Barbell Military Press – Shoulder Exercise Guide with Photos


The standing deltoid military press is a great way to break away from conventional bench pressing motions and challenge your body in a less stable environment. This is an effective way to boost your core strength, which is forced to contract throughout this movement. It also targets a muscle that contracts your shoulder blades, which we’ll talk about in a second. Try these out today for some old-time barbell fun or to jump-start your way to increased functional fitness.


Muscles Targeted: The military press primarily targets your shoulder muscles to lift the bar. These muscles comprise both the anterior and medial deltoids and the upper sections of the trapezius muscles. Another muscle that is worked in this exercise is the serratus anterior. This muscle counteracts the rhomboids and works to pull your shoulder blades forward. Your triceps help at the end of the range of motion to lock the bar out. Last but not least your core has to contract and stay tight throughout the movement.

Exercise Instructions: Stand within a squat rack area and grab a barbell with both hands and rest it on your upper chest across your collar bone. Your feet will be split, with one leg underneath you and the other dropped back behind you slightly for added support. Simply press the barbell up over your head for the desired amount of repetitions and then return to the start position and repeat.

Why This Exercise is Important: The biggest benefit of the military press is the instability of the movement. This forces you to work your whole body into a pressing motion, something the barbell bench press does not force you to do. This provides greater stimulus to your core muscles and even helps build your balance at the same time. Another place the military press shines is the ability to use a large amount of weight and just focus on the shoulder muscles. You can go far heavier on presses than side raises, which leads to enhanced muscle growth. It is also a good way to get in an upper body pressing motion if the benches are all taken or if you just want to do something different from the usual bench routine.

Things To Avoid: You should take care when performing standing deltoid military presses because you are putting stress throughout your whole body. Keep your core tight to protect your lower back and avoid using weights that are too heavy. Avoid any straining during the exercise, especially during lockout. Keep your back fairly straight and resist the temptation to lean back to move heavier weights. Keep your grip around shoulder width and avoid going too narrow as this can place extra stress on the shoulder girdle.

Reps and Sets: Keep the reps higher on military presses because you can strain your lower back if you struggle too much with the weight. Keep the sets between 3-5 and repetitions in the 6-12 range. If you are really going for a pump you might want to use a slightly lighter weight and go for higher repetitions.

Other Exercises To Use: If there are any back concerns feel free to switch over to an incline barbell press. This works similar muscle groups and relieves any stress on the lower back. Barbell benching can substitute in as well. A good variation to work on any strength imbalances between your right and left arm is the kettlebell military press. View our extensive database of exercise guides for a comprehensive list of exercises that target the shoulders.

The military press will give you an exercise to really hone in on developing your shoulder muscles. It also strengthens your core and provides real world benefit as it is performed in an unstable environment. Be careful to lift weights that are too heavy and cause you to strain due to the pressure it can place on your lower back.

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  1. Avatar
    Anwar Qureshi on

    Many thanks for this excellent exercise guide. Can the incline bench press substitute for the military press? Also, do you think that using the cable machine will substitute?

    • ShapeFit

      Hi Anwar – The incline bench press is for the upper chest area and is not a great substitute for the military press which targets the deltoids (shoulders) as the primary muscle group. Using the cable machine to perform shoulder press is fine but it’s really not a comparable substitute for the barbell military press since you can’t use nearly the amount of weight.

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