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10 Overhead Press Alternatives

The bench press is probably the most widely-performed strength training exercise. In fact, in gyms all around the world, Monday is National Bench-Pressing Day! This wasn’t always the case.

In fact, the bench press is actually a relatively new exercise and was only invented in the 1950s. Before then, most lifters tested and developed their pushing strength by doing overhead presses.

There are lots of overhead pressing exercises, but the most common is the standing overhead barbell press. This exercise is sometimes called a military press. This version is performed while standing with your feet together, imitating a soldier standing to attention.

While the overhead press is an excellent exercise, it’s not for everyone. For starters, to do overhead presses, you need a barbell, and some people find that overhead presses hurt their shoulders.

Also, doing overhead presses too often can make them less effective; your body will get used to them. Because of these factors, every lifter should know some alternatives to overhead presses.

In this article, we reveal 10 of the best overhead press substitutes. Some use different workout equipment, while others use slightly different joint movements. However, they all work the same muscles. Use these exercises whenever you need an overhead press alternative.

Overhead Press Alternatives

What Muscles Do Overhead Presses Work?

Overhead presses are classed as a compound exercise. That means they involve several joints and many muscles working together. The most important muscles in overhead presses are:

Deltoids – Training the deltoids or shoulder muscles is why most people do overhead presses in the first place. There are three deltoids, and overhead presses work them all. However, the main deltoid worked during overhead presses is the anterior or front deltoid.

Triceps – Located on the back of your upper arm, the triceps are responsible for extending your elbow joint. As well as working your delts, the overhead press is an excellent triceps exercise.

Trapezius – Known as the traps for short, the trapezius is so-called because it’s shaped like a trapezoid. The traps cover most of your upper back and is responsible for elevation, retraction, and depression of your shoulder girdle. In other words, the traps pull your shoulder blades up, together, and down.

Legs and Core – Because overhead presses are usually done while standing, your midsection and legs are also involved in its performance. Solid and stable legs and core will help keep your body steady, so you are free to focus on pressing that barbell up and overhead.

10 Overhead Press Alternatives

Bored of overhead presses? No barbell? Do they hurt your shoulders? No problem! Use any of these ten exercises to work your shoulders and build your best upper body ever.

1. Seated Dumbbell Overhead PressSeated dumbbell overhead press

This exercise offers a couple of advantages over regular overhead presses. For starters, sitting on an exercise bench means you can’t cheat by using your legs, and your back is supported.

Also, using dumbbells means you can train each arm independently and may be more comfortable for your shoulders. All in all, this is a very useful overhead press variation.

How to do it:

  1. Set the backrest on your adjustable bench to about 75-80-degrees. Sit down with a dumbbell in both hands. Raise the weights up to your shoulders, palms facing forward.
  2. Pressing the weights up and overhead to arms’ length. Stop just short of fully locking out the elbows.
  3. Then bring the weights back down to your shoulders and repeat.

2. Pike Push-Ups

No weights? Don’t worry; you can still give your shoulders and triceps a great workout. Do this overhead press alternative anywhere and anytime – no gym equipment required!

How to do it:

  1. Squat down and place your hands on the floor, fingers pointing forward and approximately shoulder-width apart.
  2. Slowly walk your feet back and into the push-up position.
  3. Lift your butt into the air so your body resembles an inverted V. Walk your feet a little closer to your hands if you wish.
  4. Bend your arms and lower your forehead down to the floor.
  5. Straighten your arms and repeat.

3. Handstand Push-UpsHandstand Pushup

If you’ve mastered pike push-ups, this is the exercise for you. You need to be strong for this one; you’re going to lift your entire body weight using just your arms.

How to do it:

  1. Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor about 12-inches in front of a wall. They should be roughly shoulder-width apart, fingers pointing forward.
  2. Kick your legs up and into the handstand position, with your feet resting against the wall for balance.
  3. Bend your arms and lower your forehead down to the floor.
  4. Straighten your arms and repeat.

4. Kettlebell Halos

Kettlebell halos work the same muscles as overhead presses but involve a very different movement pattern. This exercise is also good for warming up your shoulders before an upper-body workout and improving shoulder joint mobility.

How to do it:

  1. First grab a kettlebell and hold it upside down in front of your chest by the vertical handles.
  2. Circle it clockwise around your head, turning it right side up as it passes behind your neck and upside down again as you return to the starting position.
  3. Do your next rep going counterclockwise.
  4. Keep alternating directions rep by rep.

5. Arnold PressArnold press

The Arnold press is named after the legend Arnold Schwarzenegger and was reputedly his favorite shoulder exercise. With a pedigree like that, the Arnold press really does deserve to be part of your next upper body workout.

