The shoulder press is devilishly simple — you drive a barbell overhead and lower it back to your upper chest. It’s a movement that increases strength in the torso, adds mass to primarily the shoulders and triceps, and strengthens the end range of your mobility overhead.
By shifting your body’s angle, the tools you use, and your lifting tempo, you can manipulate the standard shoulder press to hone in on various goals.
Below, you’ll find 10 shoulder press variations that can (and should be) used by strength, power, and fitness athletes looking to build serious upper body strength and muscle mass. You’ll also learn how to integrate these shoulder press variations into your program and how to warm up your shoulders for maximum pressing strength.
Best Shoulder Press Variations
- Barbell Military Press
- Barbell Z Press
- Barbell Push Press
- Double Kettlebell Overhead Press
- Single Arm Landmine Press
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Shoulder Press With Chains/Bands
- Partial Shoulder Press
- Deadstop Shoulder Press
- Tempo Shoulder Press
The barbell military press is a standard strength and hypertrophy movement for the shoulders (and upper chest and triceps). You can perform this exercise seated (which reduces momentum) or standing. People also refer to the shoulder military press as the strict press, overhead press, or barbell shoulder press.
Benefits of the Barbell Military Press
- The barbell military press increases overall upper body strength.
- It stimulates shoulder, upper chest, and triceps hypertrophy.
- It increases core strength by keeping the midsection and lower body steady throughout the move.
How to Do the Barbell Military Press
Rest the barbell in the front rack position (on top of the front deltoids). Brace your core and squeeze both your glutes and quads to protect your low back. If you’re looking to do a proper military press, keep your feet close together — otherwise, you can set them hip-width apart for a sturdier base. Use your upper body muscles to move the load to the overhead position. Avoid building momentum with your lower body here. Keep your knees and hips fully extended throughout the movement, with minimal hip extension and lumbar extension.
The Z press is a seated shoulder press variation that challenges the upper back, shoulder stabilizers, shoulders, and core. The lifter must develop rigidity in the seated position (which is done by sitting in an “L” formation on the floor) and remain in control of the torso to resist lumbar extension and hip movement.
Benefits of the Barbell Z Press
- It teaches proper overhead lockout mechanics.
- It improves core strength and stability.
- The Z press increases shoulder and overall upper body strength.
How to Do the Barbell Z Press
Sit on the floor, extend your legs, and dig your heels into the ground. Engage your lats and, using light weight, reverse curl the bar up to the front rack position. If you’re using relatively heavy weight, unrack the bar (or have a partner hand it to you). Press the bar overhead while maintaining an upright torso. Try not to lean back. Reestablish a stable position overhead, then lower slowly and repeat.
The barbell push press is a strength and power movement used by strength and fitness athletes to develop overhead strength and, primarily, explosiveness. This shoulder press variation requires a lifter to use a little lower-body momentum to drive more weight than one can press strictly overhead — which can be the necessary stimulus for bigger, stronger shoulders. Strongmen, weightlifters, and CrossFitters may use a push press (or push jerk) in competition.
Benefits of the Barbell Push Press
- Increase pressing strength by lifting more weight one can press without lower body momentum.
- Improve full-body coordination, precision, and movement timing.
- Enhance overall explosivity and upper body power.
- If you’re a competitive strength athlete, the push press may have a direct carryover to your sport.
How to Do the Barbell Push Press
Hold a loaded barbell in the front rack position and set your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Keep your knees soft and your core braced. Bend your knees just enough to sink into a quarter squat. Keep your chest tall and let your hips travel straight downward. Explode out of the squat and use the momentum to drive the weight over your head. Stabilize your position at the top. To get ready for the next rep, catch the bar in a quarter squat and repeat.
The kettlebell overhead press is a unilateral overhead pressing variation — meaning each side of your body is working independently — that a lifter does with one or two kettlebells at a time. Like dumbbells, the kettlebell overhead press can address unilateral muscle imbalances and movement issues.
Additionally, the kettlebells force a lifter to properly stabilize the shoulder blade and the shoulder capsule due to the imbalanced loading of the bell and handle, increasing a lifter’s overall need for stabilization and strength. This is a helpful exercise to teach and develop a lifter’s shoulder strength and stability and reinforce proper overhead mechanics.
