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How To Perform an Overhead Press With Dumbbells

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Angela Atkinson • updated: 6/7/2011

The overhead dumbbell press, sometimes called a shoulder press, mimics the real-world movement of pushing something heavy up onto a high shelf. But even if you don't spend your workday hefting heavy boxes, this exercise builds strength and endurance in your shoulders and arms.

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    Choosing the Right Equipment

    You can use almost anything heavy for practicing overhead presses: Barbells, dumbbells, a specially designed strength-training machine or even a heavy box. But dumbbells offer the most benefit because, just like in the real world, you have to not only heft the weights but stabilize them, too.

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    The Basics

    To do an overhead dumbbell press:

    1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Imagine that you have a bar passing straight through your head, in one ear and out the other. Position the dumbbells so that their handles line up with the ends of the imaginary bar.
    2. Check your form. Your palms should face forward, your upper arms should be roughly in line with your shoulders, and your forearms should be vertical.
    3. Exhale as you press the dumbbells up and in, until they're directly over your head.
    4. Stop when your arms are straight, but not locked.
    5. Inhale as you lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
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    How Many Sets and Repetitions Should I Do?

    Ask a dozen dedicated weightlifters and you'll get a dozen different responses about the best number of sets and repetitions for resistance training. But many respected medical or sports science organizations, including the American College of Sports Medicine, the Mayo Clinic and the American Council on Exercise, have reported that eight to 12 repetitions are enough to build general strength and endurance. See the Sources/Additional Reading list for links to these organizations.

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    What Size Dumbbells Should I Use?

    The dumbbell overhead press works medium-sized muscles: Your anterior and medial deltoids (shoulder muscles), your triceps (the large muscle in the back of the upper arm), the upper and middle fibers of your trapezius (the diamond-shaped muscle in your upper back/shoulders) and the clavicular head of your pectoralis major (upper chest muscle). As a general rule when resistance training, use small weights for small muscles, medium weights for medium-sized muscles and large weights for large muscles.

    If you've been strength-training for a while, start with a weight about halfway between the amount you use for chest presses and the size you use for lateral raises. So if you do chest presses with 25-lb. dumbbells and lateral raises with 8-lb. dumbbells, try using 12 to 15-lb. weights for the overhead dumbbell press.

    If you've just started strength-training, err on the side of caution; you can always lift more weight once you've mastered the basic technique. Women might start with 5- to 15-lb. dumbbells, and men might start with 8- to 20-lb. dumbbells, depending on what sort of condition you're in.

    Once you can do 12 good, clean repetitions consistently, move up to the next-largest dumbbell.

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    Special Considerations About the Overhead Dumbbell Press

    Always keep the dumbbells under control; they're perfectly positioned to hit you in the head, or fall and hurt somebody else, if you lose control. If you're lifting so much weight that you have to heave or jerk the dumbbells to lift them, you're a hazard to yourself and others.

    Any time you lift or push something over your head, your lower back tends to over-arch--squeeze your abs tight to keep this from happening. Think of keeping your shoulders lifted, pelvis tucked beneath you, and drawing your belly button in toward your spine. You can do the overhead press standing or seated; if you sit, you'll be able to use the feel of your lower back pulling away from the seat back as a cue to squeeze your abs tighter.