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Different Strokes for Different Folks

As many of you know, one of the exercises of which I am most critical – mechanically speaking – is the traditional Overhead Press, aka “military press”, whether with a barbell or with dumbbells.  I wrote several articles for Iron Man Magazine a few months ago – one of which was published in the printed pages of the magazine, and two on my blog, wherein I described in detail, the five reasons why I believe that movement is: (A) potentially injurious, and (B) compromised in terms of benefit.

To be clear, my perspective (as I’ve said in the past) is based on the use of resistance training (i.e. weight lifting) for the purpose of bodybuilding and general fitness.  Weight lifting for the purpose of “sports training” and/or “powerlifting” is considerably different.

The goal of a bodybuilder, and that of a general fitness practitioner, is to develop the physique (to build muscle and lose fat), to maintain optimum health, and to minimize the risk of injury.  It is not to gain “maximum strength” at all cost, although some strength is certainly gained.  Conversely, the goal of someone trying to improve their athletic performance, or optimize their power in a particular sport, is to play their game better, with little emphasis on their appearance, and also a lesser emphasis on safety.  My focus is NOT on sports training, sports performance or achieving maximum strength.  It is on developing the physique in the optimum way (i.e. maximum muscular development), while minimizing the risk of injury.

Recently, someone – let’s just call him “Mr. BS” (those are actually his initials) – wrote an article criticizing my point of view.  He said he felt that it was his “moral obligation to defend the exercise”.  Moral obligation?  Is it “immoral” for me to present a bio-mechanical analysis of this exercise as unfavorable?  I’m all for intelligent debate, but I think Mr. BS is starting on questionable footing by beginning his argument suggesting there is an ethics violation in having a difference of opinion related to an exercise.

A discussion about which exercises are good or bad is productive, as well as interesting.  However, a comparison between two points of view related to the same exercise should provide some science – on both sides.  I provided five logical and scientific reasons – as to why the Overhead Press is not an especially good exercise, but Mr. BS did not provide a single scientific reason why Overhead Presses are good.  For the most part, his argument was simply that he had never seen anyone get hurt by doing Overhead Presses, that the exercise has been around for a long time, and that many notable people have used the exercise, with “good” results.

In an effort to strengthen his argument against my view, he criticized my five-point explanation, essentially saying that it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and that “scientific jargon” was a sure sign of me putting up a “smoke screen”.  He also stated that scientific studies can never be relied on because they are often fraught with lies, and that you also can’t trust physicians or surgeons.  Hmmm.  That’s quite a position to take.  It essentially means that one could never present an argument that is thorough and clear, and backed by the medical community, no matter how truthful and logical it is, because “scientific jargon” and lengthy explanations are proof of falsehood.  That’s … well… BS.

In a previous article, Mr. BS said that “Brignole joins the legions of doctors and physical therapists who mistakenly believe that Overhead Presses are bad”.  Clearly he meant that in the derogatory, but I’ll take it as a compliment.  Apparently he believes doctors and physical therapists should know better than to debate tradition.  It seems Mr. BS is not impressed with people who have devoted years of education related to the human anatomy.  I suppose, therefore, that he could care less that Eric Sternlicht, Phd. (professor of kinesiology and exercise science) approved my article and said it was “bio-mechanically sound”.  No doubt that means nothing to Mr. BS, compared to the “fact” (?) that big guys with big muscles in the 50s and 60s did that exercise for years – with super heavy weight (much heavier than anybody uses today, according to him), without injury.  Really?

Well, appearances may be deceiving.  Frank Zane recently had shoulder replacement surgery.  Several weeks ago, upon meeting Sergio Oliva at the 2010 Mr. Olympia competition and Expo, he could barely raise his arm up to chest height, when we shook hands (he had to lean his torso to the left and arch his back, simply to get his arm high enough for a handshake).  In speaking with orthopedic doctors, I’ve been told that the #1 most common injury related to weight lifting is “rotator cuff tears caused by heavy Overhead Presses”.  Walk into any gym, talk to 10 people who are serious weight lifters, and 5 of them will tell you they have shoulder pain – especially while doing Overhead Presses.  I’ve spoken with countless people who have told me they cannot do an Overhead Press without pain or discomfort.

We’re not talking rocket science here.  Even UFC and MMA fighters know that one of the best ways to subdue their opponent is to grab his arm, and rotate it externally, till it hurts or dislocates.  How far is that?  Only about 5 or 10 degrees past the point of an Overhead Press position.  In some cases, less than that.  It’s no mystery.  That degree of external shoulder rotation is a strain, at best…not for everyone, but certainly for most people.

In my original article, I pointed out that “if someone is unable (due to insufficient shoulder mobility) to rotate their arm enough to position their forearm perpendicular to the ground – thereby resulting in a forward slant to the forearm – the forward pull of that angle could strain or tear the rotator cuff”.  But, as proof that people take things out of context when they are determined to find fault, someone (a supporter of Mr. BS, in his forum) wrote, “Why would someone choose to angle their forearm forward? … this just proves that Doug Brignole does not know how to do an Overhead Press”.  I said “unable” – not “choose”.  There is a fine line between “alteration” and “altercation” – yet the message difference is immense.  If you read what is actually there, the message will be understood.  But if you interject your own bias into what you’re reading, you create the conflict you’re hoping to find.

Another critic on Mr. BS’s forum said this: “Doug’s argument against the Overhead Press centers around some very strange assumptions in order to make his point…’improper alignment of the muscle, excessive external rotation of the humerus, and impingement’ .”  Strange assumptions?  You mean like that other strange assumption, called “gravity”?  Those terms are well-known and well-established in bio-mechanics, and they are typically used to describe joint movement and the generation of force.  Those “assumptions” might very well be “strange” to the person who wrote that, given his obvious lack of knowledge in this field.  But they are standard terms, and they very accurately describe the issues related to the Overhead Press.

Mr. BS said in his article that “the best way to cure a rotator cuff problem is with Overhead Presses”.  Ouch!  My shoulder hurts just thinking about an Overhead Press.  It would hurt more actually doing one, and my shoulders are not injured.  I’m supposed to believe that what hurts me when I’m healthy, will heal me when I’m injured? Try explaining that to the orthopedic surgeons at Kerlan-Jobe (a leading Los Angeles-based orthopedic clinic that treats the Dodgers, the Lakers, Oscar De La Jolla, and many other pro athletes).

At the gym where I do my own workouts, a number of (open-minded and courageous) guys have completely dropped the Overhead Presses, and have replaced it with a variety of heavy side raises (…if only as an experiment) – and ALL of them have been rewarded with great results.  Their shoulders are much more developed now, and they all rave about how much better their shoulder joints feel.  Coincidence?  Of course not.

Mr. BS  further stated that “…Doug favors side laterals, and they’re good, but they won’t help you Overhead Press more weight”.  I don’t WANT to Overhead Press more weight.  As Ron Harris stated in his excellent article in Iron Man Magazine this month – “I don’t care how much you can lift”.  Amen.  We’re not powerlifters or football players.  I do dumbbell side raises for the same reason I do dumbbell curls – because they develop the muscle.  That’s all I care about (… by the way, I do dumbbell side raises with 45 pound dumbbells… so I wouldn’t classify that as “weak”).  If your primary objective is to lift more weight Overhead, then – yes – you must do Overhead Presses.  But at best, Overhead Presses are unnecessary for good shoulder development, and at worst, they’ll injure you.

Another one of Mr. BS’s supporters wrote, “Believe it or not, Iron Man Magazine used to be a good magazine”.  He said this as a commentary to the fact that my article was published in Iron Man Magazine.  Well, my friend, when Iron Man Magazine was owned by Perry Rader some 20 years ago, it used to be half bodybuilding news and half powerlifting news.  Clearly the magazine has shifted to more of a bodybuilding and fitness audience, since then.  Powerlifting’s popularity seems to be fading some, as compared to 20 years ago.  This is not to suggest that powerlifting is not a “good sport”.  But the fact that Iron Man Magazine now leans more toward bodybuilding and fitness – rather than toward powerlifting – does not make it a bad magazine, even if powerlifters do feel a bit slighted.  What makes it a good magazine is that it presents varying points of view, so that readers have a wide variety of perspectives from which to choose.

