Quick question: How much do you press?

More often than not the answer to that question represents how much someone can bench press. That’s because the bench press is thought to be the king of upper-body strength exercises. But that hasn’t always been the case. Believe it or not, there was a time way back in the early 1900s, before CrossFit was a sport and the Arnold was crowned Mr. Olympia, when the overhead press was the measure of the lifter.

According to Mark Rippetoe, a legendary strength coach and author of Starting Strength—the sacred text for individuals seeking to move more weight—“The day the barbell was invented, the guy who invented it figured out a way to pick it up and shove it over his head. After all, it is the logical thing to do with a barbell.”

If shoving a barbell overhead is the logical thing to do, the question becomes: How much do you overhead press? Not sure? Or, like many of us, not even sure if you’re doing an overhead press at all? (There are about 15 variations after, all: military or push press, barbell or dumbbell, seated or standing…and that’s just for starters.) Fortunately, variations aside, the bottom line is that a press is a press is a press. As long as you’re moving weight in a straight line from your chest or shoulders to overhead, you’re doing some kind of pressing. Now it’s time to perfect them all.

ImPRESSive Form

In its simplest version, the overhead press works like this: From a standing position, take a weight from the chest to an overhead position, finishing the move by fully extending the arms and locking out the elbows.

The exercise itself serves up big-time benefits besides big muscles. Perfecting the press can serve us well for athletic endeavors like throwing a ball or shoving an opponent in football. But fret not, non-athletes! The overhead press is also helpful for building symmetry in the upper body, both in aesthetics and muscle balance. It helps develop a strong, stable core and strengthen shoulders. And because we’re working from the standing position (at least to start) this beneficial move recruits several muscles and moves about a bunch of joints at once, making the standing overhead press a compound, total-body movement.

The standing overhead barbell press is where we’ll begin our path to press perfection.

1. Grip the barbell with palms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Wrap the thumbs around the bar and over the fingers. Be sure to position the bar in the heel of the palm.

2. Pull yourself toward the bar so that it’s resting on your clavicle—get it in there nice and close. This position will take some getting used to, but as long as you’re not actually choking yourself, you’ll be okay. If you’re starting with a racked barbell, remove it from the rack and take two steps backward. One last pre-press pointer: Make sure your elbows are pointing down and your forearms are vertical—that’s straight up and down, friends.

3. Now we’re standing nice and tall, feet shoulder-width apart, chest up. Shoulders back and down. Core tight. Barbell at the clavicle. Elbows down, forearms vertical. You know what that means? It’s pressing time. Fix your eyes forward, take a deep breath in, and exhale as you drive the barbell over your head.

Sidenote: The bar should remain in a straight line as it travels upward. To avoid hitting yourself in the chin with the bar, rather than moving the bar around your face and disturbing its path of travel, just pull your head ever so slightly backward (moving the bar forward will cause the lifter to overextend the back to complete the lift—an overhead no-no), but only briefly enough for the bar to pass your face. Once it’s over the head, move your head back under the bar to help maintain stability and a neutral spine and prevent the back from hyperextending

Pressing Possibilities, or a Perplexing Problem with Presses

Congrats, you did it! Bar overhead—check. Now that you’ve done a press (and brought the barbell down—slowly), it’s time to explore some additional pressing possibilities.

There is no shortage of options when it comes to pressing. It’s not that any one type is necessarily better than the other. Each has its own set of benefits (and drawbacks) that have been debated since the beginning of time (or at least since the Olympic Games of 1920). Check out these press variations and decide which is the best for you based on your specific goals, ability level, and access to equipment.

Drop and give me…presses? So what’s the difference between the military press and the overhead press? As it turns out, there’s not a whole lot of clarity on the issue. For the most part the terms are used interchangeably. But old-school weightlifters and purists of the sport would argue otherwise. According to the well-aged gentleman at the gym, the one rocking a thin-strap tank top, Zubaz pants, and a fanny pack (for his Walkman), the military press is performed in full-on military posture. Think of a drill instructor yelling “Atten-shun!” With heels together and a “rigid stiffness” throughout the entire body, the military press is the quintessential strict press. Nothing moves but the arms as the bar is driven overhead.

In Ludacris we trust!? Luda may not have been referring to the overhead press when he told us to stand up, but when it comes to the press it’s pretty solid advice. In the debate between proponents of the standing versus the seated overhead press, the standing version wins out on activation of the muscles of the shoulders, back, arms, core, and legsEffects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses. Saeterbakken AH and Fimland MS. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013 Jul;27(7):1824-31..

Bars or ‘bells? Okay, standing is better than seated, got it! But how do we choose between a barbell and a dumbbell? Valid question. And one that happens to have a fairly straightforward answer. A study seeking to solve this exact query found that using dumbbells to perform a standing overhead press requires the most stabilization in the shoulders and results in more muscle activation than the barbell versionEffects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses. Saeterbakken AH and Fimland MS. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013 Jul;27(7):1824-31.. Translation: When it comes to building muscle size, dumbbells are preferred. But if the goal is to lift more weight, increasing strength and power, a barbell is the best bet.

Push it real good. With a firm understanding of form and the demonstrated ability to put a barbell or dumbbells over our heads, we can begin to explore some more explosive exercise. As it pertains to the press, we’re going to do like Salt-N-Pepa say and push it real good with a little something known as the push press—a move that takes the overhead press to new heights by engaging the lower body and core to execute a more explosive lift.

The setup of the push press is similar to that of the overhead press, and it’s just the inclusion of the lower body that really sets this lift apart by looping in the legs on the action. As with the overhead press, start with the barbell resting on the collarbone. Now, instead of simply driving upward with the arms, the movement begins with a dip at the knees, which makes your lower body into a kind of spring that will help move the weight up. Bend the knees ever so slightly, tracking over the toes. Straighten the knees by driving through the heels, flexing the glutes, and using the force generated by the hips to send the barbell overhead. The explosive nature of the push press allows you to press more weight. (This move can also be completed with dumbbells, too.)