A shoulder press is an exercise everyone should do to build upper body strength and muscle mass.

Beginners will not pay attention to the distinction between seated and standing shoulder presses, but over time you will understand that there is a significant difference.

During my many years in the gym, I tried different approaches. I combined both variations in one workout and did them separately.

In this article, I will share my experiences and thus help you understand which ones work better, what the EMG results are, and what you should pay attention to. So let's dive in!

The seated shoulder press is vital for building up overhead pressing strength.

If you look at footage from the 70s when Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilding legends were at their peak, you'll notice that they all do this exercise regularly.

Arnold, in his prime especially liked seated variation because this exercise does not allow you to use body mechanics and other muscles to press weight, but the shoulders have to bear almost the entire load.

How To Do It Correctly

3 Effective Seated Shoulder Press Variations

1. Z Press

Z Press (Barbell)

Zydrunas Savickas, probably the greatest strength athlete of all time, made this exercise famous, hence the Z press (Zydrunas press). This is an advanced variation of the seated shoulder press.

The Z press has one similarity with the standing military press, which is the activation of the core muscles.

However, unlike the regular seated shoulder press, you have no back support when you do the Z press.

The core muscles must stabilize the entire trunk and keep a neutral spine. A squat rack is suitable for performing this exercise. Adjust the j-hooks to chin height.

How To Do It:
  1. Sit on the floor.
  2. Spread your legs and keep your legs straight.
  3. Roll the bar back until it is in front of your chin.
  4. Grab the bar just outside of the shoulder width.
  5. Take a deep breath, engage your core, and press the bar.
  6. Slowly lower to increase time under tension and repeat with good form.

2. Single-Arm Half-Kneeling Shoulder Press

Half-Kneeling Dumbbell Press

The single-arm half-kneeling shoulder press is somewhere between seated and standing, but I still decided to include it in this section.

Like all unilateral exercises, it is excellent for solving muscle imbalances that practically everyone has.[5]

I recommend you do it after the military press to hit the deltoids further. Core engagement is significant since weight is on one side only.

How To Do It:
  1. Take a half-kneeling position on the floor.
  2. Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell (the side you kneel on)
  3. If you are using a dumbbell, place it at shoulder height and the kettlebell in the front-rack position.
  4. Brace your core.
  5. Press the weight overhead.
  6. Pause for a moment.
  7. Lower in a controlled manner back to the starting position (shoulder level)

3. Seated Arnold Press

Seated Arnold Press

The Arnold press, named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, who invented it, is one of my favorite shoulder exercises. After doing three or four sets, I feel all three deltoid heads burning.

In addition to being perfect for muscle size and strength, it's also very useful for different sports because you don't move your shoulders in just one plane but rotate them.

How To Do It:
  1. Take two dumbbells and place them next to the adjustable bench.
  2. Sit on a bench (adjust it to 90 degrees)
  3. Take the dumbbells using a neutral grip.
  4. Place the dumbbells at shoulder height and rotate your palms.
  5. Simultaneously press the dumbbells and rotate your palms (palms facing forward)
  6. Return to the starting position.

Pros And Cons Of Doing A Seated Shoulder Press

Pros

One of the main pros is that you can use a lot of weight. Since you are sitting and have backrest support, you can entirely focus on your shoulders.

If you want to work on hypertrophy rather than strength, the situation is the same - you will be able to do more seated shoulder presses than standing press repetitions.

It will also improve your mobility, and you will not be limited by recent back and lower body injuries.

Cons

Although the cons are insignificant, you should know that they exist.

If you opt for a seated position, you will need a partner, mainly if you use a barbell and heavier dumbbells for the dumbbell shoulder press.

Set-up is longer, and you need a gym partner to put the weights in the starting position. Also, you will perform the whole exercise better if your partner is there, and you will certainly be safer.

However, exercise can be perfectly safe and doable even when you are alone; just be aware of the weight.

What Exactly Is Standing Shoulder Press?

The standing barbell press (or the standing dumbbell press), often called the military barbell press, is an equally popular exercise and very similar, except that the exerciser stands while performing it.

It affects core activation, which I already talked about, so there is no need to go into details. Let's go through some of the main variations and analyze the pros/cons.

How To Do It Correctly

3 Effective Standing Shoulder Press Variations You Can Try

1. Single-arm Dumbbell or Kettlebell Overhead Press

Single-Arm Overhead DB Press

The single-arm dumbbell or kettlebell overhead press works the same muscles as the single-arm half-kneeling shoulder press mentioned earlier.

The difference is you are less stable when doing the standing dumbbell overhead press, so you will use a lighter weight if you are a beginner.

How To Do It:
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart (or shoulder-width apart, that is up to you)
  2. Grab a dumbbell or kettlebell.
  3. Brace your core.
  4. Press the weight overhead until the arm is fully straightened.
  5. Lower it back.

