Push Press vs Overhead Press

Comparison of Exercise Execution & Muscles Worked

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: August 24, 2023

When it comes to building upper body strength, the standing shoulder press is one of the best movements you can use. Two popular options are the push press and the strict overhead press.

While both exercises target the shoulders, they have distinct differences in technique and benefits. In this blog post, we’ll compare the push press vs overhead press to help you determine which exercise is best for your fitness goals.

Push Press vs Overhead Press

Shoulder Press Exercises

The shoulder press exercise is one of the most effective ways to build strength and definition in the shoulders. There are several variations of the shoulder press, each with its own benefits and challenges.

The dumbbell shoulder press is a popular variation that allows for a greater range of motion and isolation of the shoulder muscles. This exercise is excellent for building muscle endurance and improving overall shoulder stability.

In addition, many gyms have seated shoulder press machines that control the movement path so you can focus on contracting the muscle. Another option is the Smith machine shoulder press, which combines the benefits of machines and free weights.

The standing barbell overhead press is a classic exercise that targets the entire shoulder complex, as well as the triceps and upper chest. This exercise generally involves strict form and also requires a great deal of stability and core strength.

Finally, the push press is a dynamic exercise that involves using the legs to generate momentum as you press the weight overhead. This exercise is great for developing explosive power and can help improve performance in other athletic activities.

Push Press vs Overhead Press Explained

Push Press vs Overhead Press

In this section, I will compare the barbell overhead press and push press in terms of proper execution, muscles worked, rep/set duration, and weight lifting capacity.

For quantitative exercise analysis, we will reference a 2022 study from the Sports Science Institute at Dankook University which compared the body muscle activity, number of repetitions, and exercise time during traditional and ballistic shoulder press exercises.

At the end of this section, I’ll summarize the key differences between the push press and the strict overhead press to help you decide which is best for your training goals, including a short video comparison.

Execution

The push press and overhead press differ mainly in using leg drive at the start of the movement.

The push press begins by bending the legs before extending the knees and hips while pushing the barbell up from the shoulders. On the other hand, the strict overhead press requires no movement of the legs.

With the push press, you bend your legs again as you lower the weight, like compressing a spring, and immediately begin the next rep. But with the strict press, you lower the bar to your shoulders and come to a complete stop before starting another rep.

One thing these exercises have in common is that your arms should be fully extended with the bar straight overhead at the top of the movement.

Push Press vs Overhead Press Form

Muscles Worked

According to electromyography (EMG) measurements, the push press and strict overhead press differ significantly in terms of muscle activation1.

More muscle groups get involved in the push press due to the leg drive at the start of the movement, including the quads, calves, and core. However, this compound effect means less work is done by the shoulders themselves.

On the other hand, the strict overhead press is excellent at isolating the arms and shoulders by reducing the involvement of supporting muscle groups. Therefore, the strict press results in greater deltoid activation compared to the push press.

The chart below shows the activation of the shoulder, leg, and core muscles during the push press and strict press.

Push Press vs Overhead Press Muscle Activation

Adapted from Kim, Ki Hong, et al. 

Tempo

Another key finding of this study is that the rate and duration of the exercise were very different between the push press and strict overhead press exercises1.

For example, lifters could perform more total reps with the push press than the strict press. They could also complete the set in less time despite doing more reps.

The reason for the faster tempo is that the leg drive of the push press enables a faster rep on the way up (concentric) and on the way down (eccentric). In addition, there is minimal pause between reps with the push press.

Conversely, the muscle isolation of the overhead press creates slower concentric and eccentric phases with a longer pause between reps. Each rep of the traditional overhead press takes about 50% longer than the push press on average.

Practically speaking, an average set of 10 reps would take 13 seconds with the push press and 20 seconds with the strict overhead press. Slower reps may sound bad, but increasing the muscle’s time under tension is ideal for stimulating growth.

Push Press vs Overhead Press Speed

Adapted from Kim, Ki Hong, et al. 

Power Output

In terms of poundage, the average person should be able to lift around 5-10% more weight with the push press compared to the strict press. Again, this has to do with the multiple muscle groups and ballistic force generation.

However, we can also determine your total power output with each rep. To calculate weightlifting power, we need to know the weight lifted (mass), the distance it moved (displacement), and how long it took (time).

