Overhead Press 2024: How To Do It, Tips & Muscles Worked

When it comes to compound exercises, the overhead press is one of the big ones. Whilst it isn’t classed as one of the big three powerlifting exercises, it features heavily throughout Olympic lifting, CrossFit, and strongman competitions. 

The overhead shoulder press is an upper-body exercise that involves pressing weight over your head from a static standing position. Whilst it sounds simple, several factors need to be considered to get bigger shoulders.

Multiple variations exist, with the benefits remaining the same – more strength and power, improved functional movement patterns, and better sports performance. 

This guide will look at the overhead press in detail, describing how to do it, the benefits, the muscles that worked, and programming considerations for shoulder workouts. We’ll also touch on the difference between standing overhead press variations and how many sets per workout to perform when overhead pressing.

How To Overhead Press?

The overhead press can be split into four distinct phases regardless of the variation and type of programming used. Follow the steps below to perform the exercise safely:

  • Set Up Phase – Once the weight is correctly placed in the rack, assume the correct shoulder and wrist position.
  • Un Rack Phase – Un rack the barbell and assume the correct stance.
  • Press Phase – Brace your core and press the barbell with your head up and chest facing forward. 
  • Descend Phase – Bring the barbell back to the starting position under control and repeat.  

How To Do Overhead Press

The overhead press form can be split into four distinct parts. These are the setup, un racking, press, and descending phases. These instructions will also apply to many of the overhead press variations used for shoulder workouts.

overhead press
Overhead Press Instruction. Photo: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

Perform The Correct Set Up

  • Adjust the J hooks so that the barbell is at the height of your collarbone.
  • Facing the barbell, grip it with your palms facing forward and thumbs wrapped around the bar. Assume a shoulder-width grip.
  • Your elbows should be tucked into your body so that they stack vertically with your wrists. Adjust your grip width slightly if your elbows are too far in or out.
  • Make sure the barbell is low in your hands. It should be nearer your wrists than your fingers. 
  • Your wrists should be in a position so that the bar can settle on your palms without them having to bend too far back.

Un Rack The Barbell

  • Once the barbell is in the correct hand position, bend your knees slightly whilst keeping your body close to the barbell.
  • Lean forward, making sure the barbell is positioned on top of your upper chest and shoulders. 
  • Extend your knees to stand up, lifting the barbell off the rack at the same time. 
  • Take one step back and assume a stance that’s slightly narrower than shoulder width.  

Press The Barbell Up

  • Take a deep breath into your stomach to brace your core. 
  • Lean back slightly, but keep a straight back so that the bar is directly over your feet and your head is slightly behind. 
  • Forcefully squeeze your glutes and the barbell at the same time. Ensure your chest is facing forward with a slight tilt in your head as you look in front.
  • Press the barbell straight up. Once it passes your eye line, bring your head and chest forward slightly so they are under the bar.
  • Keep your knees and hips locked throughout the movement.
  • Keep pushing the bar up until your arms are fully extended and elbows are locked. Shrug your shoulder at the top of the press. 

Bring The Barbell Down

  • Pause briefly at the top of the movement. Inhale deeply and maintain balance.
  • Repeat the same steps described above in reverse order.
  • Bring the barbell down past your eyeline to your upper chest, moving your head and chest back slightly to maintain a straight bar path.
  • Continue to bring the barbell down towards your chest and shoulders into the same position you started with.
  • The barbell should be brought down in a controlled manner, taking approximately a second from the top position to the starting position. 

Overhead Press Benefits

Whether you’re performing overhead presses as part of a barbell shoulder workout or a stand-alone exercise, they have a host of benefits. We’ve explained the main ones below: 

Builds Stronger Shoulders

The overhead press is a compound movement involving multiple muscle groups. This means that whilst it requires a bigger effort compared to isolation-based exercises, you can move more weight. 

Muscle growth requires two main things: an adequate daily protein intake of approximately 1.4-2.0g/kg body mass[1] and a suitable resistance training stimulus to stimulate muscle protein synthesis maximally. For those athletes heading into competition[2] on a calorie-restricted diet, consuming 2.3-3.1 g/kg of protein (based on lean body mass) may be optimal.

The overhead press provides more room for progressive overload, a key muscle growth factor. All three deltoid heads are activated to varying degrees at different portions of the overhead press, providing full shoulder growth for one movement. 

With a lot of the stress on the anterior deltoids during the overhead press, focus should also be given to rear delt exercises as part of a well-organized shoulder exercise routine. 

