What Muscles Does The Shoulder Press Work? Complete Muscles Worked Shoulder Press Guide

The shoulder press, or overhead press, is a staple shoulder workout exercise, as it allows you to target all three heads of your deltoid muscles and load up your shoulders.

But, does the list of “shoulder press muscles worked” include more than just the deltoids? In other words, what muscles does the shoulder press work?

In this muscles worked shoulder press guide, we will instruct you how to do the shoulder press correctly, the muscle worked, and how to vary the shoulder press to help target slightly different overhead press muscles.

We will look at: 

  • What Is the Shoulder Press?
  • How Do You Perform the Shoulder Press?
  • Muscles Worked Shoulder Press
  • How to Vary Overhead Shoulder Presses

Let’s get started!

Overhead press.

What Is the Shoulder Press?

Before we look at the list of shoulder press muscles worked, let’s briefly discuss what the shoulder press is.

The shoulder press is often referred to as the overhead press.

Therefore, you can consider the muscles worked with shoulder presses to be the exact same as the list of overhead press muscles worked, as these are essentially synonymous terms for the same exercise.

One of the reasons that there’s a lot of interest in understanding the muscles worked by overhead presses is because this is one of the primary upper body strengthening exercises in most powerlifting, bodybuilding, and strength training programs.

The basic overhead shoulder press is usually performed with a barbell standing up, so it is sometimes called the standing overhead press or standing barbell shoulder press.

Dumbbell overhead press.

You can also perform shoulder presses or overhead presses in the seated position or with other forms of resistance, which we will address later on in different overhead press variations to add variety to your shoulder workouts.

It’s worth establishing upfront that while the primary muscles are the deltoids in the shoulders, the traps in the upper back, and the pectoral muscles in the chest, the specific list of shoulder press muscles worked will depend somewhat on exactly how you perform the shoulder press.

The biggest difference you will see in the overhead press muscles worked will be when contrasting the standing overhead press muscles versus the seated overhead press muscles. 

This is because standing shoulder presses require trunk/core stabilization, so you will utilize the abs, lower back muscles, and deeper core muscles more than when you are performing seated shoulder press exercises. 

How Do You Perform the Shoulder Press?

The barbell overhead press is a particularly effective shoulder-strengthening exercise because the barbell lends itself well to maximizing the load that you use relative to individual dumbbells or kettlebells. 

There is more stability in a barbell for a bilateral shoulder exercise, so you can use more weight to maximize your strength and hypertrophy gains.

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

  1. Stand in the squat rack with the bar just below shoulder level.
  2. Grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing forward.
  3. Engage your core and glutes as you unrack the barbell and slowly lower it down to your upper traps with control. Do not hyperextend your back. Keep your core and glutes tight to maintain proper posture with your chest up.
  4. Powerfully press the bar back up overhead, keeping the back of your head out of the way and using a path of motion that is slightly tilted backward by retracting your shoulder blades.
S trainer helping a client with a shoulder press.

Muscles Worked Shoulder Press

If you are Googling queries like “shoulder presses work what muscles?“, you are likely looking for the full list of shoulder press muscles worked and not just the target muscle group—the deltoids.

That said, the shoulder press muscles worked will depend a little bit on exactly how the exercise is performed.

In almost any iteration, the primary muscles strengthened with the overhead shoulder press are the deltoids in the shoulders, the trapezius in the upper back, and the pectoralis major and minor in the chest.

When you perform standing overhead shoulder presses, you will also use your core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques on the sides of your abs, deeper transversus abdominis, and lower back extensors such as the erector spinae muscle group and deeper multifidus.

The standing overhead press will also activate the lats and serratus anterior muscles in the back as well.

An overhead press.

With all forms of the overhead press or shoulder press, there is also some activation of the rotator cuff muscles in the shoulders, which include the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor.

