The overhead press is one of the best exercises to improve the development of your shoulders.
However, there are several reasons why you might need an alternative to the overhead press, including you want to isolate one part of your shoulders more than another, you don’t have a barbell available, it causes pain or impingement, or you’re simply looking to add more variation to your workout.
The 9 best overhead press alternatives are:
- Incline Barbell Bench Press
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Landmine Press
- Dumbbell Arnold Press
- Machine Shoulder Press
- Single Arm Dumbbell Push Press
- Dumbbell Raise Combo
- Handstand Push-Up
These overhead press alternatives include barbell, dumbbell, machine, and bodyweight variations. In this article, I’ll expand on each of these alternatives and provide you with reasons why you should do one over another based on your preferences and goals.
If you’re a powerlifter, you should also read my article on How Do Powerlifters Train Shoulders?
What Makes An Effective Overhead Press Alternative?
An effective overhead press substitute needs to target similar muscle groups to the overhead press. The overhead press is also called the ‘shoulder press’ or ‘military press’.
The muscles used in the overhead press are the:
- Anterior Deltoid (front part of the shoulder)
- Medial Deltoid (side part of the shoulder)
- Upper pecs
The bottom and mid-range of the overhead press have the greatest shoulder activation.
As well, if you lean back while overhead pressing, you’ll activate the muscle fibers of the upper pec during this range of motion too. Leaning back should only be done slightly, as an excessive lean can cause injury.
The top-end range of motion of the overhead press has the greatest tricep activation
The primary role of the tricep is to extend the elbow. There are certainly better exercises to train the triceps, but don’t be fooled, the triceps have an important role in locking the arms overhead in the shoulder press.
You should also be aware that there are a lot of stabilizer muscles in the core and back of the shoulder that help maintain an efficient bar path during the overhead press.
But, for the purposes of finding an effective overhead press alternative, these smaller muscle groups aren’t relevant.
Takeaway: A good substitute for the overhead press will target the anterior and medial delt, in addition to the triceps.
You may also be interested in my article on Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
4 Ways To Modify The Shoulder Press
There are generally 4 ways you can modify the shoulder press in order to find an effective replacement.
The changes you make to the overhead press can be as small as switching your grip or angle of your torso, up to more drastic changes like using entirely different pieces of equipment.
You may decide you want to modify the overhead press because:
- You lack mobility overhead, i.e. it’s hard to straighten your arms above your head
- You experience shoulder pain while pressing overhead
- The movement feels awkward and unnatural
- You want to target more or less of a specific muscle group
- You’re looking to switch up your current routine for more exercise variation
- You’ve hit a plateau and you need to build strength in other ways
Let’s cover the most common ways to modify the overhead press.
Range of Motion
You can change the range of motion of the overhead press by only focusing on the bottom or top end of the range of motion. This will overload certain muscle groups over others, in addition to avoiding ranges that cause pain.
You can change the grip you use for the overhead press, either by using a false grip if you still want to use a barbell, or by using a neutral grip if you plan to switch to using dumbbells. The changes to the grip can put lifters in a more natural position.
You can change the angle of your body, which will put your torso more or less perpendicular to the floor. This will still allow you to press a weight ‘overhead,’ but may provide a better environment for your body to produce force comfortably (without strain).
You can change the equipment you use to overhead press by swapping the barbell for either dumbbells, machines, or even your own bodyweight. This broadens the types of exercise that you can do to train your shoulders, which can allow you to increase both strength and hypertrophy.
9 Overhead Press Alternatives
The following list will detail the best shoulder press alternatives.
1. Incline Barbell Bench Press
The incline barbell bench press is a military press alternative that works for people who lack overhead mobility.
If you lack mobility overhead it’s because your lats are generally too tight, which will require you to implement targeted stretching protocols to fix this issue.
If you overhead press with a lack of overhead mobility, it will feel uncomfortable and can cause you to lean back excessively, putting your back at risk.
The incline bench press will allow you to train similar muscles to the overhead press, in addition to working the upper pec fibers to a greater extent.
How To Do It
- Set up an incline bench at 55+ degrees
- Lay flat on the bench with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip
- Before unracking, retract and depress your shoulder blades
- Lift the bar from the rack and bring the barbell to your chest
- Lightly touch your chest and drive the barbell up and back over your face
Studies show that the anterior delt becomes more activated the higher the bench angle. It is advised that you set up the bench incline at or above 55 degrees in order to mimic the same muscle groups as the overhead press.
You may also be interested in my article on Should Powerlifters Do Incline Bench Press?
2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press is an alternative to overhead press that allows lifters to modify their grip.
