The military press – if you’re looking for shoulder strength and definition, it’s an exercise you shouldn’t ignore. In fact, research shows the military press is one of the most effective exercises for strengthening your anterior deltoids. If you’re tired of having weak, sloping shoulders or shoulders that look too narrow, military presses are for you. In case you don’t know how to do one, here’s a quick run-down.
How to Do Military Press
Grab a barbell of appropriate weight. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder width and your feet shoulder width apart. Grip the bar using an overhand grip. Then raise the bar to shoulder height to establish the starting position. Now you’re ready to do your first rep. Slowly move the bar over your head, keeping the bar in front of your head as you lift and lower the barbell. Each time you lift the bar over your head, exhale. When you lower the bar, inhale and lower it to the starting position, at shoulder level.
You can also do military presses using dumbbells. For this variation, stand with your feet about shoulder width apart while holding a dumbbell in each hand. Raise the dumbbells until they’re about even with your head and your elbows are pointed outwards and at a 90-degree angle. Slowly lift the dumbbells above your head as you bring the weights together. Then slowly lower them to the starting position.
Why are military presses so effective? They are a compound exercise, meaning they work more than one muscle group at a time. You’re hitting your anterior deltoids as well as your triceps and upper back. In terms of your upper back, you’re mainly targeting the large diamond-shaped muscle in your upper back called the trapezius.
Common Mistakes When Doing Military Presses
One of the most common mistakes people make when doing the military press, which is also true of overhead presses, is arching their lower back when pushing the barbell or dumbbells up. Not only does arching your back reduce the benefits of the exercise, but it also hyperextends your lumbar spine, which can lead to back pain. There are two possible reasons you’re arching your back: you have poor shoulder mobility or you have a weak core – or both.
Using more weight than you can handle will also force you to arch your back to lift the weight up, so don’t try to lift more than you can manage using good form. Make sure you’re including plenty of core exercises in your routine, particularly planks, to keep your core strong. When your core muscles are weak, your pelvis will tend to move forward when you press overhead.
Tight pecs can also limit your overhead mobility. A simple exercise you can do to loosen tight pectoral muscles are pec stretches. To do this, place each arm on the outside of an open doorway. Then step through the doorway while holding onto the sides and feel the stretch. Try to hold the stretch as long as you can.
Should Mobility Issues Can Limit Your Ability to Press Overhead
A way to lower your risk for shoulder mobility problems is to balance your training by working your chest and upper back muscles equally. Doing so will reduce muscle imbalances that can limit mobility in the shoulders. Also make sure you’re balancing pushing exercises, involving the shoulders, with pulling exercises. Incorrect posture and sitting hunched over at a desk all the time also contributes to tight shoulders and shoulder mobility issues.
One exercise that helps improve shoulder mobility is the scapular push-up. To do this exercise, get into a classic push-up position. Then rather than lowering your body all the way to the floor, classical push-up style, protract and retract your shoulder blades (bring your shoulder blades together and then apart). Descend no more than one or two inches. Try to keep your arms as straight as possible when performing the exercise.
Another effective exercise for increasing shoulder mobility is scapular wall slides. You’ll find a variety of videos online showing you how to do them. Keeping your shoulders mobile and your core strong will help you avoid injury when doing military presses.
Other Ways People Cheat When They Press Overhead
Another mistake when doing military and overhead presses is using your legs to help you out when you press the weight up. Overhead presses are a shoulder focused exercise. If you bend your legs or move them up and down to help you push the weight up, you’re using momentum and cheating by letting your legs and trunk do more of the work instead of your shoulders. Your legs, feet, hips, and torso should be firmly planted on the ground when doing a military press with no twisting. Keep your legs straight and core tight when doing the exercise. No bent knees or bouncing either.
Another way to “cheat” with military presses is to not move the weights through the full range-of-motion of the exercise. That makes the exercise easier but “easy” won’t make your body change. When lowering the weights, don’t stop at eye level. Instead, bring the weight down to the level of your shoulders to complete a full range-of-motion rep.
Finally, balance military press (a pushing exercise) that primarily targets your anterior shoulder with pulling exercises like pulldowns that work the posterior deltoid. This will keep your shoulder training balanced.
Standing versus Seated Military Press
Another option is to do seated military presses. Based on EMG studies, standing dumbbell presses activate the anterior deltoids 8% more than seated ones while muscle activation is 15% greater for standing dumbbell presses than standing barbell presses. When comparing seated barbell versus seated dumbbell presses, seated dumbbells are the winner with 11% more muscle activation.
For triceps muscle activation, the standing barbell press beats out the standing dumbbell press and the seated barbell press. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t do both standing and seated military press using barbells and dumbbells at different times for variety. Doing so will stimulate your muscles differently, which may help you avoid a plateau.
The Bottom Line
The military press is an effective exercise for shoulder strength, especially the anterior shoulder. You’re also giving your triceps and upper back a workout. Form is critical and makes sure you’re working on shoulder mobility and core strength to help you lift overhead more effectively.
LifestyleandStrength.com. “The Standing versus Seated Overhead Press”
Men’s Fitness. “Rookie Mistakes: The Overhead Press”
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