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Military Press Vs. Overhead Press: The Best Techniques, Common Mistakes, and Potential Benefits

 Written by 

Damect Dominguez

 Last updated on 

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Most fitness professionals advise doing the military press and overhead press to boost upper body strength and improve the range of motion in your elbows. However, adding both of these exercises to your workout routine might be too challenging for some individuals. They can be overwhelming to do, so most people usually choose to do just one of the two.

This, naturally, leads us to the question of which exercise is the most effective: the military press or the overhead press?

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Let’s take a look at our detailed comparison between the military press vs overhead press and see which one is more suitable for you and your fitness level.

Is Overhead Press the Same as Military Press?

Both the overhead press and the military press are effective shoulder exercises that involve pressing weights overhead from a standing position. Nevertheless, they are not the exact same exercise.

To perform the standing press, you need a wider stance than to perform the military press. This helps you to establish a more stable base and engages more lower body muscles during the process of lifting. In other words, the overhead press lets you heavier weights and helps you progress in your training.

To perform the military press, you need a narrow stance, which helps you focus more on your core and shoulders. To perform this exercise, you need strong upper body muscles. Some people claim that this exercise is more likely to cause shoulder injury, and that it can cause you to plateau in your lifting progress faster.

How to Do the Overhead Press

The overhead press involves using a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell and primarily focuses on your shoulder muscles.

To do this exercise:

To do the barbell overhead press, take a barbell and hold it 2–4 inches below shoulder height;

Stand with your feet hip width apart;

Tightly grip the bar a bit outside shoulder width with your palms facing outward;

Unrack the bar begin the starting position with the barbell touching your upper chest, a bit below your collarbones;

Then, push the bar upward overhead until you fully extend your arms;

Do not lock your arms;

Hold for 1-2 seconds, then slowly lower the bar back to the starting position;

Repeat as many times as needed.

When pushing the barbell upward, make sure to keep your head slightly back so that the bar can safely pass in front of your face. While extending the bar overhead, slightly push your head forward. This way, you will allow the bar to go straight up and down, instead of a J-shaped path.

How to Do the Military Press

The military press is a slight overhead press variation and it requires a bit of a different form. Although some people may use these two terms interchangeably, there is a noticeable difference between the overhead press and the military press.

Here’s how to perform the military press:

Rack the bar the same way you would for a standard overhead press;

Put your heels together and point your toes out in a 45-degree ‘V’;

Take the bar from the rack and begin with the bar at the height of your chest muscles;

Push the bar straight overhead as you would while doing a standard overhead press;

Gradually return the bar to the starting position;

Repeat this movement as many times as needed.

The truth of the matter is, although the military press was once considered the king of shoulder press exercises, it has fallen out of favor over time. Nowadays, most weight lifters prefer doing the strict press instead of the military press.

Shoulder Exercise Battle: Military Press Vs. Overhead Press

Shoulder Exercise Battle
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Now that you’ve learned exactly how the military and the overhead press work and how they differ, we can dive deep into the details.

What muscles does each exercise work? Which shoulder press offers the biggest benefit? Is one exercise more likely to cause injury over the other? 

After we discuss these questions, we’ll choose a winner between these two exercises and will help you decide on the best option for your fitness level and goals.

Which Shoulder Muscles Do the Military Press and Overhead Press Work?

Both the overhead press and military press exercises are meant to increase shoulder size, strength, and improve definition. Both press exercises mainly focus on the anterior and lateral deltoid muscles

These muscles make up the sides and the front part of the shoulder. The triceps muscle, which forms the back of the upper arm, is also heavily engaged in performing these exercises.

The Takeaway

  • Both the military press and the overhead press work the shoulders, particularly the anterior and lateral deltoids;
  • The triceps is targeted in both press exercises;
  • The military press requires higher core strength and engagement (abdominals and lower back) than the overhead press;
  • The overhead press targets the lower body muscles much more than the military press.

The main difference between these two presses is that during the lift, the military press emphasizes the core muscles much more than the overhead press. Placing your heels together while performing the military press leaves you with a less stable base to keep you up straight.

Consequently, the military press requires having extremely tight core muscles to maintain proper form during the move. On the other hand, the overhead press is done with a wider stance which enables a better balance and engages the larger leg muscles much more.

Which Press Offers Greater Fitness Benefits?

The wider stance required for the standing overhead press leaves you with a stronger and more stable base to lift heavy weights than the military press. In other words, you can easily put a heavier load on your triceps and shoulders, which will consequently result in a better workout and more muscle growth.

The military press targets these muscles too, however, the fact that it depends for stability on the core’s small muscles that get easily tired, limits the maximum weight you can safely lift. Most weight lifters are more likely to hit plateaus doing the military press than by performing the strict overhead press.

