It’s a commonly asked question, “What’s the Difference Between Overhead Press and Military Press?”
At first glance both movements may appear to be exactly the same.
By this I mean that they both require you to press a weight overhead.
So, in effect, it’s the same exercise, but with different names.
However, there are a few subtle differences which actually make the military press a harder exercise.
Allow me to explain these to you now.
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What’s the Difference Between Overhead Press and Military Press?
The main difference between the overhead press and military press is the position of your feet and how you press the weight overhead. You will usually have your feet shoulder-width apart for the standard overhead press. However, the military press requires you to have your heels together. This immediately means that the military press requires far more core stabilization. Furthermore, the overhead press involves the load going straight up and down, whereas the military press is more of a lateral movement.
1. Your Stance is Different
The first notable difference between the overhead press and the military press is the positioning of your feet.
The overhead press will typically see you adopt a feet shoulder-width apart stance.
However, the military requires you to have your heels together, or with minimal space between them
This immediately means that the military press requires much more core stabilization.
Having a wider base allows you to have better balance.
So, in effect, the standard overhead press requires you to do just that, press a weight overhead.
But, when it comes to the military press your centre of gravity completely changes because your heels are together (or extremely close).
This will challenge your stability, so your core has to work much harder.
Working your core to a greater degree is actually fantastic for helping to press heavier weights.
This is because a strong core plays a huge role in heavy pressing.
Most lifters will typically go lighter during the military press.
In fact, the standard overhead press and even the push press are often trained for strength in the lower reps ranges.
But, the military press is trained more for hypertrophy in a higher rep range.
With that being said, there is no set standard of how you should use either exercise.
It’s just that the military is deemed more difficult due to issues with balance and stability.
I would hazard a guess that the military press gets its name because it looks like you’re standing to attention.
You have your heels together in an almost military-style pose and the press is reminiscent of a salute.
Additionally, the movement was used as a general indicator/test of strength in the military.
2. You Press the Load Up Differently
Everyone definitely agrees about stance and feet position when it comes to the overhead press and military press.
However, I don’t often see correct factual information about pressing the load overhead.
I have seen some people describe the military press as barbell only and the overhead press can include a barbell or dumbbells.
Then there are those that state that the military press is a strict press, but the overhead press can use momentum or leg drive.
Firstly, the only time you’ll ever use a hint of momentum, and indeed leg drive, is if you’re performing the push press.
This is yet another variation of pressing a weight overhead.
In fact, I would say that the push press and the standard overhead press are extremely similar in technique, with the exception of leg drive.
However, the military press actually focuses more on a different deltoid muscle.
The military press is more of a lateral movement and therefore focuses a lot more on the lateral deltoids.
But, when it comes to a conventional overhead press the load is basically going straight up and down, so focuses more on the anterior deltoid.
This is another reason why the military press is a harder movement.
The anterior deltoid receives a lot of “training” in everyday life.
Whenever we lift something straight up overhead we use the anterior deltoid.
Therefore, the lateral deltoids are definitely not as well-trained or conditioned in most individuals.
In effect, your hands will be wider on a barbell for the military press.
So, at the top of the movement your arms are angled outwards, whereas they are typically much straighter with the overhead press.
Both military presses and overhead presses can be performed with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and just about any other equipment you can “press overhead”.
The best way to remember the difference is that the overhead press focuses more on the front delts, whereas the military press is more for the side delts.
This is not to say that the same muscles aren’t activated with both movements, but to a lesser degree.
Military Press vs Overhead Press
3. There is No Seated Military Press
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there is no such thing as a seated military press.
The reason I say this is because the military press involves far more core stabilization, and this is pretty much removed as soon as you sit down.
You can of course vary the trajectory of the load you press overhead from a seated position.
So, in effect, you can have a seated overhead press and seated lateral press.
Once again, pressing straight up and down will be a lot easier.
Therefore, if you’re going to press more laterally from a seated position I would suggest that you do so with a lighter load.
In fact, you would be better off doing so with a barbell until you build up strength in the lateral delts.
The reason I say this is because if you don’t have complete control over dumbbells or kettlebells from a seated position this could be a precursor for injury.
I’m sure many people will categorically state that there is such a thing as a seated military press.
Their argument being that their feet are closer together.
However, the simple fact that you’re sitting down takes away most of the core stabilization required.
So, as far as I’m concerned this doesn’t count.
You either have your hands shoulder-width apart for the seated press, and slightly wider apart for the seated lateral press.
I hope you have a better understanding of the difference between overhead press and military press.
This is mainly down to the position of your feet and how you press a load overhead.
The military requires your heels to be touching (or as close as possible), while the overhead press sees you adopt a shoulder-width foot position.
Plus, you will press the load more laterally (as opposed to straight up and down) with the military press.
So, this means that the military press requires more core stabilization and works the less conditioned lateral deltoid.
Therefore, the military press can be deemed to be the harder movement.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.