Overhead Press vs. Bench Press

Muscular bodybuilder bench press workout
The bench press is a staple at the gym. (Image: nd3000/iStock/Getty Images)

The bench press, other than being the best way to exercise while lying down, is one of the most well-known upper body exercises. The overhead press is slightly less well-known and requires a little more coordination because it's performed standing. You can get a stronger upper body with both, but each works your muscles in slightly different ways.

The bench press is an easy to learn upper body exercise. The overhead press, on the other hand, is an old-school movement that was invented before the bench press. It was originally a part of the clean and press, an exercise that involves picking a barbell up and lifting it over your head. The overhead press is the top part of the clean and press, where you press the barbell from shoulder height all the way up until your elbows are straight.

While both exercises can be classified as upper body pushing exercises, they are still different. The bench press represents a newer approach to upper body training, while the overhead press represents an old-school weightlifting approach to upper body strength training.

Classifying Each Exercise

The bench press is performed lying down on a bench, pressing a barbell straight up towards the ceiling. The overhead press is performed sitting or standing and pressing the bar up towards the ceiling. Each exercise targets your muscles differently.

The flat bench press is more of a chest-dominant exercise. The pectorals, or chest muscles, primarily bring your arms together horizontally in front of your chest. The greater the incline of the bench that you lie on, the greater the activation of your shoulder muscles, according to a 2010 paper in The Sport Journal.

Even compared to inclined bench presses, the overhead press is more of a shoulder-dominant exercise because your shoulder muscles raise your arms up vertically.

The bench press is considered a horizontal pressing exercise because you press the weight horizontally in relation to your body. The overhead press is considered a vertical pressing movement because you press the weight vertically in relation to your body.

Fit woman doing shoulder press exercise with a weight bar Smith machine at gym
Standing means it's harder to balance a lot of weight. (Image: undrey/iStock/Getty Images)

Which Makes You Stronger?

The overhead press makes you strong in a more classic, or "functional" sense. Because it's done from a standing position, the overhead press seems more like real life than the bench press because you rarely have the luxury of lying down and pressing an object in the everyday world or during a sporting event.

On the other hand, the bench press allows you to use more weight because you are lying down. Without the need to stabilize yourself in a standing position, you can risk using more weight. In addition to the added leverage, you get to use your big, powerful chest muscles in the bench press to help you lift more weight.

Is There Any Carryover?

Even though these exercises specifically target different muscles, there is also some overlap. The bench press is mainly known as a chest exercise but it also targets the anterior deltoids, the muscles in the front of the shoulders, according to a 2007 article in the Brazilian Journal of Sports Medicine. The overhead press trains it significantly more, though.

The bench press is a chest-dominant exercise, but the overhead press doesn't involve much chest muscle activity, so there is little carryover between the movements there.

There is a possible carryover between the exercises in the triceps muscles, located on the backs of the arms. Both exercises work the triceps, which straighten the arm out and push the weight towards the top of the movement. The overhead press might work the triceps more because your hand position in that exercise tends to be more narrow.

Even though they are different movements, they complement each other by working the anterior deltoids and triceps. If you're trying to increase your overhead press or your bench press you can use the other exercise to help.

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