Sometimes using a slightly neutral grip (palms facing each other) can alleviate shoulder pain or feel more comfortable.
In addition, the dumbbell shoulder press will increase the shoulder stability required compared with the overhead press.
This is because the dumbbells need to overcome lateral forces that aren’t present in the overhead press. In other words, you need to ensure the dumbbells don’t fall sideways when pressing the weight overhead.
How To Do It
- Sit on a bench with the backrest vertical
- Hold dumbbells in each hand with the nose of the dumbbells on your thighs
- Kick each dumbbell up by driving your knees to your chest
- Start with the dumbbells just outside your shoulders
- Press your hands overhead your head and lock your elbows
- Return the dumbbells to just below your ears and repeat
While you can perform the dumbbell shoulder press standing, the seated variation allows you to support your back, preventing you from excessive lumbar arching. Also, feel free to play around with a grip that allows you to lift more weight (prone, neutral, or semi-neutral).
3. Landmine Press
The landmine press is an overhead press replacement that allows you to train your right and left side independently.
Training your right and left arm independently is called a unilateral movement.
The benefit is that you can correct any muscular or strength imbalances between each side. It can also improve balance, coordination, and core strength.
The landmine press is also a great shoulder press alternative for those who struggle with overhead mobility. Rather than pressing the weight directly overhead, the load is pressed slightly in front of the face.
As such, you can still train your shoulders without straining to get your arms overhead.
How To Do It
- Set up one end of a barbell in a landmine attachment
- Kneel in front of the barbell in a split stance
- Grip the nose of the barbell with your hand in front of your shoulder
- Keeping your core tight, drive the barbell in front of you with the single-arm
- At the top range of motion, the hand should be level with the top of your head
- Return the barbell to your shoulder and repeat
It can be a bit tricky at first to figure out how close you should kneel in front of the barbell. If at the top range of motion your hand is well above your head, then you should move slightly back from the barbell. Remember, you want your hand to be level with your head when the arm is locked out.
The Z-Press is an advanced overhead press alternative that will challenge your core strength and mobility.
The Z-press is an overhead press but performed sitting on the floor with your legs straight in front of you.
I would only do the Z-Press if you already have superior overhead mobility and have mastered the basics of the overhead press.
The purpose of doing a Z-press is to isolate your shoulders to a greater extent.
In the overhead press, sometimes lifters cheat by bending their knees and assisting with the legs. However, since the Z-press is performed sitting, you take away any ability to ‘cheat’ the movement.
How To Do It
- Set up a barbell on a rack in a low position where you can unrack it while sitting
- Sit straight up with your torso vertical and your legs straight
- Unrack the barbell and drive the barbell overhead while keeping your abs tight
- As the weight passes your face, slightly drive your head forward underneath the barbell
- The arms should lock with the barbell directly over the crown of your head
- Return the barbell to the start position and repeat
When doing the Z-Press, you will typically use a lighter weight than you would for the overhead press. Before trying the Z-press with a barbell, practice the movement using dumbbells. When using dumbbells, you may need to get a spotter to place the dumbbells in your hands.
5. Dumbbell Arnold Press
The dumbbell Arnold press is an overhead press alternative that targets more of the medial (side) deltoid.
This exercise is a variation of the dumbbell shoulder press that was made popular by bodybuilding legend, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Studies show that when comparing the dumbbell shoulder press vs Arnold press that the medial deltoid is activated to a greater extent in the Arnold press. As such, you can use the Arnold press to target more of the side delt.
With that said, the dumbbell Arnold press is an advanced exercise, and you should have already mastered the overhead press and dumbbell shoulder press before attempting.
How To Do It
- Start with dumbbells in each hand
- Press your arms against your chest with your palms facing you
- Swing your arms laterally, and at the same time turn your palms away from you
- When the dumbbells are just outside your shoulders drive your arms overhead
- Return your arms to the start position and rotate your palms back toward you
Practice the movement pattern without dumbbells first (just your arms). Once this movement pattern is engrained and feels natural, move to hold dumbbells in each hand.
6. Machine Shoulder Press
The machine shoulder press alternative allows you to maintain constant tension on the muscles throughout the movement.
There are several different types of machine shoulder press machines. It doesn’t matter which one you choose so long as the weight is primarily being lifted straight overhead. What you want to avoid is an ‘incline machine press’.
The machine overhead press is a more basic version of the overhead press, which doesn’t require as much motor control. You can follow the machine’s fixed bar path, and don’t need to worry about stabilizing the weight as much overhead.
You can typically get a better mind-muscle connection by using the machine shoulder press vs overhead press, which allows you to maintain greater time under tension for your muscles.
