Whether you’re working on a weightlifting program or just want to get back mobility, it’s important to keep the muscles in your upper body conditioned.

These muscles help you do everyday tasks, like putting dishes up high in a cabinet or placing items overhead on a shelf.

One way to keep your upper body in shape is by including the overhead press, also called a shoulder press, in your overall exercise routine.

Standing overhead press

If you choose to do the overhead press from a standing position, you’ll work most of the large muscles in your upper body, including the:

Because being upright requires balance, you also recruit the muscles in your core, including your abdominals and lower back.

In an upright position, you compensate for balance changes during each phase of the overhead press and create stability through the spine to ensure a proper foundation for a loaded overhead movement, explains Brent Rader, DPT, physical therapist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics.

In addition to the power from your upper body, your lower body helps assist when you push a weighted bar overhead.

Seated overhead press

If you perform the overhead press in a seated position with your back pressed against the back of a pad, strength and mobility coach Matt Pippin, CSCS says the core activation will go away. The shoulders and triceps will perform all of the work.

When executing any exercise that involves using weight, you need to understand the function and pattern of the movement before you hit the gym.

Rader explains that an overhead press is simply a movement in which resistance is pushed above the head. You can do this in a variety of ways, like by using:

  • both hands simultaneously
  • one hand at a time
  • a single barbell held by both hands
  • one free weight in each hand

Check your shoulder mobility

With this in mind, you also need to find out if you have the shoulder mobility, or range of movement, to perform the exercise safely.

To determine this, Pippin suggests performing the following test:

What to doWhen to improve range of motionWhen overhead press is OK
Keep your entire body still. Slowly lift both arms overhead. If you can’t easily get your arms in line with your ears, then you shouldn’t do overhead pressing with a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebells. If you can get in line with your ears, you have the prerequisite shoulder mobility necessary and can follow the steps below.

Grip and hold

For the standing barbell press, walk up to the bar and grab it slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with palms facing away from your body. Then follow these steps:

  1. Unrack the bar and step back. The bar should be resting in your hands right around your collarbone.
  2. To start the movement, brace your abs, squeeze your butt, tilt your head back, and drive the bar up toward the ceiling.
  3. Once the bar passes your forehead, return your head to neutral while locking your arms out overhead. At the top of the press, make sure your abs and glutes are still engaged and you’re not bending your lower back.
  4. Slowly lower the bar back down to your shoulders, tilting your head back to make room.

Keep your elbows in

Pippin notes to keep your elbows either directly underneath your wrists or slightly more inward.

“This angle will allow for optimal force production. If the elbows flare out to the side, you’re losing leverage from which to push from,” he explains.

Use your abs and glutes, too

Pippin also recommends keeping your glutes and abs engaged throughout the movement.

“This is your pillar of support from which to press. Losing this stability will make the bar shake and reduce the amount of weight that you can push,” he says.

Once you know how to execute the overhead press with correct form, it’s time to determine the type of weight or resistance to use.

“Free weights such as dumbbells allow for different angles to be stimulated compared to a traditional barbell,” Pippin says.

Also, if you have some wrist or shoulder limitations, Pippins says dumbbells can allow for a path of less resistance, allowing you to perform the movement a little more safely.

Additionally, Pippin says that kettlebells, if used upside down or bottom’s up, allow you to train the shoulder in a more stable way with much less load.

“The bottom’s up position creates a giant stability component, as the bell will shake uncontrollably. This is a great training tool for the shoulders and is a great way to introduce overhead pressing while working on building up shoulder mobility,” he explains.

There are several benefits of including the overhead press in your workout routine. Overhead pressing can increase:

  • strength and size of the shoulder muscles
  • strength and size of the triceps muscles
  • strength and size of the trapezius muscle
  • strength in the core muscles, such as your obliques, transverse abdominal muscles, lower back, and spinal stabilizers, when performing the exercise while standing
  • performance of other exercises, like the bench press

Performing the same exercise repeatedly can lead to boredom, overuse, and a decrease in performance and gains.

So, if you’re looking to train the same muscles required in the overhead press but want to vary your workouts, you might be wondering if there are other exercises you can do. Here are some to consider:

  • The Turkish get-up is a popular kettlebell or dumbbell exercise that recruits the same muscles as the overhead press.
  • You can change the grip when using dumbbells to do the overhead press. Rather than your palms facing out, switch to a neutral grip with the hands facing each other, elbows pointed in front of you.
  • Any type of rowing exercise that works the back and rotator cuff muscles may be a good swap. This can include a seated row machine, bent-over row, barbell row, or dumbbell row.
  • Pushups work some of the same muscles as the overhead press, including the pectorals, triceps, and shoulders. Plus, since no weights are required, you can do them anywhere, anytime.
  • Exercises that target the small muscles in your shoulders and upper back, such as scapular retraction and prone lateral raise, can help you decrease injuries and allow you to perform the overhead press more efficiently.

Your upper body and trunk house the muscles of the chest, shoulders, back, arms, and core. Collectively, these muscle groups allow you to perform several tasks, including reaching, rotating, and lifting overhead.

While not as common as reaching in front of your body or turning to the side, lifting or pushing overhead is still a movement we need to be able to execute in many daily activities.

The overhead or shoulder press is one of several exercises you can use to build and maintain shoulder strength.