How to Overhead Press: Muscles Worked & Proper Form

Overhead press exercise

Muscles Worked in the Overhead Press

Muscles worked in overhead press exercise

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Overhead Press with Proper Form

  1. First, place a barbell in a rack at about chest height.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and step close to it.
  3. Inhale, lightly brace your core, and unrack the bar.
  4. Let the bar rest against your front delts while you step back from the rack.
  5. Press the bar up to straight arms while exhaling.
  6. Inhale at the top or while lowering the bar with control back to your shoulders.
  7. Repeat for reps.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction to the Overhead Press
  2. Benefits of the Overhead Press
  3. How Much Can The Average Man and Woman Overhead Press?
  4. Overhead Press Calculator
  5. Overhead Press Alternatives & Variations
  6. How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do in the Overhead Press?
  7. Overhead Press Workout
  8. Overhead Press Programs
  9. Overhead Press FAQ

Introduction to the Barbell Overhead Press

The barbell overhead press (also known as the shoulder press) is a classic strength training exercise that mainly targets your shoulders and triceps.

Overhead press exercise starting position
Starting position in the overhead press.
Overhead press exercise top position
… and the top position.

The standing overhead press was previously a competitive event in Olympic weightlifting, and it is the fifth most popular strength training exercise of all, according to exercise statistics from our workout log app.

It involves pressing a barbell overhead from shoulder level in a standing position. You can get into the pressing position by either cleaning the bar off the floor or lifting it from a rack (as described in the how-to section earlier).

To do a strict overhead press, you should not use your legs but instead, keep them still during the entire lift. When you use your legs to help push the bar up, it is usually called a push press, and when you both use your legs on the way up and also dip your legs to catch the bar on straight arms, it is called a jerk.

Benefits of the Overhead Press

The overhead press is one of the best shoulder exercises you can do, with many benefits.1

  • Builds upper body strength. The overhead press is a compound exercise that builds your upper body pushing strength. If you’re performing the free-weight overhead press while standing up, you must balance and stabilize the barbell simultaneously, which activates your core and develops your ability to use your strength in many sports or real-life settings.
  • Boulders for shoulders. The overhead press is an excellent exercise for developing your shoulder muscles and has been used by bodybuilders for a century. Specifically, it works your front delts and side delts, along with your triceps.
  • Improves shoulder mobility and stability. The overhead press requires (and develops) high shoulder mobility and stability, which can be especially beneficial for athletes and weightlifters. Regular practice of this exercise can help improve shoulder strength and flexibility, reduce the risk of injury, and enhance performance in other exercises.

How Much Can The Average Man and Woman Overhead Press?

Below are overhead press strength standards based on the training logs of 19 792 users of our workout log.

Strength LevelMenWomen
Beginner32 kg (71 lb)15 kg (33 lb)
Novice47 kg (104 lb)25 kg (55 lb)
Intermediate57 kg (126 lb)30 kg (66 lb)
Advanced68 kg (150 lb)36 kg (79 lb)
Elite88 kg (194 lb)48 kg (106 lb)
  • The average male user of our app can overhead press 57 kg (126 lb) for a one-rep-max, corresponding to pressing 49 kg (108 lb) for five reps.
  • The average female user of our app can overhead press 30 kg (66 lb) for a one-rep-max, corresponding to pressing 26 kg (57 lb) for five reps.

For more details on classifications and strength for different bodyweights, check out our complete overhead press strength standards below:

Overhead Press Calculator

Enter your best set below and hit enter to get an estimate of your one-rep max (1RM) in the overhead press.

Estimated 1RM (endast 1RM)

Overhead Press Alternatives & Variations

The overhead press exercise can be varied in several ways. Here are some of the most popular overhead press alternatives and variations.

1. Seated Overhead Press

In contrast to the standing press, the seated barbell overhead press (also called seated shoulder press) is performed while seated on a bench or chair with a backrest.

This overhead press variation gives more stability, as you can brace your back against the backrest, which can help prevent arching the back excessively and maintain proper form. Additionally, the seated position may be more comfortable for lifters with mobility or balance issues.

Less focus on balance and more focus on the primary muscles worked is generally good for building muscle, which probably explains why the seated overhead press is commonly favored by bodybuilders, and the standing overhead press is favored by athletes, weightlifters, and strongmen/strongwomen.

If your main goal is to build bigger shoulders and you don’t care about “functional strength”, the seated shoulder press is a great option. If you want to build big, strong shoulders and work your core muscles, balance, and coordination, the standing overhead press is for you.

In you lean the bench back even more, it will start turning into an incline bench press, which activates your upper chest.

2. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

With the seated dumbbell shoulder press, we’ve ventured even further into bodybuilding training territory. Like in the seated barbell press, the bench provides stability and lets you focus on the muscles worked.

With dumbbells, you usually get a little more range of motion than a barbell, which can further aid your muscle growth. The dumbbells can also enable you to use a slightly different movement path, which can feel easier on your shoulder joints.

3. Shoulder Press Machine

The machine shoulder press is another stable exercise in which you have eliminated virtually any need for balancing or coordination. This lets you focus entirely on working your shoulder muscles without worrying about anything else.

