10 Effective Alternatives to the Overhead Press for Strong Shoulders

Cathe Friedrich doing a dumbbell overhead press

When the goal is to build strong shoulder muscles, the overhead press is an exercise you might turn to. However, there are times when you might want an alternative to this shoulder-strengthening exercise. Whether you’re looking to target specific shoulder muscles, dealing with equipment limitations, or simply seeking workout variety, you have alternatives for building shoulder strength and size.

Plus, the overhead press is a challenging exercise to do with good form. You need good shoulder mobility to safely lift overhead. If you have poor mobility or a shoulder injury in the past, you might be looking for a substitute that feels more comfortable. Let’s look at the best alternatives to the overhead press for building strength in your shoulders.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

If you want more freedom in terms of hand positioning and a greater stability challenge than an overhead press with a barbell gives you, the dumbbell shoulder press is an alternative. Whether you opt for a neutral grip or a traditional one, this exercise will help you strengthen your shoulder muscles while boosting core stability. To do this variation, sit on a bench with the backrest vertically, hold dumbbells in each hand, and press them overhead with controlled movements.

Again, control is important for maximizing the benefits and reducing the risk of injury. Be aware that the dumbbell shoulder press is no less risky for the shoulders than an overhead press using a barbell. If you use sloppy form, you could end up with a neck or shoulder injury. The advantage is the added stability challenge dumbbells offer. Plus, using dumbbells, you can target one shoulder at a time to correct muscle imbalances.

The Military Press

If you have problems with core stability or core issues, the military press may be an easier variation to perform. You can do this exercise with dumbbells or a barbell. Not only does it build strength in the shoulders, triceps, and upper back, it can enhance shoulder stability and mobility.

To avoid straining your neck, avoid leaning your head back excessively. To keep your back safe, maintain a neutral spine and avoid arching your back. One reason people strain their back when doing military press is they try to use a resistance that’s too high for them to manage. Keep that in mind when choosing the proper weight.

Landmine Press

A landmine press involves pressing a weight attached to one end of a barbell. The barbell is anchored to the ground by a landmine attachment. It’s a compound exercise that targets the shoulders, chest, and triceps. You can do it with a variety of equipment, including barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells.  The advantages? The landmine press is a safer alternative to the overhead press, as it allows for a more natural range of motion and reduces the risk of shoulder injury.

Plus, unilateral training can be a game-changer when it comes to correcting muscle imbalances and enhancing core strength. The landmine press allows you to work each arm independently, promoting better balance, coordination, and targeted muscle engagement. Additionally, this exercise is well-suited for those who face overhead mobility issues, as it involves pressing the weight slightly in front of your face.


If you’re an advanced lifter and want to challenge your core strength and mobility, you might be ready to tackle the Z-press. It’s essentially a seated overhead press variation that you do on the floor with your legs extended out in front of you. The advantage of this variation is it isolates the shoulder muscles more than a standard overhead press. Since you can’t use your legs to generate force, the Z-Press requires your shoulders to work harder. You’ll also need a strong core to do this variation. For best results, work on building core strength or stability before tackling it.

Incline Barbell Bench Press

If you want to maintain that shoulder engagement while reducing the stress on your back or if overhead mobility is a concern, the incline barbell bench press is an option. This exercise not only works your shoulders but also places additional emphasis on your upper pectoral muscles.

To do this overhead press alternative safely and effectively, set up an incline bench at an angle of 55 degrees or greater. Then lay flat on the bench and follow a controlled lifting and lowering motion. The more control you use, the safer the exercise will be.

Research shows the incline barbell bench press places more emphasis on the upper chest muscles, making it safer for your shoulders. Also, this overhead press alternative provides more stability, making it a safer exercise.

Dumbbell Arnold Press

To put extra emphasis on your medial deltoids, the dumbbell Arnold press, popularized by bodybuilding legend Arnold Schwarzenegger, is an option. This popular exercise targets your side deltoids to a greater extent than the standard shoulder press. But make sure you have a strong foundation in overhead pressing before attempting this advanced movement. Don’t try this variation until you’ve built up baseline shoulder strength and stability.

Single Arm Dumbbell Push Press

If you crave an overload challenge, the single-arm dumbbell push press with a slow eccentric phase could be the game changer you’re looking for.  By explosively driving the weight overhead and then lowering it slowly with one arm, you not only build strength but also address muscle imbalances between your right and left sides.

Dumbbell Raise Combo

If you want to avoid lifting your arms above your head, due to prior injuries or mobility limitations, the dumbbell raise combo is an alternative. This exercise combines front and lateral dumbbell raises to target your front and side deltoid muscles without the need for overhead movements. Like the overhead press, it targets the muscles in your shoulders, neck, and upper back but with less risk due to the lack of overhead movement.

Handstand Push-Up

Not for the faint of heart or those with weak or injured shoulders, the handstand push-up is a challenging substitute for the overhead press. It demands exceptional shoulder strength and stability. Performing handstand push-ups against a wall can help you master this advanced movement and develop impressive shoulder strength.

Machine Shoulder Press

If you have access to machines, a machine shoulder press is a safer alternative to a standard overhead press because of the added stability it offers. Plus, maintaining constant tension on your shoulder muscles throughout the exercise gives your shoulder a great workout. It also simplifies the motor control aspect, as you follow the machine’s fixed bar path. This exercise promotes a strong mind-muscle connection and allows you to maximize time under tension for muscle growth.


As you can see, there’s no shortage of effective alternatives to the overhead press. Your choice should align with your fitness goals, mobility, and equipment availability. Incorporate these alternatives into your routine strategically and watch your shoulder strength and development soar to new heights. Remember, consistency and proper form are the keys to success in any strength training program.


(PDF) Exploring the Standing Barbell Overhead Press”. Www.Researchgate.Net, 2023, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319607633_Exploring_the_Standing_Barbell_Overhead_Press. Accessed 2 Sep 2023.

Kohler JM, Flanagan SP, Whiting WC. Muscle activation patterns while lifting stable and unstable loads on stable and unstable surfaces. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Feb;24(2):313-21. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c8655a. PMID: 20072068.

“Overhead shoulder press – In-front of the head or behind the head?.” 01 Sept. 2015, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254614000106.

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