The Takeaway

  • The wider stance required for the overhead press enables you to lift heavier loads, take your fitness game to a new level and better target your shoulders than the military press;
  • You are more likely to hit a plateau doing the military press than by doing the overhead press;
  • The overhead press is more demanding and prepares your body better for more advanced lifts.

Besides enabling you to lift heavier weights and build stronger and more muscular shoulders, the overhead press also requires having a wider stance that’s needed for compound lifts. By practicing this exercise, you’re preparing yourself for easier transitioning to Olympic lifts in the future, like the clean and press. 

This great versatility of the overhead press and the opportunity that offers for skill development, make it the favorite choice for most lifters.

Which Exercise Has a Bigger Risk for Injuries?

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Both the overhead press and the military press can be executed safely while providing weight lifters with a wide range of benefits. Nevertheless, many experts claim that the overhead press is the safer lift of the both.

The military press isolates the shoulder muscles and does not allow the lower body to form a stable and balanced base. This can consequently lead to putting too much stress on the complex shoulder joint, which might eventually lead to an increased risk of an injury.

The Takeaway

  • Neither of both exercises is dangerous to perform;
  • The military press might have a slightly bigger chance of contributing to shoulder injury due to the shoulder joint isolation.

All in all, there is not much difference when it comes to the safety of performing the military press and the overhead press. Doing the military or overhead press with correct form – with a full range of motion and adequately retracted shoulder blades will reduce your risk of injury. Neither of both lifts entails great injury concerns.

Which Press Is Better for Your Skill Level?

Both expert and beginner weight lifters will benefit much more from learning how to do and practicing the overhead press than they would from the military press. The wide stance required for the overhead press engages the lower body and it’s ideal for training compound exercises, such as snatches and cleans.

What’s more, the form required for the overhead press can be a stepping stone for properly executing push presses, which use leg drive to assist in overhead presses. This exercise is excellent for advancing to higher weights.

The Takeaway

  • The overhead press is the ideal choice for both rookie and advanced weight lifters due to its great versatility;
  • Mastering the proper overhead press form will help you to easily transition to push presses and compound exercises;
  • Military presses are an excellent option for more professional lifters who are looking for a great core and shoulder isolation exercise.

The military press isolates the core and shoulders much better than the overhead press. So, if you’re an experienced weight lifter who wants to additionally challenge your abs, shoulders, and erector spinae, you can add the military press into your workout routine. However, if you’re new to the world of weight training, your best bet is to stick to the overhead press.

Should You Perform the Military Press or the Overhead Press?

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If you’re looking to increase strength in your deltoids and improve shoulder mobility, the strict overhead press is the best exercise to do. It enables weightlifters to work with more weight, which will consequently result in bigger muscle gains and increased shoulder strength.

This exercise also teaches the basics of correct form for several compound lifts and entails a slightly lower risk of injury when compared to the military press. The military press is still a great shoulder exercise, however, it’s just not as versatile and effective as the strict overhead press.

Common Mistakes When Doing the Military and Overhead Press

Press exercises are a staple in any strength training program. The overhead and military press are the two most popular variations of the press movement. Nevertheless, many people still make mistakes when doing these exercises, which can cause injuries or decrease the results they aim for.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes to avoid when doing the military press and overhead press.

Wrong Grip Width

In most cases, weight lifters grip the bar without thinking too much about it. But grip width is very important when it comes to doing the military press and overhead press as it can make a world of difference in the final outcome.

If your grip is too wide, it will be hard to keep your elbows close to your body when pressing the weight overhead. This can put more stress on your shoulders and cause joint pain.

If your grip is too narrow, on the other hand, you may have a limited range of motion in your shoulders, which might cause you to lean forward while pressing the weight overhead. This can also cause joint pain or injuries.

The optimal grip width for the overhead and military press is just outside shoulder width. This width will help you keep your elbows close to your body while still allowing for a full range of motion in your shoulders.

Excessively Bending Your Wrists

Having a full and firm grip with your palms facing forward is essential for the overhead and military press. However, bending your wrists too much can add more stress to your joints and ligaments.

For optimal results, keep your wrists in a neutral position when doing both of these presses. A neutral position will help you keep the pressure off your joints and enable you to focus more on pressing the weight overhead.

Flaring Your Elbows Out

If your elbows are flared out, this might indicate that your back isn’t well-aligned and it’s tensed up for the movement. Mind you, this might lead to an injury, so it’s important to do the press with the right form. Make sure to keep your elbows under the bar and as close as possible to your body. This will help you keep your back aligned and will maximize stability throughout the movement.


Damect is the visionary who brought BoxLife Magazine to life. As the author of “Training Day – 400+ original WODs,” he has played a pivotal role in shaping the CrossFit community. His passion for the sport and dedication to the community are the foundation upon which BoxLife was built.

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