The overhead press is a classic weight training movement, however, there are alternatives to this exercise including the z press, the landmine press, the weight plate around the world, and many others. As part of the Aspire 2.0 Alternatives series we explore the 10 best alternatives to the overhead press.
Chances are you’re reading this article because you are interested in learning about the best alternatives for the overhead press.
I’m guessing you fall into one of the following categories:
- You would like a slightly more demanding exercise with heavier weights
- The overhead press is causing you pain or injury
- Your overhead press technique is not great and feels as if it may cause pain or injury
- You do not have the equipment to perform an overhead press
- You have done plenty of overhead pressing and are looking for alternatives to mix up your training routine.
Whatever the reason for seeking alternatives, this article will provide you with some ideas regarding the ten best exercises to replace the overhead press.
Check Your Overhead Press Technique
I want to mention a few ways that you could modify your existing overhead press to see if that solves your issue.
If the overhead press causes you pain or you are weak in one part of the lift, try limiting the range of motion, for example.
“The athlete is seated inside the power rack to perform a shoulder press with the bar placed between two pins on each side of the rack. One pin supports the weight while the second pin limits the range of motion.” 
If you are pressing from behind the neck, I advise you to stop and perform the overhead press from in front of the head unless it is a movement you perform due to strict sporting requirements.
“This position creates significant strain on the anteroinferior glenohumeral ligaments. The behind-the-neck press also stresses the cervical region by placing the athlete’s head into excessive flexion in the overhead finish position.” 
If equipment is an issue, for example in a hotel gym, try the overhead press with dumbbells, kettlebells or even resistance bands.
You could try a set of fat grips to change the hand and wrist positions.
One final point. You could try a light seated row exercise just before overhead pressing. You might find that this promotes the correct movement of the shoulder blades and activates the right muscles to support the overhead press better.
To begin our list of exercises, let’s take a moment to consider the role these exercises will have to fulfil. We are looking for lifts where the shoulders are the prime movers, with many muscles acting as stabilisers (including the rotator cuff and triceps) and a positive training effect for the core.
My list will undoubtedly include some exercises you have seen or used before but prepare for a couple coming to you from left field.
Dumbbell Push Press
During my time as a rugby player, The Push Press was my go-to exercise for developing shoulder strength and size and a movement I have programmed into countless elite athletes’ training routines over the years.
By generating momentum with your lower body, you can press heavier weights overhead than the shoulder press.
It is also a straightforward move to master but takes the overhead press to the next level.
With the increased lower body activation, be prepared to feel how hard your heart and lungs are pumping after a set of these!
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and set up with dumbbells at shoulder height, elbows pointing forward, hands just wider than shoulder-width.
- Drop down into a shallow squat, centering your weight under the dumbbells.
- Press up through your heels. Drive the weights directly above your head until your arms are straight.
- Lower the dumbbells down to the starting position. Maintain a neutral arch in your spine throughout the move.
Weight Plate Halo
A fantastic exercise that significantly activates the muscles of the shoulders. I always use this as a warmup for my athletes before strength training, but the training effect is vast with a heavy enough weight plate.
I find this exercise is beneficial for developing the necessary strength and mobility within the rotator cuff to help a lifter in the overhead press.
This is a perfect exercise for outdoor training or perhaps in a gym with limited head space. I will often combine it with a modified push press. Halo left – push press – halo right – push press. I’m sure you could come up with even more great variations.
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a weight plate in both hands with upper arms straight out in front of you, elbows bent at 90 degrees.
- In a circular motion, orbit the weight around your head, completing a 360-degree revolution and ending up at the starting position.
- Complete the same motion in the reverse direction, again ending at your starting point.
Dumbbell Z Press
Whereas the Push Press intensifies the overhead press by increasing lower body movement, the Z Press intensifies the activity differently by eliminating the lower movement and creating a different angle at the hips.
The Z Press is an advanced exercise that demands a good level of upper back mobility.
The Z Press will torch the shoulders alongside the abdominals, hip flexors and muscles of the back.
- Maintain an upright posture. Do not slouch!
- Attempt to sit on your hamstrings to ensure a correct spine position.
- Perform the movement like a standard overhead press.
- Press the dumbbells straight up towards the ceiling.
- Keep the heels and backs of the knees pressed firmly into the floor, and ensure your core is activated throughout.
Landmine Viking Press
I am a particular fan of this exercise for people who find the traditional overhead press creates an issue for their lower backs or rotator cuff.
The Landmine Viking Press requires a bit of specialised kit; however, they are becoming increasingly popular in gyms nowadays and less expensive to invest in for your home gym set up.
