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June 13, 2022 8 min read

Building strength and mass in your upper body can be achieved through movements like the overhead press. Although it's beneficial for building a solid back and shoulders, it's also a functional movement that can improve shoulder mobility, balance, and core stability. 

Similar to a shoulder press, the overhead press uses several muscle groups in your upper body to press the barbell overhead. This pressing movement also recruits the lower body for stability, which plays a part in why you may be able to lift a heavy amount of weight up. 

Benefits of the Overhead Press 

A functional exercise like the overhead press can help improve your gym performance and quality of life. Whether strength, stability, or muscle mass is your goal, the overhead press can be a great move to incorporate into your routine.    

Upper Body Hypertrophy 

The overhead press works several major muscle groups in your upper body, many of which contribute to a sculpted beach bod aesthetic. You don't have to be a bodybuilder to want to build muscle in certain areas.

Many athletes can benefit from the overhead press, and since it recruits so many different muscles, it has the ability to build a big back, shoulders, and arms.  

Shoulder Strength and Stability  

Lifting anything overhead, whether it's a barbell or a moving box, can put stress on your shoulders. If they're not trained enough, you can increase your risk of injury. One of the primary muscles worked in this compound exercise are the shoulders.

The overhead press is a beneficial functional movement that can carry over to other lifts and your life outside the gym.   

Improved Pressing Strength 

If you want a better bench press, building your pressing strength should be an important part of your workout routine.

There are plenty of upper body exercises that can help contribute to a stronger bench, and the overhead press is one of them. It works the shoulders, triceps, and pecs, all of which are essential parts of the bench press.  

Stabilizer Muscles Worked by the Overhead Press

When performing any type of exercise, there are several muscles working, even if you can't necessarily feel them working. These are the stabilizer muscles that help keep you upright, in line, and allow you to perform the exercise properly and safely.    


Your abdominal muscles are composed of several parts, all of which help to stabilize your spine and assist in movement.

The main core muscles are: 

  • Rectus Abdominis
  • Transverse Abdominis
  •  External and internal obliques 

The overhead press is not a conventional core exercise, but the abdominals are recruited to perform it properly. When you're pressing the weight overhead, your core must engage in order to stabilize and balance your body. This can help get the bar up, as well as help avoid an injury.

Core activation is prominent in exercises like the overhead press and push press, and it can provide greater spine stability and force transfer from the upper and lower body. 

In order to avoid excessive arching in your lower back, the abdominals must be active. If your back is arched too much, it can increase your risk of injury. Your core strength helps create a stable foundation for you to press the weight from. 


One of the responsibilities of the glutes is to stabilize the hips to help maintain balance and posture.

The gluteal muscles are made up of three different parts: 

  • Gluteus maximus 
  • Gluteus minimus 
  • Gluteus medius 

An important part of the overhead press is maintaining a strong and stable base to help push the weight from. Without this base, you can risk the chance of an inefficient, unsafe workout.

The glutes help create this base by stabilizing the hips and preventing the lumbar spine from hyperextending.

Activating your glutes during an overhead press can help keep your body in a straight line, which can be helpful for injury prevention. Although the overhead press may not grow your glutes like a deadlift might, these muscles work as stabilizers to help you perform the exercise properly and safely. 

Scapular Stabilizers 

The scapular stabilizers are made up of several muscles.

These are the muscles that are in the upper back surrounding the shoulder blade: 

  • Serratus anterior
  • ​Rhomboids
  • Levator scapulae
  • Trapezius 

These muscles help provide stability and strength to the shoulder joint to reduce the risk of injury.

They are especially important during an exercise like the overhead press because proper shoulder stabilization can help position the barbell safely above your head.

This is also crucial in Olympic lifts like jerk variations and snatches because not only are you holding a weight above your head, but you're getting it up there explosively.

Lifters of any kind, from beginners to advanced, should train these muscles to help prevent injury, pain, and lack of mobility. Exercising these muscles regularly can help improve posture, flexibility, and range of motion.      

Primary Muscles Worked by the Overhead Press 

Primary muscles, or movers, are the main muscles targeted during an exercise. Although the overhead press may seem like only a shoulder workout, there are several muscle groups recruited to help press the weight up.  


It may come to no surprise that pressing straight up works the muscles in your shoulders.

The largest shoulder muscles are the deltoids, and they are composed of three parts: 

  • Anterior (front) deltoids
  • ​Lateral deltoids
  • Posterior (back) deltoids

Together, they are responsible for arm abduction, flexion, and extension. They help stabilize and protect the shoulder joint and can also help compensate for strength if you've suffered a rotator cuff injury.

Since the deltoid is responsible for raising the arm overhead, it is a primary muscle in the overhead press. More specifically, the front delt is most active.   

If the deltoids are weak, your pressing movements in the gym can suffer, but it can also make moving your arm or lifting anything overhead more difficult.

Without strength and stability in the deltoids, poor range of motion and risk of injury can increase. 

Shoulder injuries are common, especially among overhead athletes, so shoulder exercises are important to keep these muscles strong for them to provide more stability.  


