How to Do a Dumbbell Overhead Press: Techniques, Benefits, Variations (2022)

Also Known As: Dumbbell shoulder press

Targets: Shoulders

Equipment Needed: Dumbbells

Level: Beginner

The dumbbell overhead press can be done in either a sitting or standing position and with dumbbells held horizontally at the shoulders or rotated in a hammer grip. You can use this exercise in any upper body strength workout.

The overhead press can also be performed with as a barbell overhead press. While this exercise works the same muscles, it can be too difficult for many unless you can lift a barbell for reps. Barbells weigh 45lbs empty, which can be too heavy for smaller beginners.

How to Do the Dumbbell Overhead Press

How to Do a Dumbbell Overhead Press: Techniques, Benefits, Variations (1)

Stand upright and keep the back straight. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, at the shoulders, with an overhand grip. Thumbs are on the inside and knuckles face up.

  1. Exhale as you raise the weights above the head in a controlled motion.
  2. Pause briefly at the top of the motion.
  3. Inhale and return the dumbbells to the shoulders.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Overhead Press

This exercise works the deltoid muscle of the shoulder. In addition to increasing shoulder strength, the standing dumbbell overhead press engages the core for stability throughout the movement.

While you can do an overhead press with an exercise machine, barbell, or kettlebells, using dumbbells offers unique benefits. For instance, research has found that using a dumbbell activates the anterior (front) deltoid more than using a kettlebell.

Performing this move also helps identify whether you have an imbalance in shoulder strength. One sign is if you can lift a certain amount of weight more easily with one arm than the other. Muscle imbalances can affect how you move, limiting your mobility and movement efficiency.

In daily life, you may need to place objects on shelves above your head or your luggage in the overhead compartment on a plane. This exercise helps build the strength you need to do these tasks safely.

Other Variations of the Dumbbell Overhead Press

You can perform this exercise in several different ways depending on your fitness level and goals.

Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

While the standing overhead press is a classic move, you can also perform it seated. A seated dumbbell overhead press is a better option for individuals getting started in strength training or for those with back issues or injuries. A sitting position helps stabilize the back.

To do the overhead press in a seated position, sit on a bench and follow the same steps. You can also do a seated overhead press while sitting in a chair (this option offers more back support). Or, sit on an exercise ball for more of a challenge to the core muscles.

Alternating Arms

Another variation is to alternate your arms. Press up with one arm and then the other instead of working both at once. Research shows that this option is better at activating the core muscles—especially when the exercise is performed in a standing position.

Hammer Grip

This dumbbell overhead variation, sometimes called a hammer shoulder press, involves changing your hand position into a hammer grip (palms facing each other) like you do in a hammer curl. A hammer grip is also called a neutral grip. Changing the grip activates different muscles in the shoulders.

Barbell Overhead Press

If you have access to a barbell, you can use it instead of using dumbbells. Lowering the bar in front of the head is recommended if you have a reduced range of motion in the shoulder as this can reduce injury; otherwise, it is considered safe to lower the bar either in front of or behind the head.

Dumbbell Squat to Overhead Press

Make this exercise more challenging by adding a squat to the overhead press. To do it, lower into a squat position every time you lower the dumbbells to your shoulders and return to a standing position when lifting the dumbbells back up. The dumbbell shoulder squat works the upper and lower body simultaneously.

Common Mistakes

To get the most out of this exercise, avoid these common errors.

Locked Elbows

Locking your elbows when you reach the top of your lift will transfer tension from your deltoids to your triceps, which aren't the target. To keep the contraction in your shoulder muscles and increase the efficacy of the exercise, avoid completely locking out your arms. If you find this too difficult, reduce the weight you are using.

Hunched Shoulders

For added stability, keep the shoulder blades down during the press and avoid shrugging them up toward your ears. Keep this position throughout the entire movement. You can try to imagine sliding your shoulder blades into your back pocket at the start of the movement if that helps.

Pressing Too Fast

Don't push up explosively—press slowly and smoothly. Control the motion of the weights and don't allow them to stray too far forward or back during the press. Try to keep them slotted in a path above the head.

Arched Back

Avoid arching your lower back too much while raising the dumbbells overhead. Excessive arching can be a sign that your weight is too heavy. Shift to a lighter weight to practice holding your back in a safe position while you build up to the greater weight.

Safety and Precautions

If you have a shoulder, neck, or back injury, talk to your doctor or physical therapist to find out whether this exercise is appropriate. It is possible to injure your shoulders when doing this exercise, especially if you are using heavy weights or poor technique.

If you feel any pain during the exercise, slowly lower the weights and end the exercise. Only use a weight you can press with good form.

Aim to do 8 to 12 repetitions. Beginners should pick a light weight to start, increasing it until you find a weight that you can lift for 10 repetitions (you should feel fatigued at the final rep). Women might start with 5-pound dumbbells and men with 10-pound dumbbells.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between shoulder press and overhead press?

    The terms shoulder press and overhead press are often used interchangeably. Often, the barbell variation is called an overhead press while shoulder press may more often refer to the dumbbell version. Overhead pressing refers to all variations and is more of a blanket term that includes standard shoulder press, military press, Arnold press, and push press.

  • How much weight should I be able to overhead press?

    How much weight you should be able to press depends on your body size, strength, and experience as a lifter. This will vary substantially from person to person. Instead of focusing on comparisons, try to ensure you are challenging yourself with a heavy enough weight and continue increasing it over time to get stronger.

    Learn More:How to Know How Much Weight To Lift

  • Will overhead press build abs?

    Overhead pressing activates your core muscles, helping to strengthen your abdominals. Pressing movements require stability throughout your core to perform them effectively.

  • How many reps of overhead press should I do?

    How many reps of overhead press you should do depends on your goal. If you wish to increase strength, aim for 2 to 5 reps during your working sets. If your goal is to build muscle mass, try rep ranges anywhere from 6 to 30 reps.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

  • Basic Full Body Home Workout with Dumbbells
  • Shoulder Strength and Flexibility Workout
  • Squat, Curl, and Press Workout

5 Sources

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Nesser, Thomas; Flemming, Neil; Gage, Matthew. Activation of selected core muscles during pressing. IJKSS. 2015;3(4). doi:10.7575/aiac.ijkss.v.3n.4p.56

  2. Dicus J, Homstrup M, Shuler K, Rice T, Raybuck S, Siddons C. Stability of resistance training implement alters EMG activity during the overhead press. Int J Exerc Sci. 2018;11(1):708-16.

  3. McCall P. Muscle imbalance: 6 things to know about muscle imbalances. American Council on Exercise.

  4. Saeterbakken A, Fimland M. Muscle activity of the core during bilateral, unilateral, seated and standing resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012;112:1671-1678. doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2141-7

  5. McKean M, Burkett B. Overhead shoulder press — In-front of the head or behind the head?. J Sport Health Sci. 2015;4(3):250-7. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2013.11.007

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.

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