The 12 Best Barbell Overhead Press Alternatives That Work the Same Muscles

LIVESTRONG.com may earn compensation through affiliate links in this story.
If you have a hard time with overhead presses, try alternatives like a push-up or bench press.
Image Credit: kali9/E+/GettyImages

Pressing a barbell overhead looks really cool, but it's one of the most commonly butchered exercises at the gym. Many people push themselves to perform this exercise even if it's not a great fit for their bodies.

Advertisement

Over time, too much heavy overhead pressing with bad form can keep you from feeling and performing at your best. And yet, it's still important to build upper-body pressing strength and maintain your ability to get your arms overhead for everyday activities like placing an object on a high shelf.

Advertisement

Thankfully, there are effective strategies you can use to improve your ability to press weights overhead. There are also many alternative exercises that give you similar benefits to barbell overhead pressing without placing the same stress on potentially sensitive joints.

Advertisement

In addition, remember you don't need to use a traditional barbell in order to build overhead pressing strength. Some folks will never be able to press a straight bar overhead without compromising form, and that's OK.

So, we share our favorite barbell overhead press alternatives below to help you build strength for your day-to-day life in and out of the gym.

Advertisement

First, Why Overhead Pressing Is So Tough (and What to Do About It)

There are three key qualities you must possess in order to safely and efficiently lift loads overhead:

  1. Overhead shoulder mobility:‌ You must be able to reach your arms directly overhead so your biceps are in line with your ears, without arching your lower back or bending your elbows.
  2. Thoracic spine mobility:‌ The thoracic spine is the part of your spine that runs from the bottom of your neck to the bottom of your ribcage. This area of the spine is designed to be highly mobile. If you have limited thoracic spine mobility, it may be difficult for you to get your arms overhead.
  3. Core strength and stability:‌ A strong and stable core protects your lower back and allows you to lift heavy loads. It's also crucial to unlocking mobility in your upper back and shoulders. If your nervous system senses your core isn't strong enough to support you in a certain position, it will limit your ability to get into that position.

Advertisement

Overhead and thoracic spine mobility can be affected by prior injuries to your shoulder or upper body. Even if you've never been injured, your upper back and shoulders may be stiff thanks to working a desk job.

Advertisement

An imbalanced approach to strength training — like spending too much time training muscles like your chest, biceps and shoulders and not enough time training your back muscles — can further exacerbate upper-body tightness.

Advertisement

Core strength and stability are equally important to overhead lifting because your nervous system may actually prevent you from going overhead even if you technically possess the mobility to do so.

This is called protective tension, and it's a mechanism our bodies use to prevent us from hurting ourselves. If your nervous system senses your core strength isn't up to the task, all the upper-body mobility training in the world won't help you get your arms overhead.

Advertisement

Nevertheless, the ability to get your arms overhead is an important physical ability that can improve your quality of life outside the gym. The following strategies can help you improve your overhead pressing abilities:

  • Regularly perform upper-body mobility drills, especially those that target your shoulders and thoracic spine.
  • If you struggle to get your arms overhead without bending your elbows, include foam rolling and static stretching for your lats into your routine.
  • Prioritize core exercises that require you to use your core muscles to resist movement through your trunk. Examples include dead bugs, anti-rotation presses (also known as Pallof presses) and ab wheel rollouts.

Advertisement

Related Reading

Vertical Pressing Exercises

1. Ultimate Sandbag Overhead Press

One reason why barbell overhead pressing can be so tricky is that it forces you to use a pronated grip, where your palms are facing away from you. This hand position increases the mobility demands on your upper body.

Ultimate sandbags (Amazon.com, $89.95) are a great barbell overhead press alternative because they have neutral grip handles. These handles allow you to press overhead with your palms facing in. This neutral grip is much more shoulder-friendly than the pronated grip because it reduces the rotational demands on your shoulders.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Additionally, the somewhat unstable nature of ultimate sandbags can automatically improve core stability. You must keep your core muscles engaged in order to keep the bag in position; if your core isn't properly engaged, you'll drop the bag. This extra core involvement can make it easier to get the weight overhead, because proper core stability can increase shoulder mobility.

Ultimate sandbags come in many sizes. If you're using a smaller sandbag for overhead pressing, it's best to hold onto the outside handles of the bag. Larger bags (those with tabs on the ends instead of handles) are better proportioned for pressing and allow you to use the neutral handles on the top of the bag.

