Barbell Overhead Press: Muscles Worked, Benefits + How-To

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Overhead Barbell Press – Introduction

Barbell Overhead Press: Muscles Worked, Benefits + How-To

The barbell bench press is arguably the world’s most popular strength training exercise. Get any two lifters together, and invariably, the question will be asked, “So, how much can you bench?”

Even non-exercisers recognize the bench press – it’s THAT famous.

But, and somewhat surprisingly, the bench press is a relatively new exercise, and it’s only been around since the 1940s. Before then, if you wanted to work your chest, you did push-ups, dips, or floor presses. The bench press simply didn’t exist.

Rather than spend their time bench pressing, old-school lifters built their upper-body workouts around the overhead press, also known as the barbell shoulder press. In fact, the press, as it was often called, was once one of the Olympic lifts.

While the press was dropped from Olympic lifting in the late 1960s, it’s still part of most strongman competitions, and many training experts like to think of the press as the fourth powerlift alongside the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

While we’re not suggesting for a second that you need to drop the bench press from your workouts, most exercisers would benefit from doing more overhead presses. So, this article reveals the benefits of this classic barbell exercise and explains how to do it.

Barbell Overhead Press Muscles Worked

The barbell overhead press is a compound freeweight exercise. Compound exercises involve two or more joints and multiple muscles working together. The main muscles used during this exercise are:

  • Deltoids – the shoulder muscles
  • Trapezius – the muscles of the upper back
  • Rhomboids – the muscles between the shoulder blades
  • Triceps – the muscles of the rear upper arm
  • Core – the collective term for the muscles of the midsection

Because overhead presses are performed standing, the legs are also involved in this exercise. However, as they’re immobile, they don’t work all that hard, so they won’t receive much of a training effect.

Overhead Press Benefits

Not sure if the barbell overhead press deserves a place in your workouts? Consider these benefits and then decide!

A very functional exercise

You are much more likely to press a weight up and overhead while standing than lying prone on your back, as you do during bench presses. As such, the overhead press builds functional strength, meaning it transfers well to activities outside of the gym. The next time you need to put a heavy object on a high shelf, remember that training the barbell overhead press will make that task easier.

Balance your upper body development

While the bench press is a good exercise, it only trains your muscles in the horizontal plane. To keep your upper body muscles balanced, you need to do vertical presses, too, and that means the overhead press.

Similarly, you should do horizontal and vertical pulls, too. Balancing vertical and horizontal plane exercises will ensure that all your muscles are equally developed, enhancing your appearance, improving your posture, and reducing your risk of injury.

A safe exercise

You can overhead press without spotters and don’t need a power rack. You can rep out to failure in safety, and if you are unable to complete your rep, you can just lower the bar back down to your shoulders.

Compared to the bench press, where getting pinned under the bar is a real danger, the barbell overhead press is a much safer exercise.

Build bigger, stronger deltoids and triceps

If you want big, strong shoulders and muscular arms, the overhead press can help. The press is arguably one of the best ways to build upper body size and strength.

A true test of upper body strength

Watch an elite powerlifter doing bench presses, and you’ll probably see them arching their backs and using an ultra-wide grip to reduce the range of motion and lift more weight.

While this is within the rules, it also means that technique rather than strength is what’s being tested.

Providing you don’t use your legs or lean back excessively, the overhead press is a much purer test of strength.

How to Do the Overhead Press

If you want to enjoy all the benefits of overhead presses, you need to do them correctly. Follow these step-by-step instructions to ensure that your overhead press is as safe and effective as possible.

  1. Hold your barbell with a slightly wider than shoulder-width overhand grip. Either wrap your thumbs around the bar or use a thumbless or false grip as preferred.
  2. Rest the barbell across the front of your shoulders.
  3. Push your elbows forward, so they’re slightly in front of the barbell.
  4. Lift your chest and pull your shoulders down and back. Look straight ahead.
  5. Stand with your feet between shoulder and hip-width apart. Your knees should be fairly straight and rigid.
  6. Brace your core.
  7. Without using your legs for assistance, push the bar up and overhead until your arms are straight but not locked. The bar will follow a slight arc around your head.
  8. Lower the bar back to your shoulders and repeat.

