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January 12, 2021 10 min read

Military Presses are the kind of exercise that comes along and tests the real strength of your core. Overhead presses are already pretty intense, but bringing your heels together and standing at attention is going to draw out some serious strength from deep within your abs.

If you’re looking to test your body all together as one unit, then the military press is for you. They require explosive amounts of strength and stability, and mastering them is one of the most gratifying experiences in the world. If you think you’re up to the challenge, then you need to know how to do them right, and that’s where we come in.

Muscles Worked

Military presses are an excellent full-body workout. You’re going to be using most of the largest muscles in your upper body. Stabilizing your upper body while you move your center of balance so far up above where it normally is, and holding those weights up above your head is an excellent way to recruit the full effort of your upper body. Bringing your heels in together narrows your range of stability and forces you to draw on your upper body more than a standard overhead press.

You’ll be working your deltoids and triceps primarily, but your abs, quads, hamstrings, calves, and all of the muscles involved in stabilizing your ankles are going to be getting a workout. 

Your deltoids are responsible mostly for two things. The first thing is keeping together the intricate mechanism of your shoulders. Your humerus is connected to your shoulder in a socket near a bunch of muscles that are seemingly floating around in your body if you look at your skeletal structure divorced from the meat that keeps you together.

Your deltoids are a set of muscles that begin on your clavicle and scapula and insert themselves onto your humerus. They keep your arm in that socket and keep it from rattling around and falling out whenever you lift your weights. They’re also responsible for the abduction of your arm along the frontal plane of your body. In the military press this the action of pressing the weight up over your head.

Working the Triceps

Your triceps are a trio of muscles that run down the backside of your arm. They come together to extend your elbow joint, that movement is pretty important for extending your lower arm once you’ve started moving your dumbbells from the rack position on your chest. They also provide stability and strength in your arms.

The long head of your triceps is engaged when you need to generate a sustained force or when you’re using your shoulders and elbows at the same time. Lifting during the military press is the kind of motion and demand for force you need to engage that head of your triceps. The lateral head of your triceps is engaged when used for movements requiring high-intensity force.

Military presses, especially once you’re lifting heavier weights, will also recruit your triceps when you’re fighting against these weights and pressing them up above you.

Stabilizing your body during military presses falls mostly on your abs, but keeping you from falling forward are the antagonist muscles, the erector spinae muscles. These together keep your body straight and allow you to focus on pressing weights.

Military presses also ask you to keep your heels together while you’re standing, you can feel your ankles flexing, your glutes and all of the muscles in your upper legs are also going to be contracting appropriately as your balance. Literally from head to toe, military presses are great for your body.

A man doing Military dumbbell presses.

How to do Dumbbell Military Presses

Doing military presses with dumbells is incredibly simple. You don’t have to fuss with getting a barbell in position with a squat rack, and you’re not going to have to worry about getting your weights off of the ground and into position. Using dumbbells removes any of the friction between you and pressing your weights.

1. Grab Your Weights

Start by grabbing a pair of dumbbells. You want to make sure they’re each a reasonable weight if this is your first time. Remember that you’re trading overall weight lifted for stability and engagement of your auxiliary muscles when you do military presses with dumbbells, so the amount of weight you can handle with good form might be much less than when you’re pressing with a barbell.

2. Get Ready to Press

Start with your arms perpendicular to the ground, and bend your elbows up into a ninety-degree angle with your palms facing outward. You’re making a goal post shape with your arms. Make sure you’re keeping the weight above your elbows and parallel with the floor, don’t bow them out to the sides, or in towards your shoulders too much. This exercise is all about stability everywhere throughout your body, so pay attention to the small details.

Bring your heels together while you’re standing. This is what primarily separates a military press from an overhead press. The challenge here is from the reduced area of stability. If you stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, you’re making this much easier on yourself.

3. Rising Action

Engage your core and press the weights straight up over your head. You want to press the weights until your arms are fully extended and they meet up above your head. This motion should be controlled the entire time. If you go at this like a speed demon you’re cheating yourself out of engaging all of the muscles that are responsible for stabilizing your body. You’re also probably not going through your full range of motion, and relying on momentum to get the weights pressed up above you. 

4. Return to the Beginning

Lower the weights at a controlled speed until you’re back in your goal post position. Remember to exert control over the weights, this isn’t about speed, it’s about stability and strength.

Military Warm-up

Your shoulder joints are delicate. They allow you an incredible range of motion, and they’re a natural miracle, but that all comes at the cost of complexity. The ball and socket joint up there in your shoulders and all of the tendons and ligaments tying everything together are prone to slippage or tearing if you go into your exercises cold. You should be warming up this area and stretching regularly anyway if you overtrain your shoulders without limbering up you run just as much of a risk of injury by building an abundance of dense and tense muscle.

An easy way to limber up your shoulder joints is with a quick set of Shoulder Rolls. 

  • Start with your hands by your sides, and move your shoulders in full large circles
  • Move your shoulders slowly and deliberately in large circles. Make sure you’re rolling your shoulders as far back as you comfortably can. It can be helpful to imagine you’re trying to drop your shoulder blades into your back pockets
  • Reverse the direction of your shoulder rolls for maximum effect

If you want a more active warm-up, you would be well served by doing a short series of low-weight presses. This gets your blood pumping and prepares your muscles for the work ahead of them without running the risk of injury.

Make sure you’re getting some shoulder stretches in somewhere else if you’re opting for this warm-up. You want to make sure you’re keeping your delts flexible in the long run to avoid injuring your shoulders.

