Military Press Vs. Overhead Press [Best Lift for Shoulders]

The strict overhead press is the best shoulder press to incorporate into your training routine. Unlike the military press, which prioritizes a narrow stance, the overhead press trains a wider stance. This allows you to recruit more muscles for your lift, maintain a stable stance, progress faster in training, and set the groundwork for more advanced lifts in the future.

Military press vs overhead press

Is Overhead Press the Same as Military Press?

Both the military press and overhead press are shoulder exercises performed by pressing weights overhead from a standing position. However, they are not the same exercise. The overhead press uses a wider stance than the military press. This allows you a more stable base and recruits more lower body muscles during the lift. Therefore, the overhead press allows you to lift more weight and advance further with your training.

  • The military press and overhead press are similar but not identical.
  • Overhead press uses a wider stance that allows you to use muscles throughout your body to press the weight overhead.
  • Military press requires a narrow stance that focuses solely on the muscles of the shoulders and core.

The military press uses a narrow stance that focuses specifically on the core and shoulders. This requires pure upper body strength to move the weight. Some argue that this is more likely to cause shoulder injury, as well as cause you to plateau in your lifting progress more quickly.

How to Do an Overhead Press

The overhead press is an overhead barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell press that primarily focuses on the shoulder muscles. To do a barbell overhead press:

  • Rack a barbell 2–4 inches below shoulder height.
  • Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  • Grip the bar just outside shoulder-width with palms facing outward (away from you).
  • Unrack the bar and enter starting position with the barbell touching your chest just below your collarbones.
  • Press the bar upward overhead until your arms are extended but not locked.
  • Slowly lower the bar back to starting position and repeat.

When pushing the barbell upward, keep your head slightly back to allow the bar to pass safely in front of your face. As you extend the bar overhead, allow your head to come forward naturally. The goal is to allow the bar to travel straight up and down, not in a J-shaped path.

How to Do a Military Press

The military press is truly just a variation of the overhead press with a slightly different form. Although some lifters use the terms “overhead press” and “military press” interchangeably, there is a difference. To perform a military press:

  • Rack the bar as you would when preparing for an overhead press.
  • Stand with your heels together and toes pointed out in a 45-degree ‘V’.
  • Unrack the bar and start with the bar at your collarbones.
  • Press the bar straight overhead as you would during an overhead press.
  • Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.

Although once considered the gold standard of shoulder exercises, the military press has fallen out of favor. Most lifters perform the strict overhead press instead of the military press.

Elite Shoulder Exercise Battle: Military Press Vs. Overhead Press

Now that you know exactly how the overhead press and military press differ, it’s time to dive into the details. What muscles does each exercise work? Which lift provides the biggest benefit? Is one exercise more likely to cause injury than the other? Does the best lift depend on your experience as a lifter? After we tackle these questions, we’ll pick a winner between these two exercises.

What Muscles do These Lifts Work?

Both the overhead press and military press are designed to build shoulder strength, size, and definition. Chiefly, both presses focus on the anterior and lateral deltoid muscles. These are the muscles that make up the front and sides of the shoulder. The triceps muscle that forms the back of the upper arm is also recruited heavily to complete the lift.

  • Both exercises target the shoulders, specifically the anterior and lateral deltoids.
  • The triceps muscle is engaged in both the military press and overhead press.
  • The military press requires more core engagement (abdominals and lower back) than the overhead press.
  • The overhead press uses lower body muscles more actively than the military press.

The key difference between the two presses is that the military press puts far more emphasis on the core muscles during the lift versus the overhead press. By placing your heels together during a military press, you have a less stable base to stand up straight. This requires an extremely tight core to maintain good form. In comparison, the wider stance of the overhead press allows for more of the work of retaining balance to be taken up by the larger muscles of the legs.

Which Lift Provides a Bigger Fitness Benefit?

The wider stance of the overhead press allows you a stronger base to lift more weight than the military press. This means you’ll be placing larger loads on your shoulder and triceps muscles, resulting in a better workout. Although the military press also loads these muscles, the fact that it relies on the core’s small, easily fatigued muscles for stability often limits the maximum weight you can lift. Most lifters are more likely to hit frustrating plateaus with the military press than if they are performing a strict overhead press.

  • The wider stance of the overhead press allows you to lift more weight, progress further, and develop your shoulders more fully than the military press.
  • You are more likely to hit a plateau with the military press versus the overhead press.
  • The overhead press prepares you for advanced lifts, such as the clean and press.

In addition to allowing you to lift more weight and build stronger shoulders, the overhead press also uses a wider stance needed for compound lifts. By practicing the overhead press, you set yourself up for success if you transition to Olympic lifts such as the clean and press in the future. This versatility and opportunity for skill development make the overhead press the choice for most lifters.

Which Exercise has a Bigger Injury Risk?

Both the military press and overhead press can be performed safely and provide great benefits. However, there is an argument to be made that the overhead press is the safer lift. The military press isolates shoulder muscles by not allowing the lower body to form a stable base. This can lead to too much stress being placed on the complex shoulder joint, leading to increased injury risk.

  • Neither the overhead press nor the military press is a dangerous or ill-advised exercise.
  • Due to shoulder joint isolation, the military press may have a slightly higher chance of causing shoulder injury.

Overall, the difference in safety between the two lifts is negligible. Performing the overhead or military press with a full range of motion and properly retracted shoulder blades reduces injury risk. Neither lift carries large injury concerns.

Which Lift is Better for Your Skill Level?

Both experienced and beginning lifters will benefit more by learning and practicing the overhead press than the military press. The wide stance that engages the lower body is great for training for compound lifts such as snatches and cleans. Additionally, the form of the overhead press can be a stepping stone to performing push presses, which use leg drive to assist in overhead presses. This exercise is great for advancing to higher weights.

  • The overhead press is the best choice for both beginners and advanced lifters due to its versatility.
  • Learning good overhead press form helps you transition to push presses and compound exercises seamlessly.
  • Military presses may be a good choice for advanced lifters looking for a shoulder and core isolation exercise.

There is an argument to be made for advanced lifters to experiment with the military press—it isolates the shoulders and core more effectively than the overhead press. If you want to give your shoulders, abs, and erector spinae an additional challenge, blend the military press into your routine. However, if you’re just starting, stick to the overhead press.

Should You Do the Military Press or the Overhead Press?

The strict overhead press is the best overhead press variation for training the deltoids for strength and shoulder mobility. It allows lifters to move more weight, which often results in bigger advances in shoulder strength and musculature. It also teaches the basics of form for several compound lifts and has a slightly lower risk of injury than the military press. While the military press is by no means a bad shoulder exercise, it simply doesn’t have the versatility and utility of the strict overhead press.

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