For example, let’s say you can lift 100 lbs (45 kg) on the overhead press and 110 lbs (50 kg) on the push press. It’s also important to note that lowering the bar at the start of the push press results in about a 30% increase in total displacement.

In addition, we know the average time required to perform on rep is 1.28 seconds for the push press and 1.96 seconds for the strict press. Therefore, we can solve the equation and determine the power output for each exercise.

The table below shows how the power output for each repetition of the push press is more than double that of the strict press.

Table 1. Push Press vs Overhead Press Power Output Example
  Push Press Strict Press
Mass 50 kg (110 lb) 45 kg (100 lb)
Acceleration 9.8 m/s2 9.8 m/s2
Force 490 Newtons 441 Newtons
Displacement 0.8 m (32 in) 0.6 m (24 in)
Work 392 Jules 265 Jules
Time 1.28 seconds 1.96 seconds
Power 306 Watts 135 Watts

Remember, this is a hypothetical example, and individual factors could change the power output. But these numbers still illustrate the different forces at play between the two overhead press exercises.

The generally higher power output produced during the push press is advantageous for lifters or athletes seeking to improve strength and explosiveness.

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Push Press vs Overhead Press: Which Is Better?

When deciding which shoulder press variation is best for you, it’s vital to consider your experience level and training goals because each exercise has its pros and cons.

For example, are you a bodybuilder trying to increase shoulder activation and maximize growth? Or are you a powerlifter focused on lifting heavier loads to maximize strength gains?

When to Use Push Press vs Overhead Press for Different Training Goals:

  1. Bodybuilding – The strict overhead press is generally better for muscle hypertrophy due to the isolation of the anterior and lateral deltoids. In addition, the longer time under tension promotes muscle size gains. Bodybuilders should perform the strict overhead press with 70-80% of their one rep max for 8-12 repetitions.
  2. Powerlifting – Strength athletes can benefit from both the push press and strict press. For example, the push press is ideal for increasing overall strength, while the strict press helps isolate the shoulders for stronger presses. Powerlifters should typically work at 85-95% of their 1RM for 2-6 reps.
  3. CrossFit – The push press is generally more advantageous for those who train for functional strength and muscular endurance. A CrossFit workout could include push presses at 50-75% of your 1RM for 10 or more reps.
  4. Olympic Lifting – The Olympic lifts primarily consist of ballistic movements where the maximum power output is required. Therefore, Olympic lifters would be best served by training with the push press at 60-95% of their 1RM for the desired number of reps.
  5. General Fitness – If you don’t have a specific training style, then either the push press or strict press could be beneficial for you. The strict press takes less coordination and is generally easier for beginners. At the same time, the push press burns more calories and develops more muscle groups.

Remember, you don’t need to relegate yourself to one exercise or the other! Rotating the push press and overhead press every few weeks is a good way to balance strength and size gains.

To summarize, the 60-second video below shows a side-by-side comparison of the push press vs overhead press to help you draw your own conclusions.

My YouTube channel has dozens of videos showing you how to do a variety of bodybuilding exercises. You’ll learn how to target and build specific muscle groups in 90 seconds or less. Click HERE to subscribe, or click on the button below!

More Shoulder Exercises & Workouts

Now you know all the differences and advantages of the push press compared to the strict overhead press. And I hope this guide has helped you decide which one is best for your current workout routine.

Still, a good shoulder workout wouldn’t be complete without at least a few more exercises targeting the front, side, and rear delts. So here are some additional guides to help you create your ultimate shoulder workout.

Best Anterior Deltoid Exercises for Boulder Shoulders

25 Lateral Deltoid Exercises for Wider Shoulders

Build 3D Shoulders With These Posterior Deltoid Exercises

List of Compound Shoulder Exercises for Strength

9 Circuit Training Landmine Shoulder Exercises

Sculpt Chiseled Delts With These Cable Shoulder Exercises

Arnold Press vs Shoulder Press: Which Is Better?

Based on the information provided, you have a solid foundation for achieving your goals of building stronger shoulders. If you found this article helpful, I believe you may also find these additional resources to be valuable.

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By |August 24, 2023|Workouts|Comments Off on Push Press vs Overhead Press Muscle Activation & Power Output
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