The shoulder press machine is also suitable for senior training or others with compromised balance.

On the negative side, no machine fits every person in the way that free weights suit almost every body type. A particular machine might be constructed in a way that does not feel comfortable for your body.

4. Smith Machine Press

A better machine for shoulder pressing might be the smith machine shoulder press. This machine will fix the barbell path for you but will still fit all body types.

All you have to do is set up a bench underneath the barbell to comfortably press it up to straight arms over your head.

Because of the stability of the machine and the bench, this is another exercise where you can focus on exhausting your muscles without worrying about balance.

5. Push Press

Let’s leave the machines and seated exercises and check out a real power exercise. The push press adds a kicking start to the strict press, where you bend and then forcefully extend your knees to give the barbell momentum. This enables you to use more weight – much more when you’ve mastered the technique.

If the seated shoulder press variants allow you to focus on your shoulders and triceps and not think about coordination or functional strength, the push press goes in a completely different direction.

Patricia Strenius, the European weightlifting champion who is demonstrating the push press in the image above, once gave me advice on the push press after her laughs from seeing my technique had calmed down: “It’s all legs.”

And really, if you want to move really heavy weights in the push press (which is so much fun!), you really need to push super hard with your lower body. Your shoulders and arms just provide the finishing touch.

This can be seen in the difference between the press-to-push press ratio between regular gym-goers and Olympic weightlifters. While the regular gym-bro can lift maybe 10–20% more weight in the push-press than their strict press, an Olympic weightlifter can often lift 50–100% more weight.

Here’s a 225 kg (495 lb) push press by Dmitry Klokov to wrap up this section:

6. Kettlebell Press

Kettlebell Press
Kettlebell Press

Don’t have access to a barbell? A kettlebell is a cheap, easily stored alternative for your home shoulder workouts.

Being a free-weight exercise and one-handed to boot, the kettlebell press will definitely challenge the stabilizing musculature in your core and shoulder joints.

Besides, by training unilaterally (with one side at a time), you can identify and address side-to-side differences in strength and mobility.

7. Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The standing shoulder dumbbell press differs from the regular overhead press in that you use dumbbells instead of a barbell. This single change in equipment does, however, significantly increase the instability in the exercise and also the amount of shoulder mobility necessary.

Because of how you grip and balance the barbell, you seldom need to point your arms all the way up like you do with dumbbells. Typically, you will have a slightly wider grip on a barbell, turning your top arm position into more of a Y-shape than the dumbbell exercise. And in the seated dumbbell shoulder press, you usually have a bit of an incline on the bench which you can lean back on, also decreasing the amount of shoulder movement.

Personally, I think the standing dumbbell shoulder press is unnecessarily unstable and mobility-demanding to effectively build strength and muscle, but its utility depends on your fitness goals.

8. Overhead Press Behind the Neck

This article wouldn’t be complete without covering the behind-the-neck overhead press. As the name says, this is an overhead press variation where the barbell begins behind your neck instead of in front of you. This typically leads to a more upright torso position and greater activation in your lateral deltoids and rear deltoids.2

You don’t see behind-the-neck presses very often in today’s gyms, but they used to be a bodybuilding staple back in the day. One reason for its fall to obscurity might be the claim that pressing behind the neck is bad for your shoulders. While behind-the-neck pressing may require a bit more shoulder mobility than pressing in front of the neck, it is not a dangerous exercise provided you have normal range of motion in your shoulders.3 If you don’t, some behind-the-neck presses might be just the thing to improve it.

The behind-the-neck press typically leads to a more strict technique because cheating is difficult, and most people must use a lighter weight in behind-the-neck presses.

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do in the Overhead Press?

How many reps you should do of an exercise depends on your goal: do you mainly want to increase your strength or build muscle?

Generally, a lower rep range of about 1–5 reps per set (>85% of 1RM) is most effective for strength gains, while a medium-high rep range of about 8–15 reps per set is the most effective and practical for muscle growth. Of course, you will get a little bit of both no matter what rep range you train in, but you can emphasize one or the other slightly by working in the right number of reps.

Personally, I think the standing press lends itself best to a low or medium number of reps: somewhere between 1–8 reps per set. Why not the classic five reps?

How many sets you do of an exercise depends on your training experience, how many times you work out in a week, and your other training. But around ten sets per week for a given muscle group is a good starting point, and you can go even higher when you are used to training or if you stop your sets short of failure. You can read more about training volume in our article: How Many Sets per Muscle Group per Week?

Overhead Press Workout

You can easily create a sample overhead press workout by gradually warming up, and then completing three sets of five reps at the same weight. The next workout, you increase the weight by 2.5 kg (5 lb) and try to get three sets of five reps again. When you do, you increase the weight the next workout again.

Doing a few heavy sets of overhead presses is a great shoulder workout on its own, but if you really want to cover all shoulder muscles effectively, you could try out our shoulder workout routine below.

StrengthLog’s Shoulder Workout

  1. Overhead Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Upright Row: 3 sets x 10 reps
  3. Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets x 10 reps
  4. Barbell Front Raise: 3 sets x 10 reps
  5. Reverse Dumbbell Flyes: 3 sets x 12 reps

This shoulder workout is available for free in our workout log app.

