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March 15, 2022 9 min read

“Variety is the spice of life.” This quote is exactly what you need to keep in mind when selecting exercises for your shoulder routine.

So what happens when you have to make the ultimate choice between unique exercises? This is what many gym enthusiasts ask themselves as they make arguments about three legendary exercises; the military press, shoulder press, and overhead press.

So Which Exercise Is Better?

All of them.

The military press, shoulder press, and  overhead press are all variations of pressing or pushing exercises. Although they are quite different, each of these exercises bears distinct similarities. All three exercises have their pros and cons, and your preference should be determined by what most suits your fitness goals.

The military, shoulder, and overhead press are all strength-training compound exercises.

They involve vertical pushing actions where the arms and shoulders are the prime movers. These exercises are vital players in building and strengthening major muscle groups in the upper body.

What makes the military vs. shoulder vs. overhead press an especially difficult one is how similar these exercises are. They feature a similar technique of execution and even target similar muscles. So how do you know the difference between each exercise?

Military Press

The traditional military press is a test of a man’s strength. It is a strict exercise that works the major muscle groups in the upper body. When doing this exercise, your posture is the key to unlocking its promises of bigger traps and broader shoulders. In the days when the military press was popular, men thirsted for wider shoulders.

The military press is an overhead barbell press that works your arms, shoulders, chest, back and core muscles.

This exercise used to be a staple in bodybuilding events in military settings- probably what contributed to its name- until it finally depleted in popularity.

This upper-body strength-training exercise was considered the actual test of strength.

It was prevalent in the late 1800s and was one of the weight listings that was added in the 1972 Olympics. The military press was performed like any other overhead press: The weighted barbell went from your chest to fully extended over your head. It, however, gap peculiar features. When performing the traditional military press, your feet were held together in attention.

This simulated the actions of the army men. The military press also had a stricter form than the typical overhead press.

During the exercise, your body is a rigid rod, aligned from head to toe, while your arms do all the work. The military press is so unique that it trains and strengthens the deltoids, triceps, upper chest, trapezius muscles, rhomboids, abdominal muscles, biceps, lower back, lats,  serratus anterior, and glutes. This is thanks to the upward pressing motion of the barbell from the upper chest, up, and back down. 

How To Perform The Military Press


More recently, the military press has shifted from being strict to being treated like any other press exercise. This is primarily due to the rise in popularity of other exercises like the overhead press. 

To perform the traditional or authentic military press:

  • Start by facing a barbell placed on a rack at shoulder height.
  • Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from you.
  • Stand close to the frame, so the bar is within easy reach and lift range.
  • With your hands still gripping the barbell, bend your knees and pre-tension your shoulders.
  • Engage your core.
  • Contract your glutes and drive through your legs to unrack the bar.
  • Hold the barbell on your chest and take a few steps backward.
  • Stand with your feet together and tuck your chin.
  • Pinch your shoulder blades together.
  • Engage your core and contract your glutes.
  • Ensure that your elbows are pointing forward.
  • Exhale and press the bar straight up to the ceiling without locking out your shoulders.
  • Pause at the top of the movement.
  • As you reach the top of the movement, push your neck forward, so your biceps end up close to your ears.
  • Inhale as you lower the bar to chin height.
  • Make sure you retract your neck to avoid hitting the full weight of the bar on your head.
  • This is one rep.

Today, other variations like the  dumbbell military press and sitting military press are slightly different from the traditional military press. 

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Shoulder Press & Overhead Press

The shoulder and overhead press is where it begins to get confusing. The shoulder press is also known as the ‘overhead press,’ but this is not entirely true.

The Overhead Press

The shoulder press can be done in two different methods: using free weight equipment and using a shoulder press machine. The free-weight shoulder press is done using barbells and dumbbells, while the machine shoulder press can only be performed with the shoulder press machine, a piece of equipment primarily found in the gym.

So are the shoulder press and overhead press the same exercise? Yes, they are.

The shoulder press can only be referred to as a different exercise only when performed using a machine, and even at that, it remains an upper-body strengthening exercise.

The shoulder or overhead press is a body conditioning weightlifting exercise that primarily targets the front part of your shoulders which is also known as the anterior deltoid. While this is its primary function, the overhead press also activates and engages secondary movers like the other two delts- lateral and posterior, the triceps of your arms, the traps of your back, the pectoral muscles of your chest, your abs, and your core muscles.

How To Do The Overhead Press


Like the military press, the shoulder/overhead press involves lifting a barbell upward while the rest of your body remains immobile. Gym-goers and muscle builders often employ it to improve muscle don't and definition, increase muscle mass, increase strength, improve stamina, and for a host of other benefits. 

To perform the overhead press:

  • Set a barbell in a rack to level the barbell with your upper chest.
  • Stand with your foot underneath the barbell
  • Grip the bar with your palms facing away slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Ensure that your elbows point down in this position, and your wrists are directly over your elbows.
  • Unrack the bar.
  • Take two steps backward and keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and distribute your weight evenly to find your balance.
  • Pull your shoulder blades back and tuck your chin.
  • Contract your lats and engage your core.
  • Keep your chest proud and back straight.
  • Tilt your head as you press the barbell towards the ceiling.
  • Pause at the top of your movement before initiating the downward phase.

