Strength athletes are always on the lookout for any exercise that will make them stronger and also improve their other athletic skills—timing, coordination, quickness and balance. Power cleans, power snatches, jerks and full cleans and snatches serve that purpose nicely, yet few consider the overhead press in the same way. That’s because the only pressing they have seen done—or done themselves—is a rather slow, deliberate movement. They take the bar off a rack, fix it across their front delts and steadily elevate it to arm’s length. Also, they don’t use heavy weights. Ever since the press was eliminated from Olympic competition in 1972, those who do use it in their programs only press light weights and make it an auxiliary exercise.
That slow version was the way nearly every Olympic lifter did the press up until the early ’60, when a fast-rising middleweight representing the New York Barbell Club, by way of El Paso, Texas, named Tony Garcy used his very inventive mind and turned the press into an explosive, athletic lift. Garcy’s innovative method of pressing drew immediate attention on the international stage and was quickly copied, especially by the European competitors—so much so that it was soon known as the “European press.” Many American lifters who had been in the sport for a long time were too set in their ways to make the change, but the younger, up-and-coming athletes adopted it eagerly. Joe Puleo, Phil Grippaldi, Frank Capsouras, Jack Hill, Bobby Hise III, Tom Hirtz, Peter Rawluk and Rick Holbrook mastered the technique and rose to the top of the sport.
Without anyone intending it, the new style became a death blow for the press. Because it was done so fast, it was difficult to judge and soon became a political lever in international competition. In 1972 the International Olympic Committee threw in the towel, and the press was set aside as a viable strength exercise much as the Zercher lift and bent press had been. Yet it is still one of the very best exercises for improving shoulder girdle strength and athletic attributes—and the strength gained in the shoulders and arms, not to mention back and legs, improves performance in every sport more than any other upper-body movement. Heavy presses done dynamically are an asset to spiking a volleyball, shooting a basketball and rebounding, striking a tennis ball or firing a shot on goal in lacrosse.
Be forewarned, however: It’s not an easy lift to master. It is a high-skill movement that requires months of drilling on the technique before you can begin to reap the rewards for your efforts.
While learning this form of pressing, take the bar off a rack instead of cleaning it so you can focus on the press itself. Stick with an empty Olympic bar until you get the feel of what you’re trying to do.
Foot placement is very important. Plant your feet firmly at shoulder width, with your toes straight ahead. Your feet must be in that position so your weight can be shifted from the balls of your feet to your heels and back again in the blink of an eye.
The best grip for the press is a thumb length from the smooth center of an Olympic bar on either side. Fix the bar across your front deltoids, with your elbows tucked in tightly to your body and squeezed against your lats. Your wrists should be locked and straight. If that’s a problem, wrap them with ace bandages or trainer’s tape. They must stay absolutely straight throughout the lift. Tuck in your chin and set your eyes directly ahead. Do not follow the flight of the bar with your eyes.
To ensure a rock-solid base, grip the floor with your toes. We used to use the analogy of a bird perched on a tree limb. Now extend your pelvis forward, and create a bow with your body. The bow starts at the back of your heels and ends at the back of your head. Think of yourself as a powerful coil of steel. Every muscle in your body must be extremely tight, especially your abs and lumbars.
Next comes the hardest part. Your legs must be straight but not completely locked. That’s the way they teach you to stand for a long time in the military so you won’t pass out. Locked legs impede circulation. Remember, if you let any part of your body relax, it will have a negative effect on your start—and the start is critical.
Once you’re set in the right coil, explode the bar upward, and at that same instant lock your knees. That will drive the bar skyward in a blue streak. Now comes the move that takes a lot of practice to perfect. As soon as you hurl the bar off your shoulders, drop back to the same position you assumed at the start, at the same time pushing up into the ascending bar. That is the essence of the Olympic press. At the start the weight is pushing forward on the balls of your feet. As you drive the bar upward, the weight shifts to your heels, and when you move back into the bow, it shifts once again to the balls of your feet. At the conclusion of the initial drive your body will be completely erect, and eventually you’ll learn how to incorporate your traps into the movement and add even more power to the start.
As you instantly move into the second bow, you must maintain a strong pressure up against the bar. If you don’t, it will stall, and when the weight is heavy, you may not be able to set it in motion again. At the finish the bar should be locked out overhead in a line directly up from the back of your head.
Everyone quickly learns that balance is a major factor in this form of pressing, which makes the start doubly important. That’s not the case with a slower style. Your drive has to be extremely precise, or you won’t be able to move back into the coil correctly. Timing is also critical. You must make that move instantly, or the bar will just hang in thin air. What’s more, you must do the moves in a fluid, coordinated manner. That’s the reason it takes a lot of practice to learn the Olympic press—practice that you must do perfectly in order to master the form. When you do the press right, the bar soars overhead almost effortlessly.
Remember, you don’t lean back. Rather, extend your pelvis forward until you’re curled into a tight crunch, with the bar fixed directly over your power source. Then, after you explode the bar upward and return to that coiled position, the bar is still over your hips and lower back.
The Olympic press is harder to learn than it is to learn the snatch, clean or jerk, and I include it in every athlete’s program. When performed correctly, it enhances every valuable athletic attribute and strengthens all parts of your body—from your arms, shoulders, back and legs right down to your feet.
Drill on the technique until you feel confident that you’re on the right track, and then start loading on the plates. Set goals. That is what every competitive Olympic lifter did when the press was a part of contests. Most started out trying to press their bodyweight, as I did. When we achieved that, the next goal was the magical 200 pounds. That’s still a worthy goal because very few people these days can press that much.
There’s something very satisfying about pressing heavy weights that’s unlike any other exercise—a feeling of raw power and accomplishment. Take some time to learn the form on the Olympic press, and make it a primary exercise in your strength program. You’ll be glad you did it.
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—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www