Last February, Dave Draper’s wife, Laree, contacted me regarding an online forum about my book The Strongest Shall Survive. She asked if I’d respond to questions posted by members of the forum. Since I’ve never been one to pass up free publicity, I readily agreed.
Those who have been weight training for a wide variety of reasons for any length of time tend to change their focus as regularly as the seasons, so I wasn’t sure just what aspect of training the online participants would be interested in: rolling around on fat balls, hoisting stones or poles, bands, medicine balls, kettlebells or perhaps some magical routine that would make them huge and strong by working out five minutes a day, twice a week.
So I was surprised that the majority of questions dealt with some aspect of the military, or overhead, press—how to do it correctly, why was it dropped from official competition, is it a safe lift to teach youngsters, is it “less traumatic” to the shoulders than the flat bench, and is it a better exercise for athletes than the flat bench? In addition to the large numbers of inquiries from the online forum, I also received several letters that basically asked the same things. It seems that the military press has once again stepped out of the shadows into the spotlight.
Which is where it belongs. Yet for a long time I was one of the few who encouraged everyone who lifted weights—bodybuilders, athletes, powerlifters, Olympic lifters and those who trained for overall strength fitness—to include the military press in their routines. I fully understood the value of being able to press heavy weights because I’d always pressed. As did everyone else in the gym regardless of why they were lifting. The two primary exercises that absolutely every person who was trying to get bigger and stronger did were full squats and military presses. No exceptions. The exercises selected for the back varied, but not for the upper and lower body.
The military press was the standard by which strength was gauged. “How much can you press?” was always the question asked when someone wanted to know how strong you were. The rite of passage was to be able to press your bodyweight. Once you achieved that feat, you were on your way. By the way, that’s still an excellent measure of upper-body strength. I’d be willing to bet that in a gym where several are benching in the high 300s or even in the 400s, not a single one of them can military-press their bodyweight.
The shift in giving the bench press priority over the military press wasn’t gradual but quite abrupt. Strike one was when the press was eliminated from Olympic weightlifting competition in 1972. Strikes two and three quickly followed: the emergence of the sport of powerlifting, which used the bench press as the test of upper-body strength, and the explosion of weight training for athletes across the country, especially for football. The bench press prevailed because 1) more weight could be used, 2) it was easier to teach, and 3) it was deemed safer. The final reason was the most important of all. Coaches and athletic directors were often wary of students lifting weights and certainly didn’t want to increase the risk of injury by including an exercise that had been banned from the Olympics.
Youngsters and beginners were no longer introduced to the military press for fear it would cause lower-back injuries, a direct result of the International Olympic Weightlifting Committee’s declaration that the press was no longer a part of the sport because so many back injuries were occurring due to the nature of the new style of the lift.
So presses were suddenly harmful, not helpful. No one doubted that if such an austere, knowledgeable body as the International Olympic Weightlifting Committee considered the press dangerous, then it must be. In truth, the committee was made up of a group of self-serving old men who used the sport for personal gain and power, Bob Hoffman being a prime example. There was no medical evidence to support the contention that the military press caused injury to the lower back. That was the smokescreen. Dropping the press was purely a political decision and had nothing whatever to do with the health of the athletes.
The real reason that the press was no longer a part of the Olympic sport of weightlifting was simply that the judges had allowed it to get completely out of control. Who sat in the judging chairs determined whose lifts got passed, and in international contests, politics took precedence over fair rulings. Some lifters got away with excessive layback while competitors from other nations had to stay very erect or be disqualified. Some used an extreme knee kick that resembled a push press, but the lift was passed if the judges were friendly. Even when the lifter adhered to the rules strictly and didn’t lay back too far or knee-kick the start, the judges always had an ace in the hole—the bar stopping on the way up. Having a bar stop on the way up was not to the lifter’s advantage. Just the opposite—and it got a lot of presses red-lighted.
At the major international meets, it got downright ugly. At the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City I was standing off to the side of the stage, observing the technique of the foreign lifters. I watched two Caribbean judges give red lights to a lifter from Cuba on his first two attempts, even though his presses were flawless. His knees stayed locked at the start, he remained erect throughout the lift, and he never paused from beginning to end. The Cuban coaches ranted and raved, but to no avall. He got three white lights on his third attempt. It didn’t matter. The two judges had made sure he’d be out of medal contention. In meets at that level, one failed attempt is enough to lower a placing by five or six spots. While I had no love for the Cuban, I still thought the actions of the two judges were totally out of keeping with the spirit of the Olympic Games. That lifter had worked very hard to earn the right to compete for the highest honor in his sport and had been royally screwed because of his nationality. Sad to say, he wasn’t the only one.
ALLPolitics, not a concern for the lifter’s well-being, prompted the committee to remove the press from the contested lifts. Few, however, knew the truth, which meant the press was suddenly relegated to the role of an auxiliary exercise, if it was done at all. You might wonder whether some lifters hurt their backs because of the press. Of course: The press is the same as any other exercise. Use sloppy technique, and you pay the price. Even so, far more dings and injuries were incurred on snatches, clean and jerks and front and back squats than from pressing.
Also keep in mind that lifters spent one-third of their training time on the press, even more than that if the lift was lagging behind. That meant three to four sessions a week where they hit the press hard and heavy. I’m not suggesting that anyone train for the press in such an extreme manner. When I insert military presses into people’s programs, I have them press only twice a week, and they go heavy just once during the week. I also make sure they learn proper technique before piling on the plates and do plenty of specific lower-back exercises to ensure that their lumbars can take the stress if they do lay back.
It’s extremely difficult to learn how to lay back when performing a military press. It takes a great deal of practice to lay back at the precise moment and do it smoothly. The military press is one of those exercises that’s easy to learn but tough to master. I can teach athletes how to snatch or clean and jerk faster than I can teach them the finer points of the military press. That’s why I allotted so much training time to it. Sure, there were a few who merely muscled the weights up, but having excellent technique upped the numbers appreciably. Naturally, I don’t recommend excessive layback, but in reality, that just doesn’t happen. So stress to the lower back really isn’t a problem.
Speaking of injuries, I can say with certainty that one type of injury prevalent today was unheard of when the military press was the primary upper-body exercise—damage to the rotator cuff muscles. We didn’t even realize there were such muscles. No one who pressed had any trouble with them simply because the exercise strengthened them. Rotator cuff injuries started occurring soon after the bench press replaced the military press as the main exercise for developing shoulder girdle strength. The bench press was overtrained to the extreme and usually done with sloppy form, since all that mattered were numbers.
At the same time, the part of the back that houses the rotator cuffs was neglected, so the weakest-link concept emerged, as it always does. You just can’t slide around a natural law. Walk into any commercial gym in the country, and you’ll find a half dozen people with rotator cuff problems. It’s become almost epidemic and isn’t likely to change in the immediate future. Whenever people approach me asking for advice concerning their rotator cuffs, I tell them to start doing military presses. If they’re very weak pressers, I have them use dumbbells. As they gain strength in the movement, they graduate to the Olympic bar.
Keeping your rotator cuffs healthy is a real plus for the military press. There are other benefits as well. It’s one of the best—perhaps the best—exercises for developing the deltoids completely. It works all three heads thoroughly, whereas other upper-body exercises, such as the flat- and incline-bench press, neglect the lateral head. It’s a great movement for building strong, impressive triceps. All you have to do is look at photos of the great pressers of the ’60s to verify that. Phil Grippaldi, Bill March, Norb Schemanski, Ken Patera, Bob Bednarski and Ernie Pickett immediately come to mind. Their amazing triceps and shoulder development was a result of doing lots and lots of military presses, period.
Military presses become a part of the routines of all my athletes, both male and female, because the shoulder and back strength gained from handling heavy weights in that lift converts directly to every athletic endeavor, such as shooting and rebounding in basketball, throwing and hitting in baseball, firing a lacrosse ball at 100-plus miles per hour and hurling a shot into the next county. That’s not the case with the bench press. Too much benching causes the shoulders to tighten and limits range of motion, an important consideration for athletes engaging in activities that require a great deal of flexibility in their shoulders.
When you spend ample time on learning how to press, and move yours up into the mid-200 range, you’ll discover that it has a very positive influence on all your other upper-body exercises.
One of the best things about the military press is that it can be done in a very limited space and with a minimum of equipment—a bar and some plates. For those who train at home alone, it has another advantage: You don’t need spotters. Should you fail to press a weight to lockout, all you have to do is lower it back to your shoulders and set it down to the floor or on the rack. Even in extreme situations where you lose your balance and have to dump the weights, it’s still far better than being pinned under a heavy weight on a flat bench.
Speaking of dumping weights, when there were only metal plates, that was taboo. It damaged the floor and sometimes bent the bar. It wasn’t even allowed in meets. The lifter had to lower the bar under control back to the platform. Dropping it was cause for disqualification. Bumper plates changed all that. Seldom do I see people lower the bar after finishing a press, clean, snatch or jerk. They simply dump the bar. They reason that not having to ease the weights back to the platform saves them some energy to use on the upcoming attempts.
