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The Ultimate Guide to the Military Press: The Key to Great Shoulders

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If you want to build a muscular, strong upper body and push your shoulders to their limits, then you want to do the military press.

 

Pick it up and put it down.

Those seven words summarize effective weightlifting. The more an exercise meets that description, and the more challenging it is, the more you should be doing it.

  • Take the deadlift, for example. It’s arguably the hardest and single best exercise you can do for whole-body strength and muscularity and it literally has you pick weight up and put it down.
  • The squat would be number two on my list of the toughest “must-do” exercises and it too involves the simplest of motions: weighted sitting and standing, up and down.
  • Then there’s the bench press, undeniably one of the best upper-body builders, and how do you do it? Push weight up and down.

And last but not least is the subject of this article…the overhead (and less glamorous) version of the bench press…the military press.

This exercise was once the test of total upper-body strength, before we started asking “how much do you bench bro?” and it’s found in every serious weightlifting program for a good reason:

Research shows it’s the most effective exercise you can do to build anterior deltoid strength and it also heavily involves the triceps, upper back.

I know firsthand the effectiveness of the military press. Here’s a picture of me several years ago, before I had gotten serious about my heavy military pressing:

overhead press

If you look at my left shoulder in relation to my bicep and tricep, you can see it’s just too small.

So I got to work, and here’s what a couple years of hard shoulder pressing did:

military press

I could still use a bit more lateral deltoid development, but the overall shape of my shoulders has improved quite dramatically. And I can thank the military press for much of that.

Like all powerful compound exercises, however, the military press demands respect. Half-reps get you half-results. Half-form can get you worse.

Well, in this article you’re going to learn everything you need to know to do the perfect press. May your shoulders never be the same!

The Muscles Worked by the Military Press

standing military press

The beauty of a compound exercise like the military press is it trains several major muscles simultaneously.

The primary muscle groups involved are…

The shoulders.

The military press trains all three deltoid muscles with the emphasis on the anterior (front) deltoids.

(And as a side note, if you want full, “3D,” “cannonball” shoulders, military pressing along won’t get you there. Check out this article on shoulder training to learn more.

The upper back.

The primary muscle group in your back recruited by the military press is the trapezius (traps), but the rhomboids also play an important role as well as the muscles in the lower back.

I haven’t done a shrug in years but have built some pretty well-developed traps through heavy military pressing and deadlifting alone.

The triceps and biceps.

Some people say you don’t need to directly train your arms if you do a lot of pulling and pushing.

I think it depends on your goals.

  • If you’re trying to add size to your arms, then you’re going to benefit from exercises like the deadlift, bench press, and military press as well as exercises designed to specifically target the biceps and triceps.
  • If you’re just trying to maintain your current arm size but not add to it, then you should be able to do it without exercises specifically for your biceps and triceps.

The core.

One of the things that makes the military press more challenging than other shoulder exercises is having to stabilize your entire torso as you move the weight. This job falls on your core muscles.

Is Dumbbell Pressing Better Than Barbell Pressing?

arnold press

EMG research shows that dumbbell pressing may activate the shoulder muscles slightly more than barbell pressing, but the effects seen were small and EMG data isn’t exactly rock solid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practically speaking, I wouldn’t say the dumbbell military press is better than the barbell press or vice versa.

Like the bench press, I’ve found dumbbell and barbell pressing to be complementary and have included both in my workout routines for some time now. Both require strength and stability and both produce good results, and I recommend you alternate between them.

What I like to do is 6 to 8 weeks of heavy barbell pressing followed by 6 to 8 weeks of heavy dumbbell pressing.

Is the Seated Military Press or Standing Press Better?

military press muscles worked

There are two variations of the military press–standing and seated.

Give them a try and you’ll quickly learn that the standing military press (also known as the overhead press) is significantly harder than the seated. And harder usually means better.

The same EMG study I cited earlier supports this, showing that the standing presses (both dumbbell and barbell) activated the shoulder muscles slightly more than their seated counterparts.

Furthermore, many well-informed fitness experts say the standing barbell press is the superior choice and I don’t necessarily disagree. In terms of whole-body training, there’s no question that the standing press is superior.