Works Several Muscle Groups

Whilst it’s true the overhead press is predominantly a shoulder exercise, it effectively targets several other muscle groups.

Alongside the three deltoid heads, your triceps, trapezoids or traps, and upper chest are involved more during the lockout portion as the weight goes overhead. Your glutes and core need to contract isometrically to keep a balanced, stable body position. 

Improves Athletic Performance

The overhead press is classed as a closed-kinetic chain exercise. This is because your feet are planted on the floor throughout the movement. 

Closed-kinetic chain exercises such as the overhead press are much better at developing stability and balance. They closely mimic the overhead movements used in sports such as American football and basketball.

Performing regular overhead presses allows you to develop more efficient force production which then translates into better aspects of sporting performance[3] in events that use similar movement patterns. 

Alongside this, strength development in the overhead press can help to improve your bench press numbers. Both movements use the same muscle groups (shoulders, chest, and triceps) but hit them from different angles. Strengthening the upper back helps with the eccentric lowering bench press phase. Strengthening the triceps helps with the lockout portion of the bench press. 

Other strength-based and technique-based movements involved in weightlifting, strongman, and CrossFit will also benefit. 

Leads To Better Posture

To prevent your body from deviating from a stable lifting position during the overhead press, your lower back muscles and core muscles need to work together. 

Performing regular overhead pressing movements will help to improve your core strength and sense of proprioception. This helps to enhance the awareness of your body position when looking down or sitting for longer periods.

Building stronger shoulders and traps through overhead pressing will help keep them from rounding and will stabilize your scapula preventing positions that place excessive stress on your muscles and joints. 

Improves Functional Movement Patterns

An average day for most people involves lots of twisting, bending down, and lifting things overhead. Unless you’re bed-bound, most aspects of daily life involve these movements to some degree.

Performing regular overhead presses helps to build core strength, better posture, and stronger upper body muscles. This translates into better movement patterns during daily life tasks, improving efficiency and lowering the risk of injury. 

Offers A Range Of Versatile Exercise Options

The overhead press can be performed using a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or different types of shoulder workout machines

The difficulty level can be easily changed according to your ability level. This makes the overhead press a versatile exercise that should be part of any high-quality mass-building program. 

Overhead press derivatives such as push presses and push jerks can also be programmed. These can help to build strength and power[4] in overhead sporting movements by mimicking the same movement patterns. 

Improves Bone Health

As we age, the likelihood of developing chronic bone diseases such as sarcopenia and osteoporosis increases. The tissues must be exposed to mechanical loading that exceeds that experienced in daily life to improve bone mass. 

Resistance exercise is known to be highly beneficial for the preservation of bone mass,[5] therefore providing a therapeutic strategy to combat sarcopenia and osteoporosis. 

The overhead press is a great example of a compound exercise that can be adapted to older populations to accomplish this aim. 

Overhead Press Muscles Worked

With the benefits explained above, what does the overhead press work? The overhead press involves several large muscle groups that work together synergistically. This will be explained below.

Anterior Deltoids

The anterior deltoids, also known as the front deltoids, sit at the front of the shoulders. When doing overhead press movements, muscle activation is greatest in the front deltoids.[6] They work to raise your arms above your head and in front of your body. These are classed as the primary movers.

Lateral Deltoids

The lateral deltoids, also known as the side deltoids, are located on the sides of the shoulders. When performing an overhead press, these would be classed as a primary mover but to a lesser extent than the front deltoids. They also work to raise your arms above your head and in front of your body.

Posterior Deltoids

The posterior deltoids, also known as the rear deltoids, are located at the back of the shoulders opposite the front deltoids. They play a role by helping to keep the arms from going too far back when pressing overhead. These are also primary movers but to an even lesser extent than the lateral deltoids. 

Pectoralis Major

The pectoralis major, more commonly known as the pec, makes up your chest muscles alongside the pectoralis minor. During the overhead press, your chest muscles should be stuck out as the weight travels overhead. The pectoralis major helps to move your shoulder and pull your arms across the front of your body. They are known as secondary movers.


The trapezius is a large superficial back muscle consisting of three parts. These are the upper traps, middle traps, and lower traps. 

Whilst their main role as primary movers relates to pulling movements, they help to stabilize the shoulder joints. They would also be classed as a primary mover.

Core Musculature

Your core musculature consists of your transverse abdominals, obliques, hips, and lower back. During the overhead press, your core ensures that your body stays in an upright, stable position to ensure the most efficient movement patterns.

