How To Perfect The Overhead Shoulder Press


shoulder press
Are you dreading this move? Are you nailing it? Here’s how to master this exercise you should be doing every week.

The overhead shoulder press is one of the most beneficial compound exercises used to target your deltoids, or, as most refer to them, your shoulders. The thing about the overhead shoulder press is that many people fail to do this exercise properly even though it is one of the best shoulder workouts.


Good question. It could be because of improper form. Then again, it might be because of the load setting or lack of super strength.

Let’s take a look at the benefits of the overhead shoulder press. We’ll also look at how to perfect both the standing and sitting versions.

What Exactly Is The Overhead Shoulder Press?

This is an exercise that targets your shoulder muscles. But, it should be noted that other muscles receive a nice workout as well, including a great chest workout.

Which ones?

Your traps, triceps, upper chest and abs are also worked. Each one has a little more emphasis placed on them through contraction depending on the type of overhead shoulder press that you do.

There are four types of the overhead shoulder press that you should be aware of. One of them is the dumbbell only unilateral (single arm) standing overhead shoulder press.

Unilateral means you use only one side of your body. In other words, when doing a unilateral overhead press, you hold a dumbbell in one hand and then press only with that arm.

There are also three other types that you can do with dumbbells or a barbell. They are the standing overhead shoulder press, seated overhead shoulder press and the military press.

These are the full names of the exercises to be discussed, but you will likely only see them referred to as being the overhead press in either the seated or standing variation.

The military press is one of the best military workouts that the name that has been used interchangeably throughout the years, but there is a reason this exercise is not the same as the overhead shoulder press. Your heels are together or at least very close. It resembles a member of the military being at attention.

Thus, the reason it has this name. Rarely will you see somebody doing true military presses. There is no seated version.

overhead shoulder press

Compound Lifts Are More Beneficial For You

Have you ever wondered why the exercises chosen for the start of your workout are compound lifts?

The reason for this is because they target multiple muscle and joint groups at the same time. This occurs because your body as a whole is under resistance that causes stress on your muscles and joints.

Allow your joints to complete their range of motion.

Other muscles are working together to stabilize your spine, keep your body balanced and help generate energy for contractions to even occur.

For these reasons, you want to use as much energy as possible to complete the exercises known as compound lifts (core or big lifts) so that you get the most from your workout schedule.

Isolation lifts follow compound lifts to use up the rest of your stored energy that remains.

These lifts are beneficial for targeting specific muscle groups, but should not be performed to start off your workouts with the best compound exercises.

Proper Form For All Exercises Is Crucial

Improper form during any exercise provides little benefits and may even cause injury. The overhead shoulder press is one of those exercises. It can easily cause shoulder pain or injury due to improper execution of the move. Your shoulders are very strong and durable.

After all, they are used every day. But, it is for this reason you are also more susceptible to injury when you place too much stress on your shoulder muscles and joints that are being constantly used.

Proper form refers to how your body is positioned from head to toe during the entire phase of a chosen exercise.

 Rarely will you ever see an exercise that requires you to break proper form positions such as keeping your back straight, which is also referred to as having a neutral spine. In order to train hard and keep your body safe, you need to practice the exercise and perfect the movements.

shoulder press

Barbell Vs. Dumbbells For The Shoulder Press

Using either type of equipment would still make this a compound lift.

What’s the difference?

One activates your deltoids more than the other. The only thing is that each muscle head of your deltoids is activated differently depending on the equipment and if you are standing or not. There was even a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that shows the different percentages of muscle contraction during the overhead shoulder press.

Instead of going over each deltoid muscle heads highest contraction point with the different variations mentioned, we will make it a point to do this exercise in different positions alternating between standing and sitting.

Then you can alternate between the use of dumbbells or the barbell as well. This will ensure that every month each muscle head of the deltoid gets at least one training day of emphasis more than the other two.

But, note that when considering how much attention is being given to your biceps and triceps, there is a winner between dumbbell or barbell use.

The study showed that the barbell was 15 to 39% higher in muscle contractions for the biceps and triceps in either the standing or sitting position. So if you want a more effective big arm workout, then use the barbell during the overhead shoulder press.

The only exercise you use the dumbbell only for would be the single arm shoulder press. This is the unilateral option we discussed.

It is a compound exercise actually meant to target the core of your body along with your shoulder muscles.

Your body naturally wants to lean towards the side that is holding and pressing the weight when doing this movement standing. This lean is simply because gravity is at work. Your core muscles must contract to protect and stabilize your spine in order to counter this and do a proper shoulder press using one arm.