With a Viking Attachment, you can experiment with grip position and determine which works the best for you.
This exercise also allows us to work on our overhead mobility (which could be why the traditional overhead press is causing issues) by leaning into the press at the top of the movement, enabling more of a full motion of the shoulder blades. Just like the Z Press, it will also torch the core muscles.
- Remember, the bar is attached to an endpoint and moves along an arc.
- Do not try to press straight up!
- As you press, lean forward and allow your head to take a position through your arms at the top of the movement.
- Reverse this process on the way down from the top.
“Hang on”, I hear you cry. “I want to build muscle. What good are bodyweight exercises to me, and anyway, aren’t push-ups for the chest”.
Ok, ok, I hear you but let me try and appease your concerns! Although they are a fantastic exercise, traditional push-ups may not provide you with the targeted training effect needed as an alternative to overhead pressing. However, the Pike variation is an excellent way to train the shoulders, especially with limited equipment or space.
You will find this exercise blasts the shoulders and strengthens the core and legs.
- Starting from a traditional push-up position, slowly walk your feet towards your hands with your body forming an upside-down V shape. You should notice the load transfers from your chest to your shoulders.
- With your elbows tucked in, bend at your elbows and slowly lower your forehead towards the floor. Look through your legs as you lower.
- Gently allow your forehead to touch the floor for optimal depth.
- Your head and hands should form a triangle shape.
- With your shoulders engaged, push with your arms and return to the starting position.
- You may find that a set of press-up handles makes this exercise a touch easier on the wrists and hands.
Half-Kneeling Kettlebell Press
The half-kneeling kettlebell press is one of my favourite alternatives to the overhead press. I believe the set-up and movement associated with this exercise provide a fantastic variation to traditional overhead pressing whilst training weaknesses that may limit a lifter’s ability to properly overhead press.
I like this exercise for people who find they suffer from hand or wrist issues from gripping a barbell or even dumbbells. With a kettlebell, you can “slide” your hands inside the handle and maintain a softer hand grip, or even a false grip, with some of the support from the bell resting on the forearm.
- Set up in a half-kneeling position with the single kettlebell racked on the side where the knee is on the floor.
- Press the kettlebell to a locked-out, overhead position.
- Avoid your bicep touching your ear
- Activate your lats to control the downward phase of the exercise.
Although the half-kneeling position may seem simple, I would advise you to either consult a coach or watch a tutorial on the technique, as it’s a bit more involved than it looks.
Hammer Strength Jammer
If you speak to a professional rugby player, NFL player, sprinter or any athlete involved in a power-based sport, they should have many a tale to tell about the Hammer Strength Jammer.
This machine was all the rage a few years ago for those guys and girls looking to gain an edge in their speed and power.
I’m not saying the Jammer has fallen from grace; I’m just not seeing these machines used quite as much as before. Athletic conditioning methods move on very quickly, and the Jammer has perhaps been left behind a touch.
This could be great news for anyone looking for alternatives to the overhead press, however, as this machine (similar to the Viking press) can enable a large amount of weight to be handled in the pressing movement whilst potentially minimising the potential for injury. There may very well be an old Jammer in your gym now gathering a bit of dust, or if you’re a gym owner, you can pick these pieces of kit up for far less than their original price tag.
- Step into the machine and set your feet at shoulder width, slightly behind the handles
- Take a grip on the handles.
- Slightly bend at the knees to create a strong base, with your legs feeling spring-loaded.
- Drive-up into a triple extension position (ankles, hips, shoulders) and aim for a straight line from your feet to your hands, with your head between your arms.
- You should not be upright. It would be best if you were leaning on a forward angle.
- Allow flexion at the shoulders, hips and ankles to return to the starting position.
We earlier discussed the Landmine Viking Press.
The standard landmine press is a single-arm exercise that is fantastic for developing the strength and mobility for overhead pressing. Being a unilateral exercise, it helps iron out imbalances between the left and right sides.
You need an Olympic barbell, some plates and a firm anchor point on the floor. I only use a bespoke landmine attachment, but it is possible to use a rack, a wall or a couple of heavy objects to secure the end of the bar.
- Set up one end of a barbell in a landmine attachment
- Stand in front of the barbell in a wide and stable stance, with slightly soft knees and core engaged
- Grip the nose of the barbell with your hand in front of your shoulder
- Keeping your core active, drive the barbell in front of you
- Return the barbell to your shoulder and repeat
Seated Arnold Press
Guess which Arnold invented this exercise? Whatever Arnie says is good, is good for me.
