Push Press vs. Overhead Press vs. Military Press: Which Is Best?

Comparing the Overhead Press, Push Press, and Military Press

Building a strong upper body is an essential component of improving functional capacity, weight loss, posture, and muscle development. Shoulder exercises play a fundamental role in building upper body strength. There are a variety of shoulder presses that use many of the same muscles, only with minor differences in muscle recruitment, starting position, and movement pattern. 

This article will cover two of the most popular overhead presses to help you gain a better understanding of their form, function, and benefits. Read on as we compare the push press and overhead press to give you more insight into their relevance in a strength-based exercise routine

The Importance of Shoulder Presses

The "shoulder press" broadly refers to a group of strength-training exercises that target the front (anterior deltoids) and middle (medial deltoid) heads of the shoulder muscles, along with the accessory muscles of the upper back and upper arms (e.g. trapezius, pectoralis major, and triceps). In a standing position, the shoulder press also strengthens the core muscles including the abdominals, erector spinae, and other low back stabilizers [1, 2]. 

With proper form, regular shoulder presses not only strengthen the muscles involved in the movement, but also improve shoulder mobility and stability through the shoulder girdle and related structures (e.g. collarbone, shoulder blades, tendons, and ligaments). Shoulder presses also prepare your muscles for more advanced movement patterns such as deadlifts, bench presses, and rows.

Overhead Press (Military Press)

The overhead press is another compound shoulder lift that helps build muscle, improve shoulder range of motion, and increase core stability. Also known as the military press, the overhead press works the anterior and medial deltoids to help broaden the shoulder muscles. Using good form, military presses also stimulate muscle growth in the upper chest, triceps, and lower back [3]. 

How to Do It 

  • Assuming the standing overhead press variation, begin this exercise with your feet shoulder-width apart

  • Grab the barbell with a shoulder-width grip and rest it shoulder height on your collarbone 

  • Activate your core muscles and raise the barbell overhead in a controlled movement by extending your arms fully at the top and pushing your head through your arms 

  • Slowly lower the weight back down onto your collar bone before repeating your next repetition

Key Differences 

The overhead press is a great exercise that builds functional strength throughout the upper back to improve stability and avoid injury. Unlike the push press, the overhead or military press variation can be done either in a seated or standing position. 

Seated overhead press variations are beneficial for beginner lifters to stabilize the shoulders while pushing the weight overhead. Though this variation removes any lower body muscle activation, it prepares the shoulders to advance to more technical exercises. This exercise is recommended to help build upper body strength before progressing to the standing overhead press or push press.

Push Press

The push press is a classic shoulder exercise that is used to build muscle in both your lower and upper body. This compound exercise activates the glutes, quads, pecs, triceps, low back muscles, and of course the deltoids [4]. 

How to Do It 

  • Begin this exercise by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart

  • Grab the barbell with a shoulder-width grip and rest it on your collar bone just below chin level

  • Lower down slightly momentarily before explosively extending your knees and hips and driving the barbell overhead 

  • Extend your arms fully over your head at the top of the movement and push your head slightly forward between both arms to achieve a full range of motion 

  • Slowly lower the weight back down to rest on your collar bone 

  • With your hips and knees slightly bent, begin the next repetition immediately 

Key Differences 

The push press is a beneficial exercise to help create more power throughout the entire body. Unlike other overhead presses, the push press creates momentum in the initial phase of the exercise by dipping down into a semi-squat to make it easier to press the bar overhead with greater speed. As a result of this driving force, this standing barbell press variation recruits more muscles to assist in lifting heavier weights with ease. 

In recruiting more muscles and emphasizing fast-paced shoulder muscle extension, the push press is especially helpful in building rotator cuff stability and overall shoulder strength.

Which Exercise Is Better?

There are numerous benefits to training the upper back and shoulders by incorporating both the push press and overhead or military press into your workout routine. That being said, many people prefer one shoulder press variation over the other based on their personal fitness goals. 

Building Muscle 

If your goal is to build muscle, then the overhead press may be more advantageous for you. One of the fundamental components of building muscles is increasing time under tension. During the overhead press exercise, lifters can achieve greater control during both the concentric (lift) and eccentric (lowering) phases of this exercise and, as a result, produce more muscle-building tension. 

Additionally, the method of progressive overload is an essential part of developing stronger muscles over time. With consistent practice, you can learn to gradually introduce more weight, higher frequency, and higher reps to your strength training routine [5].

Producing Power 

If power is the goal, push press is the way to get you there. Since this exercise focuses more on the speed at which you lift the weight overhead, the push press helps you execute more power through momentum. 

In order to build your athletic capacity, it can certainly benefit you to practice more push-press exercises in your workout routine. That being said, as you develop greater speed, both types of shoulder press variations can be used to gain functional strength, range of motion, and stability.

The Bottom Line

Upper-body strength training is essential to increasing strength, improving posture and balance, as well as reducing our risk of injury. Barbell overhead presses and push presses are two beneficial exercises that target our shoulders, chest, lower back, and abdominals. Depending on your personal fitness goals and lifting experience, the overhead press is shown to help build muscle whereas the push press promotes more power and force.

Curious how much your one-rep max is on these shoulder press movements? Check out our one-rep max calculator to see how strong you are!

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