The bench press and overhead press are both pressing movements that build strength and muscle in the upper body.
So what is the major difference between the bench press vs overhead press?
The bench press is performed lying down and the overhead press while standing up. This changes where the barbell is relative to the spine; perpendicular for the bench press and inline for the overhead press. The overhead press requires greater front delt activation, whereas the bench press uses more pec activation.
In terms of training goals for different activities, here are my broad recommendations:
- Powerlifters need to train the bench press, as it is one of the three competitive lifts. However, they may also benefit from some overhead pressing if they have an anterior delt weakness for example (I cover this more in my article on What To Do If You’re Weak In The Middle Of The Bench Press).
- Overhead pressing is more specific for other sports including Olympic Lifting, Strongman and CrossFit, and should be used much more frequently than the bench press in these activities (I cover this more in my article on How To Switch From Powerlifting To Weightlifting).
To ensure you maximize your time spent training pressing movements, read on to learn the differences and pros/cons of the bench press vs overhead press.
To avoid confusion, please note the overhead press is also commonly referred to as a ‘strict’ or ‘military’ press, but I will refer to it as an overhead press in this article.
What’s The Difference Between a Bench Press and an Overhead Press?
It’s important to understand the characteristics of each pressing movement in order to select the exercise that will best meet your training goals.
The bench press has the greatest specificity to Powerlifting, but for some Powerlifters the overhead press may also target weaknesses which will transfer over to improve their bench press. The article Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press discusses this in further detail.
The 6 main differences between the bench press vs overhead press are:
1. Body Position
The bench press is performed lying down on a bench, whereas the overhead press is performed standing upright.
2. Loading of the Weight Relative to the Spine
The load of the barbell is stacked directly on top of the spine in the overhead press, but perpendicular to the spine in the bench press.
3. Mobility Requirement
The overhead press requires much greater shoulder mobility relative to the bench press.
4. Muscles Used
The overhead press requires more shoulder recruitment from the anterior delt than the bench press.
5. Weight Used
Most people can bench more than they can overhead press.
The overhead press is less sport-specific to Powerlifting than the bench press but can be more sport-specific for other sports (Crossfit, Weightlifting, & Strongman).
Bench Press: Technique, Mistakes, Pros, Cons, & Muscles Used
How To Perform A Bench Press
Follow these steps to perform a bench press:
1. Set up in a rack with a flat bench. Be sure to adjust the rack height so you can unrack the barbell without losing position and tightness in your shoulders.
2. Lying on the bench, set your eye position directly under the barbell.
3. Place your hands evenly on the barbell using the markings on the bar as a guide. Competition grip is no wider than 81cm apart.
4. Pull your shoulders down and back and set up as high on the top of your shoulders as possible. Some people like to do this by placing their feet on the bench, others prefer to hold onto the rack lifting only their hips.
5. Find an optimal position to place your feet where you can create maximum leg stability and drive. A good starting position is where you would place your feet if you were to do a squat. From there you can individualise this as you go based on what feels strong.
6. Once you are in position, take a big breath to inflate and lift your upper chest. This will decrease the range of motion for the bench press and create a more declined angle.
7. Pull forward slightly on the bar to engage your lats, then push the bar up and over the j-hooks by extending your elbows.
8. Bring the barbell over the top of your chest, ideally in line with your bench press touch point.
9. Bend your elbows to start the descent of the barbell towards your chest, aiming to do this as fast as possible whilst maintaining control of the bar.
10. Lightly touch your chest with the bar, pausing until the bar is still, if performing a competition bench press.
11. Using both upper body strength and leg drive, forcefully push the bar away from your body.
12. Most lifters will take a slightly curved bar path, pushing up and then slightly towards the rack.
13. Reset your shoulders in case there was loss of tightness and take another breath for additional tightness before attempting the next rep.
Technique Tips For A Bench Press
To optimise your bench press performance follow these tips:
- Work on your ability to set your shoulders down and back.
Being able to hold your shoulders down and back will give you increased stability and decrease the risk of losing position or injuring your shoulder.
To work on this area use a combination of effective cueing e.g. “set your shoulder blades down into your back pockets’ ‘.
Mobilize the area by using tools such as a lacrosse ball under the shoulder blade to free up restricted tissues.
Activate the muscles by using exercises such as band pull apart. Tactile cue the position by having a training partner place their hand between your shoulder blades and squeezing back to contract your muscles around their fingers.
- Understand the speed-accuracy trade off.
The faster you try to move the barbell, the more likely you are to deviate off an ideal bar path.
However, this is a skill that you can develop as you transition from a novice to an intermediate and then advanced lifter.
Aim to move the bar down as fast as you are able to maintain the correct par path. Your ability to do this should increase over time with practise.
Common Mistakes When Doing A Bench Press
Common mistakes when bench pressing includes:
- Not keeping the shoulders locked back and down in position.
- Chest dropping and not staying tight as you initiate the press off the chest.
- Touching the bar down too high on the chest. This can cause extra strain on the shoulder muscles and joints.
- Not using leg drive. Leg drive provides stability, enables a lifter to bench heavier loads and maximises the potential of the bench press as a whole body movement.
- Lifting the glutes off the bench when creating leg drive. The direction of leg drive should be towards the rack rather than upwards.
- Tucking the elbows. Joints should remain stacked and typically in raw benching the wrists stack over the elbows.
Read my complete list of Bench Press Mistakes & How To Fix Them.
