The Military Press is quite possibly the most over-looked compound exercise there is.
Ask any bodybuilder or power-lifter what the most important exercises are and you'll likely hear squats, deadlifts, and bench press.
But, for whatever reason, Military Press gets left out of the discussion.
Sure, it's not necessarily as effective for whole-body training as deadlifts or squats, but it's just as important for shoulders as the bench press is for chest or the bent over row is for back.
In other words, if you've been leaving the Military Press out of your shoulder workouts, you're missing out.
Don't worry, in this article we'll cover everything you need to know about the Military Press.
By the end, you'll know why it's by far the best shoulder exercise you could possibly be doing.
Let's get into it!
Why Is The Military Press So Important?
If you were only allowed to do one shoulder exercise for the rest of you life, you would be wise to choose the Military Press.
For one, it's a compound exercise.
Compound exercises are exercises that involve multiple joints and muscle groups to perform, as opposed to isolation exercises.
Of course, there is some over-lap, but when it comes to shoulder workouts, there is no better compound exercise than the Military Press.
It requires the most shoulder strength to perform and it works more than just the shoulder muscles.
What Muscles Does The Military Press Work?
The great thing about the Military Press is that it not only works the entire shoulder, but several other muscles as well.
Let's start with the shoulder though...
Your shoulder muscles, or deltoids, are comprised of three different components:
- front deltoids
- lateral deltoids
- rear deltoids
The Military Press is one of the few shoulder exercise which, when performed correctly, forces all the shoulder muscles to work.
Whenever people ask me about trap training, I always tell them...
Military press, military press, military press!
Seriously though, it's true.
You may think shrugs, raises, and upright rows are how you build monster traps, but the Military Press forces the traps to support more weight than most isolated trap exercises would permit.
Obviously, the Military Press isn't considered a triceps exercise, but here's the thing...
Any kind of press is going to require a bit of pushing from your triceps, and the military press is no exception.
The triceps really come into play in the second half of the movement from the time that the bar is above your head to the time that you lock-out.
No shoulder exercise requires more core stabilization than the Military Press.
Of course, this mostly applies to the standing military press (we'll discuss the different variations below), but even if you're sitting, your core is still more engaged than you might realize.
As I discussed in my article on ab workouts, one of the keys to developing great abs is doing full-body exercises that work your core.
The Military Press is definitely one of the best, up there with squats and deadlifts.
How To Perform The Military Press (With Proper Form)
A lot of people shy away from Military Pressing because they feel it places too much stress on their joints.
When done correctly, though, that's not an issue. As with any compound exercise, it's all about form.
Here's how to perform the Military Press with proper form:
Now let's break that down into steps:
- Place your feet shoulder width apart
- Grasp the bar slightly wider than shoulder width
- Start with the bar just above your upper chest
- Raise the bar vertically and lock out
- Unlock, and slowly lower the bar back to the starting position
See, it's easy when you just break it down into simple steps, and you really don't need to be concerned about getting injured if you use proper form.
Of course, there are some variations to consider...
Variations Of The Military Press
No shoulder exercise comes with more variations than the Military Press. The most common variations are:
Now, it's important to understand that each variation has it's pros and cons.
There are benefits and trade-offs to consider. Let's talk about them...
Seated Vs Standing Military Press
Whether it's better to do the military press seated or standing has been a constant point of contention between fitness experts.
Some people think the seated military press is better because you can usually do more weight and it requires a lot less stabilization from your legs and core.
But if you want to do the variation that's the most challenging and incorporates the most muscle groups, then you want to do your military presses standing.
Not doubt about it.
Research has confirmed that standing military press requires more total muscle activation than seated Military press.
You might consider doing your Military Presses seated, though, if you're trying to place the emphasis squarely on your shoulders.
A combination of both may be ideal.
Barbell Vs Dumbbell Military Press
To barbell or dumbbell? That is the question...
Seriously, though. Ask 2 of your favorite youtube 'fitness gurus' whether it's better to do your your Military presses with a barbell or dumbbells and you'll get 2 different answers.
There are benefits and trade-offs to both.
The same study I referenced earlier in which standing was shown to activate more muscle fibers than seated also found that dumbbell military press caused more total muscle activation.
The obviously trade-off here, though, is that you won't be able to push nearly as much weight with dumbbells as you can with a barbell, and so you could potentially be making greater gains over time with the barbell military press.
In my opinion, you should do both.
One week do your military presses with a barbell and the next week try it with dumbbells.
Smith Machine Vs Free Weight Military Press
Ah, the Smith Machine...
That thing in the corner of your gym that only seems to get used when all the benches and squat racks are occupied.
There's really no question that free weights are better than guided machines.
Any free weight exercise is going to activate more muscle than its smith-machine counterpart.
That's a fact!
The only way you'll catch me on the Smith Machine on shoulder day is if it's crowded and I need to warm-up real quick before moving onto free weights.
It's not that you can't get a good workout with a Smith Machine. It's just that you'll get a better workout if you do the same thing with free weights.
That's just the way it is...
Military Press Mistakes To Avoid
Now that we've talked about how to execute the Military Press with proper form, let's talk about what NOT to do.
Using Momentum To Bounce The Weight
The most common mistake people make while Military Pressing is attempting to lift more weight than they actually can and using their legs to create the extra momentum needed to complete the movement.
The problem with this is that it takes a lot of the emphasis off of the shoulders which, after all, is the main muscle group you're trying to work when your doing the Military Press.
It's probably not a bad thing to slightly bend at the knees, but if your shoulders aren't the muscles that are lifting the weight, it's a waste of time.
Doing A Lot Of Reps With Low Weight
For some reason, people tend to gravitate towards high rep, low weight style shoulder workouts.
That's not good!
Just like any major muscle group, your shoulder muscles respond to progressive overload.
Progressive Overload is simply a scientific way of saying: adding weight to the bar over time.
In order for your muscles to grow, you need to make sure you're consistently adding more weight to the bar.
When it comes to shoulder workouts especially, I prefer heavy weight, low reps because it puts a lot less strain on your joints.
Lift at roughly 80-90% of your 1RM, doing anywhere from 4-6 reps per set.
Placing Unnecessary Stress On Your Joints
I'm just going to be blunt about this...
If you feel stress directly on your shoulder joints when you military press, your form is wrong.
Drop the weight and correct your form until you don't feel the same stress and then work your way up from there.
Everyone wants to put a whole bunch of weight on the bar and just try to get it up there but your shoulders are delicate and I really wouldn't advise sacrificing your form on the Military Press.
The consequences (injuries) can be serious.
The Bottom Line On The Military Press
If you're serious about building bigger, stronger shoulders, than the Military Press should be the primary shoulder exercise you focus on.
Out of the all the shoulder exercises you could be doing, it is by far the most beneficial for building muscle and total-body strength.
That's not to say that other exercises don't have a place in your shoulder workouts. Of course they do...
It's just that the Military Press is BY FAR the most important. No shoulder workout is complete without it.
Matt Theis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Momentum Nutrition. Among other things, he is chiefly responsible for product formulation and has spent years researching, testing, and developing supplements.