How to Perform the Military Press (Standing Overhead Barbell Press)

Posted on 19 Jul 2010 17:21

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By Joe Weir and Eric Troy

Names for Military Press

The Military Press has also been referred to as Shoulder Press or Overhead Press and while some may claim they are different exercises, we can say that the heart of the exercise is a vertical press with a straight bar.

Having several different names for the same exercise is quite normal in the strength training world. Names like "overhead press" and "shoulder press" are likely an attempt to use more useful and appropriate names for the military press exercise…but they fall short in several ways.

The name "Military Press", like many strength training exercise names, is completely non-descriptive. A more useful and appropriate name would be "Upright (or vertical) Straight Bar Press Overhead". Adopt the practice of translating names like Military Press into more descriptive names that incorporate things like body position, equipment used, type of movement performed and, if necessary, the way that movement is meant to be performed. This habit will, before long, enable you to quickly classify exercise and avoid the constant confusion of misnamed movements.

"Shoulder Press" is a completely useless name for any pressing exercise, and should be stricken. It is either a reference to the press starting from the shoulders (which the military press technically does not) or is bodybuilding parlance referring to the press being used to build the shoulders. All pressing movements use the shoulders regardless of body position so "shoulder press" is not a descriptive name for this exercise. You may still hear the press referred to as "Olympic Press" by some old-timers or simply "The Press".

Vertical means that the torso is upright, hence the use of vertical or upright in the name. "Standing" would seem logical but standing only describes the act of being on our feet and not necessarily body position. For the Military Press, then, we have a vertical or upright body position and a vertical pressing movement.

Military Press Overview

The main muscles involved are the the shoulders and triceps however the upper and lower back play a large stabilization role. The beginning of the movement is with the bar 'racked', roughly, across the clavicle. The bar can get there in any number of ways and for the purposes of this article it is assumed you've got the barbell in position right from the start. Information on how to perform a clean can be found in the exercise section of the site. From the racked position the bar is pressed to a position over the head. The military press is meant to be a "strict" press and is usually done with upper body strength only with little to no help from the lower body to accelerate the bar.

The bar is pressed straight up in a vertical line. The upper body is moved slightly back as the bar approaches the nose, just enough to get out of the way of the bar path and then the body is moved back underneath the bar so that the bar continues on a path that brings it just over the scapula. It is best to think of this space as a pocket between the back of the ears the shoulder blades.

The Setup

Your feet should be about shoulder width apart. Split stances can also be used. The beginning of the press begins with the barbell at shoulder level racked roughly across the clavicle. The bar is gripped just outside shoulder width so that if viewed from the front the forearms are more or less vertical.


Before you begin the press you want to make sure your elbows are slightly in front of the bar, this will help later in the execution. In order to avoid running the bar into your chin you will need to move the chin back. The way to accomplish this is by achieving just enough extension in the thoracic spine (upper back) in order for the chin to clear the bar path.

Now the press. Begin by bracing your core (actively engaging the glutes can add some extra lumbar stability) and accelerate the bar upwards. As the bar passes your forehead, you want to get under the bar by straightening your upper back. In this position the bar should be directly above your scapula in the aforementioned "pocket" and shrug the shoulders upward (so that the shoulder blades elevate) to fully extend the elbows. Here the shoulders are strongest and most stable.

Looking at the movement from the side you should see the bar traveling straight up and down with the trainee moving under the bar.

military or standing overhead barbell press

Military Press image by Constantine3
via photobucket

Common Sticking Points

Two common sticking points are the beginning of the press and the transition point (roughly forehead level). The key is to accelerate the bar as much as possible at the start, getting the bar off of the clavicle and above the head as quickly as possible.

Common Mistakes

1) Not getting under the bar at all (incline pressing)

Many times the bar path is not straight up and down but rather on a forward angle almost resembling an incline press. Not only is this a weak position in terms of pressing strength but it also leads to risky lumbar extension. In some instances this can be caused by a lack of thoracic mobility and can be remedied with a few mobility exercises. In some cases it is a matter of poor setup (usually from improper elbow positioning) and can be remedied by practicing the setup and initial part of the execution.

2) Not getting under the bar properly (buzzard neck)

In some cases the trainee may believe they are getting under the bar but from an observers point of view they are simply extending their neck and head under the bar (hence buzzard neck). This can cause neck problems depending on the level of strain but also compromises your pressing strength.

3) Rounded bar path

This may sound similar to the first mistake but it is slightly different. In this case, rather than using thoracic extension to clear the chin there is a change in the bar path. Instead of the straight up and down bar path there is a rounded path (imagine a path from your clavicle, out around the chin and to your forehead). The consequences of this are reduced pressing strength, reduced shoulder stability, and compensations in the back (namely lumbar extension).

The key to a successful and safe execution is with a straight bar path, getting the bar directly above the scapula as soon as possible. These problems are typically avoided in an overhead press when using dumbbells or kettlebells because they do not restrict the starting position like a barbell does. Behind the neck pressing (not recommended) also avoids these problems, but the trade off is the increased stress on the shoulder joint.

The Overhead Press in the Olympics

The Overhead or Military Press was a very big deal in weightlifting prior to 1972, when it was discontinued from Olympic weightlifting after the Munich games. In fact, "Olympic Press" was a common name for the lift in those days. Many people think that the lift was banned due to it being "dangerous for the shoulders". More likely it was the high number of lifters passing out during the lift, although several factors were probably involved. Passing out was probably due to holding the breath through injudicious use of the valsalva maneuver which further added to confusion surrounding the maneuver. So we have a two for one deal. The military press is largely seen as dangerous but this reputation is owed to legend as much as to fact.

There was a time when Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting weren't the opposite endeavors they are today. Many competitors competed in both sports. This practice, of course, introduced a training dynamic that could have led to some of the problems which occurred with the overhead press. A lifter who spent more time with pressing movements would have adapted to the much longer time under tension and the resultant changes in venous return and blood pressure than would a lifter who focused his training primarily on the quick lifts. We could theorize that the "quick" lifters had to play catch up with the more pure "powerlifters" in the pressing part of the competition and that this pressure and relative ill-adaptation could have led to some of the dangerous results.

Since that time Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting have not only separated but grown a deep rift. The feuding is not necessary but whether the separation is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of personal opinion. The Press was a bit of a different animal in the old days and it was not uncommon to see the extreme back bend. The module below, from Lift Up, has examples from fifteen lifters from 1964, including Paul Anderson. Select the athlete you wish to view from the drop-down menu. Click "view" and then the play button.

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