Barbell Military Press

In powerlifting circles, the big three movements form the basis of any high-quality lifting program. These are the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press.

The barbell military press is regarded by many as an extension of the big three. If this is true, we would have to change the term to the big four. 

As a compound shoulder movement that involves pressing a loaded barbell overhead, it possesses several useful benefits and functional applications. Because of this, it’s definitely worth considering! 

We’ve discussed the barbell military press in detail below. Once you’ve finished reading, you can decide for yourself if you think it’s worthy of the big four status.

How To Do

  1. Set a loaded barbell in the J hooks of a power rack or squat rack. It should be level with your upper chest. 
  2. Grasp the barbell using a shoulder-width grip. Bring your elbows forward until your wrists are stacked over them.
  3. With the bar near your upper chest, unrack the barbell. Keep both elbows tucked in throughout the movement.
  4. Take two small steps back and adopt a narrow foot position. Ensure you keep your chest up and elbows tucked throughout the movement.
  5. Take a deep breath and engage your core. Press the barbell overhead until your elbows are fully extended.
  6. Pause at the top position and bring the barbell back to your upper chest under control. Ensure you breathe out as you lower down. 

Tips From Expert

  • Ensure you’ve got the J hooks set up at the correct height before lifting. They should be level with your lower chest so that you can unrack the barbell with little issue.
  • When pressing overhead, maintain a vertical body position. Avoid pressing around your head.
  • Ensure you build up to a narrower stance gradually. Your feet should stay flat against the ground throughout.
  • Make sure to keep your elbows stacked under your wrists at all times except when pressing. If you struggle to do this, it could be a sign of poor wrist mobility. 
  • Use your upper body to press the bar overhead rather than a leg drive like the push press.

Optimal Sets and Reps

The barbell military press should be programmed differently depending on your exercise goals. Use the table below to find out the correct sets and repetitions you should be performing.

Training Type Sets Reps
Strength Training 3–5 4–6
Hypertrophy 3–4 8–10
Endurance Training 3–4 12+
Power Training 3–5 1–3

How to Put in Your Workout Split

The military press, overhead press, and shoulder press are exercises that are often used interchangeably. Despite a small difference in foot placement, they offer the same benefits and muscles worked so they can be programmed similarly. 

The military barbell press is a compound upper-body exercise. The primary movers are your anterior and lateral deltoid heads. Therefore, when programming them, they should form part of your shoulder workout sessions. 

When performing an upper/lower split, include them as part of your upper body session. As part of a push/pull split, they would be classed as a push exercise

As a compound exercise, program them near the start of each workout. Allow two to five minutes of rest between sets.

When deciding on what repetition and set range to use, the table above can be used as a general guide. Strength and power training should be programmed first. For hypertrophy and endurance, they can be programmed in the middle or towards the end. 

When deciding on what weight to use, aim to perform the stated repetition ranges using the guidelines above. If you can’t keep the same form, change the weight and reassess.

Primary Muscle Groups

Anterior Deltoid

Muscles located at the front of your shoulder region

Lateral Deltoid

Muscles located at the side of your shoulder which gives your shoulders a rounded appearance.

Anterior Deltoid

Your shoulder muscles consist of three heads. These are your anterior deltoid, lateral deltoid, and posterior deltoid. 

Your anterior deltoids are located at the front of your body. Their main function is to move your arms forward and up. Because of this, they are the primary mover during the military press as you move the weight vertically. 

The barbell military press is great for developing muscle and strength in your anterior deltoids.

Lateral Deltoid

Your lateral deltoids are the second muscle heads that make up part of your shoulders. They are situated at the side, between your anterior and posterior deltoids. Their main function is to move your arms out to the side and up and down.

They work alongside your anterior deltoids to press the barbell overhead. They are involved to a lesser extent compared to the anterior head. The contribution of both deltoid heads depends on the pressing angle.

The barbell military press is good for developing muscle and strength in your lateral deltoids. However, this is to a lesser extent than the anterior deltoids. 

Secondary Muscle Groups

Clavicular Head of Pectoralis Major

Muscles located at the top of your chest, running from your armpit to collar bone. Smaller portion of your chest muscle.

Erector Spinae

Muscles that span the entire length of your spine on either side.

Serratus Anterior

Small, fan shaped muscle that lies deep under your chest and scapula.

Upper Trapezius

Triangular shaped muscles located between your neck and shoulder blades.

Triceps Lateral Heads

Muscles located on the back of your arm between your shoulder and elbow.

