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November 10, 2021 10 min read

With a filled-out upper body, a pair of  boulders for shoulders completes the optimal physique.

Not only does it exude strength and confidence, but strong shoulders are a keystone of an overall strong upper body.

One of the most popular lifts in the iron temple to train this area of your body is the barbell shoulder press. A heavy, compound lift, the shoulder press promises to transform your upper body by giving you width and size. But to reap all the benefits of this lift, proper form is absolutely essential. We’ve outlined the correct way to perform the shoulder press (and more) down below.

The Benefits of the Barbell Shoulder Press

The shoulder press is a compound movement that requires a lot of complex, moving parts. Normally this is a recipe for a wide range of benefits, and the shoulder press is no different in this respect.

Muscled male model showing his back

Shoulder Strength and Aesthetics

It goes without saying, but your upper body strength and aesthetics are going to be positively impacted by including shoulder presses in your training routine.

The barbell allows you to lift heavy, making it a great strength-building exercise. And even though the barbell allows for lifting heavier, light loads will allow you to better emphasize hypertrophy.

This makes the shoulder press a fantastic exercise if you’re training for other power and strength sports.

For example, Olympic weightlifting requires a strong overhead position for snatches and jerks. Even if you’re not training for a specialized need, the overhead press is one of the basic movement patterns that we use in everyday life. The carryover benefits of the shoulder press are important and vast.

Healthy Shoulders

The shoulder joints can be prone to injury, so strengthening this area is a great way to ward of potential injuries. Our shoulder joints are used for holding things above our head, controlling the eccentric movements in lifting, among other things.

Improving the mechanics of these actions all plays into greater injury resilience.

And since the shoulder press also strengthens the core and other areas of the upper body, it can work to improve posture. Improving posture is another great way to reduce the likelihood of aches and pains occurring later in life.

A Full Body Workout

Although the movement itself is relatively simple, the shoulder press recruits many different muscle groups across your entire body. While the shoulders are the stars of the show, you’re going to be using muscles all the way down to your lower body, for stability needs. The only major muscle groups that aren’t heavily utilized are the hamstrings, calves, and quads.

The primary muscles worked are:

  • Delts
  • Upper chest
  • Triceps
  • Trapezius

With these muscles also coming into play, although not as much:

  • Lower back
  • Biceps
  • Abdominals
  • Serratus anterior
  • Lats
  • Glutes

What About the Military Press?

Looking online at shoulder presses, you’re going to find a lot of information on the “overhead press” and the “military press” as well. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, and sometimes they mean specific things.

“Overhead press” is usually used as an umbrella for movements that have you press over your head, however, this depends on the source as much as anything else. The military press is also sometimes differentiated as a shoulder press with “stricter” form.

Your legs are technically supposed to come closer together, which activates more of your core to keep you stable—however, this sort of form isn’t really used. Not to mention that you should always be using “strict” form. For our purposes, we’ll use these three terms to mean the same thing: the barbell shoulder press.

Dumbbells vs. Barbells

Another important differentiation is between the dumbbell shoulder press and the barbell shoulder press. The main point is that dumbbells make the shoulder press a unilateral exercise, while the barbell uses both sides of your body.

Mechanically, this means a few different things. For one, you’re going to be able to move more weight with a barbell since you’re using both sides of your body, which will lead to more gains.

However, you’re also going to have a tendency of making up for the weaker side with your stronger side, leading to uneven development. Dumbbells can also be easier to use for those who have had injuries that have affected their mobility since a barbell requires both arms to be attached to one bar in the same plane of movement. Whether you choose one or the other will largely depend on your starting fitness level and overall fitness goals

How to Perform the Standing Barbell Shoulder Press

Now that we better know what makes a shoulder press a shoulder press, let’s take a closer look at what it takes to perform one.

Make sure you implement some warm-up movements beforehand, and bonus points for doing some shoulder and arm stretches. This will get more blood pumping into the necessary muscles and set the stage for greater gains and a more effective exercise. 

To set up for the lift, you’ll want to position the rack supports so that the bar isn’t too low or too high.

Essentially, you’re aiming to lift up the bar without either having to crouch down or to get up on your toes. Around your upper chest area is a good place to rack it.

  1. Once you’ve got the bar in position, you’re going to want to grasp it at around shoulder-width apart. You should have an overhand grip, with palms facing away from you. In terms of wrist positioning, you do want to maintain a slight bend so that the bar rests comfortably in your palm, but you don’t want them bent back anywhere close to 90-degrees. Your hands should be either in line with your shoulders or just outside of them. Your forearms will be pointing straight up, perpendicular to the floor.
  2. Next you’re going to want to get yourself in the correct position. Walking back with the bar until you’ve just cleared the rack, get in a shoulder-width stance. You want to bring your elbows in towards your torso, while also pushing them forward just slightly. This will allow the bar to more comfortably rest on your chest and front shoulders.
  3. Slightly bend your upper back, bringing your head back slightly and allowing the weight of the barbell to center over your midfoot. This will allow the bar to clear your chin as you press it up. However, if you’ve previously had back injuries, you may want to try alternatives to arching your upper back.
  4. Once you’re in the correct position, tighten your core and glutes to get ready for the ascent. Bring your chest up and take a deep breath, maintaining the correct bar position. Press the bar upward off your chest and shoulders.
  5. As the bar clears your head, push your body underneath the bar, bringing your arms directly above your head. Getting better at the barbell overhead press will mean being able to explosively clear the first half of the movement, and then quickly locking out your elbows above your head.
  6. To lower it back down you’ll want to simply reverse the movement. However, this also means bringing your head back so that the bar doesn’t hit you on the way down. Don’t try to make up for this by allowing the bar to come very far forward, since this wastes energy. The straighter path of the bar down, the more you’re going to get out of the exercise. It shouldn’t be further than a couple of inches away from your nose.
  7. Once back in the starting position, continue for the desired amount of reps.   

