How to Do the Military Press

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Traditional Military Presses With a Barbell

To perform traditional barbell military presses, stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Grasp the barbell with your hands in an overhand grip and positioned just outside the width of your shoulders. Start with the bar set at your upper chest so that your elbows are positioned directly under your wrists. Push the barbell overhead until your arms are fully straight. Lower the barbell back to your upper chest and then go right into the next rep. Keep breathing as you perform the exercise, exhaling as you press the bar overhead and inhaling as you lower it back down.

Exercise Variations

You can do the military press with other weighted implements such as dumbbells and kettlebells or by using a weight-training machine. When using dumbbells and kettlebells, hold the implements just outside your shoulders with your palms facing forward and press the weighs up overhead, bringing them together at the very peak. Using dumbbells or kettlebells makes each arm work independently, which prevents your dominant arm from taking on a greater percentage of the weight. You can also do barbell, dumbbell or kettlebell military presses from a seated position by using a bench or box, but this variation decreases the work required from your abdominals, obliques and glutes.

Adding the Military Press to Your Workouts

The military press is considered a compound exercise, which means it involves movement at numerous joints and thus works multiple muscle groups. Compound exercises should be scheduled toward the beginning of your workouts, so fit military presses into your upper-body workouts after you’ve done large-muscle upper-body exercises like bench presses, pushups and lat pulldowns and before you do smaller, single-joint exercises like biceps curls and triceps extensions. Always warm up before you do weight-training exercises like military presses with light jogging or cycling for five minutes. To prep your shoulders specifically for military presses, add arm circles and arm hugs.

Tailoring for Strength or Size

Military presses can help you build muscular strength or size in your upper body. If you want to focus on strength, do two to six sets of six or fewer reps and rest for two to five minutes between sets. If you want to focus on size, do three to six sets of 6 to 12 reps and rest 30 to 90 seconds between each set. The load of your barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells or the load setting on a machine should make completing each set difficult. For example, if you’re following the strength-focused program, you want a weight that allows you to do at least one rep but no more than six. If you're using free weights, it’s a good idea to have someone spot you in case you lose control of the weights over your head. Schedule your workouts two to three days per week, giving your muscles two days off between workouts.
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