Military Press vs Overhead Press: Key Differences + Benefits Of Each

Depending on how you structure your strength training program and your level of experience, you may decide that you want to include both military presses and overhead presses in your workout routine (in separate training sessions).

However, beginners or recreational lifters who primarily do strength training to meet the physical activity requirements for adults, maintain or build lean body mass, and stay strong and fit without having ambitions of bodybuilding or being competitive with weightlifting workouts generally decide to do either the military press or overhead press.

So, which is more effective: the military press vs overhead press? Keep reading to find out.

We will look at: 

  • Is the Military Press the Same as the Overhead Press or Shoulder Press?
  • Is It Better to Do the Military Press vs Overhead Press for Shoulder Workouts?
  • Common Mistakes When Doing the Military Press and Overhead Press

Let’s get started!

A military press.

Is the Military Press the Same as the Overhead Press or Shoulder Press?

Before we look at the overhead press vs military press benefits, let’s answer a common baseline question: are the military press and overhead press the same?

Ultimately, although military presses and overhead presses are similar upper-body strength training exercises that primarily target the shoulder muscles and involve lifting weights overhead, there are differences between the military press vs overhead press exercises.

In other words, the military press and overhead press are distinct strength training exercises.

One important thing to note is that the barbell overhead press is generally performed standing, as is the military press, though some people perform seated shoulder presses.

For all intents and purposes, in this discussion of contrasting the military press vs overhead press exercise, we are discussing standing overhead presses. Military shoulder presses are also performed in the standing position.

One of the main differences between the standing shoulder press and the military press is the stance that you use for the shoulder press vs military press.

With a standing overhead press, your stance is wider such that your feet are further apart than when performing the standing military press.

Let’s look at how you do each of these shoulder exercises:

How to Do the Overhead Press

Here is how to perform the barbell standing overhead press:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart or even slightly wider.
  2. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes as you unrack the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from your body.
  3. Bring the barbell down to just below your collarbones for the starting position.
  4. Tightly grip the bar a bit outside shoulder width with your palms facing outward;
  5. Exhale as you explosively press the bar straight up overhead until your elbows are fully extended. Tuck your chin to keep your face out of the way as the bar passes over your face, and then move your head back into the neutral position for the remainder of the pressing motion until full extension. You want to be able to press the bar straight up rather than needing to make a J-shaped path to avoid hitting your face.
  6. Pause for 1 to 2 seconds, keeping your core tight so that you do not arch your lower back.
  7. Inhale to slowly bring the barbell back to the starting position.

How to Do the Military Press

Here are the steps for how to perform the standing barbell military press:

  1. Rack the loaded barbell the same way you would for a standard overhead press.
  2. Stand with your heels together and your toes flared out to the sides at a 45-degree angle so that your feet are in a “V.” Keep your core super tight and your glutes engaged to maintain a neutral spine.
  3. Grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your palms facing forward.
  4. Unrack the barbell and rest it just on top of your collarbones.
  5. Exhale, contracting your abs while keeping your shoulders down and your spine neutral as you press the barbell all the way up until your elbows are fully locked out overhead.
  6. Inhale while slowly lowering the barbell back down to your collarbone before beginning the next rep.

Is It Better to Do the Military Press vs Overhead Press for Shoulder Workouts?

There isn’t necessarily a clear “winner“ in terms of whether the overhead press is better than the military press or vice versa.

There are some nuanced differences in the technique, execution, biomechanics, and potential loads lifted with the barbel military press vs overhead press.

Therefore, deciding whether you should do the military press vs overhead press is a matter of weighing the differences and deciding which exercise has more pros versus cons based on your training needs and goals.

Military Press vs Overhead Press: Key Differences + Benefits Of Each 1

Due to the wider stance, you have a broader base of support and greater activation of some of the lower-body muscles with the overhead vs military press, allowing you to potentially lift more weight safely with the overhead press vs military press.

In contrast, the military press form involves a narrow stance with your feet relative to the overhead shoulder press. 

This, in turn, means that you will activate your core muscles and isolate your upper body muscles more with the military press vs overhead press, but your military press 1RM (maximum load you can lift for one rep with proper form) will likely be less than your barbell overhead press 1RM.