Note that when you correctly perform the overhead press, particularly if you are lifting heavy weights or doing the standing barbell press, you should be working your glutes, quadratus lumborum (QL) muscle, iliopsoas, and pelvic floor muscles to some degree.

This helps stabilize your hips and pelvis and provides a strong base of support for your spine and trunk as you press the weight up overhead.

How to Vary Overhead Shoulder Presses

Although the barbell shoulder press is often considered the “gold standard“ or default way to perform the shoulder press exercise, as with most strength training exercises, you can use other forms of resistance when performing shoulder presses.

The barbell shoulder press is standard for powerlifters, bodybuilders, and Olympic lifters, and you often see the barbell shoulder press in some of the most popular strength training programs, like the 5/3/1 strength training program.

Dumbbell overhead press.

Most recreational weightlifters are more comfortable doing the dumbbell shoulder press. 

One of the benefits of dumbbell shoulder presses vs barbell shoulder presses is that the dumbbells require you to stabilize each weight unilaterally. 

Thus, the muscles worked by shoulder press sets performed with dumbbells actually distribute the workload evenly between both arms and require the activation of more core muscles along with the smaller stabilizing muscles in the shoulders and upper back seen on the “shoulder press muscles worked” list.

You can also perform single-arm dumbbell shoulder presses, which will really activate the obliques, serratus anterior, and entire core, along with the other shoulder and upper back muscles discussed with the primary shoulder press muscles.

Similarly, you could perform shoulder presses with kettlebells or “bottoms-up kettlebell shoulder presses.”

This means that you will be gripping the handle of the kettlebell with the weighted bell portion closer to the ceiling. 

Kettlebell overhead press.

By inverting the kettlebell, this challenging modification of the shoulder press exercise will also add the forearm, wrist, hand, and finger muscles that are involved in grip strength to the muscles worked by shoulder presses.

There are also shoulder press weight machines that will target most of the same shoulder press muscles worked with barbells, dumbbells, or other free weights.

However, when using machines, there will be less reliance on core muscles and muscles of the lower back because you will be seated with your back supported by the weight machine.

Finally, you can use resistance bands or the cable machine to perform overhead shoulder presses.

Shoulder presses with resistance bands or cables will activate more stabilizing muscle fibers in the primary muscles because you will have one handle in each arm that you have to control independently from one another rather than a single barbell bridging between both arms.

Although slightly different from the regular standing overhead shoulder press, there are other variations of shoulder presses, such as landmine presses, push presses, and thrusters, among others. 

Kettlebell press.

These types of exercises have a lot of overlap in terms of targeting most of the same shoulder press muscles, but oftentimes, there are additional muscles recruited (such as lower body muscles with thrusters).

Or, the specific regions of muscle fibers in the primary barbell shoulder press muscles might vary somewhat due to the different angle of press, body positioning, or the way that the weight is pressed overhead (for example, with a landmine overhead press vs barbell shoulder press).

As mentioned, even though the shoulder press is usually performed with dumbbells or a barbell, you can also do the overhead press with resistance bands.

Here are the steps:

  1. Stand with both feet in the middle of a sturdy resistance band, holding a handle in each hand.
  2. Bring each handle up to shoulder height with your palms facing forward. This is the starting position. 
Band overhead press.
  1. Keep your back straight, glutes tight, chest up, and core engaged.
  2. Press the handles of the resistance band all the way up until your arms are fully extended overhead.
Band overhead press.
  1. Pause for 2 seconds.
  2. Slowly lower the resistance band handles back down to shoulder height.

Doing seated shoulder presses will be the most effective way to isolate the deltoids and shoulder muscles, so consider adding seated overhead presses to your workouts as well.

Before strengthening all of your shoulder press muscles when you are doing workouts that involve the overhead press, make sure that you properly warm up your shoulders. 

This will not only reduce the risk of injury but also activate your shoulder press muscle groups to get the most out of your overhead press sets.

Check out our guide to the best shoulder warm-up exercises here.

A barbell.
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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