Military presses are the upper body hero you need to add to your workout

a photo of a man doing an overhead press with kettlebells
(Image credit: Getty/Peter Muller)

If you are looking for an exercise that will hit multiple upper body muscles whilst strengthening your core, then learning how to do the military press correctly is an absolute must.

As a compound movement, the military press hits a number of different muscle groups, meaning you'll get more bang for your buck here. That said, it also has the added bonus of being a flexible exercise that can be performed in the gym with a rack, or at home with the best adjustable dumbbells or kettlebells. 

The military press is an effective way to build shoulder strength in the deltoids and rear deltoids, whilst also strengthening the triceps at the back of the arms. It's an exercise that can be adapted to all levels of fitness, although if you've had a previous shoulder injury, it's a good idea to check with your doctor before practicing this move. Although a study published in the Journal of Elbow and Shoulder Surgery found that the military press was also an effective rehabilitation exercise for patients with decreased shoulder movement.

When performing the military press good form is crucial, however, as there is an injury risk if the move is executed incorrectly. Read on to find out everything you need to know about mastering the military press, and the modifications to try to make the exercise more comfortable or challenging. 

an illustration of a man doing a military press

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

How to do a military press

James Davis, a personal trainer at The Midlife Mentors, sets out how to perform a military press whilst retaining good form.

To do the military press it is important to warm up the shoulder joint first by circling the arms forwards and backward. You can then perform some reps such as bicep curls with a very light dumbbell to warm up the muscles.

If you have a rack available then place a barbell about collarbone height for the starting position. If you don’t have a rack available you can lift your barbell from the floor engaging your core and keeping your lower back straight, to bring the barbell up so it’s resting on your upper chest/collar bone area.

Start with a lighter weight on the bar if you are new to the move, as going too heavy can increase your risk of injury. Stand with your feet inside shoulder-width so they are close together. Place your hands so they are facing away from you with your grip shoulder-width apart.

Keeping your core engaged and lower back straight, draw your elbows slightly forward (inside shoulder-width) and press straight up over your head. Exhale as you do this movement and think about squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top of the move. Do not arch your lower back and keep your knees soft rather than locked out. 

Slowly lower the barbell back down to your upper chest area as you inhale. That is one rep. 

Aim for three to four sets of eight to 12 reps with a 30 to 60-second rest between sets. Ensure that good form is maintained until the final rep of the final set. If you need to, reduce the weight to protect the form.

Avoid doing a behind-the-neck press because this increases the risk of a shoulder injury. Always press in front of you. If your lower back is arching backward to get the weight up, you are going too heavy and need to reduce the weight.

a photo of a man doing a military press

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

What are the benefits of the military press?

The military press is a great move for the upper body. It’s primarily targeting the shoulders, but your triceps and trapezius are also working. 

The press also works your core due to the narrow stance of the movement making it a great move for upper body and core conditioning. If your core isn’t that strong yet, a slightly wider stance will take some pressure off the core and onto the shoulders. Here are some of the best ab workouts on YouTube to build up core strength. 

How can I make the military press easier or harder? 

If you're looking to make the military press easier, taking your stance slightly wider will take the pressure off the core. You can experiment with slightly wider and narrower grips — work with what feels comfortable for you — as everyone has different degrees of shoulder flexibility.

To focus more on the shoulders, you can also perform the military press seated, either using a rack or a Smith Machine. Always ensure you are pushing your lower back into the upright bench.

If the move is uncomfortable with a barbell, you can swap to dumbbells, which will allow a greater degree of movement in the shoulder for comfort. With dumbbells, you can maintain the palms away grip or rotate your palms inwards towards your head to a neutral grip which some people find more comfortable.

To make the move harder, simply increase the weight of the barbell or dumbbell, or increase the number of reps you complete. 

Looking for more workout inspiration? Here's a resistance band workout that'll build your arms without weights, a guide to getting your form right for the dumbbell row, and an exercise that is just as good as planks at blasting your core. You can also read about what happened to my shoulders when I did 50 Arnold presses a day for a week.

Lily Canter

Lily Canter is a freelance money, health and lifestyle journalist with more than 20 years' experience. She writes about fitness for Runner's World and Trail Running magazines and focuses on personal finance for Yahoo! Finance UK, Metro, The Guardian, and the Mail on Sunday. In her spare time she is an ultra-runner, canicrosser and running coach. She also co-hosts the award-winning podcast Freelancing for Journalists.