Triceps Medial Heads

Small muscles located at the back of your arms. Deep to the triceps long heads between the shoulder and elbow.

Triceps Long Heads

Large muscles located at the back of your arms between your shoulder and elbow. Most outside portion of the tricep.

Erector Spinae 

Your erector spinae muscles span the full length of your vertebrae column. They consist of nine muscles that go all the way from your skull down to your pelvis. They make up part of your core alongside your transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis. 

Their primary function is to produce back extension and lateral back flexion. As you press the barbell overhead, it works to keep your torso upright. 

Triceps Brachii

Your triceps brachii consist of three muscle heads; the long head, lateral head, and the medial head. Their primary function is to extend your arms at your elbow joints.

During the barbell military press, they help to lock out both arms as you press overhead. They are activated more as your elbows move past 90 degrees. Because of this, the barbell military press helps to develop your tricep muscles and build lock-out strength.

Upper Trapezius 

Your trapezius muscles consist of three muscle groups; the upper traps, middle traps, and lower traps. They are located in the middle of your back alongside your lats. Their main function is to stabilize your scapula during pushing and pulling movements. 

Their primary function is to work alongside your serratus anterior to stabilize your shoulders as you press overhead. Due to this, they largely play a stabilizing role. 

Serratus Anterior 

Your serratus anterior are fan-shaped muscles located deep under your chest and scapula. Their primary function is to provide scapula stabilization when elevating your arms. They also aid with respiration.

Alongside your upper trapezius muscles, they help to stabilize your shoulders as you press.

Clavicular Head 

Your clavicular head, also known as your upper chest, forms part of your pectoral muscles. Your sternal head (middle chest), and abdominal head (lower chest) are the others. The primary function of your clavicular head is to flex your upper arm.

Your clavicular head helps during the initial pressing phase as you start to lift the barbell above your head. As your elbows move past 90 degrees, your triceps take over. 

Equipment

Barbell

Barbell

Excellent piece of equipment for a range of powerlifting and bilateral exercises. Make sure you use safety clips when lifting.

Alternatives

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the different equipment.

Who Should Do?

Strength And Power Athletes

When developing strength and power, you need to perform compound movement patterns at a higher intensity. The barbell military press targets most of your upper body and requires a good amount of effort to perform correctly. 

As a strength and power athlete, your daily training revolves around three movements; the bench press, the squat, and the deadlift. In the barbell bench press, your primary movers are your pectoral muscles with your deltoids playing a secondary role. 

The barbell military press uses your anterior and lateral deltoids as primary movers, and it acts as a great accessory exercise for developing pressing power. 

As a strongman athlete, a large amount of your training will involve pressing weight overhead. This makes the barbell military press well-suited as a training exercise.  

Bodybuilders

As a bodybuilder, your main focus will be muscular hypertrophy. By building big shoulders, you give yourself a better V-taper and improve the flow of your physique. 

To do this effectively, you need to use an overhead press. The barbell military press fits this role perfectly. It targets several upper-body muscle groups and requires you to stand still rather than involve your lower body.

Functional Fitness Athletes

Functional fitness athletes tend to stick to compound exercises that develop functional movement patterns. This means that they benefit many aspects of movement and performance when performed regularly. 

The barbell military press fits both of these criteria perfectly. It develops functional movement patterns and targets the majority of your upper body. 

For sports athletes, examples could include pushing a player away or getting up off the floor. Daily movements that can benefit include storing an object overhead or reaching for something. Also, Olympic movements such as the clean and press and jerk can benefit from regular pressing practice. 

General Populations

For all the reasons listed above, any general gym goer with a wide range of goals can benefit from the barbell military press.

Whether you’re looking to improve your strength and power, physique, or functional movements, it makes an excellent choice. Even as a normal gym goer looking to move more, the barbell military press is easy to learn and progress.

Who Should Not Do?

Anyone With Lower Back Injuries

If you’ve got a lower back injury, you need to limit the amount of stress on your lumbar spine. During the barbell military press, your erector spinae functions as part of your core to keep your body upright. 

When suffering from an injury, this added stress may not be a good idea. In this case, continue your rehabilitation process before progressing to overhead pressing. 

In some cases, the seated military press may be a suitable alternative as it provides additional back support. 

Anyone With Shoulder Mobility Issues

If you experience pain when lifting your arms overhead, the military press isn’t a suitable exercise right now. 