2. Standing Arnold Press

Standing Arnold Press

Again, the difference is in the core activity and the thus weight you will use. I would also mention improved shoulder stability when standing, but the EMG results show only a minor difference.

How To Do It:
  1. Take a pair of dumbbells.
  2. Stand straight up with your feet approximately shoulder-width apart.
  3. Raise the dumbbells to the starting position.
  4. Raise the dumbbells above your head while turning your wrists.
  5. Raise them until your biceps are next to your ears.
  6. Immediately start to lower the dumbbells.

3. Push Press

Barbell Push Press

The push press is not an isolation exercise for the shoulders. Instead, it significantly engages the chest and lower body muscles.

Thanks to your legs, you can push significantly more weight.

Make sure you don't go into a full squat - this is not an Olympic lifting movement. Avoid locking your elbows and knees in any part of the exercise.

How To Do It:
  1. Stand with feet hip-distance apart.
  2. Place the barbell on your upper chest.
  3. Hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Bend the knees (slight bend) to initiate the movement and push through the feet.
  5. When you gain momentum, push the bar overhead.
  6. Return it to the starting position.

Pros And Cons Of Doing A Standing Shoulder Press

Pros

The benefits go beyond just strong and wider shoulders. The exercise will help you strengthen the core, back, and almost the whole body through different movements.

In this way, you also achieve the efficiency of the movement.

Another advantage is the lighter weights you use for it. That's why the standing overhead press is less taxing on your joints, and you can do it more often.

Cons

Lighter weights, which are one of the pros, are also one of the cons. You will undoubtedly be limited because your body cannot lift equally heavy weights and stabilize your spine.

Whether you have a lower body, core, or lower back injury that will prevent you from doing standing variations, you can do other variations in a seated position.

What To Watch Out For When Doing The Standing Shoulder Press?

No matter how strenuous the exercise, you shouldn't feel intense, sharp pain. If you feel it, stop immediately since it can signify poor form.

The elbows must not flare out, especially when doing standing and the seated military press. Pay attention to your stance in order to be stable when doing the standing version.

Avoid arching your back or putting your neck in an unnatural position. All this is mainly due to the inappropriate weight you are using.

When you reduce weight, you will notice that your form is better and that it is easier to control the execution technique while maintaining proper form.

These are precautions, and I advise my clients never to do a behind-the-neck shoulder press.

The risks far outweigh the potential benefits even when you do this exercise on the Smith machine, which is the safest option.

Sitting Vs Standing Shoulder Press: Which Works Better?

No one can give you a single, general answer to whether seated presses or standing shoulder press works better.

If one variation is dominant in every aspect, there would be no reason to include the other one in your training regime.

What we can determine is which one is better for which purpose. I will break down five common situations.

Shoulder Press (Machine)

For Isolating And Building Shoulders

Sitting and lying exercises are always superior to standing when you aim to isolate a specific muscle.

You will undoubtedly build shoulders when you are standing, too, because both are pressing movements that focus the deltoid muscles, but when you are sitting, the rest of your body will not help with the movement.

You will not be able to use leverage when sitting, as well. In most cases, the leverage in this exercise is bending the back.

All this leads us to the conclusion that sitting is superior for isolating shoulder muscles.

For Strengthening And Stabilizing Your Core

Even if you are not a fitness expert, you can logically conclude that the answer will be the opposite of the previous paragraph.

I recommend standing when performing the shoulder press to strengthen your core and thus improve core stability.

Overhead movements require core activation, and the core will work harder during overhead standing movements due to additional stabilization of the spine and the entire upper body.

The heavier the weight, the more you will feel the core muscles and other stabilizer muscles, but make sure you are not sacrificing form, or you can cause an injury while you won't improve core strength. Abs tearing can't help you with strong core and other exercises.

For Muscular Hypertrophy

If I have to choose, I would say that the seated shoulder press is better for muscle hypertrophy.[1]

The reason is the same as for isolating and building shoulders - a more significant focus on the shoulders will build more muscles.

It is ideal to include both in your workout routine. Doing them will maximize muscle mass, and everyone will notice your massive shoulders, even when you are in a t-shirt and not on the beach.

When Training For Power Sports

In this category, the standing shoulder presses are the clear winner. To be successful in power sports, such as weightlifting, you must be prepared to lift weights overhead in a standing position.

On the other hand, the seated variation is also necessary for power sports and not just shoulder presses standing. That way, you will develop upper body strength and muscle mass.

Later, you can transform such muscle fibers into those more suitable for snatch and similar compound motions.[2]

Less Chance Of Injury

A shoulder press is certainly not among the dangerous exercises that frequently lead to injuries.

However, you must be careful because the shoulder is very complex. Orthopedics and rehabilitation experts often encounter rotator cuff tears, torn labrum, and dislocations.

The most important thing is not to use weights that exceed your capabilities. It is better to start with lighter weights and increase them than take the heaviest dumbbells immediately.

Regarding shoulder injuries, you're about as likely to experience one sitting as when you're standing.

