By Brooks Kubik
In the old days, most men who lifted weights in a serious fashion practiced the standing press – and most of them were reasonably good at the lift. Let’s work together to bring that aspect of training back to the Iron Game. Make it a belated New Year’s resolution: “This year, I WILL get serious about my standing press numbers.”
Having said that, let’s discuss some basic points about getting started on the standing press and increasing your poundage in the lift. Here are twelve tips for lifters who are starting to re-discover the standing press:
1.) Practice Makes Perfect
There is a very precise pressing groove. You learn “the groove” through practice. To become a better presser, you need to press way more often than once a week or once every 10-14 days of heavy pressing. In the old days, Olympic lifters trained the exercise three, four or even five times a week. Personally, I think that four or five times a week would be excessive. But there’s nothing at all wrong with doing standing presses two or three times per week. In fact, many will find that it’s the best way to improve the lift.
2.) Train Heavy
If you do high or medium rep sets in the standing press, you probably are not going to develop exactly the right groove for heavy presses. With light and medium reps, you use light weights, and with light weights, you can easily push “close” to the right groove, but not “in” the groove. Close only counts in horseshoes, folks. In lifting, your goal should be to make an absolutely perfect lift on every rep you do.
As noted above, the standing press requires you to develop a very precise pressing groove. In this sense, it is both a “skill” lift and a “strength” lift. You MUST train the lift with heavy weights and low reps in order to learn how to do it properly.
Think about how lifters train cleans and snatches. Do they do high reps? No. They do singles, doubles and triples. If you do higher reps in a “skill” lift your form breaks down and you actually teach yourself the WRONG groove.
3.) Select the Proper Rep Scheme
To use heavy weights, you MUST use relatively low reps. Anything over five reps is too many. Doubles, triples and singles are great. The 5/4/3/2/1 system is excellent. And remember, you don’t need to do 50 presses in every workout. a total of 7 to 15 presses is fine. (5/4/3/2/1 equals a total of 15 reps, which Bob Hoffman considered to be ideal.)
4.) Train the Lower Back
Always remember, the standing press builds, works, trains and conditions the lower back. That’s one of the most important aspects of the exercise – indeed, it may be the MOST important aspect of the exercise.
But the other side of the coin is this: if you have not been doing serious work for your lower back, you are NOT ready to train hard and heavy on standing presses.
Unless your lower back is strong and well conditioned, the FIRST thing to do is to go on a specialization program for the low back. After six to ten weeks of concentrated lower back work, you will be ready for standing presses.
This is especially important for anyone who has been avoiding squats and training his legs with leg presses, hack machine squats, dumbell squats, wall squats or any other exercise that takes the lower back and hips out of the picture.
Ditto for anyone who does trap bar deadlifts as his exclusive lower back exercise. The trap bar deadlift is not as effective a low back builder as are deadlifts performed with a regular bar. It’s more of a hip and thigh exercise. Many lifters injured themselves by using trap bar deadlifts as their exclusive low back exercise, not realizing that it really does not work the low back as effectively as other movements. Then they hurt the low back doing squats, rows or curls, and wonder what happened.
Anyone who has been training with bench and incline presses (or dips), back supported overhead presses (or machine presses), leg presses and trap bar deads — a schedule I mention because it is highly popular and similar to that used by many modern lifters – should devote serious attention to training his lower back before he tackles standing presses. Such a lifter may have fairly strong shoulders and triceps, and may THINK that he can go out and start doing standing presses with BIG weights. He can’t. His lower back will not be anywhere strong enough and well conditioned for serious work on the standing press.
Let me also note that one of the very best exercises for building STABILITY throughout the lower back and the middle of the body is the wrestler’s bridge. Try 3 sets of 30 seconds per set (with no weight) and work up slowly and steadily until you can do 3 sets of 3 minutes each. You won’t believe how much stronger and more stable you are when doing your barbell exercises. In this regard, don’t forget that I started to do bridging in the Spring of 2000, and by the Fall I had worked up to 12 reps with 202 lbs. in the “supine press in wrestler’s bridge position.” At about the same time, I hit a personal best of 270 in the standing press. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
If you ask someone to list a few good “assistance exercises” for the press, they’ll usually say, “dumbell presses, side presses, incline presses, push presses, jerks, upright rowing, etc.” – in other words they’ll think of “shoulder exercises” and different types of pushing movements. That’s lazy thinking. The shoulder, triceps, traps and “pressing muscles” get plenty or work from pressing. The most beneficial “assistance exercises” for the press are those that strengthen the middle of the body.
5.) Do not neglect training your core.