I hadn’t thought much about the practice until I read what Bill Clark wrote in his Journal. In part, he stated that the press is a tremendous builder of upper-body strength—the lower back, the entire shoulder girdle, plus the hips. Then he recommended using iron weights. “There would be no more dropping of the bar. A lifter would control the weight from overhead to the shoulders, to the waist, and to the floor. Thus working negative resistance…more for the price of one effort.”
Good advice, especially for beginners.
I’m only going to present basic instruction on how to do the military press, sort of a primer. I’ll save the more detailed points of form for another time. After pressing for four or five weeks, you’ll be ready to hone your technique. I’ll also attempt to explain the rather complicated style of pressing that eventually prompted the Olympic Weightlifting Committee to drop the lift from competition. It’s not easy to learn, but you might want to take a crack at it. I’ll also include ways to incorporate the press in your overall upper-body routine and how to make it stronger.
Now for the basics. Grip the bar at shoulder width. If you extend your thumbs so they barely touch the smooth center of an Olympic bar, that’s usually right. Naturally, those with broad shoulders will need to grip the bar a bit wider, but don’t overdo it. You’ll know that you’ve found the ideal grip if your forearms are perfectly vertical. It provides maximum upward thrust.
Place your feet at shoulder width with toes pointed straight ahead. I see people in gyms pressing with one foot behind the other, almost like a split in the jerk. Wrong on two counts. It places uneven stress on the lower back and doesn’t let you grind through the sticking point. It’s a weak position from which to press, but then again, none of the people I saw doing the technique were using any weight, so maybe they weren’t interested in getting any stronger.
Wear a belt. Not for safety, because if you use sloppy form over and over or haven’t bothered to strengthen your lumbars, the belt isn’t going to prevent you from getting hurt. Rather, it’s useful in that it provides feedback, particularly in regard to laying back, and it helps keep your lower back warm.
When learning how to press, clean the weights rather than taking a bar off a rack. Believe it or not, that makes the lift easier. And if your primary interest is in building a solid fitness base, clean and press each rep. It’s a perfect push-pull exercise. Most trainees, however, mainly want to improve their pressing power. In that case, just clean the bar and proceed to do all your presses.
Rack the bar across your front deltoids, not your collarbone. Resting the bar across your clavicles is painful, and doing it repeatedly can result in bruising the bones. Not good. Simply elevate your entire shoulder girdle to provide a ledge of muscle to place the bar on. That will also put the bar in a stronger starting position than when it’s set lower.
Your elbows will be down and close to your body—not tucked in tightly but more close than away. Your wrists must be straight, not cocked; that’s most important. If you have trouble keeping them locked, tape or wrap them.
After cleaning the weight, grip the floor with your feet to establish a firm foundation, and then tighten your legs, hips, back, shoulders and arms. I mean rigidly tight. If any bodypart relaxes at all during the execution of the press, the outcome will be adversely affected.
Look straight ahead, and continue to do so throughout the lift. Don’t get into the habit of watching the bar travel upward, which will carry you out of the proper pressing position. While learning how to press, drive the bar off your shoulders forcefully, yet in a controlled fashion. Explosive starts will come later. The controlled start will help you learn to press in the correct line, which is straight up, directly in front of your face. The bar should almost touch your nose.
As it climbs up past the top of your head, push your head through the gap you’ve created, and at the same time turn your elbows outward and guide the bar slightly backward. Not much, though, or it will force you to lose your balance. When the bar is locked out, it will be right over the back of your head. That places it in a very strong position over your spine, hips and legs.
Still staying tight, lower the bar back to your shoulders in a deliberate manner. Don’t let it crash down on you. That can damage your shoulders, and it carries the bar out of the correct starting position. Make sure you tighten up again; then do the next rep. When the set is completed, follow Bill Clark’s sage advice and lower the bar to your waist, then to the floor.
When learning the lift, take a deep breath before you drive the bar off your shoulders and another after it passes the sticking point or once you lock it out. While the weights are rather light, breathing isn’t that critical. I’ll get into how to breathe with heavy weights in a future article.
With practice, you’ll find that there’s a rhythm to the press, and when you hit everything just right, the bar will float upward. It’s a fine sensation to press a heavy weight overhead, unlike any other exercise.
I mentioned above that I have my athletes press twice a week, but when you’re in the process of learning the lift, it’s all right to press at every workout. Do five sets of five, and go as heavy as you can. Pay attention to form, and when the next issue of IRON MAN comes along, you’ll be ready for a more advanced version of the military press—the European Olympic press.
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