The overhead press is a classic exercise for building upper body strength and size, but what muscles does overhead press work? And how can you get the most out of the exercise? In this article we’ll be covering:

Let’s jump straight in.

What Muscles Does Overhead Press Work?

The overhead press, also known as the shoulder press or military press, works your front delts, triceps and upper chest.

  • Your front (anterior) deltoids are the prime mover
  • Your upper chest assists, especially at the bottom of the movement
  • Your triceps assist, especially at the top of movement

Overhead Press Muscles Worked Diagram

overhead muscles worked

Overhead / Shoulder Press Variations

There are plenty of shoulder press variations that you can use, here are three of my favourite, plus when and why you might use them.

Standing Barbell Overhead Press (Military press)

What Muscle Does Miltary Press Work?

The military press works your shoulders, triceps and upper chest.

It is best used for building vertical pushing strength, making it a useful exercise for weightlifters and strength athletes.

Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

Seated Overhead Press: What Muscles Are Worked?

The seated dumbbell overhead press works your shoulders, triceps and upper chest.

Since you’ll have to stabilise the weights you’ll likely lift less, but it can allow a more free range of motion, making it slightly more shoulder comfortable for some people. I like to use it for off-season hypertrophy (size) training with sets of 6-12 reps.

Machine Shoulder Press

What muscle does shoulder press work?

The machine shoulder press works your front delts, triceps and upper chest.

Since the machine shoulder press requires less stabilisation and offers you a more ‘locked-in’ supported set-up, you can often lift in higher rep ranges and focus on your mind-muscle connection. This makes it great for bodybuilding and getting a crazy pump.

Quick Training Recommendations for Overhead Press

I recommend training the overhead press 1-2 times per week if overhead pressing strength is a priority, or if front delt hypertrophy (size) is a major goal for you.

  • For strength, I recommend 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps
  • For size, I recommend 3-5 sets of 6-20 reps

How much weight on shoulder press?

How much weight you use on shoulder press depends on your rep scheme. Sets of 3-6 reps will be far heavier than sets of 6-20 reps. I recommend that you lift a weight that is challenging, but not quite maximal for your rep scheme, so you might leave 1-3 reps ‘in the tank’

How Effective is Overhead Press?

The overhead press is an incredibly effective exercise for building upper body strength and size, specifically in your front delts, triceps and upper chest.

The overhead press provides a huge raw stimulus magnitude, i.e. loads of stimulus to those muscles. The drawback is that most shoulder presses are also quite taxing.

Overhead Press Muscles Worked Frequently Asked Questions

Can I do shoulder press everyday?

Doing shoulder press every day would be a bad idea as you would not be providing your shoulders with enough time to recover between sessions. This will reduce performance and increase injury risk.

Does overhead press work bicep?

No, the overhead press doesn’t work your biceps. Overhead presses actually work your triceps (the antagonist or ‘opposite’ muscle of your bicep)

Is overhead press better than bench?

Overhead press is arguably better than bench at building strength and size in your front delts, as these are the muscles that have to work the most.

However, the overhead press is worse than bench at building strength and size in your chest, as this muscle group isn’t used as much.

Personally, I recommend that you use both exercises at various times in your training. Perhaps you could have one horizontal focus push day and one vertical focus push day in your training week.

Will overhead press build big shoulders?

The overhead press will absolutely build big shoulders, specifically big front (anterior) delts.

I recommend that for a full 3d or ‘capped’ delt look, you also train your side delts and rear delts separately using movements like dumbbell lateral raises, upright rows and face pulls.

Next Steps

Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…

1) Get in the gym and start building front delt, tricep and upper chest strength and size with a shoulder press variation of your choice. Or if you need a bit of help deciding, consider having a look at custom programme options

2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.

3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching to improve your sports performance, you can find more information about my services here.

‘Til Next Time


strength coach

Alex Parry, MSc, BA

Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.

His experience includes 8+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.