When pressing vertically, it should be pain-free with the only resistance coming from the loaded barbell. If this isn’t the case, it’s a sign of a possible shoulder mobility issue.

In this instance, it may be best to consult a healthcare professional to form a suitable mobility plan. Once your shoulder mobility improves, you’ll be able to progress back to pressing. 

Benefits Of The Barbell Military Press

Builds Upper Body Strength And Power

The barbell military press is one of the best exercises you can perform to develop upper body strength and power. To build upper body strength and power, you need to lift a decent amount of weight. As a compound upper-body exercise, the military barbell press does exactly that. 

When performing the military press, you’re also hitting your core and developing smaller stabilizer muscles. Both of these help to build strength and power.

The barbell military press uses an overhead pressing motion. In terms of sports transfer, strength and power-based sports involving pushing or pressing against resistance will benefit. Examples include American football and rugby.

Works Multiple Muscles

The barbell military press is classed as a compound movement pattern. This means that it needs multiple muscle groups to be performed correctly. These include muscles in your shoulders, back, triceps, and core. 

Compound movements are great for several things. Compared to isolation-type exercises, they are harder to perform as they work several muscle groups at once. This makes them great for improving muscle strength and hypertrophy.

Alongside this, they provide you with the most bang for your buck in terms of efficiency and time. If you’re limited on time and looking for a pressing exercise, they’re a great option. 

Improves Shoulder Mobility And Stability

During the barbell military press, your shoulder stabilizer muscles work to keep the barbell in a straight line when pressing. They play smaller roles to keep your primary movers working optimally. 

Regularly performing the barbell military press helps to build these stabilizer muscles. This improves shoulder stability and reduces the risk of injury. 

When performing sports movement and daily tasks, poor shoulder mobility can often be a limiting factor. Barbell military presses use a functional movement pattern that trains the muscles needed to adopt the same position.

This translates well into functional everyday tasks such as reaching for something overhead or putting something away. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the military press worth it?

The military press is seen as a staple in weightlifting. As a compound exercise that builds upper-body strength, and power, and develops function, it’s definitely worth doing.

What’s the difference between the military press and the overhead press?

The main difference between a military press and an overhead press is in the stance. The military press involves a narrower stance that requires more balance and stability. However, both terms are often used interchangeably

What’s a good weight for the military press?

What’s classed as a good weight depends on your exercise goals and stage of training. Use the programming table above and aim to perform all repetitions using the correct form.

Is the push press better than the military press?

Both the push press and military press offer a number of useful applications and benefits. The best use of each depends on your training goals. The push press is more of a dynamic pressing exercise that uses a leg drive.

Resources

  1. Coratella, G., Tornatore, G., Longo, S., Esposito, F. and Emiliano Cè (2022). Front vs Back and Barbell vs Machine Overhead Press: An Electromyographic Analysis and Implications For Resistance Training. Frontiers in physiology, [online] 13. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2022.825880.
  2. Stone, M.H., W. Guy Hornsby, Suarez, D.G., Duca, M. and Pierce, K.C. (2022). Training Specificity for Athletes: Emphasis on Strength-Power Training: A Narrative Review. Journal of functional morphology and kinesiology, [online] 7(4), pp.102–102. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk7040102.
  3. Adel Elzanie and Varacallo, M. (2024). Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Deltoid Muscle. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537056/.
  4. Hecker, A., Aguirre, J., Eichenberger, U., Rosner, J., Schubert, M., Sutter, R., Wieser, K. and Samy Bouaicha (2021). Deltoid muscle contribution to shoulder flexion and abduction strength: an experimental approach. Journal of shoulder and elbow surgery, [online] 30(2), pp.e60–e68. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jse.2020.05.023.
  5. Kholinne, E., Zulkarnain, R.F., Sun, Y.C., Lim, S., Chun, J.-M. and Jeon, I.-H. (2018). The different role of each head of the triceps brachii muscle in elbow extension. Acta Orthopaedica et Traumatologica Turcica, [online] 52(3), pp.201–205. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aott.2018.02.005.
  6. Moezy, A., Sepehrifar, S. and Solaymani Dodaran, M. (2014). The effects of scapular stabilization based exercise therapy on pain, posture, flexibility and shoulder mobility in patients with shoulder impingement syndrome: a controlled randomized clinical trial. Medical journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran, [online] 28, p.87. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4301231/.
  7. Baig, M.A. and Bordoni, B. (2023). Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Pectoral Muscles. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545241/.
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