How to Do the Barbell Shoulder Press

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Three athletes perform a barbell overhead shoulder press.
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Also Known As: Overhead press, military press, strict press

Targets: Shoulders (deltoids, traps), upper back, mid-back, core

Equipment Needed: Barbell and plates

Level: Beginner

Sometimes, basic is best. You don’t need an excessive amount of variety to gain strength: While single-joint movements using machines or resistance bands can be fun and helpful, the basic compound weightlifting movements can (and should, for the most part) spearhead your strength-gaining journey. 

The barbell shoulder press is one such basic, compound movement that improves strength, mobility, stability and more—and it targets much more than your shoulders, contrary to what most might think. You can incorporate this exercise into strength-training workouts, bodybuilding workouts, and even high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts.

To get started, learn about the benefits of the barbell shoulder press, how to perform it, and common mistakes to avoid, as well as variations of this do-it-all exercise. 

Benefits

The barbell shoulder press is one of those great exercises that offers more benefits than meet the eye: Most people immediately think of the barbell shoulder press when considering how to build strength in the shoulders, but there’s much more to this move than shoulder strength. Here’s what you’ll reap when you add the barbell shoulder press to your fitness regimen. 

Shoulder Strength

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Barbell shoulder presses will increase your shoulder strength. This move requires you to engage your deltoids and trapezius muscles, along with all of the smaller, deeper muscles that make up your shoulders. Beyond your shoulders, you’ll also engage your back, bicep and tricep muscles for overall upper body strength.

Core Stability

One very overlooked benefit of the barbell shoulder press is its ability to force core strength upon you. When we say “force,” we mean it; you can’t correctly press a barbell overhead without engaging your core.

You’ll find yourself squeezing your abs, especially once the weight gets heavy, and you’ll learn how to keep your core tight and tucked in—so that it protects your spine—even under pressure and tension.

Improved Posture

Because the barbell shoulder press strengthens your upper body and core, the benefits transfer to everyday life. Stronger muscles can improve your posture.

When you start performing barbell shoulder presses regularly, you may find yourself sitting up straighter at your desk, with your shoulders pulled back and spine tall. Improved posture can also translate to reduced aches and pains, especially in the back and neck.

Mind-Muscle Connection

Like mentioned before, shoulder strength is the first thing to come to mind when thinking about the barbell shoulder press. However, this exercise also utilizes your back, arms, glutes, and core.

The barbell shoulder press can teach you how to engage secondary muscles during a lift, which will help with your technique and eventually help you lift more weight. This mind-muscle connection skill also translates to other exercises, so don’t be surprised next time you’re doing bicep curls and find yourself thinking about your glutes.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Place the barbell in a barbell rack at an appropriate height. When you walk up to the barbell, it should be in front of your shoulders—you should be able to take it off of the rack without standing on your tip-toes or bending down too low. 
  2. Start by standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Your hips should be fully extended, as should your knees, but be careful not to lock your knees. Hold the barbell in a front-rack position (resting on the front of your shoulders), with your elbows pointing forward. 
  3. Breathe, tighten your core, and press the barbell overhead. Press until your arms are fully locked out. Press your head through the “window” made by your arms. 
  4. Engage your back muscles and with control, lower the barbell back to the front rack position. 
  5. Repeat for eight to 10 reps. If you need to make an adjustment, place the barbell back on the rack. 

Common Mistakes

Seemingly simple, the barbell shoulder press is actually prone to several errors. Keep these common mistakes in mind while doing barbell shoulder presses, and ask a trainer or coach for help if you think you’re making a mistake.

Incomplete Lock-Out

An incomplete lock-out is a common mistake on all overhead exercises—this means that you don’t fully extend your elbows in the overhead position, instead returning to the starting position before the lift is complete. Unless you have an injury that prevents you from reaching the full range of motion, you’ll only get the full benefit of barbell shoulder presses if you fully lock out your arms. 

Lack of Core Engagement

Lack of core engagement is very apparent in the barbell shoulder press. The easiest way to tell if someone isn’t engaging their core? Look at their lower back. If your lower back is arching extensively during barbell shoulder presses, you aren’t engaging your core. This can lead to pain and injury, so be sure to tighten your core muscles. Think of making your entire abdomen one strong, stable cylinder that protects your spine and prevents it from moving too much in one direction.

Pressing Outward

Your barbell should travel overhead in a straight line. Many exercisers make the mistake of pushing the barbell out in front of their body, making a sort of arc to the overhead position. Not only does this put your body in a position prone to injury, but it also makes the lift more difficult, which can affect the amount of weight you lift.

Push-Pressing Instead of Strict Pressing

If you’re using your legs to drive the barbell upward, you’re doing a push press instead of a strict press. Using your legs can help you press more weight overhead, but that’s not the goal of the strict, or traditional—barbell shoulder press.

Modifications and Variations

The shoulder press is one of those exercises with endless variations. With some tweaking, you can make the barbell shoulder press much easier or much harder, depending on your fitness level and any limitations you may have. 