There is plenty evidence (both scientific and empirical) that suggests I am not wrong in my assessment of Overhead Presses.  So, rather than criticize me, or my analysis of the exercise, why not simply say that you disagree with my view, but that your focus is primarily on powerlifting and football, and it works just fine in those applications?  Otherwise, devoting an entire article to defending the exercise for every application, simply comes off as… well… defensive.  Perhaps rightly so.  It might be a bitter pill to swallow, accepting that my analysis may be correct – given that you’ve devoted so many years promoting an exercise that may have done more harm than good.

Times change, as do perspectives, attitudes, beliefs and awareness.  We know more about bio-mechanics today, than we did in the 50s and 60s, and we should use that knowledge to modify our attitudes and beliefs about certain traditional exercises.  Consider this: the actual size of a  PROTON  molecule was recently revised.  For many years, it was thought to be 0.84184 femtometer (note: a femtometer is one quadrillionth of a meter).  Now, due to a better understanding, it is known to measure 0.8768 femtometer.  This may seem like an insignificant difference, but the point is that a revision of beliefs is sometimes necessary, even at such a small level.

In the fable of “The Emperor Wore No Clothes” – people denied the truth, for fear of being judged by others.  This happens in real life as well, and the issue of Overhead Presses is no exception.  Nevertheless, the emperor was indeed naked, regardless of whether people chose to acknowledge it or not.  And for centuries, people were absolutely convinced the world was flat, despite the fact that it was, and is, round.

The most ironic statement in Mr. BS’s entire 3,624 word essay is this: “What Doug said about presses being stressful when the shoulder joints are placed in a certain position does most likely occur if the athlete stands completely erect when doing the exercise. No one, however, stands rigidly erect when doing a press. You bow your body under the bar when the bar climbs overhead.” What?  Well, what do you know.  He actually agrees with me.  There it is, in black and white.  But here’s the thing – if you lean back as the bar climbs overhead, you convert that movement into a semi-incline press.  It’s not an Overhead Press anymore.  It’s an Over-chest Press, with a big dose of lower back strain.  And by the way, what do you mean “…no one stands rigidly erect when doing a press”?  Oh, right.  You mean, “no one who Power Lifts“.

There’s the crux of the argument. The objective of bodybuilders and fitness practitioners is to work the muscle, not to maximize the amount of weight going up, even if it requires you to arch your back.  In fact, bodybuilders (and fitness people) typically try to find ways to make a lighter weight tax the muscle more, by using strict form.  Hence the title of this article – bodybuilders use one set of “strokes”, and powerlifters use a different set of “strokes”.

After all his criticism, Mr. BS actually agrees with my primary premise: if you press a weight overhead, while upright, it’s “likely” (his word) that you’ll stress your shoulder joint.  And the heavier you lift overhead, the more the risk.

In his final paragraph, Mr. BS writes, “The Overhead Press doesn’t need any more abuse….it’s had more than it’s share of criticism in the past”.  Abuse?  We’re not talking about a person here; we’re talking about an exercise. There’s no need to feel sympathy or compassion for an exercise.  There are clearly reasons why it’s had its share of criticism in the past.  Obviously, it’s a more controversial exercise than most of the others because people have had problems with it.  This is undeniable.

The Overhead Press is not a sacred entity, which might render criticism of it as blasphemous.  I simply encourage people to be thoughtful (and informed) about using it.  Don’t ignore shoulder pain, and seek ways of avoiding the potential of shoulder injury, while simultaneously achieving (or even exceeding) your bodybuilding and fitness goals.  In my own training, and in that of my clients, I have proven that excellent results (in deltoid development) can be achieved in spite of not using Overhead Presses.

I’ve been weight lifting and competing in bodybuilding for over 34 years.  My perspective is not purely academic.  It’s in-the-trenches experience, combined with good logic, sound physics and basic anatomy (all of which are provable and demonstrable).  I’ll be competing again next June and July, at the age of 51.  I promise to be in outstanding condition, and my shoulder development will be on par with the best in the business, despite doing absolutely no Overhead Presses.

Note: Here is the link to the article written by Mr. BS:

Here is the link to the forum, where his supporters have commented:

The Author - Doug Brignole - doing "Horizontal Side Raises" - an excellent side deltoid exercise

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