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Only the Strong Shall Survive

Get Your Pressing Issues in Order

The strength you can build with overhead exercises is extremely useful for all athletic endeavors, even more so than what you get from other upper-body movements such as bench presses and inclines. That’s because the strength gained from handling heavy weights overhead is directly convertible to all sports activities, particularly those that require a high degree of shoulder flexibility. Athletes who participate in baseball, basketball, volleyball, tennis and swimming often avoid flat-bench presses because they don’t want to risk limiting the range of motion in their shoulders.

Overhead lifts work the deltoids, triceps and many parts of the back, groups that are involved in every sport. They don’t work the pecs nearly as much as the flat or incline benches, and for some sports that’s a definite plus; for example, Olympic weightlifting. Olympic lifters don’t want to add muscle to their chests, as the pecs do little to help them elevate weight overhead in the clean and jerk or snatch. The delts, triceps and back, however, are extremely important to success in weightlifting. The same holds true for other athletes who would much rather have cannonball delts and horseshoe triceps than a huge chest.

Another point in favor of overhead movements is that trainees who strive to develop large chests often discover that they have a tiger by the tail. As they grow older, they have to diligently work those muscles. If they don’t, that once impressive chest starts to sag’not a pretty sight. Triceps and delts are another story. During periods of inactivity they may get smaller, but they won’t sag. And with a little attention they can be shaped back up in a short time. Once the pecs start sagging, however, you’re in trouble.

While I’m well aware of the status given to the bench press in strength training for athletes, especially football, I’ve said many times that I’d much rather have a football player who can military-press 250 pounds than one who can bench 400. I can assure you that the player who can handle a big overhead press will win any confrontation on the playing field with a big bencher.

When I mentioned that overhead strength converts to all sports activities, that included other exercises in the weight room. The 250-pound presser will be able to lie on a bench and use at least 100 pounds over his best military press. Yet it doesn’t work the other way around. The 400-pound bencher won’t be able to overhead-press 100 pounds less than that. Not even close.

When I first became bitten by the weightlifting bug, there were two exercises that everyone in the weight room did: full squats and military presses. Bodybuilders, competitive weightlifters, athletes who trained with weights to improve their strength and those who lifted for general fitness did them’and for a couple of reasons. They were simple exercises that worked many useful muscles, and they required very little in the way of equipment.

That’s the reason the military press is still one of the better exercises to include in any program. All you need is a bar and some plates, plus a fairly high ceiling. Cleaning and pressing is an ideal combination exercise. Many trainees want at least one of those movements in their routine, plus they fit nicely in the push-pull system. In fact, all the exercises I recommend fit those categories, and you can do them with just a bar and some plates.

Currently, if people do military presses, they relegate them to the role of auxiliary exercise, performing them at the end of the workout with light weights and relatively high reps. The idea of pressing a heavy weight is no longer a consideration. Those who’ve been around weight training for a long time, however, can recall that the military press was the cornerstone of almost every strength program. We did presses at the beginning of the session, sometimes at every session, and worked them extremely hard and heavy.

Naturally, those who competed in Olympic weightlifting did lots of presses because they were part of the sport. In addition, those who were trying to improve their physiques or gain strength for their chosen sports did lots and lots of pressing, plus overhead work as well. In all cases they did presses as a primary exercise.

At clinics, whenever I preach the merits of presses and overhead lifts, I’m invariably questioned about lower-back safety. After all, that was the reason the International Weightlifting Federation gave for dropping the lift from competition. In fact, lower-back injury wasn’t the real reason the federation eliminated the press; it was because the officiating was erratic. At the ’68 Olympics I watched one class where the lifters were allowed to do everything but get the loaders to assist them in pressing the weight, and in the next division a different set of judges ruled out lifts if the bar even slowed the slightest bit. Things had become so political, it was easier to throw out the lift than clean up the mess.

That said, the concern about the risk of lower-back injury is a genuine one because of the way you lean backward when the bar hits the sticking point. I certainly agree that you should avoid excessive leaning, but I’ve found that no one knows how to do that maneuver any longer. It took hours and hours of practice for lifters to master that excessive backward lean. I have difficulty teaching beginners to bow their lower back just a bit. You don’t want to lean backward; you just push your hips forward. I’ll get into that technique thoroughly later on.

That’s point number one. Number two is that if athletes will spend enough time maintaining relative strength in their lumbars while they learn proper form on the press, they won’t have lower-back problems once they graduate to heavier weights. ALL Besides the military press, there are several other excellent overhead exercises you can insert into your routine. You could do one right after you complete your press workout or do them on a separate day. You could pick one and work it exclusively until you feel you’re burned out on it, then switch to another. I like push presses, jerks with your feet on a line and jerks with your feet split apart. They’re all dynamic movements that complement the more deliberate military press. Mixing slower lifts with explosive ones stimulates the muscles and attachments in slightly different ways, promoting even more growth.

Regardless of which dynamic overhead lifts you choose, learn how to military-press correctly first. Once you have at least adequate technique on the press, you’ll find it easy to do the explosive moves’even the split jerks, since you’ll have built a substantial base with the pressing. The main reason I teach the jerk after the press is not because the quick lift requires more timing and coordination. Many beginners pick up the technique of the jerk faster than they get the press down. The problem is that they don’t have the necessary body strength to hold the weight overhead. Holding presses at the top helps build the strength that’s critical on the dynamic lifts.

It’s typically not the lack of shoulder or arm strength that causes the problem. It’s the lack of back strength. The back plays an integral role in all the overhead lifts. They work it effectively but in a slightly different way from pulling exercises. Following the first strenuous workout on any overhead lift, athletes always tell me that it was their back, not their shoulders, that got the sorest. Overhead lifts are of particular value to the small muscle groups that make up the rotator cuff’another reason to add them to your routine.

If trainees have a glaring weakness in the overhead press, I have them start from the lockout position: You fix the bar solidly, lower it to your shoulders, pause and then press it. I also recommend holding the final rep on every set for five or six seconds. Building structural strength in the formative stages of training is extremely valuable for long-term progress. When the bar is locked out overhead, every muscle in your body comes into play, from your wrists to your toes.

You’ll be able to recognize that feeling quickly. Should your shoulders or arms relax, the bar won’t stay locked out. If any part of your back fails to stay extremely taut, the bar will waver from its fixed position. The same goes for the legs, from hips to feet.

One thing that people discover when they start military pressing is that it’s much more complicated than they expect. It seems like a simple movement. Just elevate the bar from your shoulders to a locked-out position overhead. A two-year-old can do that with a broomstick. The press is a piece of cake’until the weights get heavy. In fact, it’s one of those exercises that are easy to learn but hard to master.

When learning how to press, you can either clean the weight first or take it from a rack. Now, while it may seem that taking a bar from a rack would be easier than cleaning it before the press, that’s not the case. Cleaning the weight first actually makes pressing it easier. Unless, of course, your pressing power far exceeds your clean. If your primary purpose in doing overhead exercises is to work your upper body, you may want to do all the lifts from the rack. On the other hand, should you be looking for some good combo exercises, then start all the lifts from the floor. Both methods have merit.

Whether you clean the bar or take it from the rack, once it’s fixed on your shoulders, the rest of the motion is the same. The bar is set across your front delts, not your collarbone. You accomplish that by lifting your shoulders upward to create a muscular ledge to set the bar on. Your elbows should not be parallel to the floor or pointed downward. You want to place them somewhere between these two positions. Your wrists must be locked, never cocked, and stay locked throughout the lift. If that poses a problem, tape them.

After you have the bar in the correct starting position on your shoulders, take a moment to tighten your entire body. Start with your feet. Don’t just stand on the floor; drive your feet down into it and grip it with your toes. Moving up your body, you contract your legs, glutes, back, shoulders and arms. Every bodypart has to be really tight’almost to the point of cramping.

Your feet should be on the line, never placed one behind the other, and your knees locked. On the push presses you use a knee kick to set the bar in motion but not on the military presses.

