The overhead press is a fundamental movement essential to any athlete’s routine who prioritize strength and size.
It is a timeless exercise advocated by some of the great natural bodybuilders such as Steve Reeves and a crucial accessory to any Olympic weightlifter’s program. I believe the overhead press is a great exercise that should be a staple in any routine. There are, however, some drawbacks.
In this article, I will discuss these drawbacks and will offer excellent alternatives for everyone’s specific goals/needs. In addition to this I will answer some frequently asked questions and give my final thoughts.
Muscles Used in the Overhead Press
Due to the overhead press being a compound standing movement that requires excellent balance, this exercise will work numerous muscle groups including the deltoid and triceps muscles but also less commonly known, the pectoral muscles and trapezius indirectly (1).
As this exercise is primarily a deltoid and triceps exercise I will discuss in more detail their anatomy and function when performing the movement.
The 3 visible heads being: the anterior deltoid (front), the lateral deltoid (side) and the posterior deltoid (rear) (2).
As the overhead press is a vertical pressing movement, there should be a reasonable amount of activation in all heads of the deltoid with a front taking more of the load at the beginning of the press and the side and rear once the bar has passed the chin.
In any pressing movement, the tricep muscles will be involved.
The main function of the triceps brachii is extension of the arm at the elbow joint. In addition, its long head contributes to the extension and adduction of the arm at the shoulder joint (3).
The tricep is made up of 3 heads: the long head, the medial head and the lateral head. Due to the pressing angle of the overhead press, the activation of the long head is greater than in more horizontal pressing movements such as the bench press or dips.
How to Perform the Overhead Press
Step 1: Start by choosing an optimal rack height. This will make the unrack more comfortable and allow you to stay tighter in position. A good start for working out your optimal rack height would be to have the bar sitting around mid-chest height in the rack.
Step 2: Grab the barbell just outside shoulder width and grip tight. Take a deep breath in and as you unrack the weight, retract and depress your scapula. Take 1 or 2 steps back allowing for sufficient pressing space without fear of hitting the rack.
Step 3: From here adjust your feet to be roughly shoulder width apart. This will give you a stable pressing base. Start with the bar resting on your clavicle or just above if mobility doesn’t allow.
Step 4: To initiate the press, squeeze your glutes and tuck your chin/head back slightly. Press the weight upwards and as it passes your head, push your head through between your arms. Once the weight has been locked out it can be slowly lowered back down to repeat.
What Makes a Great Overhead Press alternative?
A great overhead press alternative should tick all the boxes the overhead press does in terms of muscle activation and strength progression benefits while adding versatility to your workouts.
These 12 alternatives are all great in their own way. I have categorized there benefits so you can easily identify which alternatives will best suit you.
12 Best Overhead Press Alternatives
If you’ve hit a plateau with standard overhead press, these first few barbell variations closely resemble the movement with a few small differences.
Specificity is the key driver of strength so these exercises are the next best thing when it comes to building your overhead pressing strength.
1. Push Press
The push press is a great alternative to the standard overhead press as it follows the same bar path, uses the same muscles and range of motion.
What differs with the push press is the use of leg drive in the movement. This allows you to use more weight on the bar. This can overload the triceps at the lockout of the movement and improve overhead stability using a heavier load.
Step 1: Set the rack height to about mid chest level. This should make the barbell comfortable to unrack while allowing you to stay upright.
Step 2: Grab the barbell just outside shoulder width, retract and depress your scapula (shoulder blades back and down). Unrack the bar and rest it on your clavicle or hovering just above it depending on your mobility. Before beginning the press, tilt your head back slightly and tighten your core.
Step 3: To start the press, first take a small bend at the knees and squat back up. Use the momentum from this to begin pushing the weight above your head. Once you have locked your elbows out with the weight above your head, brace yourself before lowering it back down.
2. Behind the Neck Press
Now I know what you’re thinking, this exercise is dangerous and bad for your shoulders. Although this statement has some truth, this exercise can be safe and very beneficial for many people.
A study by (4) found that behind the neck pressing is safe for the shoulders and spine if the user has adequate shoulder mobility.
As this is a completely vertical press, this movement can illicit more lateral and posterior deltoid activation during the press.
Step 1: Begin the movement using the same steps as the push press with a slightly wider grip width. The range of motion for this movement should start at the lockout.
Step 2: Lower the bar down slowly and controlled behind the head keeping it as close as possible to it. Lower the bar as far as you feel that you can comfortably repeat. A suitable range of motion to start with would be elbows at 90 degrees.
