How To Master The Barbell Shoulder Press & Military Press

Pressing Technique, Muscles Worked, Benefits, and Training Considerations

The barbell shoulder press or military press is an upper body exercise that is commonly used to improve shoulder strength.

In addition to increasing pressing strength, it also has the potential to enhance shoulder size, improve overhead abilities, and reduce shoulder injury risk.

This article will begin by providing details on the shoulder press technique, muscles worked, and the benefits associated with the exercise. 

It will conclude by discussing who should be performing the shoulder press, the equipment to use, and the training methods to apply.

barbell shoulder press

How To Perform The Shoulder Press

While there are many shoulder pressing variations, the traditional press uses a barbell. When performing the barbell shoulder press, work through the following steps:

  • Start with the bar in the rack at just under chest height
  • Grip the bar using an overhand grip ensuring that the hands are just wider than shoulder-width
  • Bend the knees and engage the core before lifting the bar from the rack and stepping back
  • Ensure that the feet are placed slightly wider than hip-width before initiating the press
  • Powerfully press the bar straight up and back so that it finishes directly over the head
  • Control the descent and drop the bar back down to the upper chest

barbell press

Muscles Worked In The Shoulder Press

As the name suggests, the shoulder press works an array of shoulder muscles. The primary movers during this exercise are the deltoids which provide the power during the pressing motion.

However, there are many other muscles that must contract to assist in the press or provide stability. These include the following (1):

  • Abdominals
  • Lats
  • Pecs
  • Scapular Stabilizers
  • Spinal Erectors
  • Traps
  • Triceps

Four Shoulder Press Benefits

This section will discuss four of the biggest benefits associated with regularly performing the shoulder press.

1) Enhanced Shoulder Strength and Size

By gradually increasing the amount of weight being lifted, it is possible to make large advancements in shoulder strength and size.

Regardless of the sport you partake in, improving your strength and size is highly beneficial and can transfer to enhanced performance and reduced injury risk.

2) Improved Overhead Abilities

For specific sports, such as Olympic lifting, for example, being capable of holding a substantial amount of weight overhead is imperative.

Therefore, practicing the shoulder press regularly will not only improve muscle strength, it can also enhance shoulder stability and facilitate proper positioning.

3) Application to Sport

Leading on from the last point, improving pressing power and movement quality can translate to improve performance in a variety of sports.

Obviously powerlifters, strongmen, and Olympic lifters will benefit greatly, however, a range of other athletes from a range of sports will also gain from regular shoulder pressing.

4) Better Shoulder Health

There are few shoulder exercises that can compare to the shoulder press for increasing injury resilience. 

A combination of improving shoulder strength and stability will directly reduce the risk of sustaining a shoulder injury.

overhead press

Who Should Perform The Shoulder Press

It’s clear that the shoulder press is a highly effective exercise that many can benefit from. But which athletes should have a particular focus on the shoulder press?

1) Olympic Lifters

The jerk and the snatch are two competition lifts in Olympic lifting. Not only do they demand a great amount of technical skill, they also require strong and stable shoulders.

Having strong and stable shoulders allows lifters to successfully catch the bar overhead and hold it in the right position.

Therefore, incorporating the shoulder press into their training is recommended as it will develop shoulder strength, size, and overhead stability thus facilitating heavier lifts.

Furthermore, enhancing triceps and shoulder strength through shoulder pressing can prevent the elbows and shoulders from buckling under heavy weights and reduce the chances of injury.

2) Powerlifters and Strongmen

For both powerlifters and strongmen, the shoulder press should be a staple exercise of their training program.

In powerlifting, although the shoulder press isn’t assessed in competition, performing it in training can enhance general pressing strength and consequently improve bench press performance.

In a similar way, strongmen may be required to perform an array of pressing exercises including the clean & press and the circus press. 

Therefore, strongmen can also improve their competition performance by developing the shoulder press in training.

3) Competitive Athletes

Those who compete in other competitive strength sports may also find value in performing the shoulder press.

For example, in CrossFit, participants are expected to perform an array of exercises. Some of these involve pressing – exercises such as the clean & press, thruster, and handstand push-ups.

However, benefits extend further than solely Crossfit. The majority of competitive athletes will find that developing shoulder strength and size will facilitate athletic performance.

4) General Health and Fitness

Thinking more broadly, most people will benefit from performing the shoulder press as it can improve health, movement, and overall fitness.

As reflected on earlier, shoulder presses place a significant demand on an array of upper body muscles, many of which play an influential role in posture.

Therefore, shoulder presses can substantially improve our posture and movement as well as strength and size. This has a positive knock-on impact and reduces our injury risk.

Finally, pressing movements are a key human movement pattern and, as a result, it is one that should be performed often.

overhead press

The Barbell v Dumbbell Shoulder Press

It’s clear that the shoulder press is a highly effective resistance exercise that has the potential to improve many fitness components.

Although the shoulder press is conventionally performed using a barbell, dumbbells are also commonly used.

Dumbbells are an excellent option for shoulder press as they can help to eliminate any imbalances and asymmetries.

However, the barbell will allow you to lift significantly more load than the dumbbells will. This is primarily down to the fact that the stability demands are greater with dumbbells (2).

Therefore, if your goal is to maximize shoulder strength, barbells are recommended over dumbbells.

Furthermore, if you perform a sport that uses barbells (such as powerlifting or Olympic lifting), it makes sense to utilize the barbell rather than the dumbbell variation.

While it’s not the case that one is better than the other, you do need to consider the demands of your sport and the goals you have set for yourself when determining the variation to use.

Programming Considerations

Considering that the shoulder press is a compound lift, it can be programmed like other compounds (such as the squat, deadlift, and bench press).

If your goal is to maximize shoulder strength, it is recommended to use heavy weight and a low range (3).

For building muscle size, research indicates that total training volume is more significant than the number of reps performed (4). Typically, however, moderate loads are used for hypertrophy.

Sports athletes can utilize a combination of these methods to generally improve strength, size, stability, and general pressing abilities.

Final Word

The shoulder press is undoubtedly one of the most effective resistance exercises that can be done to enhance shoulder strength.

The vast majority of individuals and athletes will greatly benefit from incorporating this exercise into their training programs.

References:

1 – Williams, Martin R.; Hendricks, Dustin S.; Dannen, Michael J.; Arnold, Andrea M.; Lawrence, Michael A. (2020-01). “Activity of Shoulder Stabilizers and Prime Movers During an Unstable Overhead Press”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 34 (1): 73–78. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002660. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 29889776

2 – Saeterbakken, Atle H.; Fimland, Marius S. (2013-07). “Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27 (7): 1824–1831. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b873. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 23096062.

3 – Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Grgic, Jozo; Ogborn, Dan; Krieger, James W. (2017-12). “Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31 (12): 3508–3523. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 28834797.

4 – SCHOENFELD, BRAD J.; CONTRERAS, BRET; KRIEGER, JAMES; GRGIC, JOZO; DELCASTILLO, KENNETH; BELLIARD, RAMON; ALTO, ANDREW (2019-1). “Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men”. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 51 (1): 94–103. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764. ISSN 0195-9131. PMC 6303131. PMID 30153194.

SHARE
Jacob Ladon
Jacob Ladon is a staff writer and former amateur bodybuilder. He has been passionate about bodybuilding since he was 15 years old and discovered the joys of training in the gym. He reports and comments on all bodybuilding related matters.