A man doing dumbbell military presses.

Variants: Dumbell Military Presses are technically the variant here, but there are several ways you can vary your military press to get the results you want. 

Barbell Military Press: Swapping out a barbell for the dumbbells will ease the amount of stability you’re going to have to manage. The barbell moves the center of mass towards the middle of your body, as well as allowing your arms to compensate for each other.

If one side of your body is weaker than the other, then using a barbell will allow you to make up for that. A barbell press is also going to allow you to press more weight. If using dumbbells feels like you’re not making the progress you want, try switching briefly to barbell presses, and you’ll see how much progress you’ve really made.

Arnold Press: Start your dumbbell presses like normal, that is, with your forearms supinated. Press up through your range of motion like you normally would, but as you press the weights up above your head, you’re going to rotate your arms so your forearms end in a pronated position. This variant on the overhead press is named after Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you didn’t know, not only was he one of the most famous bodybuilders on the face of the planet, he was the Chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports for a number of years. He’s more than just a pretty face, he has the accomplishments and know-how to back up his bodybuilding career, so when he invents a variant on an old exercise, you can bet this will have some results.

Clean and Press: If you feel like you’re up for an Olympic-level challenge, then take on the clean and press. This is the ultimate full-body exercise. You’re going to be combining the full-body challenge of a deadlift with the full-body challenge of a military press. You can technically do this with a pair of dumbbells, but this is much more manageable with a barbell.

Start by cleaning the weight off of the ground. You’re going to take a deep breath, set your back, and jump the weight up towards your chest quickly in a motion called a triple extension.

That means jumping up to your ankles, knees, and hips. Then when you’ve brought the weight as high as you possibly can with your legs, pull your body under the bar by shrugging your traps. Drop into a deep squat, and rotate your hands so your elbows are now extended in front of you, and then press the weight up over your head.

Overhead Press: Of course you can bring this exercise back to its roots. The overhead press is still an exercise that requires a lot out of your body. You’re going to need a lot of core strength, stability from your lats, and power in your upper arms to press the weights up above your head.

You can do these sitting or standing, while still reaping the benefits of your workout, so if you’ve had a particularly intense leg day, you can take a load off with a few sets of sitting overhead presses without burning out your legs. You can also use a regular overhead press to work your way up to military presses.

You’re going to struggle less with your stability because your legs will be around shoulder-width apart, allowing for a more natural balance and center of gravity. Once you feel like overhead presses aren’t challenging enough for you, you can graduate up to military presses, and really work your core. 

Additional Tips

Breathing: Breathing can make or break your military presses. If you can master your breathing you can probably work in an extra rep or two, and get your one-rep max up much higher. Your muscles are powered by oxygen and nutrients, and if you deprive your body of that precious oxygen during crucial moments, you’re needlessly handicapping yourself with no real benefit. Taking a deep breath before you start your lift not only sets your lower abdomen and your chest, it also supplies you with the oxygen you need to press the weights over your head. You can exhale as you press the weights over your head to avoid undue pressure on your torso since you’re already doing so much of that by setting your abs and back. When you’re lowering the weights this is the perfect time to take a breath in, and you’ll be right back where you started, and ready to exhale on your next press. 

Don’t Forget to Warm Up: The two easiest ways to injure yourself when you’re taking on the Military Press are neglecting your warm-up and taking on too much weight. You can avoid both of these by being realistic about the amount of weight you’re lifting, and by remembering to warm up every single time. It’s tempting to cut down on your time in the gym by packing on more weight and going for fewer reps, but you’re not going to be building muscle if you’re laid up in your bed for a week after you pulled your shoulder. Just take the minute it takes to warm up, and lift a challenging, but realistic amount of weight.

Take Rest Days: We understand you’re trying to build strength with these military presses, but part of building strength is allowing your body to rest. Building strength comes from your muscles adapting to increased loads over a period of time. You’re going to be focusing on pressing progressively heavier weights just short of failure so you’re not running the risk of dropping dumbbells on your dome. This encourages hypertrophy in your body. Your body will want to repair your muscles, making them larger and increasing their capacity to store energy locally. As your muscles become larger and better at storage, they’ll increase in strength over time, but that means you have to give your muscles time off. Switch up your routine throughout the week, or take a full day or two off to allow your body time to patch up your muscles and you’ll be better prepared to push it next time.

Mind-Muscle Connection: When you’re trying to build strength, try focusing on building up your mind-muscle connection. By paying close attention to your body while you’re lifting your weights, you can more effectively utilize them. Think about how your delts encapsulate your shoulders, and where they’re connected to your humerus.

Utilize them fully when you’re extending your arms vertically in line with your body. Feel how your triceps extend your elbow and try to maximize the long head of your triceps when you’re fully extending and stabilizing your arms. If you can cut down on randomly engaging muscles without being sure what results you’re going to get, you can maximize their effectiveness, lift more weight over a shorter amount of time, and build strength more effectively. 

Standing at Attention

Military presses are an excellent exercise for your full body. You’re employing everything from your head to your toes to keep your body stable while pressing a good deal of weight up above your head. You need to keep a strong core, a steady grip, solid legs, and strong arms in order to pull this off.

Using dumbbells isolates each of your arms, keeping you from overcompensating with your dominant side. They’re an exercise designed to hone your strength to a razor’s edge, and as long as you’re mindful of your form and honest about the weight you can manage, Military Presses are an excellent way to build strength effectively.