How to Do a Shoulder Press: The Ultimate Guide

This is a guest blog post by Adam Farrah, author of The Paleo Dieter’s Missing Link and Functional Fitness, Kettlebell, Yoga and Meditation coach.

athletic woman in position for a shoulder press

The press is the simple act of picking up an object and raising it overhead using the muscles of the shoulders and arms. It requires the legs and core to stabilize the body during the movement and is in effect, a "total-body" exercise.

Pressing heavy weights over your head should be one of the cornerstones of your strength training life, right up there with squats, but if you're doing it wrong, you're cheating yourself out of the benefits of this incredible exercise.

To get your press back on track, we've formulated this Ultimate Guide.

In this article, you will learn:

Before You Shoulder Press, Do These Exercises

Stabilizing a weight overhead is the foundation of a strong press. If the core and shoulder structure isn’t able to stabilize the weight effectively at the top of the press, the mechanics of the press will suffer, and injury is likely.

The Push-Up

In general, shoot for 10 excellent reps in the push-up before moving into pressing. The rationale for this is that a strong push-up proves the basic mechanics of stabilizing the core and the shoulder are in place. Without these fundamentals, the press won’t be strong, and the added weight will exaggerate any existing weaknesses.

As discussed in my push-up article, focus on “packing the shoulder” in the weighted press too.

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Core Activation

For any kind of unsupported press, the core and its ability to stabilize the upper body are crucial. Any type of overhead pressing is very much a “core” exercise. During a press, the abs need to be contracted “as if bracing for a punch,” as Pavel would say. You’ll be breathing “behind” your contracted abs while those muscles remain tight to stabilize the torso.

This is known as “breathing behind the shield” in kettlebell circles.

This is the basic feeling to have when pressing overhead. The contracted abs keep the upper body stable and prevent the stress from dumping into the lower back. This makes a very stable structure from which to press.

Wrist Position

I generally advise a straight wrist position when pressing a weight. This basically means that the top of the hand is in line with the forearm. This directs the weight straight through the forearm, as opposed to putting a lot of bending stress into the wrist.

correct shoulder press wrist position

Correct wrist position is shown above.

should press incorrect wrist position

An incorrect wrist position is shown above.

Head Through the Window

The “head through the window” cue enforces an open chest and correct thoracic spine position. With a barbell overhead, envision the arms and barbell making a “window” that your head goes through.

Another way to think of it is, if you turned your head right or left with the weight pressed overhead, your bicep would be behind your ear.

If you turn your head and are looking at your bicep, your head isn’t “through the window.” 

head through window shoulder press position

How to Do a Shoulder Press

Sometimes referred to as a "strict" or " military press, the shoulder press is simply an arm-driven overhead "press" of a barbell conducted in a standing position and without any leg assistance. The legs are kept straight or “locked” for the entire movement. There’s a very slight bend in the knee that’s maintained throughout the movement—the knees aren’t hyperextended—but the legs are kept in the same position for the entire movement.

This is sometimes called a “soft knee,” in that the knee is locked but still acting as a shock absorber. While pressing the weight up, try to create the feeling of “pushing yourself through the floor” with the weight remaining still.

And, while bringing the weight down from the pressed position, feel yourself “pulling” it down to you.

man at top of strict press

Advanced Shoulder Press Techniques

The Push Press

The push press is a leg-assisted press. The knees bend and then straighten to thrust the weight off the chest and up into the press. Think of it as “cheating” with the legs in a strict press.

man in front wrack

man at bottom of push press

man at top of push press

The Jerk

The jerk is a push press with an additional leg movement. As the weight moves up toward lockout from the push press, the legs bend again to “drop” explosively down under the weight and allow the arms to lock out. Once arm lockout is achieved, the legs return the trainee to the standing position, effectively completing the movement with the legs.

man doing push jerk

man at bottom of push jerk

A Note About the Strict Press, the Push Press, and the Jerk

Generally, you can jerk more than you can push press, and you can push press more than you can strict press. The military or strict press is, well, strict, whereas the push press has a single assist with the legs, and the jerk has a double assist. It’s not so much “cheating” as it is a modification of the movement that enables you to handle more weight.

One way to experience the feeling of each of these movements is to strict press a weight you can handle for 10 reps or so to failure, and then continue on with a push press after you can’t strict press anymore. Once you reach failure in the push press, you’ll more or less automatically start jerking the weight.

Workout 2, below, is designed to demonstrate this concept.

As long as your form and shoulder stabilization is good, the above is a great way to learn how to push press and how to jerk. It’s a technique I use often when a trainee just isn’t “getting” the jerk.

Just take the strict press to failure and keep going in the set, using more and more of the legs to drive the weight into position. Eventually, a jerk begins to happen as fatigue sets in.

Shoulder Building Workouts

Now that you're shoulder press is dialed in, it's time to incorporate it into some functional exercise circuits!

Quick Cardio Shoulder Blast

5 shoulder presses (45 lb for women/75 lb for men) + 10 squat jumps x 5 rounds for time

Shoulder Press Mahem

5 strict presses (45 lb/75 lb) + 5 push presses (same barbell, same weight) + 5 jerks (same barbell, same weight) + 5 bent over rows (same barbell, same weight) x 5 rounds with 2 minutes rest between rounds

Conclusion

The shoulder press is a deceptively complex movement, one that is easy to learn, but difficult to master. With continual effort and attention, however, your shoulder press will become more and more refined, and with it, greater upper body strength, muscular development, and core stability.

What’s your favorite overhead pressing variation? What tools do you prefer — kettlebells, dumbbells, or barbells? Let us know in the comments!

 

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