5 Overhead Press Variations to Utilize Next Shoulder Day


by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

When it comes to shoulder exercises, there are many options that can be both a blessing and a challenge. Amidst these options, the overhead press stands out as a quintessential and highly effective method for fostering lean muscle mass and enhancing strength.

The overhead press is a great compound movement. Still, the dilemma arises when confronted with the available variations, making it difficult to focus on the ideal choice that aligns with your fitness and physique goals.

To navigate that issue, we have put together a list of overhead press variations for the upper body and their benefits. This article will outline five variations of the overhead press so that you can start adding variety to your shoulder day.

Disclaimer: It is recommended that you speak with your doctor before starting any exercise program. If you have shoulder pain or injuries, speak with your doctor or personal trainer to see if these variations are fine based on your limitations.

What is the Overhead Press & What’s Its Importance?

The overhead press holds a special place in many lifters’ routines, and if it’s not already in yours, here’s why you might want to consider incorporating it.

First off, it’s a key player in building boulder shoulders, particularly the anterior and medial deltoids. Beyond that, it does wonders for your core strength — engaging the rectus abdominis, external oblique, and erector spinae as they work hard to stabilize your body during the exercise.

But the benefits don’t stop there; a solid overhead press can enhance your bench press by recruiting more upper back muscles, providing added stability and strength.

Surprisingly, mastering the overhead press can even give your jumping abilities a boost. The increased arm strength gained from this exercise can translate into more powerful arm swings, resulting in higher jumps and improved overall velocity.

5 Overhead Press Variations to Strengthen the Upper Body

Diversifying your overhead press routine allows you to target specific muscles more effectively but also aids in addressing potential imbalances.

Below, we’ll review five highly effective variations of the overhead press.

1.      Military press

Before we jump into the many variations of the overhead press, it’s crucial to establish a solid foundation by mastering the basics. Achieving proficiency in the strict overhead press, also known as the military or strict press, lays the groundwork for exploring other versions of the overhead press with greater ease.

To execute a strict overhead press, initiate the movement by positioning yourself in front of the bar within a squat or power rack. Ensure your feet are hip-width apart and firmly planted on the floor, with both knees and hips locked — avoid bending them to assist in pushing the weight, as this constitutes a different exercise.

Grasp the bar just outside shoulder width, aiming for a straight line from your wrist to your elbow while keeping your wrists from bending backward.

2.      Standing behind the neck, strict press

Often misunderstood and touted as being an “injury waiting to happen,” the behind-the-neck overhead press proves to be both safe and effective when performed with proper technique.

This variation of the overhead press not only enhances core strength and stability but also calls upon lower back and trunk stability to execute a precise overhead push. This overhead press variation is beneficial for individuals with good shoulder mobility. The behind-the-neck press stands out as a valuable overhead variation when done correctly and safely, contributing to the development of increased strength and muscle size.

3.      Shoulder machine overhead press

The shoulder press machine stands as a versatile and effective tool in upper body strength training. Incorporating this machine into your workout routine can provide numerous benefits, including an increase in muscle mass, enhanced shoulder strength and stability, improved range of motion, and better overall posture.

The fact that you can focus solely on the delts and remove the need for stabilizer muscles to kick in can allow you to push more weight in a safe manner.

By targeting the muscles in your shoulders and upper arms, this machine allows for controlled and targeted resistance, making it a valuable asset for those seeking comprehensive upper body development.

Whether you’re looking to build strength, enhance shoulder function, or refine your posture, the shoulder press machine proves to be a beneficial and adaptable component to any training program.

4.      Dumbbell shoulder press

The dumbbell shoulder press serves as an excellent variation for upper body workouts, particularly beneficial for individuals dealing with muscle imbalances. By having two dumbbells instead of a single barbell, this variation allows for a more targeted approach, helping to strengthen the weaker side while preventing the dominant side from taking over.

Using dumbbells also allows you to move in a more natural path when compared to the barbell shoulder press. This particular overhead press variation not only provides balanced muscle engagement but also offers a versatile and effective means to enhance shoulder strength and overall upper-body development.

5.      Seated Arnold press

While you may have heard of this overhead press variation, you may not know exactly what the exercise looks like. The legendary bodybuilding icon Arnold Schwarzenegger is responsible for creating the Arnold Press, and ever since the Golden Era of bodybuilding, those looking to add size to their shoulders have been utilizing this overhead press variation on their shoulder day.

This innovative overhead press variation emerged from Schwarzenegger’s quest to enhance the stimulation of the anterior deltoid during overhead pressing. By introducing a unique twist to the conventional press, he discovered that rotating his palms to face his chin at the bottom of the lowered position boosted engagement, resulting in more effective muscular development.

The Arnold press has since become recognized as one of the best overhead press variations, known for its ability to help round out and cap the shoulders for a much wider and more impressive appearance.