The overhead press is a demanding exercise that requires strength and concentration. For the best result, couple your routine with  CHARGED-AF for advanced energy, increased focus, and improved performance.

The Shoulder Press

The shoulder press or machine shoulder press is a variation of the barbell shoulder/overhead press that helps to isolate the shoulder muscles. It is also sometimes known as the seated shoulder press because it involves sitting in the machine and pressing the fixed resistance attached to it.

The machine shoulder press is a beginner-friendly variation as the machine takes away the need for balance and stability. 

As an added plus, the resistance on the machine can be adjusted to go from lightest to heaviest, enabling you to workout according to your fitness level. 

The mechanics sound simple: hop in the chair and press the handles while the machine guides your pathway. This might be true, but like other pressing exercises, the machine's shoulder press is done with proper form to activate the proper muscle groups.

How To Perform The Shoulder Press


The shoulder machine press can be used as training wheels to prepare you for the more challenging overhead press. Given that you are not only learning to perfect the proper pressing form but also strengthening your deltoid, traps, and chest muscles, it is a win-win situation. 

To perform the shoulder press:

  • Adjust the machine seats, so the handles are at shoulder height.
  • Select your resistance weight.
  • Sit upright in the machine.
  • Endure that your head, neck, back, and hip rests against the seat’s padded support.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and hip-width apart or wider.
  • Grab the handles with a pronated grip with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Your arms should be fully extended without straining, and your elbows should point downward.
  • Press the weight upward over your head by extending your arms without locking out your elbows. 
  • Pause to allow full muscle contraction.
  • Slowly lower the weight by bringing your elbows down while keeping your arms tucked to your sides. 
  • Do not let the weight go all the way down and rest on the stack. This will help you withhold muscle tension.

Similarities Between All Three Exercises

The military, overhead, and shoulder press might be different, but they have one thing in common: they employ the same movements and range of motion. All three exercises involve extending the arms and raising resistance. All three exercises are top choices for building the arms, shoulders, and connecting muscles. They target similar muscle groups and help to condition these muscles.


To begin with, the significant difference between the military and overhead press is the stance employed during the exercise. In the military press, the feet are kept together in a strict posture that aims to keep tension within the body. The overhead press, on the other hand, adopts a broader stance with the feet spread out with a shoulder-wide space between them. 

While this might not look like a big deal, it changes a lot about each exercise.

Keeping your feet together in the military press changes your center of gravity while you press the barbell. This challenges your balance and stability, forcing you to engage your core and stabilizer muscles to hold the correct form throughout your routine.

The wider stance used in the overhead press enables you to achieve more balance, thereby reducing the extent to which you depend on your stabilizer to keep you stabilized. 


Another difference between the two exercises is the piece of weighted equipment used. To perform the military press, you need to use barbells. Overhead presses, on the other hand, can be performed using barbells and dumbbells.

Targeted Muscles

 Finally, the military press targets a broader range of muscles from your deltoid to triceps. In contrast, the overhead press primarily works your delts but engages the triceps as a secondary muscle. The shoulder press, on the other hand, isolates the deltoids. This makes the military press a challenging yet more adequate option for training the shoulders and arms.

When comparing the military and the shoulder press, it might seem like you might be looking at two very different exercises.

The most striking difference between both is the military press is performed while standing and lifting a barbell while the shoulder press is performed while sitting in a shoulder press machine.

Compared to the military press, the machine severely limits the core activation. Sitting in the chair takes away the need to engage your core for balance. The military traditional press is a taxing exercise where you perform all the work by yourself, while the shoulder press is more machine-assisted and provides a built-in exercise pathway.

The overhead press also enables you to recruit the help of your deep core muscle and other stabilizer muscles for balance. It engages these often neglected and hard-to-reach muscles, strengthening them and helping you hone the features they provide: balance, stamina, and stability.


    Like the shoulder press, the military and overhead press can be performed while sitting, so there isn't a lot of competition in that aspect. However, when it comes to resistance, both the military and overhead press, which are free-weight options, provide a broader range of motion and more benefits than the shoulder press. 

    Ultimately, The shoulder press machine also provides a pathway for you to follow, limiting your range of movement. However, this allows you to lift heavier than you probably can during the overhead press. If shoulder hypertrophy is your Christmas wish, this is one thing the shoulder press machine will provide.


    The question about the best exercise between the military, shoulder, and overhead press is a topic without a right or wrong answer. All three exercises are great additions to any workout routine and provide significant benefits to the major muscle groups of the upper body.

    The military, shoulder, and overhead press have pros and cons.

    Your choice of what exercises to perform should not rely on what the public considers a safe option but on your current fitness level and fitness goal. For more varieties, check out other upper body strengthening exercises like the  barbell clean and press.

    Note: Get the most out of every workout with the most effective pre-workouts in the fitness world. The hardest part can be finding the right pre-workout for you, so we created the Pre-Workout Bundle that lets you try them all. Comes with a free T-shirt and shaker bottle. Grab your $9 bundle now!