straight bar path.
The less the barbell moves forward and backward, the more weight you can lift. As you lift the barbell, move the head backward. Once the barbell clears your head, move your head back to neutral to complete the lockout.
On the eccentric portion of the lift, move the head backward again to allow the bar to return to the starting position. Practicing proper head movement while doing an overhead press will help with other movements, such as the jerk and push press.
Although an overhead press is considered an upper-body exercise, the lower body also plays a role. The glutes, specifically the gluteus maximus, is one of the primary muscles that extend the hips, so it helps maintain an erect posture. The glutes work with the core to prevent the lower back from arching during an overhead press.
Contracting your glutes keeps everything tight, which increases power and allows for lifting more weight as well as protects your lower back.
Keep wrists straight
When performing heavy pressing movements, such as the overhead press, push press, jerk, and bench press, it’s common for lifters to wear wrist wraps. The purpose of wrist wraps is to provide extra support and keep the wrist joint as straight as possible. Wrists should align with the elbows.
The more the wrists bend, the less force is generated. Consider wearing wrist wraps or strengthen your forearm muscles if straight wrists are difficult to maintain.
Check out this video for five tips to improve your overhead press performance:
Common Overhead Press Mistakes
- Elbows flare out
- Pressing barbell forward
- Not achieving full extension
- Uncontrolled eccentric
- Using momentum
Here are the top 5 overhead press mistakes:
Elbows flare out
Whether performing a standing or seated overhead press, one of the most common overhead press mistakes is allowing the elbows to flare out. In other words, the elbows are pointed out to the side as opposed to slightly forward. Allowing the elbows to flare outward also cheats the lift.
This mistake might indicate the grip width is too wide, which causes the forearms and wrists to be misaligned. To fix this, grip the bar so the elbows are tucked, and the forearms are directly below the wrists. This method is a safer way to perform the movement and improve performance. The elbows moving slightly outward during the press is normal.
Pressing barbell forward
Another common mistake while performing the barbell overhead press is pressing the barbell forward as opposed to vertically. An efficient overhead press is achieved by keeping the bar path as straight as possible. If the barbell travels horizontally rather than vertically, energy, force production, and power is wasted and will negatively impact weight numbers.
Remember to move the head backward and forward to allow a straight bar path. Poor mobility is the most common obstacle preventing proper overhead press. Address any limitations in ankle, hip, shoulder, forearm, or wirst range of motion prior to performing this lift.
Not achieving full extension
Partial range of motion is not ideal for strength, power, or building muscle. Additionally, lifting weight that’s too heavy is a quick way to get injured. Since the lockout of the overhead press can be challenging to some, it’s where the lift can fall short.
Full extension means arms are fully extended with head pushed slightly forward to a neutral position. Reduce the weight, perform fewer repetitions, or improve shoulder mobility to address extension issues.
Inconsistent range of motion where some reps are complete and others are partial may indicate forcing progression beyond the lifter’s skill. Perform each rep with the same range of motion to measure progress overtime accurately.
Not controlling the eccentric or lowering portion of the barbell overhead press is just as bad, if not worse than using partial range of motion. The eccentric aspect of a lift is one of the strongest stimulators of muscle growth.
Controlling the eccentric does make the movement more challenging, which may require reducing the weight or repetitions..
Anywhere from one to three seconds is ideal for the eccentric portion. Over time, muscle mass will increase by performing the military press with a controlled descent.
Using too much momentum
A strict standing overhead press involves no contribution of the lower body, besides squeezing glutes to stay tight. As soon as the legs move to push the barbell overhead, it becomes push press which is a completely different exercise.
Arching the lower back or lifting the chin are also ways the body will compensate during the overhead press. When this happens, reduce the weight and focus on perfecting form. The goal with overhead presses is to grow shoulder muscles, triceps, and upper chest, not quads or lower back.
Check out this video from Renaissance Periodization for more common overhead press mistakes and how to fix them:
Frequently Asked Questions
The bench press and overhead press are both classified as pushing movements, however, one is a horizontal pushing exercise and the other is a vertical pushing exercises. Both exercises target similar muscle groups, including the chest, triceps, and shoulders.
The bench press targets the lower and middle chest fibers more than the overhead press. Whereas, the overhead press targets more of the lateral deltoid, anterior deltoid, upper traps, and upper chest. If you’re focused on building the chest, the bench press is more ideal. If you’re goal is to increase the size and strength of your shoulders, we recommend the overhead press.
For a more in-depth comparison of the bench press versus the overhead press, check out this article: Overhead Press vs. Bench Press: Pros, Cons, & Differences
If you can’t perform the overhead press due to any reason, such as lack of equipment, poor shoulder mobility, or need for exercise variation, here are some great overhead press variations: Seated dumbbell shoulder press; Smith machine shoulder press; Hammer strength shoulder press; standing dumbbell overhead press; Viking press; push press; Landmine press; single-arm dumbbell overhead press; Arnold Press; handstand push-ups; cable shoulder pressFor more information on the best overhead press alternatives, check out this article:The 10 Best Overhead Press Alternatives
The overhead press is a compound exercise that works the following muscles: anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid; upper fibers of the pectoralis major; trapezius, triceps brachii, forearm flexors