Performing a proper brace is important to keep a tight body position and limit the amount of stress placed on your lower back. Your core is classed as a secondary mover. 


Your tricep muscles are made up of three heads. These are the long head, lateral head, and medial head. During the overhead press, all three tricep heads work together to press the weight overhead and perform a proper lockout. These are classed as primary movers.

Calves And Glutes

The overhead press is an upper-body movement, meaning it primarily uses the upper-body muscles. However, your glutes and calves will work isometrically to keep your body upright and stable when pressing overhead, which is why they deserve mention.

Stabilizer Muscles

Stabilizer muscles, also known as support muscles, are required during the overhead press to maintain the function of the primary movers and ensure stability. These include the serratus anterior, teres minor, supraspinatus, and infraspinatus, which are smaller postural muscles located on our torso.

Standing Vs. Seated Overhead Press

If you’re performing a shoulder workout at home, chances are you might not always have access to a full range of equipment. In other cases, you may choose to perform a certain press variation based on the equipment at your disposal. Other factors, such as mobility issues and pre-existing injuries, may determine whether or not you do the overhead press standing or seated.

For certain movements, whether you stand or sit, can make a big difference in terms of movement pattern and muscular activation. In reality, performing the overhead press standing or seated won’t dramatically change the purpose and benefits. The muscles used, and movement patterns from the waist up will stay the same, but there are still some slight differences and considerations to bear in mind.

The Standing Overhead Press

Due to being a closed-kinetic loop exercise, the standing overhead press has a few benefits over the seated overhead press:

More Loading Potential

The standing overhead press has much more loading potential due to the larger number of muscle groups that are worked. This is one of the reasons you see standing presses included in strongman competitions and as part of Olympic movements. Whilst it is primarily an upper-body exercise, you will inevitably use some isometric leg drive to contribute to more power output.

More Of A Compound Movement

As we’ve stated above, the standing overhead press involves several of your upper-body muscle groups alongside your core, glutes, and calves. When seated, your upper body performs the same movement pattern whilst your core, glutes, and calves are much less involved due to the seated support position.

Better Performance Application

As a strength-based compound movement, the standing overhead press is the clear winner when it comes to sports performance applications. Power-based sports movements, Olympic lifts, and strongman events all involve overhead movements that are primarily done from a standing position.

Better Functional Movement Patterns

Similar to the last point, the standing overhead press will undoubtedly develop better functional movement patterns when compared to the seated overhead press. Engaging your core and traps during the standing press helps improve your sense of proprioception when performing daily movement patterns. Whilst the seated version will also help, it will be to a much lesser degree. 

Most daily life tasks are also performed from a standing position, not seated.

The Seated Overhead Press

overhead press
Seated Overhead Press Instruction. Photo: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

As an open-kinetic loop exercise, the seated shoulder press has slightly different programming applications:

Better Shoulder Isolation

If your focus is more bodybuilding-type training, the seated overhead press can make it much easier to develop a better mind-muscle connection. Whilst this doesn’t necessarily lead to big differences in muscle growth, taking your core and legs out of the equation can help you focus on shoulder muscle activation.

Smaller Learning Curve

As a beginner lifter, both versions of the overhead press can be successfully programmed and progressed. However, due to the lower involvement of your core and legs, the seated overhead press has a much smaller initial learning curve. Instead of using your body to maintain a stable lifting position, you can rely on the seated back support, which helps you focus more on the pressing movement before progressing further. 

Better For Working Around Injuries

Whilst the seated overhead press doesn’t come without risks, the seated position will undoubtedly place less stress on your lower back, knees, and hips. If you want to work around an injury to one of these areas, the seated overhead press may be the better option. 

*Bear in mind that you should consult a healthcare professional before exercising with an underlying injury or issue.

When To Do Overhead Press

When programming the overhead press, several considerations need to be made. The right exercise order and training frequency will mainly depend on your training status and workout goals, with other factors such as equipment and available time playing smaller roles. Whether your overhead pressing is part of a strength-building training routine or a more hypertrophy-based shoulder and bicep workout, use the points below as a general guide.

As a general rule of thumb, compound exercises requiring larger muscle groups should be performed when your muscles are still fresh at the start of each session. Focus can be placed on the correct movement pattern before moving on to isolation exercises that tend to be less fatiguing.

