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What is an Overhead Press?

By Shelby Miller
Updated May 17, 2024
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Also known as a military, or shoulder, press, an overhead press is a strength-training exercise that involves pressing a load above one’s head. This exercise is intended to strengthen and develop the deltoid muscle, which is situated directly atop the shoulder joint. While the deltoid is the prime mover during this exercise, the overhead press incorporates assisting muscles, known as secondary movers, including the triceps muscle in the posterior upper arm. It can be performed utilizing a variety of resistance-training equipment, including dumbbells, a barbell, resistance bands, kettlebells, and sandbags, as well as with a partner using a technique known as manual resistance.

Originating on the outermost aspect of the collarbone and shoulder blade, the deltoid folds around the shoulder like an inverted triangle. Its fibers converging as the muscle descends the upper arm, it ends in a tendon that inserts partway down the humerus bone. This muscle performs the action of lifting the arm away from the body, whether in a forward, lateral, or backward direction. In performing an overhead press, which involves lifting the elbows to either side of the shoulders with wrists above the elbows and straightening the elbows to push the weight directly over the shoulder joint, the deltoid works to lift the upper arm from a lateral position to a vertical position. Additionally, the triceps muscle assists by extending or straightening the elbow joint under the arm is pressed directly overhead.

The equipment most commonly used to perform an overhead press is a pair of dumbbells or a barbell. When pressing with dumbbells, one sits or stands with a weight in each hand, palms facing forward, and arms raised to either side of the shoulder joint with elbows bent to 90 degrees. One then presses the weights upward until the arms are straight and the wrists and elbows are aligned vertically with the shoulders, and then returns the weights to the starting position. Likewise, the same motion can be performed with hands spaced shoulder-width apart on a barbell.

Another type of equipment often used to perform the overhead press is a resistance band. A rubber tube with a handle on either end that is usually four feet in length, the resistance band challenges the muscles with elastic resistance. To perform this exercise with tubing, one stands with one or both feet positioned on the middle of the tube, holds a handle in each hand, and presses the ends overhead.

One more technique that can be used to perform the overhead press is known as manual resistance. To use this method, one sits on a chair or bench with a partner standing immediately behind her and raises her arms to the starting position, hands in fists. The partner places his hands with palms flat atop his partner’s fists and applies constant pressure as she presses both arms overhead. That pressure should remain constant even as the exerciser lowers her arms back to the starting position, so that she is keeping the muscles engaged by constantly pushing upward against her partner’s hands throughout the entire range of motion.

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