An overhead press is one of the simplest exercises for strengthening your shoulders and upper back.
But, it is also a very difficult movement. This is especially true if you have yet to build up enough strength for an overhead press or can’t do it safely because of an injury.
But don’t worry, there are plenty of other exercises that will build strength and workout the same areas as an overhead press.
What is an Overhead Press?
First of all, let’s be clear about what exactly an overhead press is. Just so we can be sure that you’re looking for the correct alternative.
An overhead press is essentially what the name suggests. It is an exercise in which you lift a barbell up to your chest and then further lift it above your head.
If you are new to weight training, then simply lifting the barbell to your chest is difficult enough. Pushing further and then lifting the weight above your head can seem impossible.
But this doesn’t mean that you should give up. Eventually, with regular training, you will be able to easily lift a barbell above your head.
Maybe you don’t find the movement is giving you the results you want. Or perhaps you are tired of overhead presses and just want to change up your exercise routine. There are several different exercises you can choose from too.
Main Alternatives to an Overhead Press
The best alternatives to an overhead press will be exercises that work your shoulders, your upper back, and your upper arms. The best exercises for these areas are:
- Dumbbell Arnold Press
- Dumbbell Raise Combo
- Arnie Lifts
- Incline Barbell Bench Press
- Landmine Press
- Machine Shoulder Press
- Single Arm Push Press
What an Overhead Press Does
Before we get into the specific alternatives, let’s go over exactly what an overhead press does. Knowing which muscles a specific exercise works out is important for several reasons.
It can help you to schedule your workout routines as you will know which exercises, for example, might work out your arms and abs. You can also make sure that you don’t overwork certain muscles that are also worked in multiple exercises.
So, which muscles does an overhead press target? Primarily, an overhead press is an arm workout. But, as it is usually done standing, it can work out the abs, the shoulders, and the upper back. These are quite a lot of areas.
The specific muscles are:
- The triceps
- The deltoids
- The pectorals
- And the trapezius
These are muscles within the arms, shoulders, chest, and upper back. These are easy muscles to target, especially when lifting weights over your head.
These are also muscles that are easy to build up strength in. This is because there are many exercises that will strengthen the muscles in these areas.
This is very useful if you’re looking for alternatives if you cannot yet do an overhead press. An overhead press is a difficult movement that takes a lot of building up to.
If you regularly do the alternative exercises listed below, along with trying lower weights while doing an overhead press, you will eventually be able to accomplish more.
This is a good thing when looking for alternatives as it means there will be a lot of different exercises that work out these muscles. One problem with this, however, is that it can be difficult to find a different exercise that will work out exactly the same muscles.
This means that you might have to replace an overhead press with two different exercises.
But, if you’re looking for a way to work out a more localized area, such as the triceps, instead of such a large area, there are also multiple useful exercises for you on this list.
Modifying a Shoulder Press
Although there are a lot of alternatives to overhead presses, they will all work out the same areas. This means that, if you want to work out a different area or can’t do overhead presses because of an injury, you might not be able to do the alternatives either.
The alternatives listed below are best suited for people who want to change up their workout routines. But, that doesn’t mean that you should avoid working out these areas completely. You can easily modify shoulder presses to suit your needs and meet your restrictions.
This can involve something simple like using separate dumbbells instead of one barbell. But, if you want to modify an overhead press because of an injury, it’s important to double-check with your doctor and physio first. It won’t be worth it if you modify an exercise only for it to injure you further.
The Best Alternatives to an Overhead Press
Dumbbell Raise Combo
This is a great exercise if you are working toward an overhead press. A dumbbell raise combo is a fairly simple exercise. Begin by holding a dumbbell in each hand with your hands at your side.
Then, keeping your elbows straight, lift your arms up and forward until they are shoulder height. As you do this, slowly rotate your wrists so that the dumbbells are horizontal once they reach shoulder height.
Then, reverse the motion until your hands are back at your side. Without stopping, lift the dumbbells upward. Bend your elbows slightly for this movement so you don’t strain them. For both movements, make sure that you do not lock your elbows.
This exercise is excellent for working out the shoulder and upper back muscles. A dumbbell raise combo might be a little difficult to start off with. But it is a great stepping stone to eventually doing an overhead press.
This is also a great option if your range of motion doesn’t allow you to reach your hands over your head. This movement requires you to only lift weights up to shoulder height.
Named after the legendary bodybuilder Arnold Swarzenegger, Arnie curls are an excellent alternative to overhead presses.