Benefits of the Double Kettlebell Overhead Press
- Reduce muscular and strength imbalances by using kettlebells instead of a barbell.
- Improve overhead stabilization abilities because of the offset nature of a kettlebell’s load.
- Increase shoulder strength and muscle growth.
How to Do the Double Kettlebell Overhead Press
Grasp your kettlebells so that the pad between your thumb and index finger is snug against the curve of the handle. Clean the kettlebells into the front rack position. Once you’re stable, brace your core and squeeze your glutes and quads. Press both bells up and overhead. Lower with steady control and repeat.
The landmine shoulder press can develop upper body strength and improve overall shoulder pressing health. This variation will help train your body to be stable in the face of possibly under-trained lifting angles. It will also fire up your core since you’ll need to keep your torso rigid to perform these effectively.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Landmine Press
- Add a new stimulus to the shoulder via adding different overhead pressing angles.
- If standard presses aggravate existing shoulder issues, the landmine press may be a more shoulder-friendly variation.
How to Do the Single-Arm Landmine Press
Decide whether you’ll perform the move kneeling or standing. Let’s say you’re doing this movement kneeling and with your left hand. Step your right leg forward so your toes line up with the landmine’s bumper plate. Your kneeling leg (your left leg) should be underneath your hip, just behind the sleeve of the barbell. Clean the bar to shoulder height, tuck your elbow in, and maintain a neutral wrist. Press up, minimizing hip shifting or low back hyperextension. Lower slowly and repeat.
The dumbbell shoulder press, which can be done either seated or standing, addresses single-side strength imbalances. In addition, the dumbbell press is customizable; you can change up the angles, grip width, and even add rotation. Simply put: the dumbbell shoulder press facilitates muscle growth and strength — like most presses — and allows for a lot of variation in and of itself.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- It offers a lifter a variety of angles and press positions.
- Allows you to battle back against muscular imbalances by freeing up both shoulders for unilateral movement.
- The dumbbell shoulder press increases shoulder strength and muscle mass.
How to Do the Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Clean the dumbbells so they’re sitting on your shoulders. Puff your chest out, brace your core, and press both dumbbells overhead until your elbows lockout. Lower the dumbbells back down to your shoulders.
Most of the above movements can be done with accommodating resistance. By using chains and bands, you can increase the force output needed throughout the entire range of motion. This helps to develop a greater rate of force development during pieces of the lift that might usually be easier without bands and chains. This means you can accelerate loads quicker, often increasing their ability to break through sticking points.
Benefits of the Shoulder Press With Chains/Bands
- Helps bust through lifting plateaus by helping you work on any weak points in your lift.
- Force you to control a more unstable load overhead (since chains especially become more unstable the further they are from the ground).
- Increase overhead stability and anti-rotational strength; your core will work very hard to resist rotation against the moving force of the chains.
How to Do the Shoulder Press With Chains/Bands
Select the exercise you’d like to perform with chains and bands. The barbell military press is a good starting point since you can easily attach bands or chains to a barbell. can easily attach to either bands or chains. If using chains, secure a single chain on either side of the racked bar, and make sure they’re falling evenly. Perform your lift as normal. If using bands, you can either secure them above the bar (assisting your lift) or below the bar (resisting the lift), depending on your needs.
The partial range of motion shoulder press can help to address sticking points and strength plateaus. By limiting the range of motion of your press, you are able to isolate areas of weakness while also increasing the amount of tension placed upon the muscles (and time under tension equals more muscle). It’s common to press the weights from your shoulders to three-quarters of the way up, lower the weight down, and repeat.
Benefits of the Partial Shoulder Press
- Target specific weak spots in your overhead strength and stability.
- Improve shoulder strength and hypertrophy by increasing time under tension within specific ranges of motion.
- Potentially help ease back into training after an injury.
How to Do the Partial Shoulder Press
Select your specific exercise and get set up appropriately. You might choose to stop your lift a couple of inches off the upper chest and shoulders, then come back down and perform your reps in that tiny range of motion. Or, you might go a little higher so that your elbows stop around 90 degrees. Whatever your partial range is, maintain the same slowness and discipline that you use in your regular sets.
