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)

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.
  5. —————————————-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)

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.

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.

Important Message: Although this site has received 25+ million visitors, I am starting from scratch and abandoning it. This site is dated and old school looking, terrible to read on mobile, etc.

It's like a Ford Pinto compared to my new site...which is like a Ferrari. Click the link to head over to my new site.

Starting Over...R.I.P. Fitness Black Book!

Thanks for reading all these years!

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

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

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

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!



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: