The seated barbell press is an extremely effective upper body exercise that, when done correctly, is even safer than a standing or military press. It’s the safest overhead press.
It will really work your deltoids, triceps, and traps.
The purpose of weight lifting is to increase your strength and quantity of lean muscle. That won’t happen if you injure yourself. So always perform exercises with perfect technique. If you do, you’ll find strength training extremely safe as well as very beneficial.
This exercise requires access to a sturdy, stable bench that can be adjusted to about 75 or 80 degrees. Do not use a vertical (90 degree) bench. Do not use a bench that is so high that it doesn’t allow your head to go back slightly, especially at the top of the movement. (You won’t have to think about this during the movement; your head will just naturally go back slightly.)
Some benches have an adjustable seat whose front can be raised to help prevent you from slipping down and off when pressing. If yours has such a seat, use it.
Put the bench inside a power rack. Center it so that you don’t hit the rack’s uprights while moving the bar. The barbell should be on pins set at the height at which you begin the ascent at the start of the exercise.
Commercial gyms sometimes have special pieces of equipment specifically designed for the seated barbell press. If your gym has one, it may work well for you, but it’s more likely that it won’t. If you don’t have access to a suitable bench and a power rack, squat stands or spotters can work well.
Do not use a Smith machine for the seated barbell press. Its strictly vertical motion is unnatural and can cause shoulder problems.
Do not do behind-the-neck presses (or pull-downs on a lat machine). It’s true that some trainees can do them for years without problems, but why risk it? Doing them can cause neck or rotator cuff problems as well as shoulder problems. The damage may not show up for many years and, once it does, it may be irreversible.
Keep your eyes forward during the movement.
Throughout the range of motion when doing a seated barbell press, keep a normal hollow in your lower back. This is the normal weight-bearing position for your backbone. If you exaggerate it, you are inviting injury. Simply keep your chest up and maintain a normal arch with your lower back.
When you are ready for your first seated barbell press, your feet should be flat on the floor and slightly wider than shoulder width. As with a bench press, keep your heels either directly beneath an imaginary vertical line dropped from the middle of your knees or slightly in front of that line. (If you pull them towards your head, you’ll exaggerate the arch in your back.)
Do not start a seated barbell press from too low a position or you will unnecessarily stress your shoulder joints. If you have shorter arms, you may start the movement at about the same height as your clavicles; if you have longer arms, you may start the movement at about the same height as your chin.
How wide a grip should you take? Have someone ensure that your forearms are vertical when viewed both from the side and your feet at the bottom of the movement. In other words, at the bottom of a seated barbell press your elbows should be directly under your wrists. This is likely to be just wider than shoulder width.
Use whichever grip you prefer. As with the bench press [click here for how to bench press], you will probably want to wrap your thumbs under and around the bar. On the other hand, while a thumbless grip will give you less control over the bar, it will also force you to have better bar balance and may prevent you from spraining a thumb.
Do, though, use a pronated grip, which is one with your palms facing forward.
When you are ready, fill your belly with air and press the bar up vertically. Keep it close to your face without hitting your face. It’s fine to lift your chin slightly as you begin to press upward. Come close to your chin without touching it with the bar. Do not let the bar track forward.
Press evenly with your arms and shoulders. Keep the bar parallel to the floor at all times. Do not let one hand get ahead of the other. This is especially important near the end of a set. Especially when you get tired, force yourself to focus hard to prevent technique deterioration.
When the bar gets above your head, allow it to track slightly to the rear for a more natural movement. The horizontal distance will be about two or three inches.
Instead of resting by locking out your elbows, go to just short of lock-out and pause momentarily before descending. Inhale either during that pause or while descending, whichever you prefer.
Lower the bar under control; do not let it drop down. Do not lower it farther than your safe point or bounce at the bottom. Pause momentarily at the bottom before beginning the next rep and exhale during the ascent.
As with the bench press, keep your wrists rigid throughout the seated barbell press. Using wrist wraps [not straps] is a good idea.
Keep your body tight throughout the movement. This especially applies to your legs, abs, buttocks, and back. Do not relax until the set is over.
There’s no magical number of sets and reps. I suggest not more than 3 sets and 2 are probably sufficient. Usually it’s best to keep the reps between 5 and 15. For example, 2 sets of 10 to 12 reps or 3 work sets of 5 reps would be fine.
What about auxiliary exercises?
Probably the best are the seated dumbbell press, bench press, incline press, dips, chins, back raises, core (midsection) work, and tricep work (such as pushdowns in a lat machine).
The seated barbell press is an extremely productive exercise. If you train intensely and regularly using perfect exercise technique, you are likely to be delighted with the results.