All of the foregoing points apply to training the waist and sides. Unless you already have been doing this, work hard on these areas for six to ten weeks BEFORE starting to specialize on the standing press.
With regard to the waist and sides, the big problem is the crunch. The exercise gurus who have promoted the crunch for so many years have done nothing but develop a generation of lifters who lack any reasonable degree of strength and stability in the middle of their bodies. Scrap the crunches. Replace them with bent-legged situps (with weight, 3×8-12), lying or hanging leg raises, heavy sidebends and the overhead squat.
The overhead squat? Kubik, have you lost your mind? No, not at all. The overhead squat builds tremendous strength and stability all through the middle of the body. It hits the inner abdominal muscles that lie BENEATH the “abs.” When it comes to strength and stability, these are the muscles that count.
And while we’re talking about core strength, let’s talk about the power wheel. Paul Anderson used a simple cart type of this apparatus, described in an earlier press article in IronMan.
6.) Start Your Day With Presses
Many lifters train their presses after doing heavy squats or heavy back work. That doesn’t work very well, because your lower back is tired and you are less stable. Do the presses first. That’s the way Olympic lifters did their training in the old days, and remember, those guys were all specialists in the standing press.
7.) Be Aggressive
Every single one of you can develop the ability to do a standing press in perfect form with bodyweight. I mean that. Dead serious. Every single one of you . . . bodyweight . . . in perfect form. That should be your long-term goal.
For the younger guys, and for the stronger, more experienced lifters, bodyweight is just the beginning. Once you hit bodyweight, set your sights on 110% of bodyweight. When you can do that, shoot for 120% . . .
Anyone who can handle bodyweight in the standing press is STRONG!
Anyone who gets up to 130% is handling weights equal to some of the very best Olympic lifters in the world back in the pre-steroid days.
Norb Schemansky, in the 198-lb. class, handled 281 pounds. If you do the math you’ll see that Schemansky was pressing 142% of his bodyweight. These numbers show what a strong, determined man can achieve with years of proper, hard training.
8.) Try Cleaning for your Presses
Many lifters find they can press more if they clean the weight than if they take it off racks or squat stands, because the bar is better positioned for a heavy press. So learn how to clean, and try cleaning the bar before pressing it. You might find it adds a little more zip to your pressing.
9.) Dumbell Pressing
From Saxon to Grimek, from the beer halls of Austria to Davis, Hepburn and Anderson, many, many old-timers specialized in heavy dumbell pressing. And guess what? The best dumbell pressers usually turned out to be the best barbell pressers! You see, heavy dumbells are very hard to balance. To improve your overhead pressing, you need to do plenty of overhead pressing. Heavy dumbell exercises, however, are a tremendous assistance exercise for the standing press. Keep them in mind, and when your progress slows down, work them into your schedule. Harry Paschall used to swear by them; heavy dumbell pressing is one of the “secrets” in his 1951 classic, “Development of Strength”.
10.) Handstand Pressing
Another excellent assistance exercise for the standing press is the handstand press. Grimek used to do plenty of handstand presses and gymnastics work, and he became one of the best overhead pressers of his generation. Sig Klein used to specialize in handstand presses and tiger bends, and he managed an amazing record in the military press – a heels together, letter perfect military with 150% bodyweight. Paschall, who was good buddies with both Grimek and Klein, swore by the movement. Give them a try!
11.) Keep the Back, Abs and Hips Tight
For proper pressing, you need to “lock” your low back, abs and hips. Most lifters will do best if they also tense the thighs. The entire body must be tight and solid. Pretend you are doing a standing incline press without the incline bench. Your body must support the pressing muscles and the weight of the bar exactly the same as would an incline bench. (This is NOT to say that you lean back and try to press from a 60 degree angle or any similar foolishness. I don’t want you to lean back as if you were ON an incline bench, I want you to understand that your back, hips and abs have to give you that same level of support that a solid bench would provide.)
12.) Specialize for a While
The standing press is an exercise that responds very well to specialization programs. Try a schedule devoted to very little other than heavy back work, squats or front squats and standing presses. Remember, the great Olympic lifters of 30’s, 40’s and 50’s devoted almost all of their time to cleans, snatches, presses, squats and jerks, with a significant amount of their training being devoted to the press. They built enormous pressing power and tremendous all-round strength and power. You cannot do better than follow their example.
The foregoing tips will help anyone become not just a good, but an EXCELLENT presser. And remember one more thing – pressing is LIFTING. The standing barbell press is one of the most basic tests of strength ever devised. It has been a standard measure of a man’s physical power since the invention of the barbell. When you become a good presser, you can rightfully claim your place among the lifters of the past and present. Do it!