How to do it:

  1. You can do it seated or standing, hold a dumbbell in each hand. Raise the weights up to shoulder height and hold them together in front of your chest. Your forearms shoulder be vertical.
  2. Then you are going to open your arms and press the weights up and overhead.
  3. Lower the weights back down and into the starting position and repeat.

6. Top-Down Alternating Dumbbell Overhead Press

Using an alternating arm action means that this exercise keeps your muscles under tension for longer. This is an excellent overhead press variation if you’ve only got light weights to train with.

How to do it:

  1. Seated or standing, press and hold your dumbbells overhead. This is your starting position.
  2. Bend one arm and lower your dumbbell down to your shoulder. Press it up again.
  3. Next, lower and then press the other dumbbell.
  4. Continue alternating arms for the duration of your set.

7. Z Press

The Z press is a very challenging overhead press alternative/variation. It’s a seated exercise but, instead of using a bench, you sit on the floor. This requires a strong core and excellent flexibility.

How to do it:

  1. Sit on the floor with your feet apart and legs straight. Brace your abs and sit up straight.
  2. Whilst holding a barbell across the front of your shoulders with an overhand, shoulder-width grip.
  3. Without relaxing your core or leaning back, press the weight all the way up and overhead.
  4. Then lower it back to down to your shoulders and repeat.
  5. You can also do this exercise with dumbbells.

8. Javelin PressMan holding a javelin

The javelin press is an advanced overhead pressing variation. It’s a single-arm press but, instead of using one dumbbell or kettlebell, you’re going to use a barbell (Not a javelin!).

This requires and develops excellent balance and core strength.

How to do it:

  1. First you will put a barbell in a squat/power rack set to shoulder height. Stand sideways onto the bar. Grip the bar with your nearside hand, palm facing inward. Make sure you’re holding the exact center of the bar.
  2. Unrack the bar and take one step out of your squat rack. Brace your abs and stand up straight.
  3. Without leaning or twisting, press the bar up and overhead.
  4. Make sure you do the same number of reps on each side.

9. Bus Drivers

Bus drivers work your delts using nothing more than a single weight plate. Why the funny name? You’ll look like you’re driving a bus or truck while you’re doing this exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Grip a weight plate with your hands directly opposite each other, i.e., in the quarter to three positions.
  2. Then raise your arms out in front of your body, so they’re parallel to the floor. Brace your abs and bend your knees slightly for stability and balance.
  3. Turn your hands left and right, just like you are turning a steering wheel.
  4. Don’t stop until you are unable to keep your arms up anymore.

10. Cable Front Raises

This cable exercise works your anterior deltoids just like overhead presses. However, this is an isolation and not a compound exercise, so it doesn’t involve your triceps.

How to do it:

  1. First thing you need to do is attach a straight bar to a low cable machine.
  2. With your back to the pulley, stand astride the cable and hold the handle with your palms facing down. Stand so the cable runs from back to front and between your legs. Brace your core.
  3. Raise your arms forward and up to just above shoulder-height.
  4. Lower the bar back down to your thighs and repeat.

Do I HAVE to Do Overhead Presses?

Overhead presses can be a very beneficial exercise. They’re great for building shoulder muscle size and strength and are also very functional, which means they replicate the activities of daily living.man flexing back and shoulder muscles

But, on the downside, a lot of exercisers find that overhead presses cause shoulder pain. That’s because some people aren’t anatomically suited to pressing a weight up and overhead. This can be genetic or caused by poor posture.

The good news is that barbell overhead presses are NOT compulsory, and there are plenty of equally effective exercises that you can do instead.

If you can overhead press comfortably, there is no reason not to include this exercise in your workouts. But, if overhead presses cause pain, or you just don’t like them, use one of these ten alternatives instead.

Bottom Line

The overhead press used to be one of the Olympic lifts. It was also how exercisers developed and tested their pushing strength before the bench press caught on. However, once the bench press was invented, a lot of lifters relegated the overhead press to an accessory exercise. 

That’s a shame because lifting and pressing a heavy weight overhead can be very rewarding. 

The standing barbell overhead press used to be a workout staple, but it’s since fallen out of favor. This is partly because the bench press became so popular and also because overhead presses can be both challenging and humbling. Compared to the bench press, you won’t be able to lift anywhere near the same amount of weight. 

As well as being hard, the overhead press can cause some people shoulder joint pain. This is often due to poor posture but could also be because of an underlying shoulder issue. 

Thankfully, there are lots of exercises you can do that are as effective as overhead presses. Some are more joint-friendly, while others just use different equipment or joint actions. 

Whether overhead presses hurt your joints, you’re bored of them, or you don’t have a barbell to train with, use any of these alternatives for your next shoulder workout. Each one will provide you with great results while keeping your workouts fresh and interesting, as well as productive.

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Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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