In the family of overhead presses, one of the rarely performed movements is the Barbell Overhead Press. Unlike its friendlier and more popular variation such as the seated dumbbell shoulder press, you get a substantial core activation on top of the shoulder, and the triceps work as being upright requires more balance and more muscle recruitment.

In its variations like the Strict Press, or Military Press, the Barbell Overhead Press is an effective bodybuilding exercise to add to any strength training and bodybuilding programs. Also called the barbell shoulder press or standing barbell overhead press, it’s a compound exercise working for the muscle groups in both the upper and lower body. It works to strengthen your body while improving stabilization and core strength, which you can carry over to other challenging compound exercises and daily activities that call for lifting strength and balance.

Moreover, if you are aiming for boulder shoulders, ripped core, and killer guns, the Barbell Overhead Press should be in your upper body workout arsenal. Before you start pushing weights above your head, it’s important to pay attention to the form to avoid injuries such as overextension of the back. Here’s how you do it, the right way. 

This Ultimate Guide Will Cover:

  • How to Barbell Overhead Press
  • Barbell Overhead Press Benefits
  • Common Barbell Overhead Press Mistakes To Avoid
  • Barbell Overhead Press Muscles Worked
  • Barbell Overhead Press vs Dumbbell Overhead Press
  • Our Trainer’s Suggested Reps, Sets, & Programs
  • Barbell Overhead Press Variations
  • Barbell Overhead Press Alternatives 
  • FAQs About Barbell Overhead Press

How to Barbell Overhead Press

What You’ll Need:

●  Barbell with weight plates – beginners could start with a lighter weight of 20-30 pounds until you master the form and gradually increase the weight as you get stronger and more stable with your balance

●  Power Rack

Step 1: Set Up Your Barbell

Place your Barbell on the power rack, ideally positioned across your upper chest, so you’ll be able to lift the barbell without bending too low or standing on tiptoes. 

Step 2: Get Into The Starting Position And Unrack The Barbell

Your feet should be shoulder-width apart while your hips and knees are fully extended. Do not lock your knees.

With a double overhand grip at roughly shoulder-width apart, unrack the barbell and rest it shortly above your upper chest to get used to the weight before lifting overhead. Your elbows should point forward while your hands stay shoulder-width apart.

Step 2: Engage Your Muscles and Press Overhead

Before you initiate the press, create a stable base by contracting your lats, engaging your core, and tucking your chin. Tighten your glutes and core, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Take a big breath to fill your obliques with pressure, then exhale as you press the barbell overhead.

Tilt your head backward ever slightly to avoid the barbell from hitting your chin and nose. Continue pressing until your arms are extended above, and your body is in a straight line. Keep your abs and glutes engaged at the top of the movement, and resist the urge to arch your lower back.

Step 3: Lower The Bar With Full Control 

With full control, slowly lower the bar up until your upper chest. Tilt your head again slightly backward so it won’t hit your nose and chin. This counts as one rep.

6 Doing Barbell Overhead Press Benefits

1.  Provides Upper-Body Strength

The barbell overhead press is one of the top exercises to achieve upper body strength compared to other pressing movements. Aside from the delts, this exercise targets most muscles for total body pressing strength, hitting stabilizers, and targeting synergist muscles around the body.

2. Targets More Muscles Than You Think

Those who need a shorter workout will benefit from adding the barbell overhead press to their program. Because this exercise targets many muscles, it can give you a “bang for your buck” during workouts. Moreover, the exercise provides opportunities for more progression and total growth, targeting your shoulders, triceps, upper back, and chest muscles in one powerful movement instead of performing isolation exercises.

3.  Improves Strength Sports Performance

People benefiting in strength sports, particularly CrossFit, weightlifting, or strongman, can significantly benefit from the standard overhead press. The exercise has a carryover to total body strength, a necessity for all strength sports. It can help improve your bench press technique because overhead presses improve upper back strength, particularly the shoulder muscles.

4. Improved Power and Lockout Stress

Developing upper body strength will increase the ability to create upper body power. Triceps are one of the prime movers in the exercise, increasing the muscle’s size and strength. As a result, it can improve lockout strength in lifts requiring the overhead position like overhead squats, carries, and Olympic lifts, among others.