Need a Modification?

No worries if you can’t do the barbell shoulder press, whether you’re not ready for it or because you have limitations from an injury. Try one of these modifications, but be sure to talk to a coach or personal trainer if you’re unsure of what you should do. 

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Using dumbbells in place of a barbell is a great training option for those who can’t yet lift the weight of the barbell (usually 45 pounds in most gyms) or who feel pain in their shoulders when pressing upward with the barbell.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press

If two dumbbells still aren’t working for you—which may be the case for people with limited spine mobility or a neck injury—try using one dumbbell instead. Follow the same steps as you would with two dumbbells, except only press with one arm at a time. Be sure to talk to your doctor or physical therapist if any variation of the shoulder press is hurting you. 

Landmine Press

The landmine press is a fantastic modification for people who can’t press directly upward due to injury. This version of the barbell shoulder press positions your body in a different way, taking much of the stress away from delicate shoulder structures. Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Set up your barbell so that it is at an angle and secure—most gyms have a tube to slide the barbell in specifically designed for landmine pressing. If you don’t have that tube, simply wedge one end of the barbell in a corner where two walls meet. 
  2. Stand in front of the other end of the barbell with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold the barbell with two hands so that it hovers in front of your chest. Your palms should face upward. 
  3. Press the barbell up and out—you should be pressing at an angle, not directly overhead. 
  4. Lower the barbell back to chest height and repeat. You can also do this move in a kneeling position.

Up for a Challenge?

If you’ve mastered the barbell shoulder press and are on the hunt for some new shoulder-focused moves to add to your fitness routine, try out one of these shoulder press variations to challenge your stability, speed, agility, and strength, as well as your ability to breathe under tension.

Dumbbell Seated Shoulder Press

This shoulder press variation will seriously test your core stability and spine mobility. Try it out and see if you can keep your core tucked in and tight:

  1. Sit on a floor mat with your legs extended in front of you, feet together. The dumbbells should be on the floor next to you where you can easily grab them.
  2. Pick up the dumbbells with a full grip. Hold them in the front-rack position. 
  3. Take a breath, engage your core, and press up to full extension overhead—don’t arch your back or go soft in the belly. Your legs and feet should remain firmly in contact with the ground.
  4. With control, lower the dumbbells back to the front-rack position. Complete eight to 10 reps, then rest.

Push Press

If you’re serious about lifting more weight overhead, you’ll have to utilize your lower body. Using your hips to create momentum will allow you to drive much more weight overhead.

Push Jerk or Split Jerk

The push jerk and split jerk are two versions of the shoulder press even more powerful than the push press. Commonly seen in CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting programs, the push jerk and split jerk involve a big hip extension just like the push press, but also include a secondary “dip” in which you receive the barbell. Known as “dropping under the bar,” this maneuver allows you to catch heavy weight in a stable position and stand up to full extension to complete the lift.

Clean and Press

Couple the barbell shoulder press with a power clean to really amp up your strength training. This move improves your power, speed, coordination, and strength all at the same time.

Kettlebell Press

If you’re interested in improving your stability, simply swap your barbell for a pair of kettlebells. Start light, and slowly increase the weight as you get the hang of this movement.

  1. Start with two kettlebells in the front rack position. Make sure the kettlebell is resting on both your upper arm and forearm, and your elbows point forward (not out to the sides).
  2. Take a breath, engage your core and press both kettlebells overhead. Make sure to keep your arms close to your head as if you are brushing your ear with your bicep.

Safety and Precautions

Adequately Warm Up Your Shoulders

Before any exercise, you should take the time to warm up. Warming up helps to prepare your body for exercise by increasing blood flow to your muscles, lubricating and loosening your joints, increasing your core temperature and heart rate, and dilating your blood vessels. To warm up your shoulders, do some dynamic shoulder stretches and practice pressing with light to moderate weights. 

Practice Core Engagement

In addition to your shoulder warm-up, practice engaging your core before getting under the barbell. To practice, try doing five to 10 repetitions of this exercise: 

  1. Lie on your back on the floor. Fill your belly with a big breath. 
  2. Tighten your abdominal muscles like you are “zipping up” your abs, pulling them upward and toward your spine. Your lower back should be pressing into the ground. 
  3. Continue to breathe, allowing only your rib cage to move. Your belly should remain full and tight with that initial big breath. Take three to five breaths in this position. 
  4. Exhale. That’s one rep. 

Have a Spotter

If you’re lifting heavy, have a spotter or two available to help just in case you can’t complete a lift. If you don’t have a spotter available, make sure you know how to safely return the barbell:

  1. Don’t throw or drop the barbell. Lower it from overhead to the front rack position.
  2. As the barbell is lowering, soften your knees and dip (but don’t lean forward) to relieve some of the impact of catching the barbell.
  3. Stand up fully and return the barbell to the rack.

Try It Out

Ready to start shoulder pressing? Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts.

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Article Sources
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