Training Frequency

In terms of frequency, look to Include different overhead press variations into your workout routine two to three times per week. As a beginner, this allows you to focus on workout volume whilst giving your muscles adequate time to recover between sessions. As an intermediate or advanced athlete, this number may be on the lower end of the range, with more focus placed on training intensity rather than frequency.


For beginner-level lifters performing the overhead press, repetitions and sets should stay consistent whilst the load changes as you progress. This is known as the linear model of periodization, which is perfect for beginners who are likely to experience faster newbie gains at the start. 

For intermediate and advanced-level lifters, more frequent changes in sets, repetitions, and loads may be needed. In this case, an undulating periodization model may be needed where the overhead press workout variables would be more varied in a wave-like training pattern.

When performing the overhead press, you would change the volume and intensity either daily or weekly. This means that each training session has a different focus within the training period. 

An example program for the overhead press may look like this:

Week 1 – Perform 6 to 8 repetitions for four sets

Week 2 – Perform 3 to 4 repetitions for four sets 

Week 3 – Perform 2 to 3 repetitions for four sets 

This means that the volume and intensity of training are changed weekly, forming a wave-like training pattern. 


Normal repetition and set ranges for different workout goals tend to be as follows. These can be applied to the overhead press and changed according to the points above:

  • Power Training: Perform 1 to 3 repetitions @ 90% of your one repetition maximum.
  • Strength Training: Perform 4 to 6 repetitions @ 80 to 90% of your one repetition maximum.
  • Hypertrophy Training: Perform 8 to 12 repetitions @ 70 to 80% of your one repetition maximum.
  • Endurance Training: Perform 12+ repetitions @ <70% of your one repetition maximum. 

Your one repetition maximum is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for one repetition. It can also be thought of as the maximum amount of force that can be generated in one maximal contraction. 

*The programming guidance above should be used as a guide and not taken as absolute numbers when designing a program. Consultation with a personal trainer or other relevant professional should also be done.

Workout Type

The frequency of overhead press training can also depend on workout type, with the factors above forming part of the overall decision-making process. These are some of the most popular workout types and how the overhead press may be programmed effectively. 

Push-Pull Split

The push-pull split involves alternating between push and pull sessions throughout the week, performing back exercises in one session and chest/ shoulder exercises in the other. Leg exercises are organized accordingly or as a stand-alone session.

Different overhead press variations should be programmed towards the start of each pull session two to three times per week depending on your training frequency. 

Upper-Lower Split

The upper-lower split usually involves training four times a week consisting of two upper-body and two lower-body training sessions. As an example, rest days could be programmed in the middle of the four sessions and on the weekend which would give you plenty of time to recover. 

With this schedule, the overhead press would be trained two times a week alongside other upper body exercises toward the start of each session.

Full Body Split

A full body split involves training three to four days during the week over a two-week period, with the rest day or days depending on the training frequency. In this case, you would perform the overhead press or an overhead press variation in each workout toward the start. The appropriate training volume should be assessed according to the recovery time needed.

Hypertrophy Bro Split

The hypertrophy bro split involves training a different muscle group each day of the week. Some muscle groups may be paired together to give you a four-day split or performed on their own which would give you five days on with two days off. In this case, multiple overhead press variations may be performed in one session, as you’ll only be training your shoulders once per week.

Overhead Press Common Mistakes

The overhead press requires several muscle groups to work together to ensure the correct technique and limit the risk of injury. Perfecting the overhead press requires an awareness of your body position at each phase of the movement so the mistakes can be recognized and fixed. We’ve listed the most common ones below:

Incorrect Head Position

When pressing the weight overhead, your chest should be pushed out with your head facing forward. You should be looking straight ahead throughout the movement, with your head coming forward slightly as the barbell goes past your eye line.

A common mistake involves tilting your head too far back as you press the weight overhead. This places more stress on your neck and traps as you lift rather than using your prime movers together.

When looking straight forward, focus your eyes on a point or object in front of you when lifting. Keep your focus on that point or object throughout the press, resetting if needed between repetitions.

Incorrect Pressing Position

When pressing overhead, the weight should follow a straight line to allow the most efficient force production. Your head and chest position will largely determine the bar path, with your shoulders, traps, triceps, and core need to work together to keep the weight stable as it moves.

Keeping your elbows under your wrists allows your body to produce the most force when pressing. Any bar path deviations will reduce the force production and lead to a reduction in performance.

Common causes of an incorrect bar path include a bad starting position, un racking the weight too fast, and moving your head and chest incorrectly as you press up. Using too much weight can also cause deviations in form and affect force production potential. 

