How to Do a Shoulder Press

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 27, 2022
5 min read

The shoulder press is an upper-body exercise that targets muscles such as the trapezoid, the deltoids, and the triceps. It’s a fantastic activity for beginners and veterans alike, as it improves overall strength and posture and decreases the risk for osteoporosis

Here’s what you need to know.

The shoulder press is an upper-body-focused movement that allows you to increase your overhead strength. When done correctly, it can lead to a significant increase in your shoulders’ size. It’s a fantastic exercise to include in your routine, whether you’re an athlete, a casual lifter, or an older person looking to maintain muscle mass.

Usually, people choose either dumbbells or barbells when doing shoulder presses — but kettlebells and resistance bands are also an option. There are even machines that can help you complete this exercise if you’re having trouble with it. However, most people won’t find it necessary, as beginners can easily do shoulder presses with the correct guidance.

As its name indicates, the shoulder press focuses on the muscles in your shoulders and upper chest. From deltoids to triceps, the shoulder press is one of the most impactful exercises you can do for your shoulders.

Deltoids. The deltoids are shoulder muscles that allow you to move your arm in different directions while protecting the shoulder joint. These muscles are divided into three parts (anterior, posterior, and lateral) that help move the arm forward, backward, and sideways, respectively. Mostly, the shoulder press works the anterior and lateral deltoids.

Trapezius. The trapezius is a large muscle that starts at the base of your neck and ends in the middle of your back. Also called the traps muscle, it’s responsible for most head movements, shrugging, and pulling back your shoulders. Plus, it’s crucial for good posture, as it greatly contributes to standing up straight.

Serratus anterior. The serratus anterior is a fan-shaped muscle that spans from the first to the eighth rib, lying deep into the pectoral muscles. It allows arm elevation and is commonly known as the boxer’s muscle due to its importance in the punching motion. Furthermore, it collaborates with the trapezius in overhead motions, such as a shoulder press.

Triceps brachii. The triceps brachii, more commonly known as simply the triceps, is part of the arm muscles. It’s mostly responsible for extending your arm, but it’s also a crucial part of your upper-body movements, as it originates in your shoulder blade. 

Correct shoulder press form is crucial to avoid injuries during your lifting sessions. If you’re a beginner, make sure to ask someone for guidance to ensure proper form. 

Here’s a detailed rundown of how to do a correct shoulder press.

  1. Place a barbell with the desired weight on a rack, making sure that it’s at shoulder height.
  2. Dip under the bar and place yourself underneath the barbell, picking it up as you slowly straighten yourself up. If this is done correctly, the barbell should then rest at the top of your shoulders.
  3. Grab the bar with your palms facing upwards — your elbows should point straight ahead. Make sure that your back is straight to secure proper form.
  4. Gently step back from the rack, keeping your back tall — then, simply press the barbell overhead. Once you can’t extend your arms any further, slowly return the barbell to your shoulders and repeat as many times as you need to.
  5. After the final repetition, step into the rack and leave the barbell at shoulder height once again. Finally, dip under the bar and step away from the rack without the bar.

There are dozens of different adaptations for the shoulder press, starting with simply replacing the barbell with a couple of dumbbells. Furthermore, there are a few adaptations that focus specifically on certain muscles, while others are suited for people who can’t do traditional shoulder presses. Some of them are:

  • Barbell Z Press
  • Double Kettlebell Overhead Press
  • Single-Arm Landmine Press
  • Barbell Push Press
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Deadstop Shoulder Press
  • Partial Shoulder Press

Keep in mind that many of these can be done while sitting down if you can’t maintain proper form. In any case, it’s always best to ask someone knowledgeable for some guidance, as they will be able to guide you through doing shoulder presses safely.

While strength training as a whole is beneficial to your health, shoulder presses in particular can help when it comes to supporting your upper body. 

Here are some of the most popular benefits of shoulder presses:

Stronger bones. Much like muscles, bones can get stronger to support the amount of weight you usually lift. In turn, this decreases the risk of osteoporosis — a condition that debilitates the bones, causing easier fractures and loss of height.

Improved stability. Besides working your upper body, shoulder presses also focus your core as a means to stabilize your elbows, wrists, and shoulders. This results in an improved balance and posture — even more so when it comes to standing shoulder presses.

More strength. Like most other weightlifting exercises, shoulder presses greatly contribute to improving your upper body strength. Performing this exercise correctly will lead to strengthened trapezius, pectoral, triceps, and deltoid muscles.

While the shoulder press is a relatively simple exercise, it’s crucial to maintain proper form to avoid injuries. Here are some of the most common mistakes people make when attempting to do shoulder presses:

  • Not holding the body correctly — try to keep your head tall and keep your back straight to preserve the natural curve of your spine.
  • Using your legs while pushing — beginners often “cheat” repetitions by using their legs to drive the barbell upwards. 
  • Holding your breath — your first instinct may be to hold your breath when pressing, but it’s important to breathe deeply to keep your body straight.
  • Using too much weight — if you find yourself swaying or rocking while performing the exercise, it might be time to lower the weight you're lifting.