Arnie curls involve lifting two separate dumbbells up to your shoulders. Then, you rotate the dumbbells until the ends are facing outward. You then push upward until the dumbbell is level with your head.
Then rotate the dumbbell back so that the ends are facing outward and push up. To complete the exercise, move the dumbbell back down, reversing the movements you have just completed.
This might sound a little complicated but it will be easy once you have tried it a few times. This is an excellent exercise for building muscle and strengthening joints. We would go so far as to say it is the best alternative on this list.
The key to achieving the most from an Arnie curl is to move slowly. When lifting and when rotating the weight, don’t be tempted to move or turn too quickly. Try and do each part of this exercise as slowly as you can.
Incline Barbell Bench Press
An incline barbell bench press is a great way of working out both your arms and shoulders. It’s also great for getting used to simply using a barbell.
As most people workout more regularly with dumbbells, beginning to use a single barbell can be quite difficult. It’s more difficult to keep control of, to grip on to, and it’s difficult to maintain your overall balance.
A normal barbell bench press would also work well to replace an overhead press. But an incline barbell bench press will work areas that are closer to those worked by an overhead press.
A barbell bench press at an incline will more directly work the anterior deltoids. These are specific muscles in your shoulders. The steeper the incline, the more these are worked out.
When you’re lying flat on a bench press and lifting the barbell above your head, the rest of your body is mostly supported by the bench press. But, when you’re positioned at an incline, you are having to support yourself more. This means that you are pressing the barbell above your head but also away from the ground. Pushing a weight at an angle requires more energy than pushing it directly upward. Check out this guide on how to do incline bench press.
One Leg Landmine Press
A landmine press is a great exercise if you want to build up strength and improve your range of motion. Most people can manage to lift a barbell to their waist or chest. The really tricky part is lifting it above your head. This is because the majority of the strain moves from your whole body to your arms and shoulders.
This means that it’s important to strengthen your shoulders and upper back muscles. A landmine press will absolutely help with this.
A landmine press is a relatively simple move but it is difficult. To do a landmine press, lay out a barbell as you normally would for an overhead press but with a plate at only one end. But, instead of standing in the middle of the bar, kneel down on one knee.
To provide the best support, kneel down on the same knee to the arm you are about to work. This will provide a sense of balance and support so that one side of your body isn’t taking all of the strain.
Then, using both hands, lift the end of the barbell up to shoulder height. Place the hand of the arm you are working at the very end of the bar. Then, slowly, push upward and hold.
Then take the weight back down to shoulder height. Repeat this very slowly and only do a handful of reps. This is a simple but intense exercise. Especially if you’re using a lot of weight. Treat this exercise in the same way you would an overhead press.
Then, switch sides and repeat the movement. If you need to, you can support your bent knee with a block. This will make it easier to press upward. You will need to make sure that you are in the proper position so that you don’t injure yourself.
Machine Shoulder Press
A lot of the alternatives on this list include free weights. This is because they are some of the best weights for replicating the movement of an overhead press. But, these alternatives mostly use single dumbbells.
It can be difficult to accurately work out the same areas as an overhead press with two single dumbbells, instead of a single barbell.
If you are looking for an exercise that does essentially the same thing as an overhead press (but isn’t an overhead press) then a machine shoulder press is a great option.
The best machine to use is the shoulder press as, although it is used while sitting down, it will still work your abs as well as your arms and shoulders.
To best mimic the upward movement of an overhead press, simply follow the instructions shown on the shoulder press machine. It is difficult to modify the motion on a shoulder press machine.
Simply sit up straight, place your hands on the handles, and slowly push upward. If you can, it’s best to use both hands at the same time as this will be the most accurate replacement for an overhead press.
Start off with low weights and gradually increase the weight as you become more used to the movement. An overhead press will only be completed a few reps at a time.
This means that it’s a good idea to move slowly when using the shoulder press machine. And only do a few reps at a time.
Single Arm Push Press
If using both your arms is too much for you and that’s why you want to avoid an overhead press, then a single arm push press might be the exercise for you.
A single-arm push press is similar to an overhead press in its movement. To do a single arm push press, you need to bend your knees and then forcefully stand up while holding a weight above your head.
But, instead of using a single barbell, you use a single dumbbell.
This is a great exercise for building up strength, especially if you’re working toward completing an overhead press.
The movement is similar to that of a shoulder press but allows you to use more weight. It also more closely resembles the overall stance and movement of an overhead press than the kind of shoulder press you would normally do on a shoulder press machine.
