The military press was once a staple of the weights room, but is now almost as rare as those huge triangular iron weights with white numbers on the side. There are a few reasons for this, one of which is the meteoric rise in popularity of the bench press, but the main one is the simplest – the military press is really hard.
Fortunately you’re clearly not one to shy away from a challenge – that’s why you’re reading this guide. Below you’ll find all the information you need to nail the military press and impress at your local gym. The benefits of doing so extend beyond showing off too: you’ll increase the strength of your chest, shoulders, upper back and triceps, all while challenging your core as much as any set of sit-ups. In short, the military press builds both size and functional strength, making it deserving of a place in any serious training regime.
All it takes to transform your standard overhead press into a military one is to bring your feet together, in the manner of a soldier standing at attention. The wider base of the overhead press – where you stand with your feet shoulder-width apart – provides a much more stable platform for the lift. When you bring your feet together, you lessen the stability of that lower-body platform, which means your core has to do more work to keep you stable during the lift, with your abs and obliques in particular handling more of the load.
Even though you’ll be forced to use less weight with a military press than with an overhead press, you get a better core workout during the exercise. Strengthening your core muscles in this way will have the added bonus of making you able to handle more weight when you do tackle the overhead press or push press.
Before we go into further detail on how to perform the military press it’s worth noting that the term is often used to describe any overhead press done with strict form, but we’re going to take a stand and say you need your feet together to call it a true military press. After all, who stands to attention with their feet shoulder-width apart?
Never go straight into heavy overhead presses. The ball and socket joint of the shoulder and the muscles that surround it are easy to injure, and this is one of the quickest ways to do that.
Prep your body by doing two sets of 20 shoulder dislocates with a broom handle and then two sets of 30/30 light push presses – that's 30 seconds of work, 30 seconds of rest. Do the two sets with no break, then rest for two minutes. Repeat once more and you’re ready to start working your way through your military press sets – starting light, of course.
To make the most of this lift, it’s best to do it in the squat rack so you don’t have to heave the bar off the floor and into position. So start with the barbell set up in the rack at mid-chest height. Grab the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing forwards. With barbell overhead presses you might find it easier on your wrist to use a hook grip, where your thumb is over the bar rather than under it. Try both versions to see what you’re more comfortable with. Stand close to the bar and bend your knees so you’re in a quarter squat, contract your core and glutes and drive up with your legs to stand and take the bar off the rack support. This means your lower back is protected when you pick up the weight. Take a couple of steps back so you’ve got room to raise the bar. Stand with your feet together, like a soldier on parade and squeeze your glutes and core muscles hard to give you a solid base to press from. Keep them tensed throughout. If you start to go soft in the middle you’ll lose power, arch your back and put pressure on your spine. If that starts to happen, set the weight down. With the bar level with your chin, make sure your elbows are pointing forwards rather than flaring out to your sides. This means you’ll recruit more of your front and side deltoids and pec muscles to help you lift heavier and with more control. As you press up and lower down, try to keep your elbows pointing forwards. Now’s the time to drive, soldier. Take a sharp breath in, tense your glutes and torso, and drive the bar straight up, breathing out as you press. As you near full extension, push your head forwards so your biceps align closely with your ears to ensure good form and ensure you don’t arch your back. As you lower the bar under control to chin level, move your head back slightly so you don’t clip your forehead on the way down. Keep your core tensed throughout the set. Once you’ve put the weight down you can relax. At ease, soldier. Good job.
Make sure you drive your feet through the floor. Think of each press as a leg press or back squat. You want to drive down through your feet to create stability and tension in your lower body. This creates a rigid frame, which means more strength can be transferred upwards into your arms as you drive the bar above. So actively tense your glutes, quads as well as your core during every rep.
Use these form tips from strength coach Mike Causer to get more weight overhead and keep challenging your core and deltoids under the bar.
“Taking a deep breath before you start the lift will help stabilise your ribcage and shoulder blades,” says Causer. “Breathe out as you press the weight up and breathe in as you lower it.”
“Grip the bar with your hands just more than shoulder-width apart so you can lock your arms out comfortably. Any wider and you’ll lose drive.”
“Aim to keep your forearms vertical throughout the move to keep the weight balanced and put the load through the elbow rather than the wrist.”
“Keep your elbows vertically in line with your ears – don’t move them forwards or backwards – to make sure you press the weight up through the shortest possible distance.”
“Don’t go below your chin. If you lower the bar too far you’re likely to excessively internally rotate your shoulders and you'll take the emphasis of the weight off your deltoids, so only go as low as your chin.”
The military press is a difficult, technical lift with little room for error. To avoid making your way into a gym fails compilation video, select a weight that allows you to perform strict, controlled reps.
When pressing the bar overhead, don’t forget to keep your core engaged. Not only does this protect your lower back from excessive strain, but the central placement of the abdominals within the body also makes their activation pivotal for strength. Forget to engage the core and you won’t lift sufficient weight.
The shoulder muscle comprises three heads: the front (anterior) deltoid or delt, the middle (medial) delt and the rear (posterior) delt. Too much vertical and horizontal pressing places excessive strain on your front and middle delts, which in the worst case scenario can result in internally rotated shoulders. Ensure your rear delts are gaining enough stimulation by performing resistance band pull-aparts for two sets of 20 to 30 reps. Not only will your posture benefit, but you’ll be able to retract your shoulder blades more effectively, making you better at performing the military press.
Using for dumbbells rather than the barbell makes your core work even harder to keep you balanced as you press the weights overhead with your feet together. It’s also a good way to highlight any imbalances in your muscles, because you could well be relying on one side of your body to do the bulk of the work when pressing a barbell overhead. When each side has its own weight to lift, that will iron out any strength discrepancies in no time.
If you want a shoulder press that forces your core to work even harder – therefore demanding that you have your form absolutely perfect when you do military presses – try the suitcase press. Get into military press position, holding a barbell to the side of your head in one hand. You’ll need to have your hand in the middle of it to stop it toppling, and you’ll have to go super-light. Press it, making sure you don’t tilt your body to either side, then lower under control. As with the dumbbell version, working one side at a time ensures you’ll make balanced strength gains.
Written by Sam Rider for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.