Step 3: Press the bar back up to the lockout position overhead. I would recommend keeping the weight moderate to light on this exercise and stand in front of a mirror preferably.
3. Seated Barbell Overhead Press
Step 1: Set up an adjustable bench just in front of a squat rack. Set the bench to the second most upright position, this usually is around 75 degrees.
The seat should also be tipped/elevated slightly to prevent sliding. Rack height for this movement can be difficult to decide and will be completely dependent on your personal preference and the equipment in your gym.
Aim for a height that allows you to easily unrack the weight with your arms almost locked or completely locked out at the top of the movement.
Step 2: Place your feet around shoulder width, sit your glutes as far back in the seat as you can and dig your shoulder blades into the bench. This set up should create a stable base for you to unrack the weight and begin the movement.
Step 3: Unrack the weight and lock your arms out vertically above you. Unlike in standard overhead press you should now have a vertical pressing line without having to move your head/chin as the bench is at a 75 degree angle.
Slowly bring the bar down to the clavicle portion of your chest and press the weight back up to lockdown position. As this movement is seated and recruits some of the upper chest, more weight can be used on this exercise.
The use of dumbbells allows for a greater range of motion, the option of unilateral work and requires greater stability. These next few exercises all have these advantages with a few differences to suit everyone’s needs.
4. Standing Dumbbell Press
The standing dumbbell press is a great dumbbell movement allowing you to lift more weight than the others in this category.
Step 1: Get ready in an area where there is enough space to lift above your shoulders.
Step 2: Stand hip width apart and grab the appropriate dumbbells. Make sure you use a lighter weight here.
Step 3: Keep the dumbbells on the ground. Hip hinge down to grab the weight and get in a position where the weight is at your shoulders.
Step 4: Press up and lower the weight. You can repeat this pattern as many times as you want.
5. Seated Dumbbell Press
The seated dumbbell press is a great dumbbell movement allowing you to lift more weight than the others in this category. This can be greatly beneficial for overloading on weight, especially for the triceps.
Step 1: Set the bench up the same way it was for the seated barbell press with the bench at a 75 degree angle and the seat tipped slightly to avoid sliding.
Step 2: Dig your shoulder blades into the bench to stabilize yourself and plant your feet slightly wider than shoulder width to give yourself a good base. From here you can lift the dumbbells onto your knees ready to initiate the movement.
Step 3: Kick the dumbbells up off your knees into a neutral grip resting just above your shoulders (palms facing each other). From here you can begin pressing the weight up. A neutral grip allows for a longer range of motion and keeps your shoulders in a safe position.
I prefer to do these in a pause rep style eliminating the stretch reflex at the bottom of the movement and keeping all repetitions consistent. Once the elbows are locked out at the top of the repetition, the weight can be slowly lowered back down to just above the shoulders to repeat.
6. Arnold Press
The Arnold press is a great movement that typically has more time under tension than the others in this category and will work the anterior deltoid more.
Step 1: Step up for this movement the same way you would for the seated dumbbell press but with your palms facing you before you begin the press. Also, note that this exercise is more challenging so a lighter weight will be required.
Step 2: To begin this exercise, rotate your palms to face each other and flare your elbows out slightly. This should be done hovering the weight just above your shoulder thus keeping tension on the muscle.
Step 3: Begin pressing upwards and continue to rotate arms outward until palms are facing forward at the top of the movement. Bring the weight back down slowly this time rotating inwards until the starting position is reached again where it can be repeated.
These bodyweight alternatives are great if you don’t have access to a gym or are short on time. They are also a great indicator of your relative strength.
7. Pike Push Up
This exercise has many variations with varying levels of difficulty.
I recommend learn this exercise starting with your feet at ground level and use progression schemes such as adding reps and elevating your feet more to make the movement more challenging.
The best way to learn this movement is to watch.
8. Handstand Push up
The handstand push up is a great bodyweight exercise for the shoulders that only requires the use of a wall.
Step 1: First begin by placing your hands just outside shoulder width apart facing away from the wall. Your hands should be about half a meter away from the wall. From here kick your feet up and move them up the wall until your body is fully extended.
Step 2: Before beginning the handstand push up, experiment with distance your hands are from the wall. The easiest angle to get your legs up is most likely different from the angle you want to press at.
Step 3: Begin lowering yourself slowly keeping your elbows tucked and allow your head to travel in front over your hands. Lower yourself to the point of your head gently touching the floor (or something soft to brace you). At this point, press back up to lockout position with your head back behind your hands.
We all know all the types of raises don’t require much weight to feel challenging. This can be very advantageous if you have no equipment.
