Standing Barbell Military Press – Not Just a “Shoulder” Exercise

February 11, 2009

Many people think that standing barbell military presses are just great for shoulder development.

Although this exercise works the heck out of your shoulders, you can do them in a way that works your abs like crazy as well. Sometimes the best lifts are the ones that appear to be the most basic. Let’s use some advanced techniques to make the most of this basic lift.

standing barbell military press

[When you do this exercise while standing, the abs become the link between your hips and your shoulders. You can maximize the amount lifted as well as increasing ab definition by flexing and generating tension in your abs while lifting the weight overhead.]

A Quick Refresher Course on Generating Strength in a Muscle

I’m going to basically cut and paste a portion from a previous post I did on the subject of strength training, basically to save some time…

(From the post The Strength Training Rep Dissected and Explained)

—————————————-start————————————–
Strength is largely determined by your ability to generate tension in a muscle. The harder you can contract a muscle the better strength you can demonstrate in that muscle.

Did you know that you can contract a muscle much harder if you also contract the muscles surrounding it? I learned about this principle called “Irradiation” from Soviet Special Forces Trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline. Here is how he explains it.

    1. Try flexing your bicep as hard as possible without making a fist.
    2. Now try and flex your bicep as hard as possible while making as tight as fist as possible and squeezing.
    3. You should be able to contract your bicep much harder when making a tight fist.
    4. This is called “irradiation”…what is happening is that the nerve impulses of surrounding muscles can amplify the effect of that muscle.

—————————————-finish————————————–

Contract Your Abs to Generate More Power In Your Shoulders

So to generate a higher level contraction in your shoulders and triceps, you should contract your abs. The benefit of contracting your abs also creates a solid base to push from.

What I mean by that, is that if your abs are rock hard while pushing, there won’t be a “sag” effect in your body. Lifting with “soft abs” is kind of like trying to do shoulders presses on a spring mattress. You will generate much more power if your body is solid and stable.

Flex Your Abs “Bruce Lee Style” for a Power Surge!

I wrote a post on an exercise that Bruce Lee came up with for abs. He also used a similar technique to generate power in his punches. It is a way of breathing out which also contracts your abs harder than normal.

I named it “Breath of Dragon”, because it sounded like an appropriate name (also because I couldn’t find any mention of this way of breathing online).

(From the post Bruce Lee’s “Secret” Six Pack Ab Exercise)

—————————————-start————————————–
The “Breath of Dragon” Explained

First you want to breath in. Then you want to simultaneously flex your abs hard while breathing out. Here is the trick…you want to purse your lips and make it a bit hard to force the air out. It should take you about 5-10 seconds to force all of the air out. As you let the air out of your lungs your abs should have the ability to flex harder and harder.
—————————————-finish————————————–

Contracting the Abs, Makes the Lift Safe As Well

Strong ab contractions are going to protect the spine while doing this lift. This is probably the biggest benefit to using this bad-ass “Breath of Dragon” technique.

The huge side benefit is that the better you get at contracting your abs, the sharper they will look (as long as you keep that body fat at a reasonably low level).

Military Press Strength Translates Into A Stronger Upper Body

I have to honest, over the past 6 months I have been doing seated dumbbell shoulders presses. While they hit the shoulders pretty good, they don’t seem to have the same upper body effect as doing the standing military press.

After doing the standing barbell military presses this past 5 weeks and getting stronger in this lift, all my upper body lifts have become easier.

I have also noticed a big increase in tricep definition. This lift works the heck out your tri’s compared to many other pressing movements.

How to Safely Get the Weight to Pressing Position

Some people like to use a squat rack and put the weight at shoulder level and then un-rack the weight to get it to shoulder position.

This isn’t the way to go in my opinion. If you clean the weight into position it becomes a more functional lift and ensures that your body is balanced. I did a post on Hanging Power Cleans as this is the method I recommend to get the weight into position.

I’m of the opinion that you shouldn’t try and press anything more than you can clean up to to your shoulders. I also don’t believe in using straps to increase your ability to hoist heavier weights.