Look straight ahead throughout the lift. Don’t watch the bar travel upward. That will cause you to lean backward, taking your body out of a strong pressing position. With light warmup weights you can press the bar deliberately, so you get properly warmed up and find the line you’re after. Once you get to the heavier weights, however, you need to start exploding the bar off your shoulders. It should be like a boxing punch. Naturally, it takes time to learn how to do that, since you’re also trying to drive the bar upward in the exact same line on every rep. When the poundages approach max, the bar will invariably run forward. You have to fight that tendency because if the bar moves too far away from your body, there’s little chance of your completing the lift. That initial upward thrust has to be very close to your face, nearly touching your nose. Ideally, the drive off your shoulders should be powerful enough to carry the bar to the top of your head. If it doesn’t, you’re going to have difficulty pressing the heavy weights to lockout.

While every lift has a start, middle and finish, you want to blend the three segments into one strong continuous movement. Explode the bar off your shoulders, and then follow through immediately, and it will glide through the middle range, making the finish much simpler. In most cases the finish will take care of itself. Even if it doesn’t, a powerful start plus a strong middle will leave with you sufficient juice to grind the bar to lockout. As the bar passes the top of your head, push your head forward into the gap you’ve created. Your upper body will follow naturally. With that maneuver you place the bar in a position that enables you to use your levers much better. Should the bar stick, don’t lean back, away from it. Instead, push your hips forward so they’re under the bar. That will keep the bar over your power base and help you finish the lift.

As for breathing, if you’re yo-yoing light weights up and down, how you breathe doesn’t matter all that much. When you get to heavy triples, doubles or singles, however, it most certainly does. Take a breath just before driving the bar off your shoulders, and hold it until the bar passes the sticking point. Inhaling or exhaling while the bar is in motion forces your diaphragm to relax, which in turn creates a negative intrathoracic pressure. In common language, breathing during the lift diminishes your ability to apply force to the bar.

Once you lock out the bar, take as many breaths as you need and then lower the bar to your shoulders in a controlled manner.

Don’t let it crash downward. Not only will an out-of-control bar bang up your shoulders, but it will also jar the bar out of the correct starting position and adversely affect your next rep. After you’ve been doing presses for a while, you’ll start feeling the rhythm of the movement. When everything hits just right, the bar will float upward almost on its own.

You do push presses exactly like military presses except you use a knee kick to set the bar in motion. That enables you to handle heavier poundages than you use on military presses, and that’s the point. The push press will help you further improve overhead strength. As soon as you knee-kick the bar, relock your knees so you have a solid base when the bar hits its apex. If your body is loose after the initial thrust, you won’t be able to press the bar to lockout.

Make sure you don’t drive the bar all the way to lockout. You want to press it out the final four or five inches. And holding it at the top for several seconds will enhance structural strength even more. If it’s a heavy weight you’re holding, try to push up against the bar aggressively instead of merely holding it passively.

Push jerks are just like push presses except you drive the bar to complete lockout. You don’t want to press it out at all. So, when you bend your knees and drive the bar upward, you have to quickly rebend your knees and catch the bar, then stand up. The keys to success on both the push press and push jerk are to drive the bar forcefully in a line close to your face and react instantly once the bar is high enough. Any delay in relocking your knees on the push press or rebending them on the push jerk will result in failure.

Since I wrote a detailed article on the split jerk for an upcoming issue, I won’t spend time on it other than to say that it’s a most useful lift. There’s a great deal of timing, foot speed and coordination involved’which makes it an ideal exercise for athletes. Split jerks are especially beneficial for field event athletes because they help develop faster feet.

How many should you do? On all the overhead lifts you can start out with fives on the warmup sets, but I recommend threes or even doubles on the work sets. Even when you lower the bar back to your shoulders under control, it will still move out of the ideal starting position, and the slightest deviation is enough to adversely affect the next rep. If you find that you can only do heavy doubles, just add extra sets to fit in your desired workload.

Understand that your form doesn’t have to be perfect on these lifts in order for you to reap the benefits. With practice you’ll improve your technique. Overhead lifting is terrific for strengthening your body and adding variety to your routine. Anyone who’s serious about getting stronger must have at least one of the overhead lifts in his or her program. Two is even better.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM

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