All you need to perform these exercises is a sturdy shopping bag and something heavy to put in them. This could be books or liquids etc. Below I have detailed how to perform each raise variation.
Isolation movements are great for working on weak areas.
10. Front Raises
These are great for isolating the anterior deltoid. Keep the weight low and the reps high for this exercise.
Step 1: Fill up 2 sturdy bags with around 5-10kg of weight. If you don’t have enough to fill 2 bags, then this exercise can be done unilaterally.
Step 2: Start with the bags down at your side and begin lifting them directly out in front of you to shoulder height with only a slight bend in your elbow. If the weight isn’t challenging enough add these alternatives in at the end of your workouts or do a pre-fatiguing set followed by short rest times.
The goal with this type of isolation movement is to get as much blood as possible into the muscle that is being worked, don’t worry too much about the weight.
11. Lateral Raises
These raises isolate the lateral head of the deltoid and are great for giving the appearance of broader shoulders.
Step 1: Grab a set of light dumbbells and hold them by your side. Hinge at the hips slightly leaning forward and begin the movement by leading with your elbows.
Step 2: Lift the weight up with a slight bend in your elbow up to the side of you until you reach shoulder height. This exercise should involve no swinging or shrugging of the traps.
Tip: If you’re dealing with shoulder issues when lifting the dumbbells to the side, use the queue thumbs up instead of the common queue pinkies up. This should minimize impingement/ discomfort of the shoulder.
12. Rear Delt Flys
These flys are a great way to make your shoulders appear fuller and give them more of a 3D look by isolating the posterior head of the deltoid.
Step 1: Grab some dumbbells and hinge at the hips until your completely bent over at 90 degrees or as far as your mobility allows.
Step 2: Let the dumbbells hang down directly below your shoulders if you were viewing from above. From here pull the dumbbells out to the side and up towards you with your arms out at a slight bend. The motion should appear like the opposite of a chest fly with the peak contraction point being where your arms are furthest apart.
Step 3: Lower the weight back down to the starting point in a slow and controlled manner.
Tips: This exercise can be very difficult to feel the target muscle working so start with a very light weight, experiment with range of motion and dumbbell path angle. Once you find the right technique for you, you should feel a burn in the posterior deltoid without involvement of the traps.
Frequently Asked Questions
These exercises are not gender specific and you should instead ask yourself if these exercises will help you reach your goal. I recommend strength exercises for anyone who is looking to lose weight and/ or build muscle regardless of their gender.
When performed with correct technique and a suitable load is used, a spotter should not be required for any of the exercises on this list. A spotter can be used to help you push out those extra reps towards the end of the workout but are by no means essential.
This is the desired look of most bodybuilders when training shoulders. I believe to achieve a rounder-capped look, extra emphasis must be put on training the posterior head of the deltoid. My recommendation would be to start with a compound pressing movement and finish with an isolation exercise such as rear delt flys to make sure all heads of the deltoid are worked in your workout. Remember, isolation exercises carry very little fatigue over to your next session so you can perform rear delt flys at a high frequency to maximize your progress.
When performing any heavy presses, I recommend warming up the rotator cuffs. My favorite rotator cuff exercise is the banded/ cable external rotation. I believe it’s also important to get some blood flowing in the opposing muscles, this will create stability in your back which help when pressing overhead. A video by Sebastian Oreb (Australian Strength Coach) perfectly demonstrates these warm up techniques (6).
The overhead press is an excellent exercise with plenty of great alternatives to complement the movement or to replace it to fit the individual.
Be consistent with these exercises and only switch them out when your progress stops. These exercises are completely safe when performed with a suitable weight and good technique.
- Healthline. 2021. Overhead Press Muscles, Tips & Benefits. [online] Available at:<https://www.healthline.com/health/overhead-press-muscles> [Accessed 31 March 2021].
- Healthline. 2021. Shoulder Muscles Anatomy, Diagram & Function | Body Maps. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/shoulder-muscles#1> [Accessed 31 March 2021].
- Kenhub. 2021. Triceps brachii muscle. [online] Available at: <https://www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/triceps-brachii-muscle> [Accessed 4 March 2021].
- McKean, M. and Burkett, B., 2015. Overhead shoulder press – In-front of the head or behind the head?. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 4(3), pp.250-257.
- FitnessFAQs (25 Oct 2018) How to HANDSTAND PUSHUP Beginner Tutorial. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZWjFe4fufA . (Accessed 29 March 2021)
- Australian Strength Coach (16 Sept 2019) Bench Press with Little Rhyssy. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3owjgYU_m4 . (Accessed 28 March 2021)