Deadstop training, which is easily applied to most strength lifts, requires a lifter to perform a pause at the bottom of every shoulder press repetition. In doing so, you will build concentric strength, which is the weaker type of muscle contraction for most muscle groups (as opposed to eccentric contractions, which tend to be stronger).
Benefits of the Deadstop Shoulder Press
- Eliminate momentum from between each rep, maximizing muscle recruitment and activation.
- Build shoulder strength and muscle mass with increased time under tension.
- Develop core strength and stability by keeping your torso rigid throughout your deadstop reps.
How to Do the Deadstop Shoulder Press
Pick a point in your lift to come to a dead stop. You can do this either when the barbell reaches the shoulders or at any point in the range of motion (such as pausing and stopping at chin height). Make sure you aren’t holding your breath during your deadstop, or you risk making yourself light headed. Start with weights a lot lower than what you might be used to, and make sure you’re not compensating for the loss of momentum with poor form.
Tempo training is another variation that can be applied to most movements like the shoulder press. Tempo training can have a significant influence on muscle gain, strength development, and coordination as your muscle is (generally) under tension for a longer period of time. Tempo shoulder presses can be done with a barbell, dumbbell, or any other of the above movements.
Benefits of the Tempo Shoulder Press
- Increase time under tension with controlled eccentric and concentric muscle contractions.
- Improve muscle hypertrophy.
- Stimulate new pathways for strength development.
How to Do the Tempo Shoulder Press
Select the tempo you’d like to perform your lift at. You might choose to perform a one-second hold at the bottom of the rep, a three-second press, a one-second hold on top, and a four-second descent. Apply your tempo of choice to any pressing variation. Make sure you’re breathing through these reps.
How to Program Shoulder Press Variations
The first thing you have to ask yourself when figuring out how to program shoulder press variations is, do you consider the overhead press to be a primary lift? The Big Three for many lifters — especially powerlifters — are the squat, bench press, and deadlift. However, many athletes consider there to be a Big Four, which also includes the overhead press. If you fall into this camp, the barbell military press might be one of your main lifts.
In that case, program any shoulder press variation similar to how you would program bench press variations. Perform your primary lift first — your military press, for example — and select two to four variations as accessories, depending on your training goals.
If you’re working with upper body push days in a push/pull split, you might program your overhead lifts before your benching — especially if your current emphasis is on your overhead strength. You might also choose to perform overhead presses on the days that you deadlift (and pair bench presses with squats). These options can help maximize recovery between workouts, even when you lift heavy.
For Olympic lifters, the military press — and especially push press — might instead serve as accessory lifts. These can be used to refine technique and increase training volume without too much extra fatigue when the primary lifts are the snatch and clean & jerk. In that case, make sure that you’re respecting your recovery needs and keeping the intensity or volume low enough to accommodate going after your main lifts full force.
How to Warm-Up Your Shoulders
Going into a shoulder warm-up without adequately warming up your upper body can translate into inefficient lifting at best and increasing your potential for injury at worst. Making sure you thoroughly warm up your shoulders will get your blood flowing where it needs to and prepare both your joints and muscles for action.
Sample Shoulder Warm-Up
- Cat Cows: 3 x 20 breaths (10 inhales and 10 exhales)
- Scapular Slides: 3 x 15
- Band Pull-Aparts: 3 x 15-20
- Scapular Pushup: 3 x 15
- Side Plank: 3 x 30-45 seconds per side
- Yoga Pushup: 3 x 8-10
- Overhead Press with Empty Barbell or Resistance Band: 3 x 15-20
More On Shoulder Training
Once you’re sold on the vast benefits of overhead presses and all their variations, you’re probably eager to dive into the whole wide world of shoulder training. These articles will help you out, whether you’re looking to primarily increase overhead strength or get those boulder shoulders you’ve always wanted.
- Build Big Shoulders With This Supplementary Shoulder Workout Routine
- How Often Should You Train Shoulders To Build Muscle?
- 5 Shoulder Pulling Exercises Every Powerlifter Should Do
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