How To Do It
- Maneuver yourself into the shoulder press machine
- Place your hands comfortably on the grips
- Drive your arms overhead, ensuring you press through the full range
- In a controlled fashion, return your hands to the start position and repeat
In order to exhaust the shoulders even more, try supersetting the machine shoulder press with a dumbbell lateral raise. You can perform both these movements back to back with reps between 10-15.
7. Single Arm Dumbbell Push Press (Slow Eccentric)
The single-arm dumbbell push press is an advanced replacement to the shoulder press that allows you to overload a single arm.
Let’s break this movement down: a push press is when you dip the hips and knees, then forcefully drive your body upwards (like you’re jumping) while pressing a weight overhead.
The ‘push press’ allows you to handle more weight than you normally would compared with a regular shoulder press.
In this single arm push press variation, once you have the weight overhead, you will bring the weight down slowly, overloading the eccentric range of motion, creating greater muscular damage.
Because you’re performing the movement using a single arm, not only do you get the benefit of overloading the movement, but you can train each arm independently. This will work out any imbalances between the right and left side.
How To Do It
- Start standing with a dumbbell in your hand just outside your shoulders
- Dip your knees into a quarter squat and then drive your body upwards explosively
- Use the power from your lower body to lift the dumbbell overhead
- Once your arm is locked, slowly return it to your shoulders with a count of 5-seconds
This variation requires superior motor control, balance, and coordination. Make sure you feel comfortable pressing weight overhead before attempting the single-arm dumbbell push press. Many lifters prefer holding the dumbbell in a neutral grip (palm facing toward midline of body) rather than a prone grip (palm facing away from you).
8. Dumbbell Raise Combo
The dumbbell raise combo is an alternative to the overhead press that doesn’t require you to lift your arms above your shoulders.
Some lifters will need a shoulder press alternative that doesn’t raise their arms over their head. This may be because of a prior injury or a lack of overhead mobility.
Whatever the reason, this dumbbell raise combo is an excellent way to target your front and side deltoid muscles.
You will start with a front dumbbell raise and then move directly into a lateral dumbbell raise.
Typically you will perform the same number of reps to the front and side (i.e. 10 reps front raise and 10 reps lateral raise).
How To Do It
- Grab dumbbells in each hand
- With a slight bend in the elbow lift your arms in front of you until your arms are parallel
- Perform the prescribed number of reps with this variation
- Once completed, switch to lateral raises by lifting your arms to the side until parallel
- Perform the prescribed number of reps and then rest
You may find that you need to switch the load for each exercise. If that’s the case, make the transition between each weight fast as you want to treat these exercises as a superset rather than having an extended break in between.
9. Handstand Push-Up
The handstand push-up is a bodyweight substitute to the overhead press.
Even though the handstand push-up is a bodyweight movement, it’s actually an advanced variation, which requires an incredible amount of shoulder strength and stability.
The handstand push-up is a popular variation used in Crossfit; however it’s only used after lifters master the basic elements of the overhead press and push press.
If you don’t have access to weights, the handstand push-up is a highly effective overhead press bodyweight alternative.
How To Do It
- Face a wall in a standing position
- Kick our feet up so you’re in a handstand position against a wall
- Engage your core and glutes
- Lower yourself toward the ground as far as possible
- Push back up and repeat
There are several ways you can progress into the handstand push-up so that you feel comfortable. Check out this guide on the handstand push-up to get started.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few frequently asked questions that I get around the topic of Romanian deadlift alternatives:
How Do You Do A Shoulder Press Without Weight?
The only way to do a shoulder press without weight is to perform a handstand push-up. This is an advanced exercise, requiring various progressions leading up to the full movement. If you have a resistance band, you could also perform a resistance band shoulder press, which would be a more accessible exercise for most people.
What Can You Do Instead Of Overhead Press?
Instead of the overhead press you could perform: dumbbell shoulder press, Arnold press, landmine press, Z-press, and incline barbell bench press. Each of these movements will target the shoulder muscles similar to the overhead press.
Is Military Press Better Than Dumbbell Press?
Neither the military press or dumbbell press is better than the other for activating your shoulder muscles. Both will activate your front and side delotid, and tricep muscles similarly. Use the military press if you want to build your strength by lifting more overall weight. Use the dumbbell press if you want to change your grip or train each arm independently.
A good overhead press alternative either mimics a similar movement pattern as the overhead press or engages similar muscle groups, such as the medial delt, anterior delt, or triceps. Many of the overhead press alternatives discussed in this article are exercises that you can also perform in conjunction with a solid upper body workout.