Advanced Tip to Quickly Increase Military Press Strength

The military press lends itself well to “Static Holds”. Here is a great way to finish off your shoulder workout. Put a little weight on the barbell and press it overhead.

Use a weight that you could easily do 10 times. Press that weight overhead and hold it there for as long as you can. Maintain good form the whole time and lock that weight overhead.

What you will find is that your shoulders will shake and the same thing will happen in your abs. Once it becomes too tough, put the weight back down. Just do one set.

I like to think of this static exercise as “standing planks”. It is a static lift that will harden up your abs and increase the mind-to-muscle-link in your shoulders…resulting in stronger more defined shoulders as well as stronger and more defined abs.

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

BurritoKid February 11, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Great post! I will stop doing military presses while sitting.

When you do HIT, do you put an incline on the treadmill?

Adam Steer - Better Is Better February 11, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Hey Rusty,

I love your emphasis on what we call “Core Activation” in Circular Strength Training. I like to think of the core as a “force couple.” Any load or force that you create, absorb or manipulate is either passed up, down or through the core in some way. It ties everything together. Actively and consciously recruiting it when you lift is a great way to “teach” it how to react in life and sport.

Cheers,
Adam

James Eckburg February 11, 2009 at 9:57 pm

These sound good exercises to do with bar bells and If I could stand long enough to do it I might give it a try. I might try the muscel tone one because I’m in a wheelchair and see if it will help my abs

Chris - Zen to Fitness February 12, 2009 at 2:43 am

Very interesting article! the tensing the biceps thing is very cool had no idea…..I love using overhead barbell holds as a static exercise. I usually do a few sets of holds at the end of workouts just to finish the body off its great combined with a few sets of planks, really gets stuff shakey!

All in all Military shoulder press is the ultimate upper body exercise for strength and overall body activation

Yash February 12, 2009 at 4:06 am

Hey Rusty,
Great post again with the Olympic lifts. [though i know presses are no longer technically an Olympic lift] I’ve been strength training pretty consistently and shoulder presses are my weakest spot, but they usually tend to be people’s lightest lift. I usually clean the weight up, but i tried doing cleans the other day like in your previous post, but i was having trouble with the catch position at the top. Is it ok if I use the starting position of a shoulder press for the catch position? also, what flexibility exercises would you suggest to work on the elbow and wrist flexibility?
Yash

Yash February 12, 2009 at 4:07 am

To clarify, the day I’m talking about, I was doing cleans only not presses. I usually don’t worry about my clean form.

Yavor February 12, 2009 at 5:06 am

The military press is a man maker. You either can lift heavy stuff above your head or you cannot. No place for cheating here.

Morgenster February 12, 2009 at 6:32 am

Rusty, that’s an awesome post on how to maximize gains from a simple exercise by doing it in a more natural way.
If you think long and hard about it it’s all very logical isn’t it?
It’s like if you do the shoulder presses sitting down then you don’t really ‘own’ them. Even your hips and legs will adapt to the exercise making your posture more controlled and stable.
I think that’s also one of the appeals of bodyweight exercises: They are exercises that give you good functional strength that you can also apply in real life or sports.

Matthew Brett February 12, 2009 at 7:32 am

The standing military press is a great exercise, and as you point out works the whole body.

It’s interesting that people think that the only way to get a strong core is by direct ab work, and yet don’t seem to realize that the guy who is pressing his body weight (or a large proportion of it) overhead can only do it with a strong core.

Hassan Sikder February 12, 2009 at 8:01 am

loving the new information, but the wierd thing is, ive always been doing the military press like you have mentioned, thats the way i was taught to do it and buy contracting the abs you get a better strength workout. and rusty by any chance is it possible to slim the legs down by a stationary bike or not? as jogging at the moment is really cold outside.

Thomas Kovacs February 12, 2009 at 11:31 am

Excellent post Rusty!

About 5 months ago I bought some barbells and for the most part I performed the (Seated Military?) as you mentioned, then I switched to Standing Military about 4 months after. I think the Seated Military works your back more (esp. lower back), but Standing Military is like a full body workout, working even the legs I think!

