3 Effective Military Press Alternatives (With Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 30, 2022

The military press is a classic upper body compound movement of the push type, with a closed kinetic chain and generally making use of a barbell, such an exercise is commonplace in many workout regimes and athletic training programs for the purposes of inducing deltoid muscle group hypertrophy and to train overhead extension strength in a controlled manner.

Despite these benefits, however, the military press presents several drawbacks and risks that may force an individual to replace it with another exercise of similar training stimulus or muscle group activation set.

However, doing so is not entirely a straightforward task, as the sort of alternative exercise that will replace the military press must accommodate both for whatever circumstances lead to the replacement of the military press itself, as well as be similar enough in mechanics to induce the same sort of training stimulus.

Issues with the Military Press

To begin alternating out the military press in one's workout program, it is best for them to first identify the root cause behind why they are replacing the exercise, as this will provide them with enough background information to make an informed choice.

military press

Among the most common issues brought up surrounding the military press is the significant stress it places on the shoulder and elbow joints, of which will bear the brunt of the barbell’s weight throughout the repetition.

This is primarily due to either the exerciser making use of far too much weight during the exercise or succumbing to fatigue, both of which will directly lead to a breakdown in proper form mechanics.

By extension of this issue associated with the military press is the fact that inexperienced exercisers may subconsciously add force to the movement with the use of their lower body, essentially recreating the push press exercise and defeating the purpose of the rather strict military press, thereby negating the majority of muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning accrued by isolating the upper body during the repetition.

Are the Military Press and Overhead Press the Same Exercise?

Yes, the military press and the OHP or overhead press are the same exercise - though only as far as the military press is in fact a variation of the overhead press, wherein the exerciser places their feet far closer together in order to demand more isometric contraction of the core stabilizers, as opposed to the wider base that is used in the standard overhead press.

standing military press

Despite this otherwise minute difference, the military press and the overhead press may be considered the same exercise, especially if one is choosing to only place focus on the primary mover muscle groups activated in either exercise, or in the relative complexity and intensity of both overhead compound movements.

Who Should Alternate Out the Military Press

The military press is better off replaced by a suitable alternative exercise for individuals with a history of connective tissue injuries in the elbows, wrists, shoulders, or those with a history of clavicular dislocation.

This is due to the large amount of pressure placed on these joints and tissues by the overhead press, even with the use of proper form - and such a needless risk and stress placed on the exerciser can be entirely avoided simply with the use of a similar exercise that does not pose the same dangers.

Risk of injury and excessive physical strain is also applicable to exercisers of advanced age, those of very young age, individuals suffering from certain medical conditions, or exercisers who are as of yet untrained and whose bodies have not fully adapted to the rigors of serious free weight resistance training.

In addition to this group are those novice exercisers who have not yet mastered the proper form mechanics of the military press, and are not under the supervision of a suitably experienced athletic coach - as continuing to utilize improper military press form will not only put them at risk, but engrave improper lifting practices into a habit, leading to future issues as well.

1. The Push Press

An explosive and power focused variation of the military press, the push press is one such alternative to the aforementioned exercise that is better suited for powerlifters and athletes wishing to improve a particular sticking point in their military press form, or those seeking to train the explosive pressing strength of their entire upper body.

push press

This is done by performing a traditional military press, save with the addition of the exerciser’s legs and their subsequent power output, allowing for a far larger maximal load to be moved than what a strictly controlled military press repetition would make possible.

Similarities Between the Push Press and the Military Press

The largest and possibly most important similarity shared between the push press and the military press is that of their muscle group activation set, with the triceps, pectorals, trapezius and deltoids acting as the primary mover muscle groups - though with the addition of the quadriceps and gluteus muscle groups as is the case in the push press.

Apart from a similarity in muscle group activation, the push press also shares a similar level of intensity and range of volume as the military press, allowing one to substitute the other with little change in accumulated fatigue level or rate of perceived exertion (unless the exerciser is of novice physical strength level).

Differences Between the Push Press and the Military Press

The most obvious difference between the push press and the military press is in the addition of the lower body to the movement of the push press, with the military press being a strictly upper body exercise and thus placing the entirety of the dynamic muscle contraction on such muscle groups like the biceps brachii, deltoids, and pectorals without the inclusion of any muscle groups beneath the abdomen.

How to Substitute the Military Press with the Push Press

Due to the more explosive nature of the push press and the fact that it expends somewhat more energy due to the inclusion of the entire lower body alongside the upper body - the exerciser may find that they cannot perform as many repetitions of the push press as they could with the military press, unless they have significant enough anaerobic capacity and a preconditioned central nervous system used to such exertions.

In addition to this, due to the same reasons, the exerciser will also need to reprogram their workout session somewhat if additional leg muscle activation exercises are present later in the workout, as the legs will be fatigued prematurely during the push press repetitions.

