How to Do the Standing Military Press:  A Guide to the Overhead Press

How to Do the Standing Military Press:  A Guide to the Overhead Press

The standing military press is a classic full-body exercise designed to engage both the upper and lower body. The arms and shoulders press the weight above your head as the legs, lower back, and abs support you and keep the skeletal system in proper alignment. Alignment is the magic word: Keeping your full body in alignment is the way to get maximum results while avoiding injury.

Here’s a detailed walk through of how to do the standing military press.

Preparation and Setup for the Exercise:

In most instruction for standing military press, the preparation phase often gets short shrift. You must consider, however, that the standing military press is more than merely lifting the weight up from the ground or the power rack. It involves the proper starting posture and grounding the entire body to ensure maximum benefits from the lift.

Posture is critical to not only performing this lift with maximum effectiveness, but to avoid injury. If during the lift you cannot keep your knees locked and hip stable, lower the weight and try again.

Stand with your legs a hips’ distance apart. (Though the traditional military press requires that your heels touch each other, this results in a much less stable base. Having the feet a hip’s distance apart gives you more stability and more power.) In preparation, engage your toes as though you were going to grab the floor. Firmly pull your kneecaps up the front of your thighs and allows your pelvis to get oriented. Tighten your glutes. This grounds your body and gets you into proper initial alignment.

Now you’re going to bring the bar up to your front shoulders.

If you’re starting with the weight on the floor:

  1. Squat down, pressing your buttocks back. Keep your back straight and look forward as you squat down and grab the bar with both hands.
  2. Keep your grip narrow – just a bit wider than your shoulders — and your wrists straight.
  3. Inhale and straighten up to bring the bar to waist level. Exhale.
  4. Keep your shoulder blades engaged. With a little boost from the legs, inhale and lift the bar up to your collarbone. Keep your forearms vertical and chin lifted slightly.

If you’re starting from a power rack, once you’ve grounded yourself, grab the bar with a grip that’s just a bit wider than your shoulders and wrists straight. Bring it to rest at the collarbone, with your chin lifted slightly.

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Performing the Lift:

Starting with the bar at collarbone height, begin pressing the bar over your head. As you begin pressing the bar, bend your back slightly and press into the ground with your feet firmly planted using the same amount of force as you’re using to lift the bar. Unlike the deadlift, you will need to engage your kneecaps again to ensure your legs remain straight and strong.

Inhale, hold your breath, and press the bar above your head. Keep your body close to the bar as you raise it. When the bar is over your head, reground your lower body to keep the full body in alignment with the bar directly above the center of your feet.

Lock your arms out and shrug your shoulders up to the ceiling.

Bring it Back Down Easily:

After holding the bar overhead for 3 to 5 seconds, bring it back down to collarbone height as you exhale. Inhale deeply and press up for your next repetition. Repeat for 10 to 12 repetitions.

When you have completed your reps, replace the bar in the power rack. If you lifted from the floor, bring it back down to the floor by lowering it to your hips and squatting down with your buttocks sticking out, your back straight, and your head looking forward.

Using Dumbbells for Versatility:

You can also perform this classic press using dumbbells. Dumbbells are great to use for several reasons, their versatility being first and foremost. You can either lift the dumbbells with palms forward like the bar lift or with the palms facing inward. One variation combines the two positions by starting with the dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing in, and then rotating them up as you press the dumbbells over your head until your palms are facing forward.

If you do the entire lift with the hands in the neutral position (palms facing the sides of the head), you’ll get more triceps activity, too.

Below is a great video by Scott Herman Fitness that provides a video tutorial on the exercise and it’s a top notch demonstration.

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Additional Notes and Wrapping Up:

Do not attempt the standing military press if you have lower back problems. Instead, perform the press from a seated position, with your glutes engaged and hips level.

Related: Building back your triceps with cable pressdowns

You may also have seen bodybuilders performing the behind-the-neck variation of this lift. If you have shoulder problems or ever had trouble with your rotator cuffs, avoid behind-the-neck lifts because they cause your shoulders to hyperextend when the bar comes behind your neck.

In conclusion, the standing military press is an excellent, full-body exercise that develops not only the upper body, but the core and lower body. Add it to your workouts and get tough!