The one thing that concerns me about the Standing Military is safety. Also I think having a big mirror helps too, to maintain the correct form. I never did the ab flex though, but thanks for the information! I will incorporate it into my next workout.

Son of Grok February 12, 2009 at 11:37 am

I have been doing hanging power cleans into a stand military press lately. It is killer.

The SoG

Caleb - Double Your Gains February 12, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Rusty!

Great post man, the overhead press is a great — FULL BODY — exercise.

It’s one of the key reasons it’s a part of my 3-5 program and why I always focused on it instead of the bench press like everyone else. Because you get a ton of core work and it’s a little more “functional” to build strength in this position because you have to pick stuff up overhead a lot more in real life than you do laying down on a bench an pressing something over your chest 🙂

That being said, I’m working on getting my bench press numbers up right now because I’ll probably do a powerlifting meet in the near future.

The upside? My overhead press strength carries over a LOT more to my bench press strength than the other way around. I got a friend who can bench close to 300 if not over it (only 10-15 pounds heavier than me)… but can barely get half that (if that) with his overhead press.

Plus most guys bench so much that they have serious muscle inbalances in their front shoulders and chest being too strong, and the overhead pressing and a lot of pulling movements will fix this problem (and fix the hunch back look!)

Great post Rusty!
Caleb

Ron February 12, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Interesting. I might give it a shot. Right now I’m just doing handstand push-ups. The negative part of that is the blood going to the head. Don’t suppose you know anything to help that?

Helder February 12, 2009 at 4:00 pm

It’s an excellent exercise, and i’ll just add that besides being a very good exercise for shoulders and abs, it also works your chest in a very very good way, specially if you aim to have that “square” chest look, it hits hard on your upper chest.

Terry February 12, 2009 at 4:10 pm

Thanks for the shoulder post!

I love the idea of the static holds. Will be trying these manana.

Vic Magary - GymJunkies February 12, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Right on, Rusty! I regularly use the standing military press (and the push press, and the push jerk) with clients and with my own training. From a functional standpoint the standing press will beat a bench press everyday in my book.

Great post, man!
Vic

Fitness-siren February 12, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Great post, Rusty! I believe Pavel teaches this style of breathing as well. I gotta admit that I tried it a few times and decided it was too difficult (prob because I wasn’t in the best shape when I first tried it). But, now that you reminded me of it, I’d have to review his technique again and reap the benefits.

I know you recommend barbell military presses and that’s cool but I also like doing single overhead presses with KBs. I find that I can lift heavier weights with KBs compared to BBs and DBs. But, I can see how your technique can really help with the core/abs.

Thanks for the info!

joggs February 12, 2009 at 8:26 pm

rusty
I wanted ask you what the difference when you keep you calorie intake on maitenance compared to when your trying to slim down. Also what do you keep it at when your going out for drinks a couple times a week ? just curious since I am a college guy. you seem to know your stuff

Nate February 13, 2009 at 3:09 am

Great exercise that is a staple in my workouts. I like to do a hanging clean + shoulder press combination on every repetition. This will decrease the number of reps you are able to do, but do this and a static hold on your final rep and it is a real smoker!

Robert February 13, 2009 at 10:43 am

Great post as usual, have been doing barbell press behind neck as it hits all 3 heads of delts but will give standing military press a go next workout as I’m all for stimulating as many muscle fibres with the compound lifts

Stuart Buck February 13, 2009 at 3:31 pm

Another option, if you have space, is to walk with weight overhead. Walking 1/4 mile with 135 pounds held overhead is incredibly hard (and will probably involve several clean and jerks along the way).

Tom Parker - Free Fitness Tips February 14, 2009 at 7:01 am

Good post Rusty. I tend to avoid barbell exercises when I work out. I think it’s because I was never taught how to use it when I started at the gym and just never bothered experimenting and learning. However, these posts serve as a constant reminder that I need to start incorporating the barbell in to my routine. I don’t think there’s anything else that can give so many different muscles a work out in one exercise.

