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By Keith Wassung The overhead press has always been the premiere shoulder exercise for strength and development. Few exercises are as satisfying as the overhead press. I believe that if you could find a remote, primitive island in the world and left a loaded barbell on the beach in the middle of the night, within a week, the men of the island would be trying to lift it over their heads. The heaviest recorded weight that has been pressed in an overhead manner was 535 lbs by Ken Patera, in the early 1970’s. Patera (photo below), who became famous as a professional wrestler, may have been the strongest man ever to compete in Olympic lifting, but he lacked the technical proficiency of his competitors. Pressing big weights is a real kick and it is rare to see in most gyms. Many years ago, I visited the original Golds Gym in Santa Monica with some friends. We were dressed in street clothes and were wandering around, watching all of the bodybuilders train. We came to a seated press unit and my friends coaxed me to do some overhead presses. I did not want to do this knowing that I was amongst people who routinely pressed 300 lbs for 8-10 reps, or at least that is what I was led to believe by reading the various magazines. I started warming up and as I added weight, I began drawing on-lookers. By the time I had 315 lbs on the bar, about three-fourths of the gym members had gathered around to watch (talk about pressure). I did 4 hard reps with the crowd enthusiastically cheering me on. I believe that if you can bench press 225 lbs, then you have the capacity to perform an overhead press with 300 lbs. This may take you a year or it may take five years, but the effort will be worth it. One of the most common questions that I am asked is what is the best combination of sets and reps to do in order to achieve increased strength and development. My answer has always been that it really does not matter as long as you are training in a progressive manner. Progression and overload are two very important principles that must be followed, yet are often overlooked in many people’s training program. Strength and development is as much of an art, as it is a science. You have to experiment, keep track of your numbers in a training log and make adjustments as necessary. I have always believed that the best way to make consistent, long-term progress is to do a wide range of repetitions in your training, In order to increase your standing overhead press, you have to develop near perfect technique, strengthen your weak points and get your body physically and mentally prepared to lift heavy weights over your head. Technique The body has to work in harmony with itself as a unit. Each muscle or set of contracting muscles has an opposite set of muscles, which are referred to as the antagonistic muscles. For example, the triceps are antagonistic to the biceps when doing barbell curls. To maximize your training, the antagonistic muscles need to be set or balanced against the contractor muscles. When standing in the traditional upright stance, there is little balance and once the lifting begins, the antagonistic muscles actually begin draining the contractor (the ones used in the exercise) muscles of strength and energy. To place yourself in the strongest standing position, you should place one foot approximately 3-4 inches in front of the other in a staggered stance. This will place you in a much stronger stance permitting more work to be performed. Boxers, martial artists, baseball players and track and field athletes also use the staggered stance. If you ever see pictures of past Olympic lifters such as Vasily Alexeev or Paul Anderson (photos below), you will notice that their feet are staggered when elevating weights overhead. Practice with a somewhat narrower grip-many people use the same grip on their overheads that they do on the bench press but bringing your grip in just a bit will give you a stronger and faster press. Take the barbell from the uprights and get set into your stance, maintaining tightness in the mid-section and lower back. When you begin pressing the bar, you want to be looking at a very slight up angle. This will take your head slightly back and will allow the bar to pass in front of your face without having to change the trajectory of the bar. As the bar clears the top of your head, you will want to push the bar up and slightly back in a straight line so that you end up with the bar directly over the center of your head. You would be surprised how many people perform this movement incorrectly. Instead of pressing so that the weight ends up overhead, it ends up actually in front of the head. The leverage that your shoulders have to work against when you’re in this adverse position can really put undue and unnecessary stress on your shoulders-the joints, not the muscles, and will inhibit you from pressing the maximum amount of weight in this exercise. Lock the bar out, lower back to your shoulders and repeat for the desired number of reps. It is important to start each press from a stopped position. It is easy to develop a habit of lowering the weight and then rebounding off the shoulders to start the next rep. By starting each rep from a “dead” position, you might initially have to reduce the weight you are lifting, but you will be much stronger in the end, especially when performing maximum singles. Strengthening Weak Points One of the limiting factors in the overhead press is the strength and flexibility of the lower back and mid-section. Train your mid-section as hard as you train anything else. Mid-section weakness is very common among lifters. It is not that the mid-section is weak, but it is weak in comparison to other parts of the body that are worked in a progressive manner. If your goal is strength and power, then traditional abdominal isolation exercises, such as crunches and leg raises will only take you so far in your quest for optimal strength and development. The purpose of the mid-section is primarily for stabilization and therefore this area needs to be worked in a static manner. Do as much of your mid-section training as you can while standing on your feet. Perform overhead lockouts, overhead shrugs and learn to do overhead squats (Use a search engine and type in overhead squats, Dan John to learn this valuable exercise from the master himself ). I like to elevate objects such as dumbbells or a keg over my head and then go for a walk around the neighborhood or up and down the stairs. I walk until I cannot keep the weight overhead, then I place it on the ground, rest for 20 seconds and then keep moving again. These types of exercises will build your mid-section and have a tremendous impact on your overall strength and physical preparedness. If you have been working hard on basic exercises such as squats, dead lifts or rows, you have no doubt experienced either a stiff back or overworked lumbar muscles to the