Your lumbar spine is more exposed when you do a standing dumbbell press (and seated).

EMG Results - Standing And Seated Overhead Press

Electromyography (EMG) can assess the health of muscles and nerve cells. It has also revolutionized the fitness world. It allows us to measure the level of muscle activation in the movement and shows the exercise intensity for a specific muscle.[3]

One Norwegian study researched muscle activity in shoulder presses.[4]

In that study, the focus was not only on the level of muscle activation of primary and secondary muscles, but in addition, they analyzed the difference between using a barbell and a dumbbell for this exercise.

The researchers measured the one-repetition maximum (1RM) of the participants.

Middle Deltoid

EMG has shown that you will hit the middle shoulder (medial deltoid) similarly in all variations.

The intensity of muscle activation is slightly over 5% greater when standing, but that difference can be attributed to other factors as well.

Posterior Deltoid

The result obtained for the back shoulder (posterior deltoid) was somewhat surprising. Even though I expected the standing overhead press to be more effective for the back shoulder,

I did not expect the muscle activation to be 25% greater.

That's a significant difference. The result was practically the same for barbell and dumbbell. So if you target the posterior deltoid during back day, do a standing variation for shoulder day.

Anterior Deltoid

The study unequivocally pointed out that the front shoulder (anterior deltoid) responds better when you use dumbbells than barbells.

So whether you're standing or sitting, the anterior deltoids "love" the dumbbells.

The scientists compared all the variations, and the result was the same each time. In this case, the type of free weight was more important than the position.

The difference is up to 15% greater. However, it is best if you change it up occasionally because the muscles get used to any movement or weight and thus stop progressing.

Biceps Brachii

To make a long story short, muscle activation is significantly more remarkable for the standing dumbbell shoulder press.

When they stacked up the seated barbell press against the seated dumbbell presses, the barbell shoulder press turned out to be over 30% better. Results are similar for standing variation.

All this should be taken with a grain of salt because the biceps brachii is a rather unimportant muscle during the shoulder press.

It is not even a secondary muscle in that movement. Biceps are for pulling exercises.

Triceps Brachii

Triceps brachii ensure stability and efficiency for the deltoids when doing an overhead press. You've probably noticed that a barbell is a more effective piece of equipment for the triceps.

Muscle activation was 39% greater for the standing barbell press, which sounds a bit excessive, but one should not doubt the accuracy of the EMG.

You will feel the triceps more when you are standing. As I said above, secondary muscles work vigorously when you stand, and when you sit, the deltoids are isolated.

Biceps and Triceps Muscles

Frequently Asked Shoulder Press Questions

What angle should a seated shoulder press be?

You should set the back of the bench at a 90-degree angle. However, every person is built differently, so the 90-degree angle may be uncomfortable for you.

Then try to change the angles and find the right one between 75 and 90 degrees.

Why is standing shoulder press so hard?

A standing dumbbell shoulder press is primarily hard due to a weak core and muscles around the shoulder blades.

Many exercisers neglect those muscles that have a key role in stabilizing the trunk, back, and shoulders.

Should the seated shoulder presses be upright?

Yes, your torso must be fully upright when doing this exercise, except when you have thoracic and lumbar spine problems.

In those cases, the shoulder press is not the best exercise until these problems are solved.

How much can the average man shoulder press?

The average standing shoulder press weight for a man is around 130 lb, while the average for a seated shoulder press is about 150 lb.

These averages apply to people who train regularly and should not be considered a standard for the general population.

For example, the standing dumbbell press average is 50 lb, while the average for seated shoulder presses is 70 lb.

How many reps should I do for shoulder press?

Go with a weight for an overhead press that allows you to maintain a proper technique and control it for 8 to 12 reps.

This is considered optimal, and if you want to emphasize hypertrophy or strength, the rep range can be lower and higher. Of course, that depends on your fitness level too.

Conclusion

One of your gym priorities should be to strengthen your shoulders in different ways. Strong shoulders will improve not only your sports performance but it will make everyday life easier.

The barbell and dumbbell shoulder press is certainly one of the most effective exercises, which applies to both variations - standing position and sitting position.

Both have cons, too, so it is up to you to implement them properly.

Remember to do push-ups, planks, a bench press, and other stability exercises, and use resistance bands since that's the only way to bulletproof your shoulders!

References: 

1. https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/24/4897
2. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/how-to-do-a-snatch
3. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/electromyography-emg
4. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2013/07000/Effects_of_Body_Position_and_Loading_Modality_on.10.aspx
5. https://www.acefitness.org/resources/pros/expert-articles/7035/the-benefits-of-unilateral-training/

Last Updated on September 21, 2023

Photo of author

Filip Maric

Filip is a qualified ISSA Elite trainer since 2019. His main field of expertise is strength and conditioning, as well as working with professional tennis players. An avid amateur tennis player, you can often find him on the clay courts or enjoying a live tennis tournament.