Considered part of the “Big 4” (along with squatting, benching, and deadlifting), the overhead press (or OHP) is an essential exercise for anyone looking to build a stronger upper body.
Most lifters are familiar with the barbell overhead press, but there are also lots of other ways to press weight above your head. Read on for more information on overhead presses, as well as some effective overhead press variations.
- The Importance of the Overhead Press
- Is the Overhead Press the Same as Shoulder Press?
- Seven Best Overhead Press Variations
- Try These Overhead Press Variations Today
The Importance of the Overhead Press
For many lifters, the overhead press is a staple exercise. If you’re not doing it on a regular basis, though, consider adding it to your workouts to experience these benefits:
- Stronger shoulders (specifically, the anterior and medial deltoids)
- Stronger core (the rectus abdominis, external oblique, and erector spinae all have to work hard to stabilize the body when performing an overhead press)
- Better bench press (overhead pressing requires more upper back recruitment, which translates to more stability and strength when benching)
A solid overhead press can even lead to better jumping abilities.
That’s right, pushing weight overhead with proper form can make you a better jumper! Stronger arms from overhead pressing can result in increased arm swing power. This, in turn, can lead to higher jumps and improved velocity.
Is the Overhead Press the Same as Shoulder Press?
If you spend a lot of time researching exercises and exercise variations, chances are you’ve come across the terms “overhead press” and “shoulder press” being used to describe certain upper body movements. The interchangeable use of these two terms might have you wondering if there’s a difference between them.
In general, the terms overhead press and shoulder press can be used synonymously (similar to the words “bench press” and “chest press”).
At the same time, though, you’re more likely to see the term shoulder press come up when someone is talking about a dumbbell exercise. “Overhead press” is more often used to describe barbell exercises.
Seven Best Overhead Press Variations
Performing different variations of this exercise can help you to place a greater emphasis on certain muscles while also correcting potential imbalances. The following are seven of the most effective overhead press variations to add to your shoulder strengthening exercises.
1. Strict Overhead Press (Military Press)
Before you start exploring different overhead press or shoulder press variations, it’s important to master the basics. If you’re able to get really good at the strict overhead press (sometimes referred to as a military press or strict press), you’ll have a much easier time figuring out other variations.
When performing a strict overhead press, start in front of the bar in a squat or power rack with your feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor. The knees and hips should be locked (don’t bend them to help you push the weight up — that’s a different exercise). Grip the bar with the hands just outside of the shoulders and aim to create a straight line from your wrist to your elbow (don’t let your wrists bend backward).
Once you’re in a good starting position, lift the bar off the rack and hold it at your chest so it’s in line with your sternum. Then, follow these cues:
- Inhale, hold the breath, and brace the core
- Press the bar above you in a vertical line
- Think about bring the bar straight overhead (don’t push it out in front of you or try and pull it behind you)
- Keep your body close to the bar as you’re pressing it up, then shift your torso forward after you’ve lifted the bar past your forehead (some coaches refer to this as bringing your head “through the window”)
- Aim to bring the bar all the way above your shoulders so it lines up with the middle of your feet
- From here, lock your elbows and shrug your shoulders up toward the ceiling
Exhale after you bring the bar back to your chest to set up for another rep.
2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press is another good overhead press variation to try on upper body days. It’s especially helpful to those who have muscle imbalances. Holding two dumbbells instead of one barbell helps you to strengthen your weaker side and avoid letting the strong one take over.
When performing a dumbbell shoulder press, hold the weights so they’re just above your shoulders. Your elbows should be bent at 90-degree angles with your palms facing forward.
Once you’re in the proper position, do the following:
- Take a deep breath in
- As you exhale, straighten your elbows and push the dumbbells up over your head
- Keep your core braced and avoid leaning back while pushing the weight up
- Don’t use your legs to help, either; keep the knees and hips locked
- When bringing the weights up overhead, stop when they’re a few centimeters apart from each other
Inhale as you lower the weights back to the starting position.
3. Seated Barbell Overhead Press
Seated barbell overhead presses help to isolate the shoulder and upper back muscles. They take the legs out of the equation and require you to rely on your upper body strength to push the weight up.
If your gym doesn’t have a designated area for the seated barbell overhead press, set up a bench in a squat or power rack. Adjust the bench so you can sit up straight with your back supported. Then, sit with your feet flat on the ground and shoulder-width apart. The knees and toes should point outward slightly.
