How to Do a Barbell Shoulder Press: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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As its name suggests, the barbell shoulder press builds your shoulder muscles. When done correctly, it can also help strengthen the back and core. Incorporate this exercise into your strength training, bodybuilding, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout.

Also Known As: Standing barbell shoulder press, overhead press, military press, strict press

Targets: Shoulders, upper back, mid-back, and core

Equipment Needed: Barbell and weight plates

Level: Beginner

How to Do a Barbell Shoulder Press

Three athletes perform a barbell overhead shoulder press.

Getty Images

Place the barbell on a power rack so it is in front of your shoulders. You should be able to take the bar off of the rack without standing on your tip-toes or bending down too low. 

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hips and knees fully extended, but don't lock the knees. Hold the barbell in a front-rack position (resting on the front of your shoulders) with your elbows pointing forward and hands shoulder-width apart. This is your starting position.

  1. Tighten your core, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and press the barbell overhead as you exhale.
  2. Continue to press until your arms are locked out. This movement should feel like you are pressing your head through the “window” made by your arms. 
  3. Engage your back muscles and, with control, return the barbell to the front-rack position while inhaling.  
  4. Repeat these steps to do more reps or place the bar back on the power rack to end this exercise.

You can also do the barbell shoulder press without a rack. Using a spotter helps ensure that you perform the rack-free version of this exercise safely, especially if you're using heavy weights.

Benefits of the Barbell Shoulder Press

This exercise targets the deltoids and trapezius muscles, along with all of the smaller, deeper muscles that make up your shoulders. You’ll also engage your triceps, biceps, back, and core for greater overall body strength.

The simplicity of the barbell shoulder press makes it a good exercise for people of all fitness levels. It also holds a special benefit for female athletes as research has found that this exercise can improve trunk and spine movement in this population.

Because the barbell shoulder press strengthens your upper body and core, it may help improve your posture. Improved posture can translate into reduced aches and pains, especially in the back and neck.

Barbell shoulder presses also serve a functional purpose. For instance, they help build the strength needed to perform everyday activities such as lifting a heavier item overhead to place it on an upper shelf.

Other Variations of a Barbell Shoulder Press

With some tweaking, you can make the barbell shoulder press easier or harder depending on your fitness level and any limitations you may have. 

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

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

To do a dumbbell shoulder press, hold the weights at shoulder height with your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep the back straight and core engaged while pressing the barbells overhead. Once the arms are fully extended, return the weights to shoulder height.

Woman starting standing dumbbell shoulder press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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 do with two dumbbells, except only press with one arm at a time.  

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

This shoulder press variation will seriously test your core stability and spine mobility. To do it, sit on a weight bench while holding the dumbbells at shoulder height. Press the weights until the arms are straight, then return them to the shoulder area.

woman doing seated barbell shoulder press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Landmine Press

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

To do it, set up your barbell so that it is at an angle and secure, with one end on the floor. Stand in front of the other end with your feet shoulder-width apart. (You can also perform this variation in a kneeling position.)

Hold the barbell with two hands so that it hovers in front of your chest. Your palms should face upward. Press the barbell up and out—you should be pressing at an angle, not directly overhead. Lower the barbell back to chest height and repeat.

Most gyms have a tube to slide the barbell in, which is specifically designed for landmine pressing. If you don’t have that tube, simply wedge one end of the barbell into a corner, where two walls meet.

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 in the push press will allow you to drive much more weight overhead.

This variation, instead of simply pressing the weight overhead, starts with a slight bend in the knees, then a push through the feet to straighten the legs during the press. Once the hips are fully extended, you press the bar overhead before returning it to the starting position.

 Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Push Jerk

The push jerk is even more powerful than the push press. Commonly seen in CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting programs, it involves a big hip extension just like the push press but also includes a secondary “dip” in which you receive the barbell.

Known as “dropping under the bar,” this maneuver allows you to catch a heavy weight in a stable position and stand up to full extension to complete the lift.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, the bar in front of the shoulders, and hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Bend the knees slightly to lower into the dip, then quickly extend the knees and elbows while pressing the bar overhead, bending the knees again while "catching" the bar at its top position.

Next, straighten the legs so you are standing fully erect with the bar overhead and elbows locked. Lower the bar back to the front of the shoulders to continue with more repetitions or end the exercise by placing the bar on a rack or lowering it to the floor.

Clean and Press

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

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold the barbell in front of your shins. Push your hips back and drive through the heels to pull the bar up to your chest quickly. Next, shrug your shoulders, point your elbow forward and push through your heels again to move into the overhead press.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Kettlebell Press

If you’re interested in improving your stability (and improving your jump height), swap your barbell for a pair of kettlebells. Begin with two kettlebells in the front-rack position, resting them on both your upper arms and forearms and your elbows pointing forward (not out to the sides).

Take a breath, engage your core and press the kettlebells overhead. Keep your arms close to your head as if you are brushing your ear with your biceps. Lower the bells back to the front-rack position to begin the next rep or to end this exercise.

Common Mistakes

Keep these common mistakes in mind while doing barbell shoulder presses. Avoiding them helps make the movement safer and more effective.

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, and instead return to the starting position before the lift is complete.

Unless you have an injury that prevents you from reaching full range of motion, you’ll only get the complete 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 is to look at the lower back. If the lower back is arching extensively during barbell shoulder presses, the core isn't engaged.

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

The barbell should travel overhead in a straight line. Many people make the mistake of pushing it 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 that is prone to injury, but it also makes the lift more difficult. That can affect the amount of weight you are able to lift when doing barbell shoulder presses.

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.

Safety and Precautions

Before any exercise, 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. In addition to your shoulder warm-up, practice engaging your core before getting under the barbell.

If you have a shoulder, neck, or back injury, check with your doctor or physical therapist before doing the barbell shoulder press. And if you feel any pain during this exercise, stop the movement immediately.

Strive to perform the overhead barbell press for eight to 10 reps. If you need to make an adjustment to your form at any point, place the barbell back on the rack and begin the steps again.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amanda Capritto, ACE-CPT, INHC
Amanda Capritto, ACE-CPT, INHC, is an advocate for simple health and wellness. She writes about nutrition, exercise and overall well-being.