Bad Core Bracing Technique

During the overhead press, your core musculature should stay engaged throughout the full movement to limit the amount of stress placed on your lower back and ensure a stable lifting position. 

A proper core bracing technique increases intra-abdominal pressure, creating a stable lifting platform throughout your whole body. To perform a proper brace during the overhead press, focus on pressurizing your whole midsection. Contract your abdominal walls, sides of your body, lower back muscles, and hips. 

Instead of focusing on flexing your abs or filling your lungs with air, expand your torso at all sides and push out your ribcage and stomach. Perform the correct core bracing technique stated above before beginning the pressing motion once you’ve unracked the barbell and assumed the correct stance. 

Leaning Back Too Far

A common mistake when overhead pressing is a tendency to lean too far back. As the weight moves overhead, your body naturally wants to lean into more of a chest-pressing movement. Too much focus on pressing the weight overhead rather than the correct body position can lead to an excessive lean, placing more stress on your lumbar spine and increasing the risk of injury. 

Focus on completing the entire lift with your back in a neutral position. Keep your core engaged and isometrically contract your glutes to ensure an upright lifting position.

Too Much Leg Drive

Your glutes and calves need to contract isometrically to stabilize your body during the overhead press. However, the overhead press is known as a strict press which means focus should be placed on only using the prime movers. As an upper-body movement, your legs should not be used to generate momentum or power when lifting.

An exception is the push press variation, which uses a leg drive alongside the pressing movement.

Focus on the technique cues described above whilst limiting the amount of leg drive. If you can’t perform the correct technique without using a leg drive when overhead pressing, reduce the weight and reassess your form.

Overhead Press Common Injuries

Whilst the overhead press movement looks simple enough, it’s a technical compound lift that can lead to injury even when performed correctly. Correct form and an awareness of the common mistakes can limit but not eliminate the chances of injuries when lifting.

Shoulder Issues

Your shoulders are highly mobile joints that have an excellent range of motion, but they are not immune from injury if overworked or moved out of position. During the overhead press, your shoulder muscles are the prime movers, which means they are under the most pressure. Shoulder impingements when lifting can happen due to an incorrect bar position and the failure to shrug your shoulders at the top of the press.

Neck Issues

Any deviations in the correct neck position during the overhead press can increase the pressure on the neck and surrounding structures. The neck should be kept straight and neutral, with no sudden movements. Pain in your neck or traps when lifting may be a sign of poor mobility or an incorrect warm-up procedure.

Perform a suitable neck warm-up routine and progress the weight slowly.

Back Issues

Hyperextending or arching your lower back when pressing overhead increases the chances of back pain and can lead to disc herniations in more severe cases. Consider wearing a weightlifting belt to help support your back or performing seated overhead press variations until you can ensure the correct form.


The overhead press is a versatile upper-body exercise with a wide range of physical and performance-based applications when programmed correctly. Whilst it uses a simple movement pattern that involves pressing weight above your head, the guidance above should be followed to ensure safe and correct performance.

As a compound exercise, several large muscle groups need to work synergistically to ensure the correct body position and weight path overhead. The prime movers include your shoulders, traps, and triceps. Secondary movers include your chest, core, glutes, and calves. Synergist muscles also work to stabilize your primary and secondary movers.

Regular performance of the different overhead press variations can build bigger shoulders, improve posture, and lead to better functional movement patterns. The standing variations may be better for power generation and sporting application, whereas the seated variations may be better suited to beginners and those looking to work around injuries. 

Regardless of your ability level and exercise goals, the overhead press should form a staple part of a well-organized training program. Work with a professional and use the program information above as general guidance.

Frequently Asked Questions

What muscles do overhead press work?

The overhead press is classed as a compound movement meaning it requires several large muscle groups to be performed correctly. These include the shoulders, traps, chest, core, and triceps.

Is OHP bad for shoulders?

When performed correctly, the overhead press can improve performance, mobility, and posture by building stronger muscles and developing functional movement patterns. Problems such as shoulder pain and injury can arise when performing them incorrectly or with underlying shoulder issues.

Why is the overhead press so difficult?

The overhead press is classed as a compound exercise which means it requires multiple muscle groups to be performed correctly. Synergist muscles need to support larger muscle groups, with core strength and mobility needed to ensure the correct bar path. 

Should I avoid overhead press?

Overhead pressing should be programmed as part of a high-quality exercise program, with several physical and functional benefits. However, consult a health professional first if suffering from shoulder mobility issues or underlying shoulder problems. 


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