How to Prevent Overhead Press Shoulder Injury

There are two ways to get the barbell into the correct starting position – place the barbell in a squat rack or clean it to your shoulders. The former option is undoubtedly more straightforward, but the latter could be your only option if you don’t have a squat rack.

Barbell Overhead Press Variations

The basic barbell overhead press is an excellent exercise that should continue delivering gains in muscle strength and size for many years. That said, you CAN have too much of a good thing! Use these overhead pressing variations to keep your workouts fresh and interesting.

#1. Seated barbell overhead press

As its name suggests, this overhead pressing exercise is done while seated. You can use an adjustable bench with the backrest fully upright or just sit on the end of a bench and support yourself as preferred.

Doing seated overhead presses means that you cannot use your legs to help lift the weight. It’s a much stricter exercise and, therefore, more challenging.

Overhead Press with Barbell – Seated

#2. Military press

Barbell overhead presses and military presses are often viewed as the same thing, but they’re actually slightly different. Regular overhead presses are performed using a hip to shoulder-width stance and slightly flexed knees.

In contrast, military presses are done with the legs ramrod straight and the heels together, like a soldier standing to attention.

While this is only a small difference, military presses are a little harder than conventional overhead presses as you can’t use your legs to help lift the weight.

#3. Z press

The Z press was invented by Lithuanian strongman Žydrūnas Savickas. Better known as Big Z, Savickas is one of the best overhead pressers in the world and has held many world records.

The Z press involves doing an overhead press while seated and with your legs extended in front of you. This eliminates any possible leg drive and forces you to use your core to stabilize your upper body.

Needless to say, this exercise takes some getting used to, but as overhead pressing exercises go, it’s one of the most challenging and, therefore, one of the most productive.

How to Perform the Z Press

#4. Push press

Most overhead pressing exercises are done without assistance from your legs. The push press is different in that you purposely use your legs to help you lift the weight.

To do the push press, set yourself up for overhead presses as usual. Then, when you’re ready, descend into a quarter-depth squat and stand up explosively. Use this momentum to help you drive the weight up and overhead. Lower the bar back to your shoulders, dip your knees, and repeat.

How to Do the Push Press

Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit had this to say about the push press –

“In the push press, the core-to-extremity principle is obvious as the muscles of the power zone—including the hip flexors, hip extensors (glutes and hams), spinal erectors, and quadriceps—assist the arms in driving the barbell overhead. With the push press, you will be able to move overhead as much as 30 percent more weight than with the shoulder press. Regular practice of the push press—and the push jerk—develops power and speed, which are critical to effective and efficient athletic movement.

#5. Javelin press

The javelin press is a one-handed barbell overhead press. As well as working your shoulders, this exercise provides an excellent core workout.

To do the javelin press, place your barbell in a squat rack set to shoulder height. Stand side-on to the bar and hold the middle using a neutral grip.

Unrack the bar and, keeping your torso upright, press the weight overhead to arms’ length. Lower it back to your shoulder and repeat. Do not use your legs or lean sideways.

Rerack the bar, turn around, and repeat on the opposite side.

The Javelin Press

#6. Bradford press

The Bradford press is an old-school bodybuilding exercise that’ll increase the size of your deltoids and triceps. Because it involves a behind-the-neck movement, you should only attempt this exercise if you’ve got healthy, mobile shoulders.

Seated or standing, rack and hold your barbell across the front of your shoulders. Press the weight up to just above your head and then lower it behind your neck. The bar should just clear your head. Don’t lockout!

Then, press the weight up from your neck and, just skimming your head, return it to the front of your neck. That’s one rep – keep going!

The Bradford press works best when performed with light to moderate weights and light to medium weights – go for the pump!

The Bradford Press

Barbell Overhead Press – Wrapping Up

The barbell overhead press is often overlooked in favor of the bench press, but the press is arguably the better exercise. Overhead presses are more functional than bench presses, require less equipment, and you can train to failure without a spotter, so they’re often safer, too.

They’re also a more authentic test of upper body strength.

You don’t need to give up bench pressing, but adding the barbell overhead press to your workouts will add a lot to your physique and could even improve your bench press performance.

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