Barbell vs. Dumbbell Military Press: Which Is Best for Building Strength?

You can typically lift more weight when doing a military press with a barbell as opposed to dumbbells.
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One effective exercise you can incorporate into your strength-training routine is the overhead shoulder press. The muscles overhead shoulder presses work are your shoulders, upper back and arms, and they can improve your overall posture and upper-body strength.


The most popular form of overhead press is called a military press. The military press got its name from its introduction by — you guessed it — the military. The military press was used to test the strength of its soldiers and it's still used as a test of strength in the armed forces today.

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You can do the overhead press using either dumbbells or barbells, both of which have their own advantages and disadvantages. Barbells are commonly used for overhead presses because they allow for heavier weights to be lifted and provide more stability. However, dumbbells offer a greater range of motion and can be used to work one arm at a time, which can help correct muscle imbalances.

Both exercises are aimed at strengthening your shoulders, specifically your anterior, middle and posterior deltoids. These muscles are responsible for shoulder flexion (raising your arms above your head), abduction (raising your arms away from your body) and extension (moving your arms out behind you).

So, are dumbbell presses as effective as barbell presses? Read along to understand the common pros and cons of using dumbbells and barbells when doing military presses and learn which piece of equipment may be best for you.


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How to Do the Dumbbell Military Press With Proper Form

Sets 3
Reps 12
Body Part Arms and Shoulders
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width to shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height. Your palms should be facing forward.
  2. On an exhale, press both dumbbells up and in toward each other until your arms are fully extended.
  3. Pause for 1 second.
  4. Lower the weights back to the starting position with control.

Pros of the Dumbbell Military Press

Dumbbells make for a less stable military press, meaning your larger muscles have to recruit smaller muscles in order to break from proper form. In the dumbbell military press, your biceps, triceps and core all work together to achieve the final press in the exercise.


Why is a dumbbell press better than the barbell press? Here are some upsides to using dumbbells in a military press:

  • Dumbbells offer a greater range of motion, allowing for a deeper muscle extension and more targeted muscle activation.
  • Dumbbells can help correct muscle imbalances by targeting individual arms.
  • Dumbbells are more versatile, as they can be used for a variety of other exercises.


A standing or seated dumbbell press actually activates the fronts of your shoulders — the anterior deltoids — 11 percent to 15 percent more than a standing or seated barbell press, according to a small July 2013 study in the ‌Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research‌.


The researchers also found that a standing military press done with dumbbells activated the medial deltoid — the top of the shoulder — 7 percent more than a standing military press with a barbell.


Cons of the Dumbbell Military Press

One potential downside of dumbbells is that they're harder to control. Your muscles have to work a lot harder to stabilize the dumbbells, so beginners may find it difficult to lift them from the floor and steady them overhead.

On the other hand, more advanced lifters may find that dumbbells offer limited weight options, which can be a disadvantage when your focus is on building max strength.


How to Do the Barbell Military Press With Proper Form

Sets 3
Reps 12
Body Part Arms and Shoulders
  1. Fix the weight plates on your barbell (optional) and position it on the floor in front of you.
  2. Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips and soften your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Lift the barbell slightly off the floor so it's resting slightly below your knees.
  5. In one swift motion, lift the barbell to your shoulders, keeping it close to your body.
  6. With a slight bend in your knees, push through the floor and raise the barbell overhead to perform a military press.
  7. Lower the barbell back down to your shoulders, then continue to repeat lifting the barbell overhead to perform your military presses.

Pros of the Barbell Military Press

A barbell generally allows you to lift more weight because the bar is more stable. This is an advantage for beginners who may struggle with stabilizing dumbbells during the exercise.

With a barbell, your shoulders share the weight, so your stronger, dominant arm and shoulder can assist the weaker one. In the same ‌Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research‌ study we mentioned above, when it comes to a one-repetition maximum — the amount of weight you can move for one rep of an exercise — the barbell allowed for people to lift 7 percent more weight than they could with dumbbells.


The more weight you lift, the more you stimulate muscle growth. When your goal is to build more muscle and strength, the barbell is the way to go.

Barbells also allow you to add weight in increments of 2.5-pound weight plates. This is a more gradual way to increase the challenge on your muscles compared to the standard increase of 5 pounds when you graduate to a heavier dumbbell. Increasing weights too quickly may result in injury.


Cons of the Barbell Military Press

If you're new to lifting and not ready to hoist a lot of weight overhead, a barbell military press might just be out of your reach. This can be corrected with a spotter or by using a rack.

Barbells also provide a limited range of motion and don't target individual muscles as well as dumbbells do, which can make it challenging for people who want to correct muscle imbalances.

You should also avoid barbell military presses if you have a lack of flexibility in your shoulders. The military press is difficult to modify for people with shoulder joint pain or mobility issues.

The Bottom Line

So, is a military press better with dumbbells or barbells? Ultimately, the choice between dumbbells and barbells for a military press will depend on your goals and preferences.

If improving overall strength and stability is your goal, a barbell may be a better option. If targeting individual muscles and correcting muscle imbalances is your goal, dumbbells may be more preferable.

It's important to use proper form and technique regardless of which piece of equipment is used to minimize the risk of injury and maximize the benefits of the exercise.