The majority of the overhead press alternatives on this list are intended to replace the exercise if you find it too difficult or want to change up your workouts. A z-press is different as it is even more difficult than an overhead press.
If you have a lot of experience when it comes to overhead presses and want something more challenging, then a z-press is the way to go. A z-press is essentially an overhead press that is done while sitting on the floor. This means that you won’t have your legs and feet providing a strong foundation.
You will need a lot of overhead mobility and a strong core. If you do not feel comfortable with this position, you can practice using a bench with the back at a right angle.
This will provide support to your back. If you don’t have a strong back and core, you won’t have the necessary balance for this movement.
There is a good chance that the force of the movement and the weight of the barbell might cause you to fall backward.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is an overhead press so hard?
There are several reasons why an overhead press is difficult. One of the reasons is that it requires you to use a large number of muscles. As we have mentioned, one of the reasons why an overhead press is such a great exercise is because you are working a lot of muscles with just one movement.
But, if you don’t yet have the strength in, for example, your shoulders, then you won’t be able to fully support all the weight. This is why it’s important to work your shoulders, arms, and upper back in other workouts.
This will complement the movement of an overhead press. It will also work toward being able to do an overhead press.
Another reason an overhead press is so hard is because it is a movement done while standing. A lot of other arm exercises, especially those with arm machines, are done while seated. This means that your lower body and back are being supported by the seat.
This leads on to another reason why an overhead press is so hard. The first part of an overhead press is relatively easy. It’s simple to lift the barbell but to your chest.
But then pushing it and lifting it over your head is very difficult. This is partly because you are now using your shoulder joints, which will generally be weaker than the muscles in your arms.
But it is also because you are now having to use your legs to push your body, and the bar, above your head. So you no longer have the steady foundation of your legs as you now need to move them and use their strength.
Is the overhead press bad for shoulders?
Only if you do it too often or with poor form. An overhead press is a great exercise for strengthening your shoulders. As are most of the alternative workouts included in this guide.
The majority of arm workouts, especially those that involve lifting a weight over your head, will work and strengthen your shoulder muscles.
It’s not a good idea to do any exercise too often. It will cause too much strain and not allow the muscles to recover. This recovery is the muscle building itself back stronger.
So, if you do an exercise every day, then you won’t have enough time to recover. You will be wasting time.
For an overhead press, and any other workout with a barbell, it’s super important to maintain the correct form.
This is important for any workout. But especially for something so intense and strenuous as an overhead press.
If you can, speak with someone who works at your gym or attend a PT session. It’s a good idea to have a professional show you how to lift a barbell properly. If you don’t have the correct form, you won’t be getting all the benefits of the workout. You also might end up injuring yourself.
How often should you overhead press?
As mentioned above, it’s not a good idea to repeat an exercise too regularly. With something as strenuous as an overhead press, you shouldn’t do this more than once or twice a week.
Definitely not more than three times a week. This is true of most of the alternatives on this list as well.
In terms of reps, it’s a good idea to keep the number very low. This should be around three to five reps. This is also true of several of the alternatives listed above. Any exercise that involves a barbell and/or a very large weight should have limited reps.
Although there are variations, generally speaking, a heavy weight lifted a small number of times will build muscle. A lower weight lifted with a higher number of reps will tone muscle. (This can vary however, depending on the exercise and how your body responds to weight training).
Generally, try to keep the most intense workouts to a minimum. This will give you better results and help you avoid injury.
An overhead press is an incredibly difficult exercise. The majority of the alternatives that we have provided are intended for those who have not yet built up the strength for the full movement.
But, if you’re trying to find a workout to replace an overhead press because it’s just not working for you anymore, there are still some exercises here that you can try.
If your regular workout includes an overhead press, you might find that it’s not quite working in the same way. This can be changed by increasing the number of reps or the weight. But, if you want to change your workouts up more, there are lots of exercises on this list that can be modified to be more difficult.
If you can’t quite manage an overhead press yet, there are lots of options for you too. As we mentioned above, an overhead press works a lot of different muscles. So it can be difficult to find a perfect alternative.
So, instead, try adding several exercises into your workout routine. One that works out your arms, one that works out your shoulders, and one that works out your back.
This will complement the workout provided by an overhead press. Working these areas will build up the muscles you will need for an overhead press. This is because they will strengthen specific muscles.
But remember that no exercise, no matter how direct and isolated, will only work one muscle. So, they will all work multiple areas.
Overall, there are lots of different exercises you can do to either mimic or modify the workout provided by an overhead press. Whatever your goals, you should be able to reach them with the exercises above.