Pressing weight overhead while standing can build powerful shoulders, a bulletproof core, and develop full-body strength.
The challenge is that most people do not use proper technique and do not have the required shoulder flexibility in order to safely press weight overhead.
The Standing Dumbbell Press is an excellent exercise to start learning how to press over your head while standing. Pressing weight one hand at a time is much easier and requires less flexibility than pressing weights with both hands over your head at the same time.
The version that I prefer is to start out with the dumbbell facing you, then you twist your hand towards your body as you press, which supports the natural range of motion of the shoulder joint and helps reduce risk of injury.
In contrast, most people flare their elbows out to the sides when pressing dumbbells overhead either when seated, or standing. Flaring the elbows creates a mechanically disadvantaged position and compromises the shoulder joint, which is now in an externally rotated position.
Below you will learn clear instructions, effective form tips, and common form mistakes so you can complete a Standing Dumbbell Press safely and effectively.
- Curl, or clean a pair of dumbbells to shoulder level with your palms facing your body
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, with your knees locked, glutes contracted
- While keeping your low back straight, press the dumbbell overhead with your right hand by rotating your hand towards your body so that your palm faces forward when your arm is fully extended and your elbow is locked
- Pull the weight down slow and controlled to the starting position with your palm facing your body
- Repeat with the other side in an alternating fashion
- Keep your glutes and abs contracted as you press the weight overhead, which prevents your lower back from excessively rounding and keeps your rib cage down
- At the top of the exercise, your body should form one straight column from your feet to the hand that is holding the weight over your head
- Keep your head and neck straight by looking straight in front of you has you press the weight overhead, avoid pushing your head forward
- Breath in through your nose as you are pulling the weight down, then out forcefully out your mouth as you push the weight overhead
3 Common Mistakes
1. Leaning backward and arching the low back
This is the most common and dangerous form mistake when pressing weight over your head – whether it’s a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell. If you don’t have enough shoulder mobility or you are using a weight that’s too heavy, you may compensate by excessively rounding your lower back. This compromised back position can lead to serious injuries over time, so it’s critical to consistently work on shoulder flexibility.
Another form mistake that is often seen with arching the low back is “flaring the ribs”, which means your abs are no longer in a contracted position so the connection with your ribs and pelvis is lost. Ideally, your abs should be contracted, which pulls your ribs down as you press. Keeping your ribs down as you press is not simple and requires practice (hollow hang from a bar and t-spine extension using a foam roller can help).
2. Not locking out the arms
When pressing weight overhead, it’s ideal to lock out your arm at the top of the press. Your upper arm will be right next to your ear and in a vertical position. This position requires ample flexibility in your triceps and shoulders. If you have tight triceps – the muscle on the back of your arms – you may have trouble fully locking out your arms.
The goal is for your body to form a rigid column, so that at the top of the movement when you arm is completely straight, you get a brief rest and there is a straight line from your hand that is pressed down to the middle of your feet.
3. Leaning sideways to push the weight up
Training with dumbbells is a smart idea because it can help you correct muscle imbalances between the right and left sides of your bodies. If you have a muscle imbalance – one arm is less strong as the other, or your QL (quadratus lumborum) or oblique muscles on the side of your body are weaker than the other side – you may have trouble keeping your body upright.
Proper form is to keep your body upright and strong so that you do not sway from side to side or worse, lean over side to side as you press the dumbbell overhead. Keeping your head straight & glutes contracted can go a long way to help prevent any swaying.
I hope this Standing Dumbbell Press guide has helped you gain more confidence to use proper form. Mastering this exercise will help you build a based of strength and comfort with pressing overhead before you move on to more advanced exercises like a standing barbell military press.
Remember to consistently work on your flexibility daily, because proper joint range of motion (both in your shoulders and thoracic spine) will help you press weight overhead comfortably and develop shoulders that are as strong as they look.
Great tip regarding keep the butt tight. That definitely helps with he low back.
Thanks, Giovanna. Keeping the glutes tight makes a huge difference
THANKS Marc! Excellent. You must have been reading my mind. I go to the gym and see mostly bad form. So this is exactly what I have been searching for: a video showing me the proper standing dumbbell press technique described and identifying BOTH of the things I am doing wrong. Also, for me, I think that I am lifting dumbbells too heavy for me, and they are forcing me to compensate and use bad form. THANKS
Thanks for the comment, Edward! Happy to hear it was helpful
A great exercise, and Marc’s list of common mistakes (technically called “compensations”) is on point, but his explanation of “counter clockwise rotation” is only on the right arm in his example. If you think about it, it makes sense the opposite arm is moving in the opposite direction to “open up”.
Also, there is some debate about whether rotation under heavy to maximal loads is wise and/or necessary for muscular development. There’s a lot at risk in the shoulder (glenohumeral) joint by rotating the humeral head while holding a big dumbbell. You may get all the benefit and not nearly the injury risk by flexion through a fixed axis. If you want broader shoulder muscle involvement, pick some appropriate accessory movements.
Thanks, Shawn. Good point about the counter clockwise rotation. There is certainly different opinions about rotating the arm during the press. In a healthy shoulder, I don’t think there is a lot of risk for injury for the humeral head to rotate during a press. If someone doesn’t have a healthy shoulder, they probably shouldn’t be pressing overhead. That’s just my opinion. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts
Tnx and so interesting but as eng. Ismy second laguage i will much appreciate if u shown us some visual (: ..tnx so.much
I really like that addressed the arch versus the no arch dilemma. I had a friend of mine that over arched his back way too much for the sake of just benching a few pounds more. He ended up hurting his lower back in the process. It is important to arch a little bit in my opinion to add some spring and tension to your bench but not too much.