You'll be limited in how much sandbag you can press overhead by how much sandbag you can clean into the front load position. This makes the ultimate sandbag overhead press a true full-body exercise.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Begin by standing upright with the sandbag on top of your feet. Bend your knees slightly and reach your hips back until you can grab the handles on the top of the bag in a neutral (palms inward) position.
  2. Clean the bag into the rack position by forcefully driving your legs into the ground. As the bag rises off the ground, swing your arms under the bag and punch upward. At the top of the clean, you should be standing upright with the bag resting on top of your fists in front of your chest.
  3. Push the bag overhead, minimizing head and neck movement. Maintain a good core position by grabbing the floor with your toes and keeping your belt buckle pointed toward your chin. At the top of the press, your arms should be fully extended and the bag should be directly overhead as if you're standing under an umbrella. Keep the bag balanced on your fists throughout.
  4. Finish the rep by pulling the bag back down to the rack position, and repeat.
  5. When you are finished with your entire set, reverse the clean by reaching your hips back and unfurling the bag all the way to the ground.

2. Trap Bar Overhead Press

The trap bar is another barbell overhead pressing alternative that uses a neutral grip. You'll need to set this up using a power rack because you won't be able to clean the bar into position from the floor.

Most trap bars have two sets of handles: high handles that rise above the rest of the bar and low handles that are even with the bar. Be sure to use the low handles whenever you overhead press trap bars.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Set up a trap bar in a power rack so that the low handles are at about armpit height. Add extra weight as needed. Carefully step inside the trap bar, squat down slightly and grab the low handles.
  2. Drive your legs into the floor to stand upright to unrack the bar. Take 1 to 2 steps back away from the power rack. Stand upright with your elbows down at your sides and the bar at shoulder height.
  3. Push the bar overhead. Maintain a good core position by grabbing the floor with your toes and keeping your belt buckle pointed toward your chin. At the top of the press, your arms should be fully extended and your biceps should be even with your ears.
  4. Finish the rep by pulling the bar back down into the starting position, and repeat.
  5. When you're finished with your entire set, carefully walk forward and return the bar to the power rack.

3. Kettlebell Overhead Press Variations

The kettlebell overhead press is more forgiving on your shoulders than the barbell overhead press.

This is in part because instead of pressing with your arms out to the side of your body, like with a barbell, your arms with a kettlebell overhead press begin in front of the body with your palms facing in and follow a rotational path overhead until your palms are facing away from you. Pressing this way puts less stress on the shoulder joint and allows for better activation of the stabilizer muscles.

Advertisement

It's best to start with single-arm kettlebell pressing because it requires less thoracic spine mobility. Many people have a much easier time pressing one arm overhead at a time rather than pressing both arms overhead at the same time. If you struggle with upper-body mobility, you may want to stick with single-arm pressing as your main overhead exercise.

With practice, some folks will be able to progress to alternating and even double-arm pressing. Take your time working up to these progressions, and don't be afraid to leave them out if you notice your form being compromised.

Related Reading

Single-Arm Kettlebell Overhead Press

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Perform a clean or use both hands to position a single kettlebell in the rack position on one side. Your palm should face in, your elbow should be down at your side and your forearm and wrist should be vertical. Imagine that you're trying to balance a glass of water on top of your knuckles. Make a fist with the opposite side hand and hold it out to your side.
  2. Press the kettlebell overhead. Maintain a good core position by grabbing the floor with your toes and keeping your belt buckle pointed toward your chin. As you press, allow your hand to rotate so your palm faces away from you at the top. At the top of the press, your arm should be fully extended and your bicep should be even with your ear.
  3. Finish the rep by lowering the kettlebell back into the rack position until your elbow is once again at your side. Allow your hand to rotate so your palm faces in at the bottom of the rep.

Alternating Kettlebell Overhead Press

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Perform a double-arm clean or have a partner position two kettlebells in the rack position on each side. Your palms should face in, your elbows should be down at your sides and your forearms and wrists should be vertical. Imagine that you're trying to balance a glass of water on top of your knuckles.
  2. Press one kettlebell overhead while you keep the other arm in the rack position. Maintain a good core position by grabbing the floor with your toes and keeping your belt buckle pointed toward your chin. As you press, allow your hand to rotate so your palm faces away from you at the top. At the top of the press, your arm should be fully extended and your bicep should be even with your ear.
  3. Finish the rep by lowering the kettlebell back into the rack position until your elbow is once again at your side. Allow your hand to rotate so your palm faces in at the bottom of the rep. Then repeat on the opposite side. Alternate sides until you've completed all the reps.