5. Enhances Athletic And Other Daily Movements

Whether you’re an athlete, lifter, or exercising for fitness, the overhead press’s overall strength and core stability benefits help with overhead movements in sports and daily activities that require overhead movements or throwing.

6.   Enhance Core Strength

The barbell overhead press requires a strong core to avoid excessively arching your lower back or protruding your rib cage. You must engage your core throughout the movement. A progressive overload as you perform the overhead press won’t only strengthen the shoulders but your core muscles as well.

Common Barbell Overhead Press Mistakes to Avoid

Improper Grip Width

Too wide of a grip reduces your power in pushing the weights overhead. Your hands should just be outside of shoulder width so you won’t be placing your arms in a disadvantageous position throughout the movement.

Your Wrists Position Is Too Bent

When you grab the barbell, you need to have a full and firm grip on the barbell, squeezing it to activate your biceps, forearms, and back muscles. This will help increase the motor unit recruitment needed to execute the overhead press. Do not let your wrist hyperextend backward, as this would result in a lack of rigidity and poor elbow positioning.

Elbows Flare Out

Flaring your elbows can indicate a lack of back tension, negatively affecting your pressing performance while increasing elbow and shoulder stress. Your elbows need to stay angled into the body, letting the triceps, shoulders, and upper pectoral muscles move the load better.

Over Arching The Back

It would be best if you never hyperextended your lumbar spine, likely resulting in injuries. This happens because of loss of core stability from inactive glutes, poor core strength, and lack of awareness of proper spinal alignment. Lighten the load and focus more on posture overweights if you feel like you are arching your back too much.

You Press the Bar Forwards

Not keeping the barbell traveling vertically is a common mistake for beginners. Additional forward pressing will result in lifters becoming less efficient in overhead presses, requiring more strength to realign the barbell to the appropriate overhead position. This may happen because of limited overhead mobility, lack of overhead pressing mechanics, and poor set up positioning.

Not Engaging The Glutes and Feet For Stability

The barbell overhead press may sound like more of an upper-body workout routine than anything else, but your lower body also plays a role, specifically your feet and glutes. These two will keep your hips aligned with your upper body, supporting force production. If your feet aren’t rooted to the ground and move during your overhead press, or the glutes lack contraction, the exercise feels unstable. It can render the exercise inefficient or increase the risk of injury.

Barbell Overhead Press Muscles Worked

The barbell overhead press works on the following muscles:

  • Chest (pectorals)
  • Shoulders (deltoids)
  • Scapular muscles
  • Arms (triceps)
  • Upper back (trapezius) and lower back
  • Abdominal muscles (obliques, abs)
  • Glutes

Your shoulders are the primary muscle group used to perform the barbell overhead press. It specifically works your deltoid’s anterior head. You also get to work your triceps, which are responsible for elbow extension throughout the pressing movement and elbow lockout.

The upper pectorals are also major parts of the exercise as they assist your triceps and shoulders when pressing the barbell overhead during the start of the lift. The greater degree of back extension, the more you use your upper pectorals.

Overhead pressing depends on scapular stability muscles, creating tension to support your upper pectorals, triceps, and shoulders. This helps you position your dumbbell overhead, lessening the risks of injury.

Being upright will require balance; you will need to engage your core throughout the exercise. This builds strength in your abdominal muscles. You also get to work your lower body a bit as it will assist you as you push the barbell overhead.

Barbell Overhead Press vs Dumbbell Overhead Press

The most obvious difference between these overhead presses is the equipment used. However, there’s more to it. The barbell overhead press evenly distributes the weight, allowing you to lift heavier as it is more stable. If your goal is to hype up your hypertrophy and lifting strength, the barbell makes a better tool as you can add heavier weight increments.

On the other hand, dumbbell overhead presses can help fix muscle imbalances and asymmetry better as each arm is working with equal weight and would activate all three deltoid heads of your shoulders. Additionally, the dumbbell press is ideal for those with joint issues as it recruits smaller stabilizing muscles to control the weight.

