Safety / Injuries | Training Tips

Overhead Press: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Overhead Press: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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The overhead press is just like it sounds—the client presses the weight over their head. It is also often referred to as the military press. It is an excellent upper body lift that targets the deltoids and muscles of the rotator cuff along with the core, trapezius (traps), triceps, and biceps. The overhead press is most often performed using a barbell but there are dumbbell, kettlebell, and resistance band variations. 

Although the overhead press is a popular lift, it can be dangerous if performed incorrectly. Let’s explore the importance of proper form, what proper form for the overheard press looks like (plus a few variations), and some common mistakes to watch for. 

Importance of Form

One of the most essential components of physical training success is proper form. It’s important to note, however, proper form can vary slightly from person to person. A client’s limb length, somatype, bone formation, etc., can play a role in proper form for their body. 

Proper form helps put the bones, joints, and muscles in the optimal position and encourages the right muscles to fire during the lift. It will help clients get the most out of their lifts which leads to better results. Improper form can lead to pain and injury. And, not having control of a heavy weight overhead can be dangerous for the lifter and surrounding spotters. 

That being said, there are several variations of the overhead press. As a trainer, it will be important for you to understand which variations of the lift are best for your client’s form and goals. 

Overhead Press Variations

There are several different ways to do the overhead press. We’ve included some of the most common variations and the standard overhead press form for each one below. 

Standing Barbell Overhead Press (Military Press)

The client should begin with feet about shoulder-width apart. The barbell should rest across the anterior (front) part of the shoulders near the clavicle with the hands firmly gripping the bar just outside shoulder width. Hands should be facing away from the body and elbows should face forward and point down toward the ground underneath the wrists and barbell. Knees and hips should be strong and without bend and the upper chest should be slightly lifted without any arching in the lower spine. 

The client will squeeze the glutes, press the weight straight up above their head until their elbows are fully extended, and shrug their shoulders. At full extension, the barbell, biceps, and triceps should align with the ears (not too far in front or behind the head). The client will lower the barbell back down into the starting position. 

Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press (Dumbbell Shoulder Press) 

The form for a standing dumbbell overhead press is very similar to the standing barbell overhead press. However, using dumbbells makes this a unilateral exercise. Exercises that are unilateral are a great way to ensure that both the right and the left side of the body are balanced. When clients use a barbell, they often press with one side of the body slightly more than the other. Separating the weight forces both sides of the body to work evenly. 

Arnold Press

The Arnold press adds a unique twist to the normal overhead press motion. With legs hip-width apart, clients will grip a dumbbell in each hand with the palms of the hands facing toward the body. Elbows should be underneath the wrists and pointing down towards the ground. Spine should be neutral with no arching in the lower back and the glutes should be contracted. With one controlled motion the client will begin rotating the weights away from the face about 180 degrees (so the palms face outward) and pressing up towards the ceiling. They will fully extend their elbows and then slowly reverse the movement to bring the weight back to the starting position. 

Seated Variations

While the standing position is the most common overhead press variation, you can also change any of them to be a seated press:  seated barbell overhead press, seated military press, seated dumbbell overhead press, and seated Arnold press, seated kettlebell press, etc. The upper body form is very similar in the seated overhead press to the standing version of the lift. However, performing the lift from a seated position can help minimize a client's lower back arch. 

Common Mistakes

Improper form can cause problems to the shoulder, rotator cuff, lower back, and other areas of the body. The following list includes some of the most common mistakes so you’ll know what to look for as your clients move through the lift. 

1. Letting the elbows flare out: The elbows should point forward and the triceps should be in alignment with the wrists. 

2. Not having a wide enough stance: The stance is the balance and base of support. A stance that is too narrow can create less stability. 

3. Not reaching full extension of the elbows: Full range of motion is important. The elbows should be locked at the top of the press. 

4. Pressing too far in front of or behind the body: If the weight isn’t above the center of the body, it can throw off your client’s balance and be dangerous. 

5. Not shrugging the shoulders: The shoulder shrug engages the traps and helps protect the rotator cuff muscles as the weight is lifted overhead. 

6. Arching the lower back: This can create a lot of stress in the lower back. The lower spine should remain neutral with a slight arch in the upper back as the upper chest lifts up. Squeeze the glutes and keep the weight moving in a straight line. 

7. Neck extension: The head will move slightly out of the way as the barbell is pressed up in a straight line. But, the head should come forward again as soon as the barbell passes. 

8. Lifting too much weight: Proper form before heavy weights—always!

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The overhead press typically isn’t a lift for beginners. Although the lift targets the shoulder muscles, balance and core strength are required for a successful lift. When done correctly, the overhead press can be very effective. Regardless of which variation you choose, always keep form as a high priority.

If you have a passion for proper form and function with an emphasis on helping people move better, check out ISSA’s Corrective Exercise Specialist course. You’ll learn how to identify and correct common movement dysfunctions to help people look and feel their best. 


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