Military Press vs. Behind-the-Neck Press: Which Is Better?

Although they look similar, military presses are generally safer for your body.
Image Credit: Corey Jenkins/Image Source/GettyImages

Kettle-cooked and baked chips look pretty similar, right? But let's face it: No competitor comes close to a crunchy, kettle-cooked potato chip.

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Military and behind-the-neck overhead presses are actually a lot like chips. These two shoulder exercises may look the same, but military presses are definitely the way to go.

Read on to learn why the military press is the superior lift and how to safely incorporate this move into your workout.

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Military Press Benefits and Technique

If you're debating between a military press or behind-the-neck press, the former is definitely the better option. Whereas your upper back muscles tend to assist in a behind-the-neck press, military presses really target your shoulders, which is the main goal of these moves, according to Carolina Araujo, CPT, a California-based strength coach.

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While some people may still struggle to do the military press properly (and there are plenty other shoulder exercises you can try), they're definitely safer than pressing behind your neck, Araujo says. This move puts your shoulders in a more stable position, preventing common issues like shoulder impingement and injury (more on that below).

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"This exercise is especially beneficial for those who want to gain all-around shoulder strength," she says. "Military presses hit your front, lateral and rear delt muscles, whereas many other shoulder exercises focus on one part of the shoulder."

And military presses can translate to more real-world activities. Every time you place a box on a high shelf, for instance, you essentially do an overhead press. So, training this skill in the gym can help prevent injury in your day-to-day life.

How to Do a Standing Military Press

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Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Abs and Shoulders
  1. Stand with your feet at hip-width distance, holding a barbell at shoulder height.
  2. Grasp the bar just outside shoulder-width distance.
  3. On an exhale, tighten your glutes and core and press the weight straight overhead.
  4. As the bar comes up, slightly move your head back to avoid hitting the bar.
  5. Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.

Drawbacks of Behind-the-Neck Presses

Unlike military presses, behind-the-neck presses put your shoulders in a more unnatural position, specifically your rotator cuff (the muscles that help lift and rotate your arm). So, if you don't have enough mobility (and most people don't) to do this exercise properly, you put yourself at risk of injury, like muscle tears or impingement, Araujo says.

This isn't the easiest exercise on your neck, either. Pressing a weight behind your head can put extra stress on your neck, particularly if you use too much weight or lack the necessary mobility. Plus, there's always the risk of hitting your neck or head with the weight on the way down.

But if you're committed to keeping this move in your workout routine, start with light weight and brush up on your form to stay injury-free.

How to Do a Behind-the-Neck Shoulder Press

JW Player placeholder image
Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Abs and Shoulders
  1. Stand with your feet at hip-width distance, holding a barbell at shoulder height behind your neck.
  2. Grasp the bar just outside shoulder-width distance.
  3. On an exhale, tighten your glutes and core and press the weight straight overhead keeping it behind your neck.
  4. Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.

Preventing Shoulder Injuries

Although overhead presses can definitely build muscle and increase shoulder strength, they only work when they're done with good form. That's why it's so important to start slow.

"You may see people at the gym loading up tons of weight for their military presses, but chances are, they're not using the best form and aren't actually benefitting from the exercise," Araujo says.

Watch your technique in the mirror and start with super light weights, especially if you don't have much past experience with this exercise, she recommends. As soon as you notice your form break down, it's time to take a rest.

Also, don't neglect your warm-up routine. Just like you may do a few dynamic exercises before a run or leg workout, your upper body is no exception. Run through a few arm-specific warm-up exercises, like overhead swings and arm circles.

Between workouts, spend a little time focusing solely on shoulder mobility exercises. Although they may seem tedious, even a few minutes a day can greatly improve your overhead press form. And in the long run, better mobility translates to more strength gain in the gym.

Adding Military Presses to Your Workout

Overhead presses are a compound exercise, meaning they work several joints and muscle groups at the same time. Although military presses focus on your shoulders, they're also a great exercise for strengthening your core, Araujo says.

Incorporating them into an upper-body workout or total-body session is a great idea, but it's best to give these muscles a day of rest between sessions. So, if your Monday workout includes military presses, it's best to re-introduce the move Wednesday or Thursday to give your body enough recovery.

Plus, you can overhead press with different pieces of equipment, too. Although a barbell is a typical military press tool, dumbbells have some undeniable benefits, Araujo says. A barbell is a fixed tool, which means you have to tweak your body's natural movement for the equipment.

"With dumbbells, you can shift the angle of your shoulders and the depth your elbows dip down," Araujo says. "This helps you do the exercise in a way that's best for your personal body."

Dumbbells also help you build more even strength on each side of your body. We all have a stronger and weaker side. So, when you lift a barbell, your stronger side may give a little extra assistance to lift the weight. With dumbbells, you work your right and left shoulders equally.

Not to mention, a barbell is a fixed 45-pound weight. Dumbbells are more beginner-friendly because you can choose weights that suit your ability level. Araujo recommends starting with 10-pound weights and working your way up as you grow stronger and more comfortable with the motion.

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