From here, follow these cues:
- Press the heels into the floor and press the upper back against the bench
- Grip the bar with hands a little wider than shoulder-distance apart and wrists in line with the elbows
- Breathe in and engage the core as you unrack the bar and lower it down to the top of your chest
- Push the weight up overhead just like you would with a strict overhead press
- At the top, lock your elbows and shrug your shoulders up toward the ceiling
Exhale when you lower the weight back down.
If a seated barbell overhead press is too challenging for you, or if you want to address imbalances, you can also do dumbbell shoulder press variations while seated.
4. Single-Arm Kettlebell Overhead Press
If you don’t have access to a barbell or dumbbells, a single-arm kettlebell overhead press can be a good alternative.
This exercise, similar to a dumbbell overhead press, helps you to address potential weaknesses. Because you have to use our core to stabilize and remain balanced as you lift one arm up overhead, it also can help you improve your core strength better than a traditional overhead press.
To do a kettlebell overhead press, start with the kettlebell in a front-racked position. You should be holding it close to your chest with the palm facing inward, and the elbow should be close to the side of your body with the wrist straight.
From here, do the following:
- Take a deep breath in and bring the non-working arm out to the side to help you keep your shoulders even
- On an exhale, press the kettlebell up overhead while rotating the arm so the palm faces forward
- Keep your core and glutes contracted; don’t let your back arch
- Lock out the elbow at the top of the movement
Inhale as you lower the kettlebell back to the starting position.
5. Z Press
The Z press takes the seated overhead press and ups the ante. Because there’s no bench behind you, this exercise requires you to really engage your core and use your stabilizer muscles.
You can do a Z press in a power rack with a barbell or with dumbbells or kettlebells.
For all of these variations, start by sitting up straight on the floor with the legs in front of you. Your feet should be flexed with your heels dug into the floor to engage the legs. Don’t over-arch your back; you should be creating an L-shape with your upper and lower body.
From this position, unrack and hold the barbell as you would for a traditional overhead press. If you’re using kettlebells, hold them in a front rack position and hold dumbbells at your shoulders with the arms bent at 90-degrees.
Once you’re set up correctly, follow these directions:
- Engage the upper back and press the weight up overhead
- Lock your arms at the top of the movement and shrug your shoulders up toward the ceiling
- After locking out, slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position
As far as breathing is concerned, follow the same breathing cues you would for the standing version of each overhead press variation.
Breathe in before raising the barbell the same way you would when doing a strict overhead press, and breathe out as you raise the dumbbells and kettlebells the way you would when doing a dumbbell or kettlebell shoulder press.
6. Single-Arm Landmine Press
A single-arm landmine press might look intimidating at first. However, it’s actually a good intermediate exercise for those who have shoulder mobility issues. The landmine bar follows an angled path, rather than a straight up-and-down one so that it can be easier on the shoulders.
To do the single-arm landmine press, start in a split stance. The leg opposite your working arms should be in the forward position. Hold the end of the bar close to your chest with the elbow bent (similar to a kettlebell front rack position).
From this stance, follow these cues:
- Take a deep breath in, then, as you exhale, press the bar up and away from your chest
- Keep the bar in line with your shoulder (don’t let it shift toward the center of your chest)
- Lock your arm at the top of the movement
Inhale and lower the bar back down to the starting point.
7. Barbell Push Press
Last but not least is the push press.
So far, you’ve been instructed not to use your legs to help you lift a weight overhead. There are times when this is appropriate, though.
The key is to be intentional about using your legs rather than using them to help you “cheat” and lift a weight that’s heavier than what you can handle.
For a barbell push press, you’ll set yourself up the same way you would for a strict overhead press. Once you’ve unracked the bar, follow these steps:
- Stand with the barbell resting on the front of the shoulders and take a big breath in
- Bend your knees and drop into a shallow squat with your weight centered under the barbell
- Press through your heels and use your lower body strength to help you drive the bar overhead
- Do not pause between the squat and the press (think of it as a quick dip to help you gain momentum before pushing the weight up)
- Lock your arms at the top of the exercise while shrugging your shoulders toward the ceiling
Lower the bar back down to your chest. Then, exhale to set up for another rep.
Try These Overhead Press Variations Today
From a strict overhead press to a Z press, there are tons of overhead press variations you can incorporate into your workout routine. Using these variations will help you to improve your range of motion while also building a strong and stable core and upper body. Give one (or more) of them a try today!
If you like this article, you may also want to check out these overhead press alternatives.