Table of Contents
The military press may be the most under-used move in the modern-day weights room. In the Victorian era, long before the bench press gained credence (or, at least, before comfortable benches made it popular), it was one of the most popular competitive lifts. The earliest bodybuilders, who were more like powerlifters, supplemented their stage shows with jaw-dropping feats of strength. The military press was a staple lift and with very good reason – it’s difficult.
That’s one reason that the bench press has became more prominent and the military press is on the decline. Granted, the bench press is a hard, technical lift when executed correctly, but the military press is a whole different ball game. Whereas the standard bench calls upon your chest, shoulder and triceps strength, the military press requires all that and upper back strength, mobility and core stability.
If you add this exercise to your training programme you’ll reap both sizes – the military press stimulates the muscle fibers in all three heads of the shoulder muscles – and strength, by taxing your abdominals and benefiting your functional core strength.
Press And Military Press?
If you’re pressing with your feet shoulder-width apart, that’s just an overhead press (also called a shoulder press). For it to qualify as military, your feet should be pressed together, like you’re a soldier on parade. Because you’ve got a slightly less stable platform to press from, your obliques and abs have to do more work to stabilize you, giving you more of a core workout from pressing less weight.
Bonus: when you go back to the overhead press or push press, you’ll be able to handle more weight with ease.
Never go straight into heavy overhead presses. The ball and socket joint of the shoulder and the muscles that surround it are easy to injure, and this is one of the quickest ways to do that.
Prep your body by doing two sets of 20 shoulder dislocates with a broom handle and then two sets of 30/30 light push presses – that’s 30 seconds of work, 30 seconds of rest. Do the two sets with no break, then rest for two minutes. Repeat once more and you’re ready to start working your way through your military press sets – starting light, of course.
Military Press Form Guide
- To make the most of this lift, it’s best to do it in the squat rack so you don’t have to heave the bar off the floor and into position. Therefore start with the barbell set up in the rack at mid-chest height.
- Grab the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing forwards. With barbell overhead presses you might find it easier on your wrist to use a hook grip, where your thumb is over the bar rather than under it. Try both versions to see what you’re more comfortable with.
- Stand close to the bar and bend your knees so you’re in a quarter squat, contract your core and glutes and drive up with your legs to stand and take the bar off the rack support. This means your lower back is protected when you pick up the weight. Take a couple of steps back so you’ve got room to raise the bar.
- Stand with your feet together, like a soldier on parade and squeeze your glutes and core muscles hard to give you a solid base to press from. Keep them tensed throughout. If you start to go soft in the middle you’ll lose power, arch your back and put pressure on your spine. If that starts to happen, set the weight down.
- to your sides. This means you’ll recruit more of your front and side deltoids and pec muscles to help you lift heavier and with more control. As you press up and lower down, try to keep your elbows pointing forwards.
- Now’s the time to drive, soldier. Take a sharp breath in, tense your glutes and torso, and drive the bar straight up, breathing out as you press. As you near full extension, push your head forwards so your biceps align closely with your ears to ensure good form and ensure you don’t arch your back.
- As you lower the bar under control to chin level, move your head back slightly so you don’t clip your forehead on the way down. Keep your core tensed throughout the set. Once you’ve put the weight down you can relax. At ease, soldier. Good job.
Military Press Form Tips
Make sure you drive your feet through the floor. Think of each press as a leg press or squat. You want to drive down through your feet to create stability and tension in your lower body. This creates a rigid frame, which means more strength can be transferred upwards into your arms as you drive the bar above. So actively tense your glutes, quads as well as your core during every rep.
Use these form tips from strength coach Mike Causer to get more weight overhead and keep challenging your core and deltoids under the bar.
“Taking a deep breath before you start the lift will help stabilise your ribcage and shoulder blades,” says Causer. “Breathe out as you press the weight up and breathe in as you lower it.”
“Grip the bar with your hands just more than shoulder-width apart so you can lock your arms out comfortably. Any wider and you’ll lose drive.”
“Aim to keep your forearms vertical throughout the move to keep the weight balanced and put the load through the elbow rather than the wrist.”
“Keep your elbows vertically in line with your ears – don’t move them forwards or backwards – to make sure you press the weight up through the shortest possible distance.”
“Don’t go below your chin. If you lower the bar too far you’re likely to excessively internally rotate your shoulders and you’ll take the emphasis of the weight off your deltoids, so only go as low as your chin.”
Common Mistakes With The Military Press
Overloading The Bar
The military press is a difficult, technical lift with little room for error. To avoid making your way into a gym fails compilation video, select a weight that allows you to perform strict, controlled reps.
When pressing the bar overhead, don’t forget to keep your core engaged. Not only does this protect your lower back from excessive strain, but the central placement of the abdominals within the body also makes their activation pivotal for strength. Forget to engage the core and you won’t lift sufficient weight.
Work All Angles
The shoulder muscle comprises three heads: the front (anterior) deltoid or delt, the middle (medial) delt and the rear (posterior) delt. Too much vertical and horizontal pressing places excessive strain on your front and middle delts, which in the worst case scenario can result in internally rotated shoulders. Ensure your rear delts are gaining enough stimulation by performing resistance band pull-aparts for two sets of 20 to 30 reps. Not only will your posture benefit, but you’ll be able to retract your shoulder blades more effectively, making you better at performing the military press.
Military Press Variation
If you want a shoulder press that forces your core to work even harder – therefore demanding that you have your form absolutely perfect when you military press – try the suitcase press. Get into military press position, holding a barbell to the side of your head in one hand. You’ll need to have your hand in the middle of it to stop it toppling, and you’ll have to go super light. Press it, making sure you don’t tilt your body to either side. Then lower under control. By only working one side at a time you’ll make balanced strength gains – with the bog standard military press, there’s a good chance you’ll rely more on one side than the other to get the bar up.