You don’t have to enlist in the Army or Navy to benefit from doing military presses. Also known as an overhead press, shoulder press, or simply a press, this exercise is a compound upper body workout move that can yield results including stronger arms and more muscular shoulders.
To learn everything possible about military presses, we spoke with certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor Donna Walker and Katie Kollath, ACE, co-founder of Barpath Fitness. Read on to find out more about what military presses can do for you.
Meet the Expert
What Are Military Presses?
Military presses are an exercise move done with weights. They can be done standing, sitting, or squatting. The weights used can be dumbbells for a light move, or a barbell with weights attached for a heavier press. The act of doing a press involves starting with your barbell or dumbbell weights at shoulder level, around your collarbone. You begin with your elbows pointing downward and your arms bent, then press upward as you lift your arms up. The move peaks with your arms straightened, but not locked, above your head. To finish, lower the weight back to your collarbone, with your elbows pointing downward and your arms bent again.
What Muscles Do Military Presses Work?
A complex move, military presses work numerous muscles. Kollath tells us that “military presses generally work the entire upper body, with the main movers being the deltoid muscles (shoulders).” She also notes that “if doing these properly, you push the weight up with your shoulders and triceps, and you will be engaging the upper back and core muscles as well to stabilize the weight overhead.”
Because this move can be done either seated or standing, there will be some variance in muscles used depending on how you do them. Walker says that “depending on posture, (seated or standing) for execution of the exercise, you will have greater isolation of different aspects of the musculature.” A standing military press will target the front of your shoulders more, while a seated press will engage your triceps more.
Who Should Try Them?
Though a military press is a workout move, the foundation of it is functional in our everyday lives. Kollath tells us that “pressing overhead is a very functional movement pattern. We should all be able to reach up and grab a can of soup off a high shelf in our kitchens—if you can't, then you definitely want to work to improve that strength!”
A can of soup may not be a challenge for you, but the point is clear: We can all benefit from strengthening the muscles that military presses work. Kollath also says that if you don’t have the strength for a full press, you can “start with less load (say with just body weight and/or light dumbbells), and slowly build up to military presses with the bar once the prerequisite strength and mobility has been obtained to perform the military press correctly.”
Walker also thinks that presses are beneficial for people. She says that “most of us can handle some form of military press,” and notes that they’re “ideal for those of us seeking to sculpt sexy shoulders, define the delts, improve posture/core, and strengthen the posterior chain.”
While military presses are generally safe, Walker does warn that if you have an upper-body injury—especially a shoulder injury—or any limitations that prevent you from safely performing an overhead shoulder extension, you should avoid them.
How to Get Started
If you’d like to try military presses, your first step is to fully understand what proper form is needed.
To begin a military press, you’ll want your barbell or dumbbells held at your collarbone, with your arms bent and elbows pointing downward. Kollath says to brace your core by breathing “into your diaphragm in order to stabilize the weight as you press overhead.” She also notes that “when the bar reaches the top position, the biceps should be by the ears and the shoulders stacked, engaging the upper back so the bar is in a stable position overhead.”
Additionally, Walker says that the glutes should be engaged throughout the move, for stabilization. Her other tips for proper form include not arching your back, but rather keeping your hips and pelvis under your shoulders. Whether sitting or standing, your heels, hips, and shoulders should be stacked. She mentions that “elbow position is often confusing...don’t go too wide or aim to be in line with the shoulders.” Rather, you should “rotate your elbows slightly forward a bit.” That will drive your biceps up toward your ears, while keeping your traps down. Lastly, for breathing, she suggests that you “exhale as you exert force, inhale as you release.”
There are numerous variations to military presses. In addition to sitting, standing, and squatting, they can be done kneeling, on one leg, or even on a stability ball. Walker says that “you can also add elements of core by changing the stability or execution to single limb.” For weights other than a barbell, Kollath suggests a kettlebell or resistance bands.
How Should You Incorporate Them Into Your Workout?
To incorporate military presses into your workout, you may want to perform this move early on in your routine. Kollath recommends that you “put these toward the beginning of a session (if you're focusing on an upper-body-only workout), and if you are doing a full-body workout, maybe do these as a second or third exercise if a movement like a squat or deadlifts is before the military press.”
Walker stresses mindfulness when trying any new exercise, and suggests asking a trainer or group exercise instructor if you’re unsure about proper form. If you’d like to try military presses, she recommends that you start with light weights and focus on proper form. In terms of quantity, she suggests “2–3 sets on average, and to get stronger aim for strength 8–12 reps, resting 60–90 seconds between sets.” If you hit the point where this stops being challenging, she tells us that pauses at the top will increase the difficulty level.
Military presses are a compound upper-body move that can help you build strength, along with muscular shoulders. They do require some form of equipment—whether it's a barbell, dumbbells, a kettlebell, or resistance bands—in order to be performed. Military presses can be done sitting or standing, and are safe for anyone who doesn’t have an upper-body injury or limitation. With so many variations available, you can work varying muscles each time, with little risk of boredom.