Tips for Taking Your Press to the Next Level

The barbell shoulder press is a difficult movement that can be loaded heavy, and so there are many things that can go wrong with it. It’s particularly difficult on your back, at least if done with improper form. This can lead to injuries and back pain over the long term, so you’re going to want to ensure that it’s done as close to perfect as possible.

Below are some tips to help you get the most out of the shoulder press:

All in the Hands

There are two points to keep in mind when looking at the hands: the grip width and the positioning of the wrists. You might see people grabbing the barbell significantly wider than shoulder-width apart since it decreases the range of motion and therefore makes the lift easier to do.

However, this isn’t something you want to get accustomed to.

Not only does the decrease in the range of motion get in the way of hitting all the muscle fibers you want to hit, but it’ll also make the initial portion of each rep much more difficult. This means you’ll be using less weight, leading to fewer gains. The proper width will have your elbows directly underneath your hands and your forearms perpendicular to the bar.

Your wrist mobility will also come into play.

For this, you need to have a good starting position—a slight angle, but not close to 90-degrees. This will give the barbell more support while also not placing unnecessary pressure on your wrists. Better placement of the wrists will also allow for a bigger push at the beginning of the lift. Wrist mobility also plays a part in allowing your elbows to come in closer to your body in the latter part of the press, where the weight is more easily managed.

Shoulders, Chest, and Head

The rest of your upper body also has plenty of intricacies to follow throughout the lift. With the shoulder blades, you want them squeezed back. When initiating the movement, focus on the shoulders to get the weight moving upward. On the descent, the shoulders should also come into play by carefully lowering the bar in a controlled manner. Keeping your chest up also plays directly into maintaining a good position for your back.

A stable back will allow for a smoother press, which will place less stress on your joints while maintaining tension on your muscles. Finally, remember to move the head as you come up and then back down again. The path of the bar should be as straight as possible, and the more you need to move it outward to miss your head, the less efficient the exercise will be.

Engaging the Core

Core engagement is also very important in the barbell shoulder press. You can tell if someone’s core isn’t properly engaged by looking at their lower back. Any excessive rounding means that the core muscles aren’t being properly engaged. This is obviously bad for your lower back health, but it’ll also lead to a less stable base from which to press the weight up. A less stable press means you’re going to be wasting more energy on keeping it along the proper path, which means less emphasis placed on the muscles you actually want to be targeting.

Pressing Up instead of Out

This plays directly into the positioning of the head, but it’s worth repeating. You want the bar to travel in as straight of a line as possible. Any forward movement will take energy away from the lift, making it more difficult and taking the focus away from the shoulders.

Aim on the side of caution on the descent, the bar should come fairly close to your body. A better bar path will come with more experience and practice—but the practice should be quality.

Proper Lockout

In order to get the full benefits of the shoulder press, you’re going to want to complete it with a full range of motion. And a full range of motion means locking out your elbows as you bring the bar over your head.

If you return back down into the starting position before you’ve brought the bar all the way up, you’re going to cut your gains short—especially if this mistake continues over the long term. The only reason you should consider not locking out your elbows is if you’ve had a previous elbow injury that prevents you from doing this.

Trying Different Press Variations

Variety is the spice of life, and the same is true for barbell shoulder presses. While we’ve only looked at the classic shoulder press, there are many, many variations to choose from—even if you’re only looking at variations using the barbell.

Introducing different ways of performing the shoulder press will lead to a more  well-rounded development in your shoulders and other areas of the upper body.

Sticking to the same movement for an extended period will make you very good at that one movement, but you also want to challenge your body. Adding variation will also be good for the mental game since you won’t fall into a pit of boredom, or plateau.

Proper Programming

The right sort of programming will come down to your goals, but the shoulder press is generally programmed similar to other heavy barbell compound lifts, such as squats, bench press, and deadlifts. If you’re looking to build muscle for bodybuilding goals (hypertrophy), then you want to stick to lower or moderate loads with higher rep ranges. For example, 3 or 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps would do the trick.

On the other hand, strength training will have you use heavier weights along with lower rep ranges.

Going 3 sets with 4 to 6 reps is a good ballpark range for focusing on strength gains—especially if you’re using the shoulder press to improve your performance in other athletic activities or lifts.

Progression can either be done by increasing the weight, increasing the volume (i.e., number of reps), or slowing down the tempo so your muscles stay the eccentric contraction for a longer period of time. Whichever method you choose, challenging yourself is going to be the only way to progress.

Barbell Shoulder Press Variations

Like we mentioned above,  introducing variation into your shoulder workouts is a sure-fire way to make working out more interesting, progress through plateaus, and keep your muscles challenged in different ways.

Although dumbbells and kettlebells can also be used, some barbell-centric shoulder pressing exercises include:

  • Seated overhead press
  • Thrusters
  • Push press
  • Partial press
  • Z press
  • Javelin press

While all of these presses rely on the basic overhead movement, they also have their specific use-cases that will allow you to fine-tune your training.

Big Nutrition for Big Shoulders

The barbell shoulder press is a difficult lift, but there’s plenty of benefits to having lifters come back to it. Not only will it help fill out your shirts, but it’s also going to help you keep up shoulder health over the longer term. However, the shoulder press is only going to get have a part of the way there. To ensure consistent and efficient gains, nutrition is going to be the most important sticking point in your training.

Without enough high-quality, whole foods, you’re not going to see the results you should be seeing. Protein, being the building block of muscle, is going to be particularly important, and so supplementing with a  quality protein powder is always a good idea.

With the right training program and the right food on your dinner plate, you’re going to create a chiseled physique—with the shoulders to match.