We all know how important bench pressing is for upper body strength, but for some reason, the military press is often neglected. If you really want to build an awesome physique, you should be doing it regularly...
When it comes to working out, we all know about the big 3 lifts:
- bench press
The reason these exercises are so important is because they’re all compound movements, meaning they incorporate multiple muscle groups and ultimately increase total body strength more than isolation movements.
One exercise that is too often forgotten, however, is the military press.
Also known as the shoulder press or overhead press, the military press is without the a doubt the single most important shoulder exercise.
Because, like deadlifts, squats, and bench press, it’s a compound exercise that involves multiple muscle groups and can have a profound impact on your upper body development.
Not to worry though…
By the time you finish this article, you’ll know exactly
- What The Military Press Is
- What Muscles It Works
- How To Do It Properly
- Variations To Consider
- Mistakes To Avoid
So, if you’re tired of doing lateral raises and upright rows on shoulder day, only to be disappointed with your lack of progress, the answer to your problems lies just ahead…
Let’s get started!
What Muscles Does The Military Press Work?
The military press, when performed correctly, does far more than just work the shoulders.
Not only does it work all three heads of the deltoid (check out this article to learn more), but it also incorporates your:
- Core muscles
- Upper Back (Mostly Traps)
It’s basically the shoulder version of squats, deadlifts, or bench press.
By that, I mean it’s a compound exercise that incorporates multiple muscle groups and ultimately places the most physical stress on the shoulders, stimulating muscle growth over-time.
How To Perform The Military Press Correctly
If you pay attention to what others are doing in the gym (I try not to), you’ve probably seen a ton of different variations of the military press.
Still, the basics are the same.
Whether seated or standing (we’ll get into the difference later), a proper military press looks like this:
Now, that diagram is pretty straight-forward, but let’s break it down even further into a few simple steps…
- Start with the bar just above the upper chest.
- Pushing the bar vertically above your head.
- End with your arms just short of locking out.
Rinse, repeat until shoulders are on fire, then wait 3 minutes and do it again.
Now, about those variations…
Variations Of The Military Press (PROS AND CONS)
Compared to other compounds exercises such as:
- bench press
The military press probably has the most alternative variations, and if you keep an eye out at the gym, you’ll see them all being done.
Some of them are actually worth it, while some probably aren’t.
First things first…
Seated vs Standing
The most obvious distinction when it comes to military press variations is seated vs standing.
The truth is, they’re both worth doing, but for different reasons.
Assuming you’re not cheating (by bouncing your knees), you won’t be able to push as much weight with a standing military press compared to the seated military press.
That said, performing your military press while standing places much more emphasis on your core, so you’re getting more of a full-body workout.
Seated military presses allow you place much more emphasis on the deltoids (shoulder muscles). Because you have some support from the bench you’re sitting on, you’re core doesn’t need to be as involved.
There’s no doubt about it:
Seated military press will allow you to push more weight than standing, so you’re shoulders will get more of a workout.
While you can certainly choose one over the other, depending on your personal goals (full body strength vs just having huge shoulders), it’s always a good idea to switch it up.
Try alternating back and forth between standing and seated military press every 4-8 weeks or so. That’s what I do and it seems to work pretty well.
BARbell Vs DUmbbell
We all know that alternating between barbell bench presses and dumbbell bench presses is an optimal strategy for building a muscular, defined chest…
But does the same principle apply to military press?
Research shows that dumbbell military press activates more muscle fibers than its barbell counterpart, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily superior.
Just like dumbbell bench pressing, you won’t push nearly as much total weight with dumbbell military press compared to using a barbell.
So, even though it technically activates more muscle fibers, it doesn’t necessarily result in more hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Just as it’s a good idea to do both standing and seated military presses, it makes sense to alternate between barbell and dumbbell presses every few weeks or so.
I’ve seen a lot of people doing both in the same day but, to be completely honest, that’s a great way to get injured.