Joking aside, we often sacrifice some intensity or training effect by adapting an exercise to the seated position. With an overhead press, we lose a stack of core and leg stabilisation by taking to the bench. We are also, generally, not able to handle comparable weights.
However, suppose you have a lower back niggle, a knee injury or perhaps a weakened core. In that case, the seated Arnold Press is a fantastic alternative as it brings the medial head of the deltoid into play a bit more than standard pressing. You may also find you get an element of biceps activation during this movement. This could be considered a positive, with the biceps playing an active role in good shoulder health.
- Start with dumbbells in each hand
- Press your arms against your chest with your palms facing you
- Move 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
Kettlebell Long Cycle
I warned you they might come a touch out of left field.
What is a kettlebell long cycle?
Essentially, we are talking about a clean and jerk movement with a single or pair of kettlebells. However, the action is performed using techniques attributed to Kettlebell Sport. The sports style was developed in Russia and is essentially endurance weight lifting. The athletes have 10 minutes to complete as many reps as possible.
Efficiency and technique are essential to maintain energy throughout the set, making the Long Cycle an excellent alternative to the overhead press and one I use all the time. Long cycles will expose any mobility issues and allow you to determine if any muscles are weaker than they should be.
Once you have learned the correct technique (I would look for tutorials from coaches such as Denis Vasilev or Joe Daniels), have a go at a 2-3 minute set with a single kettlebell, and you will soon have a new respect for the Kettlebell Sport athletes. Build up to using two kettlebells for the double-long-cycle, and you will discover that the pain cave has a new room out the back.
- Clean the kettlebell into the ”rack position”. The bell should sit in the ”V” of your shoulder, elbow and hand. Not off to the side.
- To fully insert your wrist and forearm during the rack position, there is a point during the swing/clean when you need to open your hand and push through. If you do not do this, you will not be able to get the bell into the proper position.
- Keep your elbow as tight to the body as you can.
- Dip the knees and hips and explosively jerk the kettlebell towards the ceiling.
- Dip again to get “under the kettlebell” as the arm extends overhead.
- Drop the kettlebell back to the rack position and release the bell into the next clean movement.
Although the long cycle is an unbelievably effective exercise, it is very technical, and I recommend seeking expert tutorials and practicing the techniques before embarking on an endurance set.
Is overhead pressing bad for shoulders?
Overhead pressing is not inherently bad for the shoulders, however, it is important to ensure that you do not exceed recommended levels of volume and intensity. Never increase weight by more than 5% and remember you are in the gym to build strength, not show off strength!
Can you build big shoulders without shoulder press?
While the shoulder press is a staple exercise for most training routines, it is perfectly achievable to build shoulder size and strength without overhead pressing. Consider exercises like the side delt raise, rear delt raise, and front raise to help shape shoulders of steel.
As I said in the introduction to this article, the overhead press is as old as the hills. For those of you who know me and my training ideology, you are already aware that I believe many of the foundations of strength training were set in stone decades ago. I’m not someone who tries to repackage things to try and sell a program, and I will never pretend to have reinvented the wheel (just because I’ve attached colourful stretchy bands to it). Of course, progress is essential, and many coaches are moving strength training forward to new and exciting levels. However, all the guys I know who are at the top of their game consistently give a respectful nod of the head to the “old school”.
This article’s purpose was not to discourage you from overhead pressing, nor was it to tell you that there are better exercises to put into your routine. I wrote this piece to give you an insight into ten exercises which can be used to develop levels of strength comparable to the overhead press if you are looking for alternatives. I also took the opportunity to introduce you to a few movements which can be used within your routine to develop more strength and mobility, which will improve your overhead press in the future.
One last thing before I finish.
If I give you one piece of advice to take away from this article:
“Always consider the longevity of your shoulders when you are strength training!”
When I took over my first gym, it was full of guys in their 40s, 50s and 60s who had lifted weights all their lives. So many of these guys suffered from severe shoulder issues, and so many were “training around” these injuries. I realised immediately that most of the problems were the result of too much weight and too much volume, combined with not listening to their shoulders crying out for rest, recovery and treatment. Unfortunately, most of those guys no longer train and cannot enjoy the tremendous benefits that strength training provides, particularly in later life.
 Upper Extremity Weight-Training Modifications for the Injured Athlete A Clinical Perspective Martin Fees,* MPT, ATC, CSCS, Tony Decker,† ATC, CSCS, Lynn Snyder-Mackler,‡ ScD, PT, ATC, and Michael J. Axe,‡§ MD doi.org/10.1177/03635465980260052301
Keys To The Inner Universe – Bill Pearl 1979 ISBN-10: 1938855221 ISBN-13: 978-1938855221