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Seated Overhead Barbell Press – Tips on Proper Form and Similar Exercises

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The Benefits of the Seated Barbell Overhead Press

The seated military press is an effective compound exercise that develops a range of muscles and improves your core and pressing strength (1). Unlike many shoulder exercises, the seated overhead press is beneficial because it overloads the muscle group with more weight, causing greater mechanical tension. As a result, you build more strength, translating to better functional fitness and athleticism. 

Another benefit of the seated barbell shoulder press is that the movement strengthens your upper pectorals and triceps. Both muscle groups play an essential role in pressing weights overhead, which leads to their development. Plus, your core muscles work hard to keep you stable under the heavy load.

Seated overhead presses are essentially the same as a military press, given that both movements involve the use of a barbell. You can also perform the military press from a standing position, which requires much more core engagement. Similarly, an overhead press can also be considered a military press, but you can use kettlebells, dumbbells, a gym machine, and other types of equipment.

We recommend including the seated military press early in your workout, possibly first or second. You can start with one session per week and bump the frequency to two times later. For example, you can have one heavy session where you train in the 4-6 rep range and do a bodybuilding-style workout later, focusing on the 8-12 range.

Level of Exercise: Intermediate

How to do the Seated Barbell Overhead Press

  1. Adjust the back support of a gym bench to an upright position (90-degree angle) and place it facing away from a barbell rack. The distance between the bar and bench should be small, so you can grab the barbell without having to reach too far back.
  2. Set the barbell at a height that allows you to reach it seated while maintaining a slight bend in your elbows. Doing so is vital for safe unracking and re-racking because all you have to do is straighten your arms to elevate the bar.
  3. Sit on the bench and put your back against the back support. Plant your feet into the floor and maintain a 90-degree angle at your knees.
  4. Bring your upper back into the bench, reach up, and grab the barbell with an even overhand grip. Your hands should be slightly more than shoulder-width apart.
  5. Engage your abs, take a breath, and extend your arms to unrack the barbell from its rack.
  6. Bring the bar overhead for the starting position while keeping your torso rigid and in position.
  7. Take another breath and lower the barbell to below your chin level, being careful not to hit your nose on the way down.
  8. Lower the bar until your elbows are slightly lower than your shoulders, hold for a moment, and press the barbell back to the top, exhaling near the end.
  9. Once finished, bring the barbell back and place it over the rack before relaxing your upper body.

What muscles does the seated military press activate?

The primary muscles that work during a seated barbell shoulder press are the deltoids (shoulders) (1). One of their functions is to provide stability at the shoulder joints, but the shoulders also have an active role in pressing the weight up and controlling it on the way down (2). Similarly, the upper chest (clavicular head) contributes to the seated barbell overhead press by assisting our deltoids in moving the weight up and down. 

Our triceps are the second major muscle group involved in the overhead press (1). The muscle group covers the rear of our upper arms and produces elbow extension, which occurs as we press the barbell from the bottom position. Our triceps become increasingly active as we extend our arms.

Aside from the primary movers, our core muscles engage to provide torso rigidity and keep us in position as we press a heavy barbell overhead. The rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, and erector spinae flex isometrically, offering torso support. Similarly, our upper back muscles contribute to torso rigidity and work hard to keep our shoulders retracted during the overhead press.

Tips on Proper Form when Performing the Overhead Barbell Press

An essential tip to keep in mind for the exercise is to take your time and set up correctly. Doing so is vital to lifting heavier weights safely and with good technique. You should keep the gym bench slightly in front of the barbell and facing away from it. That way, you will be able to reach and unrack the bar while keeping it close to your center of gravity. 

Another tip to keep in mind for effective overhead press is lowering the barbell enough on the way down. The bar should travel down until your elbows are slightly below shoulder level. That way, your shoulders work extra hard off the bottom, making each repetition more effective.

The third tip for a good overhead press is to keep your elbows slightly tucked in as the barbell moves down. Your wrists and elbows should be under the barbell at the bottom position because doing so will create a stable base and allow you to press more effectively.

Variations and Modifications of the Seated Military Press

1. Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press

The seated overhead dumbbell press is similar to barbell presses, apart from the fact that you’re using a pair of dumbbells. Doing so is beneficial for training both sides of your body independently, ensuring their equal development, and reducing the risk of muscle imbalances. 

2. Seated Overhead Barbell Pin Press

The seated overhead pin press is a slightly more specialized exercise that offers unique benefits. Instead of allowing the barbell to travel as low as you’d like, you must place it over pins inside a squat rack. Doing so will enable you to practice the top half of the overhead press, which is good for developing your lockout pressing strength. Plus, pressing the bar off pins prevents you from bouncing the weight off the bottom.

3. Standing Overhead Press

man standing military press shoulder press barbell

The standing overhead press is the same exercise, but you’re performing the movement from a standing position instead of sitting on a gym bench. Doing so forces your midsection to work much more to keep you stable.

Mistakes to Avoid

Setting The Bar Too High 

A common mistake with the seated military press is setting the bar out of reach. Doing so is dangerous because it forces you to overextend yourself while trying to unrack it. Plus, you’re in a weaker position and are more likely to drop the bar and hurt yourself. Avoid the mistake by keeping the bar just behind your head and at a height where you can reach it without extending your elbows fully.

Not Lowering The Weight Enough

The second common mistake with overhead pressing is not lowering the weight enough. Doing so might allow you to lift extra weight and do more reps, but it prevents you from engaging your deltoids well off the bottom position. Fix the error by lowering the weight until your elbows are slightly below your shoulders.

Using a Wide Grip

Too many trainees make the mistake of using a wide grip, similar to the one they use during a bench press. The problem with a wide grip is that it forces you to flare your elbows and puts your shoulders in a weaker and more compromised position. Using a shoulder-width grip is more beneficial because it lets you tuck your elbows and maintain a stronger position for pressing more weight.

Similar Exercises to the Seated Barbell Overhead  Press

Push Press

man push press barbell standing

The push press is a full-body press variation that develops pressing and core strength (3). Like the regular press, you have to lift a weight above your head. But, you get to use momentum off the bottom by descending a bit and straightening your legs. Doing so allows you to press with more power and lift extra weight.

Arnold Press (Dumbbell)

man arnold press dumbbell

Named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the pressing variation is excellent for strengthening your deltoids, upper chest, and triceps. The movement is more challenging than traditional overhead pressing because it requires more weight control and wrist rotation as you press the weight above your head.

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