Military Press: Benefits, Muscles Used, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
May 15, 2022

The military press is a classic free weight exercise that holds an important place in practically any upper body push training day, with a highly modular set of mechanics and relatively simplistic form making it a preferred exercise over other shoulder focused compound movements.

Usually performed in a secondary manner alongside other movements like the bench press or deadlift, the military press is indispensable in the majority of serious bodybuilding or powerlifting training routines.

This factor, alongside the fact that it is usually performed with an intermediate to high amount of resistance, means that it is important for coach and exerciser alike to develop a deep familiarity with the exercise so as to reduce the risk of injury and improve any training results developed from the military press itself.

What is the Military Press?

The military press, in more complex terms, is an open kinetic chain compound movement that acts upon shoulder and elbow extension so as to induce significant multi-muscle group training stimulus, with a particular focus upon the deltoids muscle group that make up the shoulders.

standing military press

It may be performed either standing or in a seated position, though novices are generally advised to choose the seated option as it may help prevent the exerciser from cheating by performing a “push press” wherein they subconsciously utilize their lower body in order to drive the barbell overhead.

The military press may also have a secondary purpose of improving the exerciser’s muscular co-activation in the general area of the shoulders and pectorals, as well as improving the stability of the exerciser’s abdominal muscles as they are activated in an isometric capacity at the peak (or full extension) of the repetition.

Is the Military Press the Same as the Overhead Press?

Despite the fact that the military press and overhead press are often confused in certain situations, in actuality they are distinct exercises - with the military press being considered a sub-variation of the overhead press itself.

The overhead press is normally performed in a standing position with the exerciser’s leg placement being entirely up to their own comfort and bodily proportions.

This is distinct from the military press, wherein the military press allows for the exerciser to choose between a seated or standing position, though the exerciser is required to maintain a far less stable lower body if choosing a standing position by way of keeping their heels as close together as possible.

If performed in a standing position, the military press will generally induce a greater level of stabilizer muscle group activation, especially in the abdominal stabilizers as they are forced to work harder without the benefit of a wide leg stance supporting the trunk of the body.

How is the Military Press Performed?

To begin performing the military press, the exerciser must first set up the exercise by placing a barbell at clavicle height on a squat rack or power cage - as well as load it with an amount of weight appropriate for their strength level.

Once the barbell has been placed at a comfortable elevation and loaded with a suitable amount of weight, the exerciser will then position themselves before the barbell and place both hands approximately shoulder width apart beneath the bar, with their palms in a supine grip (facing towards the ceiling).

military press

The form of the military press, like most exercises, is divided into two phases; with the upward or concentric phase of the exercise involving a shortening of the triceps, pectorals and deltoid muscle groups in order to produce shoulder abduction and elbow extension.

The downward or eccentric phase of the military press is therefore the second portion of the movement, wherein the exerciser lowers the weight back to its original position by causing their triceps, pectorals and deltoid muscle groups to lengthen and relax - thereby completing a repetition of the exercise.

Upward Phase of the Military Press

To begin the first phase of a military press repetition, the exerciser will unrack the barbell and position it parallel with their neck or clavicles prior to arching their back, squeezing their shoulder blades together and pressing the barbell over their head.

While pressing the barbell over their head, the exerciser must ensure that their shoulders are contracting in a simultaneous manner, thereby preventing the barbell from being raised in a lopsided manner and placing the exerciser at risk of losing their balance.

Stopping just short of full elbow extension, the exerciser will squeeze their deltoids at the apex of the repetition, ensure that their core and back remain in a tight and stable state of contraction; then continue on to the downward or eccentric phase of the military press.

Downward Phase of the Military Press

Once the concentric or upward phase of the military press has been completed, the exerciser will exhale, prior to allowing their elbows to contract and move outwards in a slow and controlled manner, with the exerciser maintaining core stability and retaining tension in their chest.

If performed in the appropriate manner, the barbel will travel in a nearly straight path dowards, returning to rest at a parallel elevation with the front of the exerciser’s shoulders and clavicles, thereby completing a repetition of the military press.

The exerciser may then return the barbell to its position on the squat rack or power cage - or repeat the upward phase of the movement, if subsequent repetitions are required in the exercise set.

What Muscles are Worked by the Military Press?

As the military press is a classic example of a free weight movement with a compound muscle activation pattern, it is capable of activating a large number of muscle groups in a simultaneous fashion throughout each repetition - though not all are activated in an equal manner.

As such, the muscle groups worked during a repetition of the military press are separated depending on the extent of which they are activated, with primary mover muscles being responsible for the largest output of force while secondary mover muscles work in an auxiliary capacity, and stabilizer muscles contracting in a static manner instead.