Muscles Used In The Bench Press
Muscles that contribute to pressing the bar:
- Pec Major
- Pec Minor
- Front delts
Muscles that stabilize during the press:
- Erector Spinae
- Rotator Cuff
Muscles that stabilize and great leg drive:
If you are interested in learning more about how these muscles work in bench pressing be sure to check out the article; Muscles Used in Bench Press (A Complete Guide)
Benefits Of The Bench Press
Benefits of the bench press are:
- It’s a required lift in the sport of Powerlifting, so highly specific
- It improves your upper body muscle strength
- It builds upper body muscle mass e.g. pecs and triceps
- It is a suitable pressing exercise for those with restricted upper body mobility
- It can improve throwing power for other sports
Cons Of The Bench Press
Cons of the bench press are:
- It requires a relatively high technical skill to perform safely
- It requires a lot of equipment; bar, weights, rack and bench
- Without managing training volume and recovery, or being mindful of correct technique, it can lead to overuse injuries in the elbows and shoulders
- Training the bench press without stretching and mobility can lead to reduced range of motion overhead due to tight pecs and lats.
Overhead Press: Technique, Mistakes, Pros, Cons, & Muscles Used
How To Perform An Overhead Press
1. Set up the bar in the squat rack, similar to a squat with the bar at around arm-pit height. Some athletes may be able to power clean the weight to their front rack from the floor.
2. Place your hands on the bar slightly wider than shoulder width with a full grip.
3. Get your elbows underneath and just in front of the bar with your knees and hips bent.
4. Extend your hips and knees to push the bar out of the rack and walk back 2-3 steps into a shoulder width stance, toes slightly turned out.
5. Rest the bar along your collarbone, squeeze your quads, glutes to stand tall with a neutral spine
6. Take a breath in and while holding your breath and bracing, press the bar straight up overhead. To do this, you will need to tuck your chin in or lean your head back slightly.
7. Press the bar all the way up, locking your elbows with the bar over the shoulders, hips and mid foot.
8. From the overhead position, start the downwards movement with your elbows slightly out to the side until the bar is back in your start position.
9. Allow the bar to come to a full and complete stop, take a deep breath and brace again before initiating the next rep.
Technique Tips for The Overhead Press
For maximum strength gains be sure to:
- Train the overhead press through its full range of motion
- Start from a dead stop without using momentum (for hypertrophy goals this may differ)
- Work on your overhead mobility in order to lock out the press in a correctly stacked position
- Breath and brace before each repetition
If you’re looking for alternatives to the overhead press, check out my other article on the 9 Best Overhead Press Alternatives.
Common Mistakes When Doing An Overhead Press
- Not using full range of motion. Overhead press reps can be cut short at the top or bottom of the rep by not taking it back to the start position and also by not fully locking out the barbell at the top.
- Not keeping glutes and quads contracted..Contracting the glutes acts to stabilise and protect the spine. Congrating the quads prevents a lifter using momentum for their lift, rather than building strict strength.
- Lumbar compensations for poor overhead mobility. Lifters with restricted overhead mobility may compensate with an exaggerated lumbar curve and less core stability inorder to be able to press the bar directly overhead. Using an overhead press variation such as a seated or DB press are recommended until overhead mobility improves to prevent strain on the back.
Muscles Used In The Overhead Press
Muscles that contribute to pressing the bar:
- Front Delts
- Side Delts
- Upper traps
Muscles that stabilise during the press:
- Rotator Cuff
- Erector Spinae
Benefits of The Overhead Press
- The overhead press is a great movement for developing the front delts, while working many other muscles as isometric stabilisers.
- It has some carry over to bench press for lifters who fail their bench in the mid-range of motion touch too low on their chest, and who need to improve their front delt strength.
- It requires less equipment than the bench press; just a barbell and weights, ideally a rack but no bench.
- It works a big range of motion making it a very functional movement
Cons of The Overhead Press
- It requires a certain level of overhead mobility to perform correctly (especially if you’re using the Z-press variation), otherwise the body will need to use compensation strategies that are not ideal e.g. increased lumbar curve and decreased core stability from ribs not being engaged.
- It can take time and patience to build strength in this movement, progress can be slower compared to other lifts.
Other Resources To Help You With Pressing Strength
- Floor Press vs Bench Press: Differences, Pros, Cons
- How To Increase Your Bench Press Without Benching
While the bench press is the movement most specific to Powerlifting, the overhead press has long been a staple of many Powerlifting and strength and conditioning programs for its carry over to the bench press, application in other strength sports and functionality for everyday life.
To summarise which movement you should train:
- If you are a Powerlifter, you need to include bench press in your programme for specificity as it is one of the 3 competition lifts
- If you have an anterior delt weakness, the overhead press may transfer to your bench press and could be worth including in your programming.
- For other strength sports such as Olympic Lifting, Strongman, CrossFit and everyday life, include overhead pressing in your training if you have the mobility to do so.
About The Author
Carli Dillen has been a Strength and Conditioning Coach since 2007 after earning her degree in Sport and Exercise Science and Human Physiology. She completed further post graduate studies in Movement Neuroscience in 2010 and opened her first gym in 2011. Her sporting achievements include winning 3 World Championship Gold medals in Taekwon-Do, as well as representing New Zealand at 4 IPF Powerlifting World Championships, winning a bronze medal in deadlift in 2017. You can connect with Carli on Instagram