Double-Arm Kettlebell Overhead Press

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Perform a double-arm clean or have a partner position two kettlebells in the rack position on each side. Your palms should face in, your elbows should be down at your sides and your forearms and wrists should be vertical. Imagine that you're trying to balance a glass of water on top of your knuckles.
  2. Press both kettlebells overhead. Maintain a good core position by grabbing the floor with your toes and keeping your belt buckle pointed toward your chin. As you press, allow your hands to rotate so your palms face away from you at the top. At the top of the press, your arms should be fully extended and your biceps should be even with your ears.
  3. Finish the rep by lowering the kettlebells back into the rack position until your elbows are once again at your side. Allow your hands to rotate so your palms face in at the bottom of the rep.

4. Dumbbell Overhead Press Variations

If you don't have access to kettlebells, you can also use dumbbells to build overhead pressing strength. Because most gyms have a wider selection of dumbbells than kettlebells, you can increase your weights in smaller increments.

The biggest difference between dumbbell pressing and kettlebell pressing is the distribution of the weight. When you press a kettlebell, the bulk of its weight presses directly down into your shoulder. This helps center your joints and activate stabilizer muscles.

Dumbbells are different because the weight is distributed to the sides of your hand. You have to be more mindful to use good form when pressing dumbbells overhead.

To get the greatest benefit from dumbbell overhead presses and keep your shoulders feeling good, press in the same way as a kettlebell. Avoid pressing from the "high-five position," where your palms face away from you for the entire rep and your arms stay on the side of your body. Instead, begin in a rack position with your arms in front of your body and your palms facing in. Rotate your palms away from you as you press overhead.

Advertisement

Some people prefer to do dumbbell overhead presses with a neutral grip. This means your palms will face in for the entire rep and you won't rotate your hand. Experiment to find which hand position feels best for you.

Start with single-arm dumbbell overhead pressing and work your way up to double-arm variations only if they feel like a good fit for your body.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Perform a clean or use both hands to position a single dumbbell in the rack position on one side. Your palm should face slightly in, your elbow should be down at your side and your forearm and wrist should be vertical. Imagine that you're trying to balance a glass of water on top of your knuckles. Make a fist with the opposite side hand and hold it out to your side.
  2. Press the dumbbell overhead. Maintain a good core position by grabbing the floor with your toes and keeping your belt buckle pointed toward your chin. As you press, allow your hand to rotate so your palm faces away from you at the top. At the top of the press, your arm should be fully extended and your bicep should be even with your ear.
  3. Finish the rep by lowering the dumbbell back into the rack position until your elbow is once again at your side. Allow your hand to rotate so your palm faces slightly in at the bottom of the rep.

Alternating Dumbbell Overhead Press

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Perform a double-arm clean or have a partner position two dumbbells in the rack position on each side. Your palms should face slightly in, your elbows should be down at your sides and your forearms and wrists should be vertical. Imagine that you're trying to balance a glass of water on top of your knuckles.
  2. Press one dumbbell overhead while you keep the other arm in the rack position. Maintain a good core position by grabbing the floor with your toes and keeping your belt buckle pointed toward your chin. As you press, allow your hand to rotate so your palm faces away from you at the top. At the top of the press, your arm should be fully extended and your bicep should be even with your ear.
  3. Finish the rep by lowering the dumbbell back into the rack position until your elbow is once again at your side. Allow your hand to rotate so your palm faces slightly in at the bottom of the rep. Then repeat on the opposite side. Alternate sides until you've completed all the reps.

Double-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Perform a double-arm clean or have a partner position two dumbbells in the rack position on each side. Your palms should face slightly in, your elbows should be down at your sides and your forearms and wrists should be vertical. Imagine that you're trying to balance a glass of water on top of your knuckles.
  2. Press both dumbbells overhead. Maintain a good core position by grabbing the floor with your toes and keeping your belt buckle pointed toward your chin. As you press, allow your hands to rotate so your palms face away from you at the top. At the top of the press, your arms should be fully extended and your biceps should be even with your ears.
  3. Finish the rep by lowering the dumbbells back into the rack position until your elbows are once again at your side. Allow your hands to rotate so your palms face slightly in at the bottom of the rep

5. Landmine Press Variations

If you're not able to safely or comfortably get your arms overhead right now, you can still build some overhead pressing strength by changing the angle of your press. Landmines allow you to press at a vertical angle without going fully overhead.

To build a landmine, insert one end of a regular barbell into a single rotational end piece. These end pieces are often attached to the bottom corners of power racks, but you can also find stand alone versions or those that you insert into the middle of a bumper plate. If you don't have one, you can also create a makeshift landmine by wedging one end of a barbell into a corner between the floor and wall.

Pressing with a landmine allows you to bypass the need for true overhead mobility. That's because the landmine moves at an angle. No matter where you stand, you'll always be pressing out in front of your body and never directly overhead.

