How to Do a Barbell Shoulder Press and Popular Variations

by Evelyn Valdez

If you have a strength training routine already planned out, chances are there that you have a few shoulder movements in there. And while there are a lot of exercises that are great for building stronger shoulders and a more sculpted upper back, the barbell shoulder press is definitely among the best ones.

Also known as overhead press because of the path that the barbell goes through, this pressing exercise is great for your strength training days if your goal is to build bigger and stronger muscles at the gym – or even at home if you have the equipment! It mainly targets your deltoids, trapezius, triceps, and even your core for stability, so it makes for a great upper-body workout.

We’re going to tell you exactly how to correctly perform a barbell shoulder press so you can make gains safely, as well as some of the best shoulder press variations that you can try on your weightlifting days to challenge your muscles in different ways!

How to do the barbell shoulder press

The standard shoulder press can be done with a variety of different free weights, such as dumbbells and kettlebells. But if you’re serious about your gains, then using a barbell is the best way to reach your muscle-building goals because it helps recruit more muscles at the same time than the smaller free weights.

Of course, you first need to work your way up to pressing with a barbell, but if you’re already at the fitness level where you think you’re ready to lift a barbell overhead, then you’ve come to the right place!

This is how you can effectively perform a barbell shoulder press:

  1. Place a loaded barbell at chest level in a rack in front of you so you can pick it up comfortably.
  2. Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart and grab the bar with both hands in an overhand grip. Your hands should be around shoulder-width apart or at a distance that’s comfortable to you.
  3. Unrack the bar and place it over your shoulders, so that your elbows are pointing down and your palms facing forward while holding the weight.
  4. Keeping your back straight, begin the movement by pressing the weight up and overhead until you reach full arm extension without locking your elbows.
  5. Squeeze your muscles in this position, then slowly drive the bar back down to your shoulders.

The barbell can get really heavy and can cause pain in your wrist joint. If you're experience wrist pain when doing overhead pressing movements, or just want to lift safely, consider using wrist wraps to help stabilize and protect your wrist during heavy sets!

Barbell shoulder press variations

The best way to keep an effective training routine is to change your exercise rotation every once in a while. By trying different barbell shoulder press variations, you’ll be able to challenge your upper body muscles every single time without fail!

Military press

The most common variation that people try after they have mastered the barbell shoulder press is the military press, which is very similar except that it requires you to keep your feet close together. This challenges and builds core strength more than the standard press, as well as your overall stability.

How to do it:

  1. Place a loaded barbell at chest level in a rack and stand in front of it with your feet close together on the floor instead of separated.
  2. Grab the bar with your hands around shoulder-width apart and unrack it, bringing it to your shoulders. Your elbows should be pointing down and your hands facing forward.
  3. Keeping your back straight, begin the movement by pressing the weight up and overhead until you reach full arm extension without locking your elbows. Your core should be fully engaged throughout the full range of motion.
  4. Squeeze your muscles in this position without losing stability, then slowly drive the bar back down to your shoulders and repeat.

Partial press

The partial shoulder press is exactly what it sounds like: you’ll perform the shoulder press movement partially, meaning that you’ll stop the bar at the height that you choose instead of fully extending your arms overhead. This is great for hypertrophy training, and it’s also a great exercise for those recovering from injuries.

How to do it:

  1. Place a loaded barbell at chest level in a rack and stand in front of it with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab the bar with your hands around shoulder-width apart and unrack it, bringing it to your shoulders. Your elbows should be pointing down and your hands facing forward.
  3. Keeping your back straight, begin the movement by pressing the weight up and overhead. You can stop when the bar is just slightly over your head, when your elbows reach 90 degrees, or at a completely different height – you make the call.
  4. Squeeze your muscles in the position that you chose without losing stability, then slowly drive the bar back down to your shoulders and repeat.

Single-arm landmine press

Unilateral exercises are ideal when it comes to developing functional strength, and the single-arm landmine does exactly that on your shoulder, chest, and triceps area. It’s a great movement for those who have mobility issues or injuries, since the weight goes up an angled path instead of directly overhead, making it easier on your joints.

How to do it:

  1. Load a landmine and secure it on a power rack or against a corner.
  2. Get into a split stance, so that your right foot is at the front and your left foot is slightly behind and to the side at a shoulder-width distance.
  3. Grab the upper end with your left hand in a neutral grip and hold it close to your left shoulder while your bend your knees for stability.
  4. Begin the movement by pressing the landmine up and forward until your left arm is completely extended, without shifting the weight to the sides.
  5. Hold this position for a moment, avoiding locking your elbow, then bring the weight back to your shoulder and repeat.
  6. Finish your reps and switch to the opposite side.

Barbell Z press

Not every overhead pressing variation requires you to be standing! The barbell Z press is performed sitting on the floor with your legs extended in front of you, allowing you to improve your pressing mechanics and technique by removing the support from your legs. It targets your front delts, triceps, and upper pecs.

How to do it:

  1. Place a loaded barbell at a low level on a power rack and sit under it with your legs extended in front of you and separated about a hip-width distance. 
  2. Grab the bar with your hands around shoulder-width apart and unrack it, bringing it to shoulder height. Your elbows should be pointing down and your hands facing forward.
  3. Keeping your back straight, begin the movement by pressing the weight overhead until your arms are fully extended without locking them.
  4. Keeping your balance, squeeze your muscles in this position, then lower the bar to your shoulders and repeat.

Push press

This movement is very similar to the standard barbell shoulder press, but it adds an element of speed by having you bend your knees so you can push the weight up with more power. It’s a great variation to build bigger leg muscles along with your shoulder workout.

How to do it: 

  1. Place a loaded barbell at chest level in a rack and stand in front of it with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Grab the bar with your hands around shoulder-width apart and unrack it, bringing it to your shoulders. Your elbows should be pointing down and your hands facing forward.
  3. Bend your knees into a quarter squat position and begin the movement by explosively driving the weight up while you extend your legs and arms completely, pushing from the bottom up.
  4. With your body straight and the weight safely overhead, pause for a moment, then slowly bring the bar down and repeat.

Clean and press

This is among the most advanced shoulder press variations, targeting several muscle groups from both your upper and lower body. This power-building compound exercise involves lifting a bar from the floor all the way over your head, going through two different movements: the clean, where you pick up the bar, and the press, where you lift it overhead.

How to do it:

  1. Place a loaded barbell on the floor in front of you and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hinge at the hips while bending your knees to reach for the bar with both hands, grabbing it with an overhand grip just outside of your legs.
  3. Bracing your core, begin the first part of the movement by explosively lifting the bar off the floor and driving it up to your shoulders, so that your elbows are pointing down and your hands are facing forward while holding the weight.
  4. For the second part of the movement, press the bar overhead until your arms are fully extended, making sure you’re not curving your back.
  5. Hold this position for a moment, then carefully bring the weight back to the start position and repeat.

Give your upper body an effective workout

Shoulder pressing can be challenging, especially when you add a barbell to the mix. But if you choose the appropriate weight for your fitness level and follow the steps while keeping proper form, you’ll master it in no time without setbacks!

And if you need high-quality fitness gear to get through your strength training workouts safely, such as Barbell Pads and Wrist Wraps, UPPPER Fitness Gear has exactly what you’re looking for! Durable, comfortable, and stylish, our products are made with your safety and goals in mind.

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