Muscle Usage in an Overhead Press

For powerful shoulders with plenty of muscle and definition, look no further than the overhead press. This compound exercise uses the deltoids, along with the arms and core to press a heavy weight up and overhead. Your muscles must work in synergy to successfully hoist the barbell up, making it a valuable addition to any shoulder strengthening routine.

Unrack a bar and bring it in front of you to execute the overhead press. (Image: undrey/iStock/Getty Images)

How To

Proper form is critical in safe execution of the overhead press. The exercise is done from a stand, with feet either hip-distance apart and firmly planted or feet staggered and knees softly bent.

Step 1

Stand under a barbell rack set at chest height and move the bar, with an overhand full grip, to your chest. Or, use control to hoist the barbell from the floor, clean-style, to rest at the front of the chest. The hands should be shoulder-distance apart and elbows pointing down toward the floor.

Step 2

Inhale and press the bar straight up. Avoid allowing it to waver too far forward or back.

Step 3

Lockout your elbow joints briefly at the top as you shrug your shoulders before slowly lowering the weight back down to your chest.


You usually lift less weight in the overhead press than you do in a squat, deadlift or bench press because the primary movers are small muscles.

The anterior deltoids, located at the front of the three-part shoulder muscle, activate when you push up. This muscle does the most work during the overhead press. The lateral, or medial, deltoids, located at the top of the shoulder, and the postior delts at the back also help in the pushing process.

Your rotator cuff muscles, a complex group made up of the surpraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis that fan over the shoulder blades, keep your shoulders in proper position during the press. This group also benefits from doing moves like the overhead press because it makes them stronger and prevents them from failing during everyday activities, such as playing tennis, moving furniture and lifting things onto a high shelf.

Upper Back and Arms

The shrug performed at the top of the press activates the upper portion of your trapezius muscle, which shows as a broad, diamond shape across the upper back. The upper traps originate in the neck and along the very top part of the backs of the shoulders. The middle and lower traps activate to a lesser degree during the shoulder press.

Your arms, specifically your triceps, are responsible for the extension of the elbow that allows you to push up. The biceps stabilize the extended elbow at the top of the movement.

Core Stability

Doing an overhead press from the classic standing position requires greater muscle control and stabilization. Your core, primarily the muscles of your abs and lower back, help keep you pushing in a straight line.

The shoulders, arms and upper back must also engage in a greater degree of stability during a standing overhead press, as compared to a seated press, showed a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Although the overhead press is not leg-specific, your thighs, hips, ankles and calves maintain your upright position as you overhead press. They work isometrically to do so.

Dumbbells may offer more benefit in the shoulder press. (Image: gpointstudio/iStock/Getty Images)

Bar Vs. Dumbbells

An overhead press is traditionally done with a barbell, but you can adapt the move to use dumbbells -- making it a dumbbell shoulder press. Such a variation, done from a stand, is executed just like a barbell press and requires even more muscle activation from the deltoids showed the 2013 study.

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