What Muscles Does The Military Press Work?

While it is generally easy to determine which muscles are worked by isolation exercises like biceps curls, compound exercises utilize numerous muscles, so it is far less straightforward to come up with the list of muscles worked by the exercise.

For example, what muscles does the military press work? Are the military press muscles worked the same as the overhead press muscles worked?

In this guide, we will explain how to perform the military press exercise with step-by-step instructions and answer your question, “what muscles does the military press work?”

We will look at: 

  • How to Do the Military Press
  • Is the Military Press the Same as the Overhead Press or Shoulder Press?
  • What Muscles Does the Military Press Work?
  • What Are the Differences Between the Military Press vs Overhead Press Muscles Worked?

Let’s get started!

A person doing a military press.

How to Do the Military Press

Before we look at the muscles worked by the military press, let’s provide step-by-step instructions for how to perform the military press exercise.

Understanding how to perform the barbell military press will provide context for covering the military press muscles you should be engaging.

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

A common question is: Is the military press the same thing as the overhead press? In other words, is there any difference between the military press vs overhead press?

One of the main differences between the overhead press and the military press is simply in the flexibility of each exercise.

Perhaps owing to the “military“ component of the so-named military press shoulder exercise, the military press technique is more rigid in terms of how you must perform a military press vs overhead shoulder press.

With the overhead press, you can vary your hand placement to do a narrow grip overhead press, wide grip overhead press, or something somewhere in the middle. 

Your stance can also be wider with the overhead press vs military press.

A person doing a military press.

What Muscles Does the Military Press Work?

So, based on how you perform the exercise, the military press works which muscles specifically?

Here are the primary muscle groups strengthened by the military press:

#1: Deltoids

The shoulders are primarily composed of the deltoid muscles.

The deltoids are a three-headed muscle group, with an anterior head, middle head, and posterior head, often referred to as the anterior deltoid, middle deltoid, and posterior deltoid, respectively.

While the military press exercise does work all three portions of the deltoid muscle, the primary fibers of the deltoid muscle worked by the military press are the anterior deltoid muscle fibers.

Essentially, the anterior deltoids are the prime mover for the military press exercise, whereas the lateral deltoid and posterior deltoids are synergists or stabilizing muscles that assist with the movement.

The function of the anterior deltoid is really to help press the weight overhead when performing the military press while the middle deltoid and rear delts contract to cut back on unwanted movement as you press the barbell straight overhead.

A barbell.

#2: Triceps 

Secondary to the deltoids in the shoulders, another key muscle worked by military presses is the triceps brachii.

The triceps is a three-headed muscle on the back of your upper arm that is involved in any pressing or pushing exercises, such as the bench press, push-up, or military shoulder press.

Depending on your relative muscular strengths and weaknesses and whether you have muscular imbalances in your upper body, you may even find that lack of sufficient triceps strength is actually the limiting factor in your military press 1RM rather than insufficient strength in your deltoids.

This is because the triceps tend to be smaller and weaker, and compared to the overhead shoulder press, which often allows for a slightly wider hand placement on the barbell, the military press requires a fair amount of assistance from the triceps to press the barbell overhead.

If you don’t do a lot of triceps exercises and focus more on the chest and shoulder muscles, you may find that you are lacking the stability and overhead pressing strength for your max military press lifts because of weak triceps.

A person doing a military press.

#3: Traps

The traps, which is the commonly shortened term for the trapezius muscles, are one of the main muscle groups in the upper back. This is a diamond-shaped muscle that connects the spine to the medial or inner edge of each shoulder blade.

Like the deltoids in the shoulders, there are three distinct sections of muscle fibers that make up the traps: upper traps, middle traps, and lower traps.

While all portions of the traps are indeed considered “military press muscles worked,“ the upper traps and middle traps are more heavily involved in the exercise.

The traps play a key role in rotating and stabilizing the scapulae, which are your shoulder blades.

When you perform the military press exercise, your scapulae rotate upward but also must be stabilized and held in towards the back of the rib cage, all of which is a function of the trapezius muscles.

A person doing a military press on a squat rack.

#4: Pectoralis Major

Although the main military press muscles worked are undoubtedly the shoulder muscles, there is some involvement in the upper portion of the pectoralis major muscle, which is the large, fan-shaped muscle that forms the bulk of the chest.

The pectoralis major is a two-headed muscle, which means that it has two attachment points.

One attachment point is along the clavicle, while the other attachment point is along the sternum.

The military press works the upper pec major muscle fibers, which are those closest to the clavicular attachment point.

#5: Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior is an often overlooked muscle worked by military presses and other shoulder press exercises.

This muscle has sort of a serrated blade appearance that fans around the top of your ribs and plays a key role in stabilizing your shoulder blades against your rib cage when you press the barbell overhead and then lower it back down when performing military presses.

A person doing a military press.

#6: Abs and Core Muscles

Because the military press is performed standing and you use a narrow base of support, there is a fair amount of core muscle activation to help stabilize your spine and maintain the proper posture while balancing the heavy load as you press it overhead.

All of the abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and deep transversus abdominis contract to provide stability.

Simultaneously, the erector spinae group and deeper multifidus muscles in the lower back also contract to maintain the appropriate lumbar curvature without allowing hyperlordosis or an exaggerated arch in your spine when you press the barbell up.

The muscles of the pelvic floor, hips, psoas, quadratus lumborum, and glutes also contract isometrically to provide stability to your pelvis and hips since the military press is performed while standing.

A person doing a military press.

What Are the Differences Between the Military Press vs Overhead Press Muscles Worked?

Returning to our discussion about some of the subtle differences between the overhead press vs shoulder press, it’s helpful to look at the muscles strengthened by each of these shoulder exercises. 

Although there are differences in the technique and how to perform an overhead shoulder press vs military press, both exercises involve pressing a weight overhead.

As such, military presses and shoulder presses both primarily target the same muscle groups, namely the deltoids in the shoulders, the upper traps in the upper back, and the triceps.

However, due to the differing stance with and grip or hand spacing, the military press muscles vs overhead press muscles worked do exhibit slight differences in the emphasis on each muscle group or the portion/muscle fibers targeted by each shoulder press variation.

The military press muscle activation is more focused on the anterior deltoids, middle or lateral deltoids, and triceps.

Military presses can be an integral exercise in shoulder workouts, but make sure to include other shoulder mobility, stability, and strengthening exercises as well.

A person doing a pull up.
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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