Build serious strength with these four variations of the shoulder press.
In terms of upper body strength and athletic strength, few movements can compete with the overhead press. From a functional standpoint, pushing the weight overhead requires stability from the floor to the core while still requiring adequate shoulder movement in all directions. Overhead presses are also a basic requirement for creating the shapely curves of the anterior and middle deltoids. If you can hook your carry-on bag into the overhead bin with one arm, everyone wins.
Dumbbell military press
Level 1: military dumbbell press
This OG press is used more in bodybuilding circles than in the military, but got its title because of its militaristically strict formal requirement that prevents the use of momentum. This base level movement helps develop the control and strength needed to move heavy weights without using the lower body for support.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells with your elbows bent at 90 degrees and your arms raised at shoulder level with your palms facing forward. Extend your arms to push the weights both over and inward so that the inner heads of the dumbbells lightly touch when fully extended. Slowly lower back to the start.
Reduce the role of your core by sitting on a bench with your feet flat on the floor.
- If your back arches or rib cage flare up when you press the weights above you, you are probably using too much weight. This could shift the focus from your shoulders to your upper pecs, putting strain on your lower back. Reduce your weight and actively contract your abs to protect your spine.
- If you cannot reach your arms straight up without shrugging or bending your elbows, you are putting your neck and shoulders at risk. Imagine tucking your shoulder blades in your back pockets (shoulder blade depression) to position your shoulders for optimal stability.
- If the dumbbells move forward, backward, or either side (as opposed to straight up) as you press over your head, do a wrist test: make sure they’re locked and straight like you’re hitting the ceiling.
One-armed kettlebell press
Level 2: One-armed kettlebell press
Switching from two arms to one requires greater core stability and can help identify muscle imbalances between your right and left sides. Using a kettlebell makes this one-sided press a little different as you start from a stacked position with the weight at chest level and corkscrew your arm as you extend it, engaging your muscles in a new way.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a kettlebell with your elbow down and the kettlebell on the back of your arm close to your chest. Your wrist should be in line with your forearm as if you were taking a punch through the kettlebell handle. Tense your core and straighten your arm above your head, opening your elbow to one side, and corkscrewing your wrist as you push to full extension. You should be done with your elbow at your ear and palm forward, and be able to draw a straight line from your hand through your elbow and shoulder to your hip. Slowly return to the start.
- If your arm feels wobbly as you extend it overhead, check your grip: the grip should be low above your palm, over the “meaty” part of your thumb so that its center of gravity stays directly above your wrist. If your grip is correct, you should be able to open your hand and spread your fingers.
- As you push the weight over your head, you can lean to one side. that’s fine. Since only one side of your body is weighted, you need to anatomically move your rib cage to the other side to move the weight over your head. Still, try to limit any additional movement by engaging your core, and imagine squeezing a lemon under your armpit to activate your lats and other stabilizing muscles.
Dive Bomber Push Up
Level 3: Dive-Bomber Push-Up
While it may seem like a regression to switch from a one-sided press to a body weight push-up, this movement actually requires a lot of strength and control, and it’s a great way to develop urgent endurance with your shoulders in tension all the time stand .
Get on the plank with your hands under your shoulders and spread your feet hip-width apart. Lift your hips toward the sky and drop your chest between your arms to get inside the downward facing dog. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, slide forward by lowering your head, then your shoulders, then your stomach in a scooping motion toward the floor. Extend your arms to deal with the upward facing dog, then reverse the motion – lower your stomach, then your chest, then your head – and raise your hips to return to the start.
- Don’t let your elbows stretch to one side. This can pinch a rotator cuff tendon, leading to impingement syndrome or even rupture. Deliberately keep your elbows close to your body and do not allow them to bend more than 45 degrees.
- If you’re having trouble reversing the movement, simply lift your hips straight back up into the downward facing dog instead of trying to squirm and wiggle backwards, which could put strain on your shoulders or back. Slow down the first half of the movement to build strength and practice the movement pattern for a few weeks. Then try shifting it back into reverse and see how you do it.
Barbell push press
Stage 4: Barbell Push Press
This powerful movement trains your entire body to create upward momentum without compromising form or control, and is the ideal training transition between a rigorous press and the final stages of a clean-and-jerk.
Position a barbell over your front delts and collarbones and keep the bar outside your shoulders with your elbows raised. Keeping your back straight and your heels on the floor as you quickly “dive” – that is, bend your knees – then explosively extend your legs and arms to propel the bar straight over your head. Slowly lower yourself to start and bend your knees again to catch the bar over your upper chest as it returns.
- If you are being pulled forward while performing the movement, check your elbows: to begin with, they should be twisted under the bar and raised so that they are nearly parallel to the floor. This creates a direct upward movement and allows you to push more weight while avoiding injury.
- If your heels peel off the floor, or at any point during the movement you get on your toes, you are likely initiating the jump by pushing your glutes backwards. This shifts your center of gravity and decreases your strength potential and increases your risk of injury. Keeping your heels anchored to the floor, move your knees forward. Let your glutes drop straight down so that you can generate the greatest possible upward force.
- If you try to “muscle” the bar at the end of the movement, it means that you have lost momentum. With all of your strength coming from the floor, push hard into the floor to initiate your upward thrust and imagine it traveling through your hips, spine, shoulders, and ankles.