You’re Doing it Wrong: The Ultimate Guide to the Shoulder Press

fit girl at crossfit gym pressing barbell with coach

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.

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 which will teach you how to:

  • Properly stabilize the body and safely press a weight overhead
  • Add variety and challenge with progressions
  • Troubleshoot bad form on the fly
  • Effectively incorporate the press into your training plan

Building a Stable Press

Stabilizing a weight overhead is the foundation of a strong press. If the core and shoulder structure aren’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

We covered the push-up in this article. 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.

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.

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.”

The Basic Press Variations

The two basic press variations are supported and standing. Within the supported variations, we have the floor press, bench press, and seated shoulder press. The standing variations include the strict or military press, the push press, and the jerk.

Standing Press: Strict Press, Push Press, and Jerk

The major difference between the standing presses is the leg movement within each one. The strict press has no leg movement. The push press involves the legs once—to get the weight moving out of the rack. And the jerk has two leg movements—the first is like a push press, and the second is an explosive “drop” below the weight while straightening the arms.

The leg involvement and technique in the jerk allow it to be the strongest and highest weight-handling of the standing press variations for a given individual.

Supported Press: Floor Press, Bench Press, and Seated Press

The supported press is one I don’t spend a lot of time on. The one exception is with clients who are focusing on the push-up or some other press variation.

The floor press is a limited-range-of-motion version of the bench press (due to the floor). Louie Simmons and the Westside Barbell community use the floor press as a “conjugate” of a standard bench press. It’s a variation of the bench press trained from time to time to change up the max weight, leverages, and range of motion of the standard bench press.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about how to put all the pieces together for each variation of the standing press.

The Barbell Rack

The first step to a strong press or jerk is a strong rack. Think of the rack as the base from which you press or jerk. A stable base allows for a stronger pressing movement.

A proper barbell rack has the barbell resting on the front deltoids.

The hands are positioned, first and foremost, to allow transitioning into the overhead press position. Secondarily, the hands support the weight. But, the weight is not held by the hands. The hands simply apply some pressure to the bar to stabilize it. Note in the picture below that the barbell stays in place even without my hands.

The main feeling to be looking for in a barbell rack is elbows “up and in.” This coaching cue keeps the head and torso upright and forces the barbell back onto the shoulders instead of it rolling off.

The Strict or Military Press

The strict press is simply an overhead press 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.

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.

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.

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.

Example Workouts

Workout 1
5 barbell military press (65 lb for women/95 lb for men)
10 sandbag floor to shoulder, alternating shoulders (50 lb/100 lb)
5 rounds for time

Workout 2
12 strict presses (65 lb/95 lb)
6 push presses (same barbell, same weight)
3 jerks (same barbell, same Weight)

Note: The trick to this workout is for the strict presses to be very challenging by rep 10. This encourages the leg assist to come in naturally on the push presses and jerks. Adjust your training weight accordingly.

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


Also published on Medium.