Military Press vs. Behind-the-Neck Press

Behind-the-neck press and military press exercises are very similar in form, and they both work the same major muscle groups.
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Behind-the-neck press and military press exercises are very similar in form, and they both work the same major muscle groups. The techniques and equipment used are different but both use common equipment that is easily accessed.

Military Press Technique

The military press is often done with dumbbells, but a barbell also works well. The exercise is done from either a standing or sitting position and requires a straight back with excellent posture for proper form. The press begins with the elbows bent and hands even at the shoulders and extends upward until the arms are extended overhead.


The key difference between the military and behind-the-neck press is the starting point. The military press begins in front of the chest while the behind-the-neck begins just above the shoulder blades on the back. Once above the head, both exercises are working the same muscles, but at the starting point, the muscle groups vary slightly.

According to ExRx , the military press works the deltoid, pectoral, triceps and trapezius muscle groups. It's a broad-range exercise that really works a large portion of the upper body. While standing, the abdomen and core muscle groups are also very active during the exercise.


The military press is a common lift used by everyone ranging from athletes to bodybuilders. The ability to press weight overhead is a useful utility for lifting and moving heavy items or for athletic movements in practice and competition. It really is a standard exercise, common in most gyms.

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Behind-the-Neck Press

This exercise is similar to the military press in that it uses an upward press that builds overhead upper-body strength. The exercise is frequently done with a barbell and plated weights. Cable-style machines and other press machines also make the exercise possible. As with the military press, form is critical and the press is done from either a sitting or standing position.


The muscle groups worked with these two exercises are largely similar and, according to ExRx, the behind-the-neck press focuses on the deltoids, pectorals, triceps and trapezius muscles just like the military press. The positioning of a barbell behind the neck shifts the focus from the chest muscles used in the military press to the deltoid and trapezius muscles for the initial motion.

The benefits of this exercise are the same as those experienced with the military press. Building upper-body and core strength while gaining the ability to lift heavy weight overhead is the ultimate goal.


Big Picture Workout Plans

Workout plans typically either use the military press or behind-the-neck press but not both in the same session. Alternating between the two in upper body workout groupings is normal, however. If you have an upper body lifting session scheduled every Monday, alternate between the two to add a little variety to the routine.

There is one exception to using both exercises in the same workout, and that is using both motions in a single set of reps. This works well with the barbell approach because you can alternate between a military press in front of the neck and a behind-the-neck press. The ability to alternate seamlessly makes this a great exercise.

Any overhead press is valuable when incorporated into a big-picture exercise and weight training plan. Working the core, entire upper body and lower body across multiple weekly workouts ensures the entire muscle structure is growing and gaining strength rather than an isolated set of upper body muscles.

Read more: 13 Benefits of Weight Lifting That No One Tells You About

Selecting a Weight Amount

Both military and behind-the-neck press techniques are difficult, and starting with a low amount of weight is ideal. Gradually building the muscles is safe and will help prevent injury. In fact, the American Counsel on Exercise advises lifting lighter weights with more repetitions over heavier weight loads with lower repetitions to effectively build muscle.

Before completing full sets, do a test run to gauge your strength. Use a barbell without weight or very light dumbbells to feel out your capabilities. Do a single repetition, then increase by 5 to 10 pounds and continue until it feels like a weight amount that is adequate for 8 to 10 repetitions without burning out the muscles. This creates a baseline, and you can slowly add weight as the muscles grow through a long-term lifting program.

While completing low repetition sets with heavier weight loads can deliver value, tackling the higher-repetition counts with less weight works the muscles while placing less strain on the shoulder tendons and rotator cuff. In fact, the International Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed the frequency of shoulder injuries from weightlifting in a 2019 study and reported a steep rise in injuries between 2000 and 2017. Take care to protect the shoulders by reducing the weight load when appropriate.

Dumbbells, Barbels and Machines

The overhead press exercises are often done with dumbbells or barbells, but machines are also made for the specific exercises. Machines come with a few subtle advantages and disadvantages when compared to the free-weight options.

Dumbbells are valuable because they isolate the weight on each side, eliminating the possibility of favoritism. They also are the least stable and as such require the maximum amount of energy to maintain form. If proper form is not used, however, the chances of injury are higher due to the instability factor. Barbells allow for more favoritism on the right or left side because the bar transfers energy across the body. It does however offer more stability than dumbbells with the long bar.

Machines are far more stable with bars and handles that maintain a fixed horizontal position. They also have a stopping point to ensure the motion halts in the proper form. This prevents over-extending and creates a more stable motion. While safer, especially for beginners, the stability also limits the outlying muscle requirements to complete the motion and the benefits are isolated strictly to the intended muscle groups.

Prevent Shoulder Injuries

The overhead press exercises build muscle and increase shoulder strength when done properly. The addition of strength benefits and protects the shoulders from the injury. Lifting too much weight and using poor technique, however, can cause injuries. Even a slight strain is noteworthy and warrants a break to prevent exacerbating the injury into a worsened state.

The other major aspect of injury prevention involves stretching and warm-ups. Before lifting and attempting these lifts, complete a warm-up routine and stretch the shoulders. Also, stretch after the lifting workout is completed to maintain flexibility. Shoulders that are both limber and strong are excellent for athletics and the increased range of motion gained through stretches will ultimately stand to reduce the risk of injury when elongated motions place strain on the muscles, ligaments and rotator cuffs.

Read more: 5 Common Workout Injuries and How to Avoid Them

Overhead press lifts are a great exercise to incorporate several times per week but they are not an everyday activity. Rest the muscles after completing a workout to recover and give the muscles time to repair and grow. Eat protein after workouts and follow healthy dietary guidelines to maximize the results of each workout session.