Tom February 15, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Rusty,

Long time reader, first time poster. I see how you recommend the two day split of chest/back and shoulders/arms with HIIT and abs. I have been doing this split for about 8 weeks now and seem to be hitting a plateau in some of my weights. I was wondering if you would suggest changing the split completely or just changing the order and possibly adding different combos of supersets?

Thanks for you hard work and dedication to producing a great information source.

admin February 16, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Burritokid,

I put the treadmill at an incline of 2.0. I read a long time ago that it translates better to regular running when it is set at this angle.

Adam,

Yeah…I do generate much more power when my core is purposely stabilized.

James,

Everybody has different limitations. Great idea to adapt it for your circumstances.

Chris,

True…most people focus on bench press strength, but the shoulder press is a better indicator of upper body strength.

Yash,

I’m assuming you want to catch the barbell on your front delts. This is especially important if you are going heavy, but I typically catch the weight into the press positition when I’m doing presses. It takes a bit of practice, but you just tighten up your wrists and stop the barbell before it hits your shoulder. Your wrist and elbox flexibility will improve the more you do the standard clean. Start light and try to do it the full range with light weights before you go heavy.

Yavor,

Yeah…I love the feeling of lifting a heavy weight to full extension. It is kind of fun to mix in a few singles from time to time as well. I typically do this when my shoulders and joints feel extra “well oiled”, if you know what I mean. Some days lifts feel especially smooth.

Morgenster,

Good call. Doing tem standing is “owning the lift”. There is nothing but you and the weight. When you are seated you don’t get all the side benefits fo the lift.

Matthew,

I agree. Great Abs aren’t built with all the little ab exercises. It is a combination of low body fat and the ability to contract the abs hard as a stabilizing force in many lifts. This happens to be one of the best ones for that purpose.

Hassan,

It is hard to slim the legs down on an exrcise bike, because the bike tends to “pump up” the legs a bit. If it is your only option, then when you do intervals peddle fast on lower resistace during the fast part of your intervals rather than increasing the pedal resistance (hope that makes sense).

Thomas,

To me the standing military feels safer than the seated version because you can easily maintain a natural posture. When I’m seated my spine tends to feel a tiny bit “hunched over”, due to the seat pressing my spine in certain spots. The standing military press also teaches good posture better than the seated version.

SoG,

I sometimes will end my workout with clean and presses to really jack up my metabolism after a hard ste of HIIT. Doing a clean for every rep before pressing works a lot of muscles in the upper body. My favorite part of this is how it builds forearm density. Best forearm exercise by far.

Caleb,

This is very true…whenever my standing press numbers go up, my bench press follows. If someone gets strong in both standing military presses as well as chinups, they will eventually have amazing upper body development. The other nice thing about standing military presses is that they can be done with minimal equipment.

Ron,

I don’t like to do handstand presses for this reason (plus I’m a tall freak who sucks at handstands). I don’t know how to prevent this.

Helder,

Good point on the upper chest benefit. It does seem to help create the desired square chest look that guys are looking for…plus it increases pressing strength in general which translates to a stronger incline press.

Terry,

I need to do a more detailed post on static holds. They provide many benefits.

Vic,

The bench press is fun, but it is kind of a lazy lift when you think about it. Standing military presses take substantially more effort.

Fitness-siren,

I haven’t done much kettlebell work, but I know they have increased big-time in popularity the past 10 years. I may pick up a light pair someday to do fat loss circuits. I’ve seen a few videos on Youtube with people doing HIIT style circuits with KB’s and it looks brutal.

joggs,

I’m a professional when it comes to looking good while still drinking beer and enjoying bar food every now and then 🙂 Obviously I try to eat heathy when possible, but I love things like pizza and hot wings along with a few cold beers. I should do a detailed post on this! Great idea buddy.

Nate,

That sounds like a great approach. I like the idea of ending with the static hold on the last rep. I do the clean and press every rep from time to time and next time I do it I will see how long I can maintain the static hold.

