By: Bill Hannon
Imagine if you will a lifter attempting a new 5RM for the press. The first two reps go great, crisp hip drive and rebound and a vertical bar path produce plenty of bar speed to easily lock the reps out at the top. Rep three slows markedly, and rep four is a genuine struggle. Rep five is going to be a real grinder, and the lifter knows it. He readies himself, draws in a huge breath and tightens up his legs and his abs. He drives his hips forward and they snap back into neutral, launching the bar up out of the rack position. As the bar drives up past his face he lays back again slightly to allow his arms room to straighten out a little under the bar, but it’s not enough. As the bar passes his forehead it grinds to a halt. His arms have reached their force production limit. There’s 200 pounds on the bar, and in this instant his arms are producing exactly 200 pounds, just barely enough to maintain any upward momentum. If you’re watching this take place, either as the lifter’s coach or just a spectator, what cue to you give to the lifter to help him finish this rep and claim his new PR?
Many will use a “GET UNDER IT!” cue at this moment, but it is not entirely helpful here with the bar in limbo at the sticking point. Driving the chest and torso back under the bar as the bar passes the forehead is an essential part of the press, but the rate of driving the chest forward must occur commensurately to the rate that the lifter is able to drive the arms up. In other words, a fast, easy rep will truly have the chest slamming forward back into position under the bar. A slow grinding rep will have the chest moving forward gradually, eventually coming back into position under the bar as the bar reaches lockout. I have yet to see a truly heavy press completed otherwise.
In our case, the lifter has not delayed in getting back under the bar, nor has he pushed the bar too far in front or laid back excessively. He is simply stuck. He would very much like to get under the bar and finish this PR attempt, but the bar is heavy, and it cares not for the desires of the lifter. The bar wants to lie on the floor, nothing else. His arms have reached their limit, and they are the limiting factor. Will slamming his chest back under the bar help him to save this lift? Let’s do a little thought experiment to examine this possibility.
Set the pins on your rack so that the bar is a couple inches above your forehead, and load the bar up with 500 pounds. Set your feet under the bar, and set your hands in your normal press position. Lean back a little into your layback position, and drive up on the bar as hard as you can with your hands. (This is the position our lifter is stuck in.) Now – drive your chest forward back under the bar as hard as you can. What happens? Either the bar rolls forward on the pins, or it just sit there, moderately amused at your petty efforts, while your elbows flex and shoulders extend. That’s right, throwing your chest forward will force your arms to BEND.
Now back to our lifter attempting the 200 pound PR. He can most definitely generate more than 200 pounds of vertical force by bringing his chest forward and his hips back underneath him. But due to the nature of the press, with the kinetic chain starting at the hands, and extending all the way to the floor, this force must be transmitted through his arms before it can aid in driving the bar up. In addition to transferring force into the bar at the end of the kinetic chain, the hands and arms are also tasked with keeping the bar over the body’s center of balance, the mid foot. With the arms already producing and transmitting force at maximum capacity, the ability to generate more force with the trunk and hips is irrelevant. With the bar virtually paused at the sticking point, the chest driving forward will accelerate the shoulders forward and up, transmitting more force to the arms and causing them to bend under the bar, or even worse, driving the bar forward of the midfoot. Save for a case of divine intervention, the result is a missed rep, and the PR is lost.
So, you simply cannot “dive” under the bar to save a rep that is stuck somewhere between your forehead and lockout. The chest must come forward proportionally in time as the elbows extend and shoulders flex towards lockout. Yelling “GET UNDER IT!!!” to a lifter that is laboring at the sticking point of the press is the equivalent to screaming “UP! UP! UP!” on a grindy 1RM squat attempt. Thanks Captain Obvious, but that’s not really going to help!
Yelling “GET UNDER IT!!!” to a lifter that is laboring at the sticking point of the press is the equivalent to screaming “UP! UP! UP!” on a grindy 1RM squat attempt. Thanks Captain Obvious, but that’s not really going to help!
A cue that prompts the lifter to focus on the upper body musculature and continue driving up hard with the arms is required to move the bar through the sticking point. “SHRUG!” and “TRICEPS!” can both be useful. And as the bar again gains upward momentum the “GET UNDER IT!” cue is now relevant, as the lifter must drive the chest forward to keep pace with the arms. A failure to do so will result in an increase in the horizontal moment arm between the bar and shoulders, which at heavy weights will quickly be too much to overcome.
In summary, when we press we must drive the chest and torso back under the bar as the shoulders and elbows drive up. A failure to get back under the bar in a timely fashion calls for a cue to remind the lifter to do so. However, a heavy grinding press rep will have the chest slowly moving back under the bar. Forcing the chest back under the bar ahead of the rate that the arms are driving the bar up is inefficient, and may result in a missed lift. In the instance where the bar nearly comes to a stop above the lifters head, a cue to focus on continuing to drive up as hard as possible with the arms and shoulders becomes increasingly important, with a follow up cue to get under the bar occasionally necessary after upward momentum of the bar has been restored.