Located on the back of the upper arm are the triceps. They are responsible for elbow extension and also play a role in shoulder stability.

Three heads make up the triceps: 

  • ​Medial head
  • Lateral head
  • Long head 

Pressing exercises like the overhead press or the bench press work the triceps at the top of the movement during the lockout phase. That means as you straighten your elbow joint until your arms are extending, the triceps are recruited.

Weakness in these muscles could be causing the sticking point of your pressing movements, which could be detrimental in powerlifting competitions.

It can also cause shoulder pain, limited range of motion, and compensation from surrounding muscles. This itself could lead to problems in the shoulders. Function and upper body strength can be improved by strengthening muscles like the triceps, but you can also build muscle in your arms with tricep exercises. 

Upper Pectorals 

The pectorals, or pecs, are located in your chest and are composed of two major parts:

  • Pectoralis major
  • Pectoralis minor 

These muscles help move your arm and shoulder through adduction, flexion, and internal rotation. In the upper chest are the upper pectorals, and these can be targeted during exercises like the incline bench press and the overhead press. The upper pecs are part of the pectoralis major, and they help you perform pushing movements in and outside the gym.

You want to train these muscles, not just for a bigger upper body, but because if they're weak, you can increase your risk of unstable shoulders and poor breathing and posture. 

Pairing the overhead press with other pressing variations that are made to target the chest can help you build a bigger, stronger upper body.        

How to Overhead Press  

Lifting anything overhead can put your shoulders in a vulnerable position. It's crucial that proper form takes priority during strength training, no matter how much you want to add more weight on. The movement pattern may seem simple since you're just pressing overhead, but a wrong positioning could hurt your workout or your body. 

Here's how to do the Overhead Press: 

  1. Hold a barbell at shoulder height, so it's resting on your upper chest. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Keep your eyes straight ahead, chest up, and core tight. Don't forget to squeeze to keep your glutes tight to help keep your hips in line. 
  3. Maintaining this position, press the bar in a straight line directly overhead. This means you'll have to move your head out of the way, so as the bar is raising, push your head back. Once the bar passes, push your head back through. 
  4. Use your triceps to fully extend your arms at the top but don't lock them out. Slowly return the bar in the same path to the starting position and take a breath before starting the next rep. 

Overhead Press Variations 

If you don't have a barbell at your disposal, or you just need a change, there are different variations of the overhead press that help to target the same muscles. Check out some of the best exercises to temporarily replace the overhead press. 

Dumbbell Overhead Press

You may be able to lift more with a barbell than with dumbbells, but the dumbbell overhead press, more commonly referred to as the dumbbell shoulder press, provides unilateral benefits that you likely won't get with the barbell overhead press.

Using dumbbells or even kettlebells helps you to work both sides of the body equally and requires more stabilization and balance.

This variation can help correct imbalances in your upper body and can make your conventional overhead press stronger.  

How to do the Dumbbell Overhead Press: 

  1. Hold one dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height.
  2. Keeping your chest up and core tight, press the dumbbells straight overhead until your arms are extended.
  3. Slowly lower back down through the same path.

Seated Overhead Press

You'll use the same movement pattern with this variation, but as you could probably tell by the name, you'll be seated. The standing overhead press requires more stability from the core, so if you perform it seated, you won't need as much work from the stabilizer muscles. This can be beneficial for isolating the primary muscles more and helping increase hypertrophy. 

How to do the Seated Overhead Press: 

  1. Sit on a stable bench or surface high enough so that your feet can stay flat on the ground.
  2. Perform the overhead press the same way as you would standing.

Push Press

The overhead press strictly uses your upper body to press the weight up with some help from stabilizer muscles.

The push press is the same idea as the overhead press, but it uses momentum from the lower body to help get the weight up.

Popular in CrossFit, the push press uses a "dip and drive" from the hips to explosively drive the weight overhead, which can allow you to use a heavier weight. This exercise can be beneficial for building power and improving athletic performance. 

How to do the Push Press:

  1. Stand up tall and hold a barbell at shoulder height.
  2. Slightly bend your knees and dip your hips while maintaining a proud chest.
  3. Explosively extend your hips and knees as you quickly drive the barbell straight overhead. 
  4. Lower the bar back to your shoulders and dip your hips again to get ready for the next rep.  

Let's Wrap Up 

Your upper body is important for so many reasons, and a weak one could make even the simplest of activities more difficult. Weightlifting can be a great way to improve your strength and body composition, and just about anyone can find a place for the overhead press.

Since it is an overhead movement, don't be afraid to consult with a knowledgeable personal trainer if you're unsure of how to perform it. It's not just about pressing overhead. The muscle activation all throughout your body helps prove why this exercise can be important to do and do properly. 

Compound movements can be beneficial for building strength and boosting performance, and when combined with a pre-workout like Charged-AF, your energy and focus can be enhanced.

The overhead press should be taken as seriously as moves like the deadlift, squat, and bench press. Knowing the muscles you're working in an exercise can help you take your goals more seriously and reach them. Now that you know all the muscles being recruited during the overhead press, there's only one thing left to do. Get pressing.