Robert,

I have seen research that disputes the idea of doing the press behind the head to work the side and rear delts better. You are also risking shoulder injury by doing these behind the head. If it works well for you and feels good then continue with the lift, but I have seen injury after injury with the behind the head version. The regular militart press allows your body to press in a natural way, which means you can use heavy weight with little risk of straining a rotator cuff.

Stuart,

Walking with 135 overhead has to be tough! That remind me of the Strongman competitions (except they would be using a log or something like that).

Tom,

I could do an entire workout with an olympic bar, some weights, and a chinup bar. You really should get into working out with a barbell, you will notice a big difference in your physique.

Tom,

When I hit a plateau, I typically change the rep scheme a bit. Usually I alternate between doing 4-5 sets of 5 reps for a while and then 4-5 sets of 2-5 reps. Every once in a while (for a period of 6 weeks or so) I do 5 sets of 1-3 reps, but not anywhere close to failure. I use the low rep total as an opportunity to do the most perfect rep as possible…practising tensing the muscle as hard as hell with every rep. Think of this as nervous system training. I don’t care about the weight for the majority of the sets, but I do like to test myself every now and then when doing this workout. Once you do this workout for 6-8 weeks, you go back to 5 sets of 5 reps and that weight will feel very light. An alternative to this is to mixup the order of your lifts…or replace a couple of the lifts. Appreciate the compliment.

Great comments,

Rusty

Chris - www.fitnessfail.com February 16, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Good post – I like that I’m seeing a trend toward people recognizing the role of the core muscles as stabilizers, instead of decoration and training accordingly. If you do crunches – you tend to get stronger at (surprise!) doing crunches.

If you perform lifts that require your midline to effectively transfer force to your limbs and maintain stability – it gets better doing that.

I’ve found that thinking of driving the weight off my heels (i.e. pushing my heels through the floor) helps with shoulder presses, push presses and push jerks a lot. I suppose moreso that latter two, since there is more leg contribution to those lifts.

Hassan Sikder February 16, 2009 at 8:25 pm

does that mean to keep it on low resistance all the way through out the exercise?

Daniel February 17, 2009 at 9:00 am

great article… the importance of free standing exercise that ingages your core is something that i always try to incorporate…

it’s a great exercise and a great point brought across

Ron February 17, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Fair enough. How do you suppose they compare (standing barbell mil. VS. handstand PUs)?

Ron February 17, 2009 at 6:36 pm

P.S. If you suck at handstands, just use the wall. That’s what I do. Hopefully I’ll eventually get good enough to not use the wall.

Matt February 18, 2009 at 4:32 pm

DUDE!!!!! I have been doing the Dragon Breath all day at work and it is pretty amazing. I feel like i have done a ton of ab work and I am just sitting at mmy desk. Oh, i also forgot I hit up 3 sets of 15 knees to elbows this morning, but hey it can’t do anything but help. THanks for the post, big fan of multiple reps and sets of olympic lifts. I don’t ever go heavier than my body wieght, I just think you should be able to throw your own weight around.

Dangeruss February 21, 2009 at 5:05 pm

I love doing standing military presses. Did a lot of em yesterday a long with 5×4 Hang Cleans at 115lbs. Working on getting it up to 135. Needless to say I got a really good shoulder workout. The only problem i’m having with shoulder exercises is I can never seem to “hit” my rear delts, so while my shoulders are nice and rounded on the front they are slightly lacking around back. Any suggestions?

Yavor February 22, 2009 at 3:58 am

Dangeruss,

– make sure to do the military presses with grip just outside of your shoulders so that the back/rear delts work when the bar rotates backwards.
– do pullups
– add 3 sets of 8-12 reps of rear delt flys

Yavor

admin February 22, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Ron,

I assumed that you had to use the wall…lol. Not a chance that I would be able to do these without the wall. You are a maniac!

Matt,

Glad you like the dragon breath exercise. Do this for a few months and it will sharpen up your abs big-time.

Rusty

Andri E March 10, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Standing on foot while doing the Military press also works wonders. It makes the exercise extremely powerful on your abs.