This exercise is a compound lift, but is used as if it were for isolation purposes. Single arm shoulder presses are not to take the place of your primary compound lift. 

This Is How To Perfect The Overhead Shoulder Press

The overhead shoulder press is actually one of the more difficult exercises to do the right way. But once you get the movements down, you are set to press heavier loads.

With the exception of the single arm overhead press, all the other types are quite similar with little differences that we will mention.

#1 Standing Overhead Press

Put the bar with weights on a power rack. Be sure that the bar is set to shoulder height.

Place your upper chest against the bar and your hands just outside your shoulders with a pronated grip.

A pronated grip is where your palms are facing away.

Put one foot behind you and press up against the bar to clear the rack. Take a deep breath using your abs and diaphragm. Don’t breathe in using your shoulders.

Focus on contracting your glutes and abs as you exhale to press the weight overhead. Hold the position with your elbows very slightly bent. You may lower the weight once your abs, glutes and lower back are locked and tight.

You can do one more rep if the weight isn’t too heavy. You could also rest for three to five minutes and then do another one. The main point to focus on during the execution of this exercise is not to hyperextend your back more than it naturally should be.

Keep your spine vertically straight and do not allow your elbows to flare out.

With the dumbbell version of this exercise, the only difference is the start position. You have to get the dumbbells up and into position without throwing your back out due to excessive hyperextension.

#2 Military Press

Repeat the same steps as with the standing overhead press.

With that said, your foot placement changes. You will need to have your heels together or very close to each other.

Your toes should be pointing outwards at a 45-degree angle. This is not an exercise to use heavy loads.


Simple, it limits your ability to balance and exert force.

overhead shoulder press

#3 Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

This type is obviously different because you are seated. Even still, some parts about your form are the same such as having a neutral spine position and keeping your elbows close to prevent them from pushing out.

Getting into the starting position is something too perfect when using heavier dumbbells.

You basically want to use as little energy as you can before you even do the exercise. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your back facing towards the seat. Pull the dumbbells in front of you to where your bottom is against the meaty portion of your upper legs.

Slowly squat and lean back taking your seat with the dumbbells standing erect. Lift your knee and allow the momentum with arm strength to pull the dumbbell into position at your shoulder.

Do this one leg at a time. Repeat with the next dumbbell.

Adjust your body to where your back is straight and your upper back is resting against the padding. Press the dumbbells directly overhead. Adjust the dumbbells to where your palms are facing away from your body.

Lower the dumbbells directly down to shoulder height while inhaling. Then exhale to press them upwards. This is one rep.

Getting into the overhead position uses less energy than taking your time to adjust your arms and elbows to do the press properly.

While your arms are fully extended overhead, you just have to twist your palms forward and you are ready to go.

Choosing The Load For Proper Resistance

Chasing the pump seems to be the issue that causes improper form as with most compound lifts.

Of course, chasing the pump is gym slang meaning the person is using loads (weights) that are too heavy for them. Even though the weights are too heavy, this person still uses it to try and look good showing off.

Do not let this be you.

It’s going to make you look bad. It also doesn’t help you achieve your goals. Chasing the pump will open you up to a greater chance of injury. Strength and building muscle benefits are not going to be seen either. So do yourself a favor and learn how to gain muscle properly. 

Use heavy loads if you wish, but only the ones you can properly perform with. Use a spotter if you have to in order to achieve the task.

You can find the proper load by performing a one-rep max with the overhead shoulder press. From there, use that number to convert it into the percentage used for each set.

Then you can also find your necessary load by doing reps with different weights until you feel it is the desired weight you want for however many reps you are going to do.

What’s the perk of using this method?

You do not have to have a spotter present to assist you with your one-rep max.

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Don’t be fooled. Doing the perfect overhead press is not easy. It takes practice with low weight. You also need to use proper form before you go throwing on more weight to your reps. Stay safe.

Don’t forget to always focus on the task of making your body stronger instead of showing people how much weight you can or can’t lift.

-By Brian Pankau, CPT

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Terry Asher

Owner & Founder at Gym Junkies LLC
After changing his best friend’s life by helping him lose over 70lbs, dropping him down to an amazing 7% body fat, Terry was inspired to be a full-time internet trainer knowing he could do the same for many more. In 2010, Terry published his own diet and fitness e-book that can be purchased on this website. Let Terry help you change your body for the better!
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