However, there is one key difference between landmine pressing and true overhead pressing that does limit carryover between the two exercises: the strength curve is different. When you press a weight directly overhead, it becomes heavier the farther it moves away from your body.

When you press a landmine, the position of your body makes it so that the hardest part of the movement is actually at the bottom. This means the demands on your core stability, which are so crucial when you press overhead, are not as great when you press a landmine out at an angle.

Nevertheless, landmine pressing can be a good pressing alternative for folks who are unable to get overhead safely. Although you won't build the same kind of shoulder-core integration as overhead press variations, you'll still target your upper-body pressing muscles and get a good workout.

Related Reading

Single-Arm Landmine Press

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Grab the free end of a landmine with one hand and make a fist with the opposite hand. Stand upright and choose an appropriate angle: closer to the attachment point means a more vertical press, farther from the attachment point means a less vertical press.
  2. Begin with your elbow at your side. Initiate the movement by pushing the bar up and out away from your body. As you press, try to reach your hand as far away from your body as you can without shrugging or rotating your hips. Your shoulder blade should wrap around the side of your rib cage.
  3. Finish the rep by pulling the bar back to the starting position with your elbow at your side.

Viking Landmine Press

The Viking press uses a separate attachment that goes on the free end of the landmine. It allows you to press the landmine with two hands at the same time. Unfortunately, these attachments are not super common; if you can't find one at your gym, focus on other exercises mentioned in this article.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Core and Upper Body
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Secure the Viking press attachment to the free end of the barbell. Bend your knees slightly and reach your hips back until you can grab onto the handles with both hands.
  2. Clean the bar to chest height by driving your legs forcefully into the floor. Stand upright and choose an appropriate angle: closer to the attachment point means a more vertical press, farther from the attachment point means a less vertical press.
  3. Begin with your elbows at your side. Initiate the movement by pushing the bar up and out away from your body. As you press, try to reach your hands as far away from your body as you can without shrugging. Your shoulder blades should wrap around the sides of your rib cage.
  4. Finish the rep by pulling the bar back to the starting position with your elbows at your side.

Horizontal Pressing Exercises

Most people will be able to successfully swap out barbell overhead press with one or more of the variations listed above. However, some folks may find that their shoulders can't tolerate any direct or indirect overhead work.

If overhead lifting is out of the question, focus instead on building pressing strength in the horizontal plane. Any exercise where you are pushing weight away from your chest is fair game. Pick exercises that feel good on your joints and allow you to continue getting stronger over time.

Popular horizontal pressing exercises you should consider include:

When most people think of pressing overhead, they usually picture themselves standing upright or sitting on a weight bench. However, you can perform overhead presses from many different body positions. Some body positions increase core and lower-body engagement and help avoid slipping into poor form.

You can use the following body positions for any of the overhead press alternatives described above except for trap bar overhead presses. You'll need to use a power rack to set up for that, which means you'll always press trap bars in a standing position.

1. Half-Kneeling Overhead Press

The starting position for a half-kneeling dumbbell overhead press.
Image Credit: Caroline Juster/LIVESTRONG.com

The half-kneeling position facilitates better overhead pressing for many people because it's significantly harder to compromise your core position when you have one foot out in front of your body. If you often find yourself arching your back when you press overhead, taking it down to a half-kneeling position can help a lot.

Pressing from a half-kneeling position also increases carryover to sports. Very few athletic movements occur with both feet planted on the floor. Instead, you're walking, running or using a split position where one foot is back and the other is forward.

To set up for a half-kneeling position, place one knee directly beneath your hips with your toes behind you and bent into the floor. Place your other foot out in front of your body so your knee forms a 90-degree angle. Keep yourself stable in this position by grabbing the floor with your front foot, digging the toes of your back foot into the floor and squeezing your butt on the down-side leg.

If you're doing a single-arm pressing variation in the half-kneeling position, be sure to press the weight overhead with the arm opposite your front leg.

2. Tall-Kneeling Overhead Press

The starting position for a tall-kneeling dumbbell overhead press.
Image Credit: Caroline Juster/LIVESTRONG.com

The tall-kneeling position can be more challenging than the half-kneeling position because your core, glutes and hips must work harder to maintain your body position. Rather than thinking of this position as a step backward to help with form, consider it a more challenging progression you can use when you want to up the ante with your pressing.

To set up for the tall-kneeling position, place both knees on the ground directly beneath your hips. Dig both toes into the ground behind you. Try to push your thighs through the front of your pants. This cue will help you keep your glutes engaged so you don't arch your back or hinge your hips back behind you.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Report an Issue

screenshot of the current page

Screenshot loading...