2. Arnold Presses

Similar to the military press in nature and muscle group activation, the Arnold press utilizes a pair of dumbbells as opposed to a barbell so as to induce a close (if not more intense) level of training stimulus in the deltoids muscle group - though at the expense of simultaneous bilateral muscle activation.

arnold presses

The arnold press is performed by the exerciser taking a seated position and lifting a pair of dumbbells in a supinated grip up to their clavicles as if curling the dumbbells, prior to rotating the dumbbells and pressing them overhead, stopping just short of full elbow lockout position.

Similarities Between the Arnold Press and the Military Press

In terms of similarity, the Arnold press and the military press share a similar level of intensity and range of repetition volume, also sharing much the same muscle group activation set, save for the addition of the biceps brachii in a larger capacity than simply as a stabilizer muscle group.

When performed from a standing position, the Arnold press also activates the erector spinae and core stabilizers in a manner identical to that of the military press, accounting for the full muscular activation pattern of the latter exercise.

Differences Between the Arnold Press and the Military Press

The clearest and most obvious difference between the Arnold press and the military press is the rotation of the dumbbell throughout the repetition - and, by extension of this, the rotation of the shoulder and elbow.

Such a movement directly causes an alteration in the loading of the resistance among the muscle groups of the arm and shoulders, with the posterior and medial deltoid heads receiving an equal level of training stimulus as the anterior head, which is otherwise the most utilized deltoid head when performing a military press.

As a result of this, the substitution of the military press with the arnold press will allow the exerciser to remove certain other additional biceps brachii or posterior deltoid isolation work during the workout session, so long as enough resistance and volume of repetitions is utilized during the arnold press.

How to Substitute the Military Press with the Arnold Press

Virtually no change between repetition ranges is needed when substituting the military press with the arnold press, though a somewhat lower amount of weight will need to be utilized due to the fact that the arnold press uses a pair of dumbbells as opposed to a barbell, reducing the maximal load the exerciser will be able to move.

Apart from this, there is little to no need for any alteration in any subsequent workout session programming, save for a reduction in biceps brachii and deltoid muscle group isolation volume due to the larger swathe of muscle groups activated by the Arnold press.

3. Barbell Jerks

An explosive compound movement common in olympic weightlifting and similar functional strength sports, the barbell jerk is a high level closed kinetic chain barbell movement that lends quite a few similarities in form and mechanics to the military press, though with the usage of far more explosive full body muscle power than the latter exercise can make use of.

barbell jerk

Due to this more complex form and higher level of intensity, the barbell jerk is less of an alternative and more of an upgrade or lateral switch for individuals seeking a more dynamic substitute exercise, or those who wish to compete in high level athletic events.

Similarities Between the Jerk and the Military Press

If looking at the specifics between the two, there is actually little similarity between the barbell jerk and the military press, save for the particular mechanics and muscle groups involved - though the barbell jerk is designed in such a way that the deltoids are biceps are activated in a less important capacity than they would be in the military press.

The largest similarity and the primary reason why the barbell jerk may be considered an alternative to the military press is the functional application of its usage in a training regimen, especially in regards to athletic strength and power output capacity.

Though the military press has rather strict form that makes little use of dynamic explosiveness or momentum, it is generally performed for the purposes of improving upper body (specifically shoulder) strength and size - something that the barbell jerk is also added to many training programs for.

Differences Between the Jerk and the Military Press

The barbell jerk differs from the military press in its explosive full body nature, wherein the exerciser essentially uses their entire musculature to jerk the barbell overhead as they pull themselves beneath it, directly activating all leg muscle groups as well as every core and back stabilizing muscle group.

This is considerably more difficult and complex than the military press’s strict and slow form mechanics, and as such will usually present a rate of perceived exertion that is higher than what a military press is capable of inducing.

How to Substitute the Military Press with the Jerk

If the exerciser wishes to substitute the military press with the barbell jerk, significant alterations and preparatory exercises will need to be added to their workout program, as the olympic barbell lift can place significant strain on the exerciser’s joints and induce muscular overtraining if combined with multiple other compound exercises.

Though seemingly complicated, reducing the total upper body exercise volume during a workout session with the barbell jerk, as well as performing a warm-up and stretching routine prior to the exercise are the only changes that the exerciser must make in order to reduce muscular fatigue and incidences of injury.

When in doubt, it is best for the exerciser to seek out the advice of an athletic coach, both for the purposes of altering their workout program when substituting out the military press, as well as to ensure that they are utilizing proper form with the new substitute exercise itself.

References

1. Mark R. F.  McKean, Brendan J. Burkett, Over head shoulder press – In-front of the head or behind the head?, Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 4, Issue 3, 2015, Pages 250-257, ISSN 2095-2546, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2013.11.007.

2. Bishop, Chris MSc; Chavda, Shyam MSc, CSCS; Turner, Anthony PhD, CSCS D Exercise Technique: The Push Press, Strength and Conditioning Journal: June 2018 - Volume 40 - Issue 3 - p 104-108 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000321

3. Soriano MA, Suchomel TJ, Comfort P. Weightlifting Over head Pressing Derivatives: A Review of the Literature. Sports Med. 2019 Jun;49(6):867-885. doi: 10.1007/s40279-019-01096-8. PMID: 30924081; PMCID: PMC 6548056.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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