By tracking your workouts in the app, you keep track of your weights and reps so that you can easily remember (and, more importantly: try to improve on them) in your next workout.

Overhead Press Programs

We have several training programs for the overhead press in StrengthLog.

The following two programs are overhead press specialization programs:

  • Press Pasodoble. 3x/week. A six-week upper body program focusing on increasing your overhead press strength and giving you boulders for shoulders.
  • Russian Pressing Ladder. 3x/week. A five-week program for improving your overhead pressing strength. Originally intended for the kettlebell press, it works just as fine for the barbell overhead press or the bench press.

The overhead press is part of many more of our most popular programs (albeit not as prioritized as in the two programs above), for example:

  • Beginner Barbell Workout Plan. 2–3x/week. Simple and effective, this training program gives you a perfect start in your training career. You will build muscle and strength swiftly by doing two to three barbell-based, whole-body workouts per week.
  • Beginner Powerlifting Program. 3x/week. A simple but effective training program for the beginner who wants to get started with powerlifting, or for the intermediate lifter coming back after a lay-off.
  • StrengthLog’s Full-Body Workout. 2x/week. If you only have time for two short workouts per week, this is your program. The beginner can make good gains on this program, but it is more of a maintenance program for the intermediate and advanced lifter.
  • Bodybuilding for Beginners. 3x/week. Do you want to get started in bodybuilding? Begin your muscle-building journey with three full-body workouts per week!
  • StrengthLog’s Upper/Lower Body Split Program. 4x/week. One of our most popular programs. Four workouts per week, emphasizing getting stronger in the compound lifts. For both muscle growth and strength gain!

Click here to see our full list of training programs.

Overhead Press FAQ

Let’s wrap up and summarize by answering some of the most frequently asked questions about the overhead press.

  1. What is the overhead press good for?
  2. What muscles does the overhead press work?
  3. Will the overhead press build big shoulders?
  4. Does the overhead press damage your shoulders?
  5. Will the overhead press build abs?
  6. What is the difference between the overhead press and the military press?
  7. Is the overhead press worth doing?

What Is the Overhead Press Good For?

The standing overhead press is good for building bigger and stronger shoulders and triceps. The standing press will also train your core and shoulder stability.

Being a compound exercise that works multiple major muscle groups simultaneously, the overhead press is a time-effective strength training exercise that gives you a lot of bang for your buck.

What Muscles Does the Overhead Press Work?

The overhead press primarily works your front delts, lateral delts, and triceps. Of these three, the front delts are probably worked the most.

Will the Overhead Press Build Big Shoulders?

Yes, the overhead press is a great exercise for building broad, big shoulders. If you want to hit all sides of your shoulders equally, however, you could add an exercise for your rear delts (like reverse dumbbell flyes) and perhaps also something more for your lateral delts (like lateral raises).

But, if you could only choose a single shoulder exercise, the overhead press would be a great choice.

Will the Overhead Press Build Abs?

While the standing overhead press will activate your abs and core muscles to stabilize your body and the weight, it will still not work your abs to the same degree that direct ab training will.

One way to increase core activation is to use one side at a time: like one-handed dumbbell presses or kettlebell presses. Because of the one-sided load, your abs (and especially your obliques) will have to work much harder to stabilize your core and pelvis. One study found three times higher oblique activation in unilateral (one-handed) presses compared to bilateral (two-handed).4

What Is the Difference between the Overhead Press and the Military Press?

While sometimes used interchangeably, the overhead and military press are two slightly different exercises.

While the overhead press is usually performed with your feet about hip-width apart and a slight backward lean, the military press is performed with your feet placed heel-to-heel in a V-shape. Your torso should also be very upright in the military press.

What difference does it make? Well, the larger base of support from your feet makes the regular overhead press a little more stable, and the slight backward lean lets you engage your upper chest muscles a bit more, which enables you to lift heavier weights.

Does the Overhead Press Damage Your Shoulders?

Any exercise has the potential to damage or strengthen your body. It all comes down to the dose and the load.

Doing excessive amounts of training – too much, too soon – increases the risk of an overuse injury.

If, on the other hand, you begin light and you gradually increase the weights and number of sets from there, the overhead press will make your shoulders stronger, healthier, more flexible, and robust – not damage them.

By tracking your training in our workout log, you can easily see what you did last time and gradually progress from there.

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  1. Exploring the Standing Barbell Overhead Press. Strength and Conditioning Journal 39(6):p 70-75, December 2017.
  2. Front vs Back and Barbell vs Machine Overhead Press: An Electromyographic Analysis and Implications For Resistance Training. Front Physiol. 2022 Jul 22;13:825880.
  3. Overhead shoulder press – In-front of the head or behind the head? Journal of Sport and Health Science. Volume 4, Issue 3, September 2015, Pages 250-257.
  4. Muscle activity of the core during bilateral, unilateral, seated and standing resistance exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology. May 2012, Volume 112, Issue 5, pp 1671–1678.