That said, there’s no better exercise as it depends on your goal. The barbell overhead press is best when improving muscle size or achieving hypertrophy. If you’d like to focus on unilateral strength and work on your muscles equally, you can opt for the dumbbell overhead press.

Our Trainer’s Suggested Reps, Sets, & Programs

To Bulk Up on Muscles

To achieve muscle hypertrophy, you should perform the exercise with a moderate to high weight with the same volume intensity. Opt for 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps each using a moderate to heavy load, or 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps each with moderate to near failure loads. Rest for 45-90 seconds per set.

For Enhanced Muscle Endurance

Opt for higher reps and shorter rest periods to increase muscle endurance, performing 2-3 sets of 20-30 reps each using light to moderate loads. Rest for 45-60 seconds per rep.

For Strength

You can program the barbell overhead press similarly to other strength progressions. Perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps using heavy loads, resting when needed.

Barbell Overhead Press Variations

Are you looking to progress after mastering the standing overhead press? Or would you like to perform a slightly easier variation to work your way up? Here are barbell overhead press variations to help build your lower and upper body strength:

Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press

When you use dumbbells, you can work each side of your body unilaterally, ensuring no strength imbalances. It’s recommended to perform this exercise from time to time to ensure both sides work equally.

Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

Like the standing dumbbell overhead press, the seated overhead press helps build strength in both arms unilaterally. This exercise is better for hypertrophy as it isolates your shoulders more. It’s also better if you haven’t built much core strength yet.

Military Press

The military press differs from the traditional overhead press as the former has you bring your feet close together like a soldier standing at attention. This will work your core and glutes even harder throughout the exercise to maintain a stable base.

Push Press

The Push Press will have you use your lower body to press the weight overhead. It’s suitable for those who have trouble with the full overhead press but still working similar muscles.


The thruster is like a push press, but you will lower into a full squat before driving up, pressing your barbell overhead. It’s a combination of an overhead press and a Front Squat, challenging all the muscles of your body.

Kettlebell Press

The kettlebell press helps you perform correct movement patterns as you press since the kettlebell encourages you to lift straight overhead instead of behind you or to the side.

Barbell Overhead Press Alternative Exercises

If for any reason, you are unable to perform barbell overhead presses, you can always incorporate alternative exercises that still work on the similar muscle groups, such as:

Incline Cuban Press

This exercise strengthens your scapular and rotator cuff’s supporting muscles. While some people overlook this exercise, the muscles it strengthens can help lessen the risk of injury. It works your shoulders, rotator cuffs, and upper back!

Muscle Clean

The Muscle Clean is a power-building compound exercise that has an explosive movement allowing you to push even more weight, strengthening the entire upper body. This exercise will work on your rhomboids, trapezius, and deltoids.

Lateral Raise

The lateral raise works on the side deltoids, providing constant tension you usually can’t get from barbells. It also helps strengthen and stabilize your shoulders and upper body.

Front Plate Raise

This exercise focuses more on your front delts through a single plate movement. It places more stress on the deltoids, and you can work it more by keeping a short range of movement.

Leapfrog Push-Ups

Leapfrog push-ups require no equipment, working on the chest and deltoid muscles. It’s an explosive plyometric exercise that helps build strength and muscle while enhancing your upper body’s explosive power output.

Inverted Row

The Inverted Row is a bodyweight exercise moving your shoulder and lats through a full range of motion. It works the deltoids, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi, part of the lower back. The lower you are to the floor, the more intense the movement gets.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Chest (pectorals)
  • Shoulders (deltoids)
  • Scapular muscles
  • Arms (triceps)
  • Upper back (trapezius) and lower back
  • Abdominal muscles (obliques, abs)
  • Glutes

There is no better exercise as it depends on your goals. Barbell overhead presses allow you to lift heavier, while dumbbell overhead presses are a unilateral movement that forces you to work each side of your body to fix muscle imbalances because of the equal weights on both hands

Yes, the barbell overhead press is a great exercise with numerous benefits. Aside from building your shoulder and chest muscles, it also targets your back muscles, rips your abs, improves your overall body strength and helps improve trunk and spine movement and improved posture. It is also a fundamental exercise for other compound movements like Olympic lifts, carries, and squats among others. 

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