Primary Mover Muscles

The most significantly activated muscle group is that of the deltoid muscle group, a trio of muscles that make up the shoulders and are responsible for much of the force behind the military press, thereby resulting in the deltoids also receiving the most growth from the exercise.

The three heads of the deltoid muscle group are trained in an equal manner, with each being activated to a great extent throughout certain parts of the repetition - all of which are supported by other primary mover muscles trained by the exercise, such as the triceps brachii (of which also act as secondary mover muscles).

Secondary Mover Muscles

Though the deltoids and triceps brachii bear the brunt of the resistance induced by the military press, certain other muscle groups aid them in such a manner.

These are primarily that of the pectoralis minor, which contract during the start and end of each repetition, the trapezius muscles that are activated during the apex of each repetition so as to prevent shoulder impingement, and the aforementioned triceps brachii.

Though the triceps, traps and pectorals are considered secondary mover muscles, they are still activated to a clinically significant extent, thereby also producing some level of muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning in said muscle groups.

Stabilizer Muscles

The muscle groups used as stabilizer muscles throughout the military press are primarily that of the core stabilizers, the rotator cuff muscles, and the legs to a certain extent - though it is important for the exerciser to note that the extent and pattern of which these muscle groups are activated in a stabilizing capacity will depend on whether they are performing the exercise from a standing or sitting position.

What are the Benefits of the Military Press?

The military press, like most exercises, presents a variety of benefits that are not only reserved for free weight exercises themselves, but also a few that are a direct result of the military press specifically - making it unique among other compound movements of a similar nature.

These can range anywhere from an improvement in the size and strength of the shoulder muscles to the more technical transfer of elbow extension mechanics into the form cues of other exercises, making the military press a highly variable movement for many different kinds of athletes. 

Increase in Push Strength of the Upper Body

The largest and most obvious benefit from performing the military press on a regular basis is the progressive increase it provides to the exerciser’s general upper body strength, allowing the exerciser to perform push type exercises with a greater amount of resistance than they would previously have been able to do.

Such a benefit is, of course, only possible if the exercise is combined with other factors that stimulate anabolic growth, such as a proper diet, sufficient protein intake and adequate time set aside for sleep.

Reinforcement of Shoulder Girdle

Like most forms of resistance exercise, the military press is capable of inducing a reinforcing response in the various connective tissues of the shoulder joint and any nearby areas.

This will result in a reduced risk of injury in said areas over time, as not only are the skeletal muscle fibers thickened in said areas but also the bone and connective tissue, a natural response of the body to repeated tension and pressure induced by resistance exercise.

Form Carryover

As the usage of proper form during most exercises is of paramount importance, many powerlifters and other strength based athletes utilize the military press as a supportive movement in order to improve the form of other heavy compound exercises.

This may include the lock out portion of a bench press’s form, the second half of a clean and press, or even the eccentric portion of the pull up in certain cases.

Common Mistakes of the Military Press

Though the form of the military press is relatively simplistic and appropriate for even novice level exercisers, certain mistakes are commonly performed by even experienced weightlifting athletes - the majority of which have to do with the usage of proper form during the exercise.

Push Pressing

More common in novice exercisers that have not fully mastered bodily control, the usage of the legs during the pushing portion of the exercise is considered “cheating” the repetition, reducing the total resistance placed on the shoulders and thereby reducing any training benefits they may receive.

This is directly counter-intuitive to the entire purpose of the military press - for this reason, alternatives to the military press may be entirely.

This is best fixed by the exerciser performing the military press from a seated position, or by ensuring that they do not subconsciously swing the barbell, push with the legs, or jerk it upward with the torso in any manner.

Improper Spinal Column Posture

The back of the exerciser must remain neutral throughout the exercise, something that may be difficult to achieve if excess resistance is used - or if the exerciser is simply not aware of the proper form cues throughout the military press exercise.

This can come in many forms; but is most common in spinal hyperflexion, wherein the exerciser leans backwards by curving their lower back, thereby compressing the spinal discs of the lumbar and thoracic portions of the spinal column and increasing the risk of injury.

References

1. Graham, John MS, CSCS*D, FNSCA Barbell Overhead Press, Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2008 - Volume 30 - Issue 6 - p 70-71 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e318189a9fe

2. Balsalobre-Fernández, Carlos, Amador García-Ramos, and Pedro Jiménez-Reyes. “Load–Velocity Profiling in the Military Press Exercise: Effects of Gender and Training.” International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching 13, no. 5 (October 2018): 743–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747954117738243.

3. Kroell, Jordan & Mike, Jonathan. (2017). Exploring the Standing Barbell Overhead Press. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 39. 1. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000324.

4. Saeterbakken, Atle & Fimland, Marius. (2012). Effects of Body Position and Loading Modality on Muscle Activity and Strength in Shoulder Presses. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 27. 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318276b873.

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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