One potential downside of the military press is that some people believe it puts more torque on the shoulder and elbow joints because of the narrow stance.

Basically, because the narrow base of support used for the military press requires greater core muscle activation to keep your body stable, there can be a consequential increase in torque and strain on the shoulder joints to help provide additional stability.

An overhead press.

For example, you will likely see greater EMG muscle activation with the rotator cuff muscles when performing the military presses vs overhead press.

This is because the rotator cuff muscle group (which includes the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor muscles) helps provide compression and, thus, stability to the glenohumeral joint (shoulder).

If you are trying to press heavy loads overhead with a narrow base of support, as with the military press stance vs the overhead press wider stance, more of the balancing or micro-muscular contractions to keep the shoulder stable have to indeed come from the shoulder muscles versus the lower body and hip muscles.

That said, if you are using proper form and an appropriate weight for military presses, the exercise should be safe for your shoulders and elbows.

One final potential downside of the military shoulder press vs overhead shoulder press is that some strength training professionals say that it is more common to hit a strength plateau with the military press because it is more technique-driven and isolates the upper body muscles.

An overhead press.

The overhead press tends to translate better to other upper-body exercises and pressing exercises like the push press, thruster, Arnold press, etc., as well as full-body compound exercises like snatches and cleans due to the activation of the lower-body muscles.

On the other hand, when comparing the muscles targeted by military presses vs overhead presses, the isolation on upper body muscles and core muscles is superior when doing the military vs overhead press.

Consequently, if you are a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or competitive weightlifter looking to maximize strength gains or hypertrophy in the deltoids and upper body muscles with shoulder presses, it may be more effective to do military presses instead of overhead presses.

Overall, the overhead press tends to be more versatile, safer, easier to learn, and great for improving the strength in your deltoids while helping you potentially improve your performance and other compound lifts.

The military press is stricter and good for powerlifters or competitive bodybuilders looking for more core activation and a precise shoulder exercise amidst a more complex strength training program.

An overhead press.

Common Mistakes When Doing the Military Press and Overhead Press

Whether performing the military press or overhead press, there are several common form mistakes that can compromise the effectiveness of either shoulder exercise as well as increase the risk of injuries.

Here are some of the common form and technique mistakes with overhead presses and military presses:

#1: Using the Wrong Grip Width

While the overhead press exercise does give lifters the latitude to be somewhat flexible in the hand spacing to target different muscle fibers, the ideal hand placement for the overhead press and military shoulder press is when your hands are just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 

This optimizes the shoulder and elbow biomechanics and range of motion to prevent torque and stream on either joint while optimizing the muscle fiber arrangement for pressing overhead.

A gym class of people doing overhead presses.

If you use a grip that is too wide, you will have difficulty keeping your elbows tucked in towards your sides when pressing the weight overhead. This can increase the torque on your shoulder joints and cause shoulder injuries over time.

In contrast, if you perform a narrow grip overhead press to try to target your triceps more than your deltoids, the range of motion in the shoulder joints can be limited, causing a consequential forward lean of the body to compensate.

This can potentially irritate the elbows, shoulders, or wrists and can make it more difficult to properly support your spine with the appropriate posture.

#2: Flaring Your Elbows

Whether performing the standing overhead shoulder press or military press, it is important to keep your elbows tucked in towards your sides so that they stay under the bar.

This helps maintain proper alignment of your spine and keeps the shoulders, elbows, and wrists in the proper orientation as you press the barbell up.

Think about tethering your elbows towards your rib cage rather than flaring them out like chicken wings.

An overhead press on a squat rack.

#3: Allowing Laxity In Your Wrists

Particularly if you are using heavy weights for max-effort overhead press or military press lift, there can be a tendency to allow your wrists to extend backward.

This puts excessive stress and strain on your wrist joint and your wrist extensors. Try to keep rigid wrists that remain upright as if there is a steel bar from your elbow through your palm.

You may need to work on your grip strength and wrist flexor strength if you are finding that your wrists are bending backward when you are holding the barbell with your palms forward for shoulder presses.

Both the military press and shoulder press can be integral exercises in shoulder workouts, but make sure to include other shoulder mobility, stability, and strengthening exercises as well.

Military press on a machine.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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