That said, there are two drawbacks to the standing military press that you should be aware of:

  • Your 1RM will be lower.
  • You have to be more careful when you’re trying to move heavy weights (80%+ of 1RM).

You see, the standing press places a lot more stress on the lower back and core than the seated press, which means you won’t be able to lift as much weight and and you’ll be at a higher risk of injury if your form is sloppy.

These disadvantages are especially true with the standing dumbbell press, which really doesn’t lend itself to heavy pressing.

This makes the overhead press a better whole-body exercise but if you’re trying to maximally overload your shoulders, the seated press allows you to “target” your shoulders with heavier weights.

My personal preference is the seated military press (barbell and dumbbell) because I feel that my heavy deadlifting and squatting is more than enough for my core and back. Every few months, though, I like to alternate between standing (barbell) and seated (dumbbell and barbell) military pressing.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

Should You Use a Smith Machine or Free Weights?

military press vs overhead press

Research shows that the Smith machine is inferior to a free barbell for both bench pressing and squatting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That said, I do
The reason why is simple: the Smith machine exercises activate less muscle fibers than their free weight counterparts.

I don’t know of any studies comparing the free barbell military press to the Smith machine press, but I would expect similar findings.

Some people might say the Smith machine is safer but this is more or less a non-issue if you learn and stick to proper form.

Stay off the Smith machine and stick to the proper barbell military press.

How to Have Perfect Military Press Form

dumbbell military press

Big compound movements like the military press are double-edged swords.

When done properly, they’re unrivaled in terms of strength and muscle building. When they’re done improperly, however, they lose their advantages over other exercises and even become dangerous.

The bottom line is if you’re going to do the military press, you need to ensure you’re doing it correctly.

So let’s find out how it’s done.

How to Do the Seated Military Press

The seated press requires a proper military press station, which looks like this:

military press station

If your gym doesn’t have this piece of equipment or if you can’t rig something like it using a power rack and utility bench, then you can opt for the standing variation, which you can perform in a squat rack.

The Seated Military Press Setup

Place your feet flat on the ground about shoulder-width apart with your toes and knees slightly turned out.

Press your heels into the ground to keep your upper back and butt rooted in place against the back of the bench.

Grip the bar like you would during the bench press: about shoulder-width and the bar over your wrists, not in your fingers. Your back should be in a neutral position.

Don’t make the common mistake of gripping the bar too widely. This sets you up for a poor bar path.

The Seated Military Press Movement

To begin the descent, take a deep breath, tighten your abs and glutes, and press your chest up.

Bring the bar straight down toward your clavicle, and keep your elbows tucked under your hands and angled slightly forward, like this:

how to military press

Tilt your head back to allow the bar to pass your nose and chin and look forward, not straight up. (This is why a high-backed bench/seat doesn’t work for the military press: you can’t tilt your head back to get it out of the way and are forced to lower the weight lower down your chest, which is incorrect.)

There should be a slight arch in your lower back at the bottom of the lift, but don’t overdo this as it can cause injury when you start loading more and more weight. If you’re arching too much, the weight is probably too heavy.

Once the bar has reached your clavicle, raise it straight up along the path of descent, and once it passes your forehead, shift your torso a little forward and squeeze your glutes.

Keep raising the bar until your elbows are locked: your shoulders and back should be tight and squeezed and your traps should be shrugged, which helps prevent joint issues.

How to Do the Standing Military Press

The standing press is performed in exactly the same way, really—you’re just standing.

The bar rests on the squat rack at the same height as if you were squatting, and once you’ve unracked it, the movement is as described above.

To recap: place the feet and grip shoulder-width apart, grip the bar like the bench press, keep the back neutral, descend straight to the clavicles, tilt the head back while looking forward, raise the bar along the same path, shift the torso forward slightly, squeeze the glutes, and lock out.

The Bottom Line on the Military Press

seated military press

When it comes to working out, one of the worst mistakes you can make is neglecting exercises like the military press, bench press, squat, and deadlift.

Your number one goal as a natural weightlifter should be getting as strong as possible on these key lifts.

Use the advice in this article to get the most out of your military pressing and use the advice in this article to build an effective workout routine and it’ll only be a matter of time until you have that big, strong, and powerful upper body that you really want.c

 

What do you think about the military press? Have anything else to add? Let me know in the comments below!

 

 

 

 

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