How to Master the Military Press

IF YOU WANT BIG, strong shoulders, pressing weight overhead is going to be one of your most direct paths to success. The movement is one of the most basic, elemental expressions of strength. Pick up a heavy object, hoist it up, then put it down. That's been happening since the dawn of strength training, when strongmen first hefted barbells, dumbbells, and other assorted items overhead. Decades later, this practice has been distilled into an effective exercise for more than just displays of brawn: the dumbbell military press (also known as the overhead press and shoulder press).

If you want your shoulders to stay healthy as you build up strength and muscle (and you should), there's more to doing the dumbbell military press than just jacking the weight straight up into the air without any concern for form. There are other factors to consider, both for your potential strength and size gains and with the likelihood that you'll avoid the doctor's office.

Let Men's Health Fitness Director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., guide you through the dumbbell military press. Diving into the exercise's subtleties and mastering the form can be the difference between achieving your training goals and being sidelined by injuries. Grab your dumbbells, then get ready to press. If you pay attention, you'll be setting your shoulders and traps up for big gains.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Military Press

The dumbbell military press is an important compound movement that hits the shoulders, upper back, and core (when you use proper form). You can use the exercise to build size and strength in your shoulders. The exercise can also help to reinforce proper posture for other overhead pressing movements. When you use dumbbells, you'll be able to work through a greater range of motion than you would when using a barbell, which puts your hands in a fixed position. This will make it even easier on your shoulder joints.

Which Muscles the Dumbbell Military Press Targets

  • Shoulders (Deltoids)

  • Traps

  • Core

The military press is primarily known as a shoulder exercise. You'll use your anterior and lateral deltoids to press the weight up, to be more specific. But the shoulders aren't working alone. According to Samuel, the movement also hits the traps, the big muscle in your upper back, and your core muscles. That's the case if you're using good form (more on that in a moment), which will keep your posture clean.

How to Do the Dumbbell Military Press

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Paolo Testa
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells. Squeeze your shoulders blades, abs, and glutes to create full-body tension.

  • Lift the weights to shoulder height. Shift your elbows slightly forward to create an angle relative to your torso (this is the scapular plane). Make sure your forearms are straight, perpendicular to the ground.

  • Press the weight straight up overhead, emphasizing the core tension to prevent your ribs from flaring. Don't knock the dumbbells together at the top; keep your dumbbell path straight up and down.

  • Lower the weight back down to your shoulders.

Use this extra insight from Samuel to inform your reps.

Don't Arch Your Back

Eb says: You’ll see a lot of people arching their backs when they’re pressing upwards, especially when they’re working with heavier weights. This compromises you in several areas. First off, it’s putting a lot of strain on your lower back and can easily lead to injuries. It’s also placing your shoulder blades in less-than-ideal position. Focus on keeping your pelvis right under your torso (squeeze your glutes to get here), and keep your abs tight. Think about using your abs to pull your ribcage down. Maintain this tension throughout the movement.

Squeeze Your Shoulder Blades

Eb says: Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together as you're military pressing. This will help you finish the motion properly, and it will help you drive your arms straight up. The tension you create in your rhomboids and throughout your back is what helps you truly get your arms perpendicular to the floor (and protects your shoulder joints as you do so).

Elbow Position Is Key

Eb says: Elbow position is critical when you’re doing the military press, and it’s often misunderstood. Don’t start with your elbows out wide, in the same plane as your shoulders. Rotate your elbows forward a few degrees. This will keep you in the scapular plane, and allow you to start the press upwards in a more natural arc. Finish the press by driving your biceps right by your ears; think about poking your head through the "window" you create with your arms.

How to Add the Dumbbell Military Press to Your Workouts

The dumbbell military press is going to be one of your go-to shoulder training exercises. You can add the move to upper body-focused or push day workouts, especially on days that you're not planning to use another heavy press. Start out with low weight to master the form, working at three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

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