point where you cannot relax or tighten them completely. Your back can become as “stiff as a board” with the lumbar muscles so hard to the touch or so fatigued that they are like a steel spring that has been overstretched. It is essential to have the back properly stretched and warmed up prior to performing any type of overhead presses. Hanging from a chinning bar for a minute or two each day will decompress the lumbar spine and increase flexibility. I also like to do some hyper-extensions and some very light bent leg dead lifts in order to prepare the lumbar spine for overhead presses. Overload & Adjunct Exercises Marathon runners traditionally trained by running in excess of one hundred miles each week always at or near marathon pace and speed. The legendary running coach, Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand was one of the first coaches who realized that long distance runners could improve their race times by performing sprint training in their workouts. He used to have his marathon runners compete in the sprint events at the club level. All of his runners hated sprinting but they all loved setting records and winning world and Olympic championships. Coach Lydiard improved his runner’s performance by employing a form of overload. The first principle of weight training is overload. Overload refers to placing greater than usual demands on the muscle group being worked. In essence, to increase muscular performance, a muscle group must be worked harder than it usually works to complete everyday activities. As muscle strength and/or endurance increase, the amount of resistance or repetitions necessary for overload must increase as well. The Overload Principle is a concept based on “overloading” the muscles by lifting more than it is use to doing. The primary method of overload for the overhead press is the seated overhead press. This exercise will allow you to work the pressing muscles of the upper body, while minimizing the stress on the lower back. I have found that by alternating the standing press with the seated press, I can use heavier weight and train with a much greater frequency that if I were to only perform standing presses. When performing the seated, MAKE SURE that you do this with the back braced-do not do this movement sitting on the end of a flat bench or on a stool as this places a great deal of stress on the lumbar spine, which is what we are trying to avoid in the first place. The design of the seated press machine if very important. You don’t want the back of the unit to come up in higher than your shoulders-if it does, you can’t get your head out of the way of the bar. You also want to be sure that you can brace your feet against something in order to drive the low back solidly against the backboard of the unit. If you do not have the ideal apparatus as your gym, then might have to mix and match some equipment pieces in order to achieve the desired effect. This is why you should always keep a roll of duct tape in your gym bag! I also suggest doing the seated presses starting from the bottom position and not where someone hands it to you from the overhead position, and then you bring it down and back up-you want to mimic the mechanics of the standing overhead press as much as possible. For some variety, you can do a seated 80-degree incline press as a core exercise. This also takes the lower back out of it and really allows you to get used to lifting heavy weights overhead. I believe that if I had never done the seated presses and the 80-degree presses, I would have never exceeded 300 lbs in the standing overhead press. The next movement is a heavy push press done in the power rack. Use a weight that is roughly equivalent to your best single rep in the standing overhead press. You put the pins 4-5 inches below the starting position. squat down and get set with the bar, explode up elevate the bar to just over the top of your head, and then slowly count to 4 on the way down, set it on the pins, explode and repeat for 6 total reps-this is the most brutal thing I have ever done for the upper body-you will likely need a spotter (just to yell at you, rather than for safety reasons) and if you feel like or want to do a second set, then you did not use enough weight on your first set. This will do as much to improve your overhead strength capacity as anything I know. If you need to improve the strength of your triceps then consider doing some overhead presses while using a narrow grip. I use the same grip that I would for a narrow grip bench press with the index fingers being on the smooth part of the bar and the middle finger on the knurling. You will find that your arms may prevent you from lowering the bar all the way down to the upper chest/shoulder region. Use whatever range of motion works for you. As an added twist, you can use this same grip to do overhead lockouts. Place the pins in the power rack so that the bar is even with the top of the head and then press the weight to lockout. Barbell bent over rows are an excellent adjunct movement for the overhead press. It is safe to say that barbell rows are an excellent adjunct movement for just about every lift. Work this movement hard and don’t be surprised if you see increases in all of your lifts as well an increases in muscular development. One of the great aspects of the bent-over row is that there is a wide variety of techniques and variations to chose from which means that just about anyone can find a method of performing this movement regardless of their body structure. The important thing is to ensure that your technique is consistent so that increased poundage is the result of strength gains, not in favorable advantages in the biomechanics of the lift. FINAL THOUGHTS The frequency in which you train the overhead press is entirely an individual decision. If you are focused on improving the bench press, then consider adding in the overhead press about once a week. If you want to specialize on the overhead press, then you can do it as much as twice per week. I personally always did best training the overhead press about three times every two weeks. I would suggest doing nothing but standing overhead presses during one workout, then the seated presses and the adjunct work on the second workout. Make sure you are keeping your shoulders healthy with proper warm-ups and rotator cuff training. Best of luck on your quest to 300 and beyond. Keith Wassung firstname.lastname@example.org
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, dumbbell 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 dumbbell pressing. And guess what? The best dumbbell pressers usually turned out to be the best barbell pressers! You see, heavy dumbbells are very hard to balance. To improve your overhead pressing, you need to do plenty of overhead pressing. Heavy dumbbell 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 dumbbell 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! Brooks Kubik