Trust me, I know a thing or two about shoulder injuries and at this point I’m kind of a master of avoiding them.
One way that I remain injury free, despite suffering numerous lifting-related shoulder injuries for the last ten years or so, is by not doing similar workouts in the same day.
Think about it like this:
3-4 sets of heavy (80-85% 1RM) is all you need to stimulate muscle growth, so tacking on an extra 3-4 sets of basically the same exercise is just placing unnecessary stress on your shoulder joints, tendons, and ligaments.
Common Military Press Mistakes
The truth is most people just don’t do military presses correctly.
They might have the basics down, but too many people succumb to one or more critical errors that either limits the amount of muscle growth they can achieve, or worse, increases the chances of a shoulder injury…
Using Momentum (Bouncing)
When it comes to standing shoulder presses, it’s hard to maintain good form. This is especially true if you’re trying to do more weight than you can realistically lift.
If this is the case, you’ll probably be tempted to bounce with your knees, using the momentum to complete the movement.
The issue with this is that, if you’re training your shoulders, you should do your best to isolate them, rather than relying on your legs.
If you want to lift legs, do squats and deadlifts.
If you want to lift shoudlers, don’t bounce. Control the weight. If it’s too much, lower it until you can do it correctly.
High Reps, Low Weight
As a compound exercise, the military press is supposed to be done with heavy weight…
If you want to actually get stronger and make greater gains, that is.
A lot of people simply don’t load enough weight on the bar, do like 20 reps until their arms and shoulders burn, and then assume they got a good workout.
Research has shown that heavy weight, low repetition training is more advantageous for stimulating muscle growth than doing lots of repetitions with low weight.
This principle applies to any workout, military press especially.
You want to select a weight that you can handle for 4-6 reps, not 10-12.
It’s okay to warm up with lighter weight, but you’ll see greater gains over time if you stick with low reps, high weight.
There’s no doubt about it (unless you’re on steroids).
Locking Out Your Shoulders
There’s a lot of debate about whether or not out you should “lock out” on compound exercises such as bench press and tricep press.
The military press is no exception.
Some people say you should lock out to trigger greater activation of the triceps, but is that really the goal if you’re doing military presses?
The military press definitely trains your triceps, but if you want big, well-developed (defined) triceps, you’ll need to train them separately.
Not to mention, your triceps already take a beating when you bench press, and most people designate at least one day a week for arms (tris and bis). So, there’s no need to worry about your triceps while military pressing.
Locking out can be kind of dangerous for 2 reasons:
- It takes the tension off temporarily
- It places that tension almost squarely on your joints
If you want to make the most out of each set, you don’t want to completely take the tension off, so locking out isn’t a good idea.
Furthermore, placing all that stress on your joints is almost guaranteed to lead to some sort of shoulder injury down the road.
So, what you really want to do is bring the bar above your head to the point that your arms are ALMOST fully extended, but your elbows are still slightly bent.
This keeps the tension on the muscle and off the joints so your shoulders can get stronger and your joints can take it easy.
The Bottom Line On Military Press
If you want to build bigger, stronger shoulders, the military press is the most important workout you should be doing, hands down.
As a compound exercise, it’s right up there with:
- bench press
In terms of importance for getting bigger and stronger, that is.
Still, for some reason it often gets neglected by those who don’t understand the simple fact that:
The military press is the undisputed king of shoulder workouts.
If you’re not incorporating it into your workouts, you’re missing out on some serious gains.
Once you master it to the point that you can safely push yourself to the max without getting hurt, it won’t be long until you have the massive shoulders you’ve always wanted.
Just be prepared to buy a bunch of new shirts since you probably won’t fit into your old ones…
Anything to add about the military press? Personal experience? Comment below…
I'm Matt, Founder of Momentum Nutrition and SuppWithThat.com. I've spent the better part of the last decade researching and experimenting in the areas of fitness, nutrition, and supplementation, and this is where I write it all down.