Andri E March 10, 2009 at 7:02 pm

On one foot*

Justin March 10, 2009 at 10:08 pm

The handstand push ups are great! They also require an engaged core, proprioception, and upper body strength similar to the overhead press. For an even greater challenge they can be performed on parallel bars or even rings. The inversion of handstand push ups is also beneficial. Inversion allows oxygen rich blood to easily flow through the open vein valves. This blood floods the brain for an energy boost. Inversion is also beneficial for your lymphatic and circulatory systems.

Miguel March 28, 2009 at 2:22 am

This exercise is I do for 3 months and I successfully created my shoulder beautiful form

The Fit News July 9, 2009 at 11:56 pm

I love militaries. You’re absolutely right about using abs to make it safer. If you have slack abs you’ll end up bending too far backwards and injuring your spine!

However, I still think Arnold Press is better for shoulder strength. (Seated dumbell pronating press I think the technical name is)

It must be something to do with the fact that you need to stabilize the dumbell as you press it. They tend to give me better gains, better pump, better definition, etc.

The Fit News July 9, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Seated dumbell pronating shoulder press***

SemperFit December 15, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Since I often find myself in the position of not having any equipment at all, I rely and heavily practice BW workouts instead.

My substitute for the Mil Presses? Pike Pushups and Divebomber pushups. Make ’em harder or lighter by changing the angles or the limbs. High reps, low reps, no matter. Just don’t go heavy everyday, as they can tax you just as hard as weighted drills.

SemperFit December 15, 2009 at 6:16 pm

I forgot to add that they tax the core very nicely when you hold ’em statically/isometrically, when you hold them nice and hard between reps.

The divebomber pushups specifically, when you do them on one leg. I believe they call those scorpion pushups?

Leonid January 9, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Hi, Rusty.
This post is just all about what I have been doing for a long time now! It is exactly the way I do it – and it feels so functional lifting it from the floor: sort of deadlift – hang clean – static holding – press up – static holding – slow lowering – static holding and so on. And it works biceps too very well when doing static holding in the beginning of the press up movement. It is this exercise along with the bench press and squats that saw me gain 35 pounds of muscle mass in 10 month (from 126 pounds to 161) (HIT training once a week or two for 15-20 minutes a week).
Now I want to get lean and toned athlete look and gain relative strength and your site helps a lot! Thanks!

Pat March 8, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Hi,Rusty.
I’ve been reading your site a year now and i’m a very very big fan of your strength traning advice(..that “mind to muscle link” post is awsome).
I’ll ask you a big favor 😀
Please make another post about exercises for shoulders that aproach Dwight Howard’s type of shoulders(for example) and not the type of shoulders that look like a pencil’s head.
Don’t you think that too that square shaped shoulders and upper back are cooler than triangle shaped(like John Barbans – no offense,just an example)??
Pleaaaaase post something =)
Thanks for your attention.

Darren May 22, 2010 at 5:25 am

Great post. I was beginning to think I get more gains, and more of an effective shoulder workout from standing presses than seated, and you’ve confired my reasoning.

Great one!

Regards.

Darren.
London.

FOOTBALL MAN January 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm

When I was playing football in college, I made great increases in strenth doing military presses. It is one of the best lifts to do.

Esso November 16, 2011 at 7:37 am

I somehow pulled something in my back doing a standing military press. Not sure how that works. I can feel the pull when I touch my chin to my chest. It was at the end of my lifting routine so I probably went too heavy.

I think I need to lay off this move for a while. Can you suggest a replacement move while I give this muscle a rest? I was think maybe a front dumbbell raise.

ken December 28, 2011 at 9:47 pm

I like this article but it’s important to advocate variety in lifting. Sure standing military presses are good….but not as good as mixing them up with seated presses…seated barbell…seated dumbbell etc. Point being that muscles adapt quickly. Maybe the increased definition and strength you found was not coming from the standing aspect of the lift but instead coming from shocking your system and making your body adjust to a new lift.

Muhammad September 3, 2012 at 4:33 am

Excellent article, indeed! This is the best article I read on this lift. Thank you.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: