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Want A Bigger Press? Stop Cheating!!

By: Bill Hannon

The standing overhead press is a fantastic lift, and certainly one of my favorites. It’s a wonderful training tool for the entire musculature of the shoulders along with the triceps and upper traps, it requires a strong trunk, tight legs, and good balance, and it just tends to feel good on your back and shoulders when performed correctly. Lifting a heavy weight over your head is just primal as hell too, possible only topped in “badassery” by pulling a really heavy weight off the floor.

But because the press utilizes the smallest amount of muscle mass out of the main barbell lifts it’s also very sensitive with regards to making consistent progress. Small decreases in bodyweight, less than perfect recovery, and sub-optimal programming choices can all easily derail your training progress. When smaller muscle groups like the deltoids and the triceps are the limiting factor of a lift there’s simply no such thing as sucking it up and grinding things out like you can on a squat or a deadlift, where the comparatively massive quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes are the prime movers. Therefore, care must be taken to make sure you’re carrying out your press training in a manner that makes sense.

It all starts with which version of the press you use for the bulk of your training. If you’re not aware that there’s more than one version of the press and you’re current method for pressing does not include any knee-bending, hip-thrusting, or extreme leaning back of the torso - then good for you! Stop reading here and continue going about your training. For the rest of you, we’ll start by covering the execution and biomechanics of the main variations and then discuss why choosing the variant that allows you to move the most weight probably isn’t the best tool for getting stronger.

The Press Variants

(Note that these are my definitions of the press variants. There is no real agreed upon standard for the variants, so it’s possible you’ll see other opinions and definitions elsewhere.)

Strict Press: Each rep starts from a dead stop at the rack position. No forward thrusting motion of the hips, and no flexing knees allowed to start the movement. A slight “layback” of the torso is used to facilitate the bar traveling vertically up past the head without hitting the face, but no excess layback is used to make the lift easier for the arms. The strict press relies on the raw pressing strength of the shoulders and triceps to execute the entirety of the movement.

Military Press: Same general idea as the strict press but with further restrictions. The heels are positioned together for a very narrow stance, and no movement of the torso is allowed. The military press is not a commonly used variant as these restrictions lead to an unnecessary reduction in weight without providing any benefit. The military press is simply harder, and therefore lighter.

Press 1.0: This is the original version of the press as taught by Starting Strength, hence the 1.0 nomenclature used by those that are familiar with SS. Execution is the same as with the strict press, but each rep is paused at the top instead of resetting in the bottom rack position. The lifter takes a new breath at the top, lowers the bar under control, and drives it right back up without stopping. As with the strict press, Press 1.0 relies on the pressing strength of the shoulders and arms while also allowing for the utilization of a stretch reflex out of the bottom position after rep one.

Press 2.0: The current iteration of the press as taught by Starting Strength, hence the 2.0. Like the strict press, the 2.0 starts each rep from a dead stop in the rack position. Once the lifter is tight and ready the hips are driven forward quick and hard, stretching the anterior musculature such as the rectus abdominis and psoas muscle group. As the hips move forward the shoulders (and bar) move through an arc back and down. As the hips rebound off the tight anterior musculature the bar is propelled upward and out of the rack position, providing a boost of momentum from the hips and torso to the start of the movement. The shoulders and arms then complete the top portion of the movement just as they would in the strict press.

Press 1.5: The Press 1.5 is a hybrid of the 1.0 and 2.0. The first rep starts with a hip bounce just as with the 2.0. The first rep is paused at the top, a new breath is taken, and then the set proceeds using the 1.0 style, utilizing the stretch reflex from the bottom position to complete the remaining reps.

Olympic Press: Also sometimes called the Press 3.0. The Olympic Press is very similar to the Press 2.0 with the addition of a layback of the torso once the bar reaches a point around the forehead. The primary advantage of this “second layback” is that it allows the lifter to move the torso down and under the bar and straighten the arms out most of the way while the bar is still traveling upward from the momentum imparted via the hip bounce. This takes even more work from the shoulders and arms and transfers it to the musculature of the hips and torso in order to complete the lift.

Classic Press: The Classic Press is similar to the Press 2.0 in that it’s started with a forward hip movement, but instead of a quick drive forward and rebound of the hips it’s a slow reach forward. Once the hips are forward the lifter contracts the anterior musculature straightening the knees and driving the hips back and shoulders forward and up to launch the bar up and out of the rack position. The Classic Press also uses a wider than normal grip position to facilitate a “solid rack” with the bar resting across the top of the upper chest and anterior portion of the shoulders to maximize the impulse imparted into the bar via the upward torso movement. Again, the end result is a reduction in mechanical work performed by the shoulders and arms and more work completed by the legs, hips, and torso.

Push Press, Push Jerk, Split Jerk: These press variants are not traditionally used as primary movements in strength programs, but their execution and mechanics relative to the more commonly used methods is important. All of these variants start with a downward bend of the knees while keeping the torso upright. The knees flex slightly and then extend quickly, imparting upward momentum to the bar to help drive it up out of the rack position. The Push Press is completed with the arms and shoulders continuing to drive the bar all the way up to lockout. With the jerk the lifter drops under the bar as it continues to travel upward due to the initial leg drive, locking the arms out under the weight and repositioning the feet in either a wide stance (Push Jerk) or a split stance (Split Jerk). Once the bar is “caught” overhead the lifter then moves the feet back to the starting position with the lifter fully upright and bar locked out overhead. Therefore the Push Press and two variants of the jerk utilize the legs to do a substantial amount of the work required to get the bar overhead.

Choosing the Correct Press

So, with nearly a dozen variants it’s no wonder why some have trouble choosing an appropriate pressing style for building strength. Novices especially seem to want to gravitate towards the seemingly “newer” and flashier versions that also add a little extra weight to the bar. I’ve observed a few cases now where lifters and coaches are all too quick to jump to the Press 2.0, Olympic, or Classic Press in order to add a few pounds to the work sets or maybe even help set a PR. This is a mistake that will invariably disrupt long-term progress. A lifter that is seemingly faltering with a press hovering around 100lbs should not be concerned with what tricks can be used to get their press to 110lbs – especially if said lifter is male. Instead, they should be asking, “how should I be training my press in a way that will get my work sets to 150lbs? How do I achieve a bodyweight press, and beyond?” The answer to this question, much like the answer to any questions pertaining to exercise selection and programming, is found by thinking about STRESS.

Starting Strength has generated a set of criteria to be used for exercise selection, and for the most part it works well. To get generally stronger one should use exercises that utilize the most muscle mass, over the longest effective range of motion, to move the most weight. These criteria are how we arrive at using barbells to squat and deadlift instead of using machines and isolation movements. However, we notice some faults and contradictions when we apply these criteria to the press.

The Press 2.0 allows us to press more weight than a Strict Press or Press 1.0 because it utilizes extra muscle mass in the hips and torso to get the movement started, therefore it would be judged a superior version of the press by the standard criteria. And the same goes for the Olympic and Classic Press also, even more muscle mass moving more weight across essentially the same range of motion. However, this line of reasoning stops with the Push Press and the Jerk. The intentional knee flexion that’s used with those variants is thought to be different and less acceptable than the unintentional knee flexion that comes with driving your hips forward and leaning your torso back as with the 2.0 and Classic Press. So even though the Push Press and Jerk utilize even more lower body muscle mass and can move significantly more weight, they’re not thought to be good training tools for general pressing strength. And I’d agree with that sentiment, just not for the knee-bend line of reasoning.

However, it’s also been my experience that lifters that primarily focus on using the Press 2.0, Classic Press, and Olympic Press often stall out rather quickly. Even though these versions do allow the use of more muscle mass and more weight on the bar, something just doesn’t work all that well with regards to producing the training stress required to strengthen the shoulders and arms.

So what is missing? Well, using the most muscle mass – has always been the primary criteria for choosing an exercise, but as seen, this reasoning falls apart a bit when applied to the spectrum of presses. We strive to use the most muscle mass and move the most weight, until we get to an exercise where it no longer makes sense to do so. See the problem there? In physics we call this a discontinuity, a point where your theory or reasoning simply stops working. Discontinuities are generally dealt with via some form of hand-waving, like creating secondary add-on rules to make the discontinuity fit within the big picture and keep the theory viable. Rules about the validity of intentional vs non-intentional knee bend are a good example of such hand-waving.

And yet, the exercise criteria are not derived from physics, they can be traced down directly from adaptive physiology. Simply USING the most muscle mass is not applicable to creating the most productive training stress. Using the most muscle mass is great if your concern is burning the most calories, just as how Crossfit incorporates the barbell lifts into their conditioning sessions. But we’re concerned with increasing force production, not simply burning calories. In order to disrupt homeostasis and drive a strength adaptation, the chosen exercise must challenge the force production capacity of the targeted muscle groups. Therefore, instead of picking exercises that will USE the most muscle mass, we need to focus on exercises that TRAIN the most muscle mass.

The Press 2.0 does not train the hip flexors and the rectus abdominis muscle groups. Yes, the 2.0 uses these muscles to help move the weight, but the small range of motion of the hip bump and relatively light weight used for the press is not sufficient to bring about a positive strength adaptation in these relatively large muscle groups. The same goes for the Classic Press and Olympic Press. Likewise, the Push Press and the Jerk certainly don’t make the quads any stronger, at least not for anyone that’s also squatting on a regular basis. And therefore we’d be foolish to weigh the use of the quads, the hip flexors, and the abs in our consideration for choosing our press. If the movement doesn’t actually train the additional muscle mass we’re recruiting in order to add more weight to the bar, the extra weight on the bar is essentially irrelevant.

But wait, it gets worse! The hip bump, knee bend, and layback variants also take work away from the very musculature that we’re targeting: the deltoids, the triceps, the rotator cuff group, and the upper chest as well. By using the hips and torso (and sometimes the knees) to get the weight moving the shoulder and arm musculature does less work through the initial range of motion. Specifically, the anterior deltoids and the upper pecs are neglected most, as their role is focused on the bottom portion of the movement. Therefore, using the muscle mass of the hips, torso, and legs to contribute to the press results in training less muscle mass. Less muscle mass means less stress. Less stress means less gains. No Bueno. This explains the anecdotal observation of earlier and more frequent stalls while using these variants.

There is obviously no set of rules that govern the barbell movements while training, but it’s hard not to think of the hip bump, the knee bend, and the big layback as cheating. They’re movements designed to stretch the interpretation of the competition rules, implemented to add a few more pounds to the bar, but also at the detriment of making efficient and continued training progress. The resurgence of these pressing styles outside of competition is a bit of a head-scratcher, and it kind of makes you wonder how we got to a point where they’re prevalent in general strength programs. It certainly appears we didn’t arrive here via a thorough and reasoned analysis of the relevant biomechanics and physiology.

From all of this we can conclude that the Strict Press, the Press 1.0, and the Press 1.5 are the best tools for increasing pressing strength over time. They train the most muscle mass as they allow the shoulder and arm musculature to control the load over the entire range of motion. If the goal is to increase pressing strength over time, the majority of the pressing work in the program should come from one of these variants.

Isn’t the Stretch Reflex Cheating Too?

Choosing between the Strict Press, the 1.0 and the 1.5 becomes a matter of compromise and theory. The 1.0 allows the use of more weight by utilizing the stretch reflex “bounce” out of the bottom position. But does this bounce negate some of the muscle mass from the bottom portion of the movement in the same way that the hip bounce does in the 2.0? This is possible if the lowering of the bar back to the bottom position is done in a sloppy and uncontrolled manner. It’s possible for the bar to truly bounce off the upper chest, and this is definitely not what we’re after. There are two components to a stretch reflex that result from the proper eccentric movement: A mechanical rebound of the stretched viscoelastic muscle fibers and connective tissues, and an increased neuromuscular effect brought on by an eccentric contraction. When lowered properly – smooth and under control, the stretch reflex can actually increase the muscle mass recruited for the following concentric contraction. And that’s a good thing, more muscle mass trained and more weight on the bar means more stress. More stress means we get stronger faster.

So theoretically the Press 1.0 offers a small advantage over the strict press, assuming the stretch reflex is used properly. The Press 1.5 then also allows us to use just a little more weight by utilizing the hip bump on the very first rep to get things started. Is this advantage offset by the downsides that come with the 2.0? Possibly, but it’s only for one rep. Again, anecdotally I’ll stand by using any of these three variants as the primary pressing tool. I find that results are difficult to distinguish between these three, and your choice as a coach or a lifter may simply come down to personal preference and ability to perform the movement correctly for one version over the other.

Should We Scrap the 2.0, the Classic, and the Olympic Press?

No, these variants still have their place. Remember, the original premise is which press variant is most efficient at producing long-term strength increases. The Strict, 1.0, and 1.5 win out, but that doesn’t mean the 2.0, the Classic, and the Olympic Press can’t or shouldn’t be part of a training program. They simply should not be the primary pressing tools.

If you find a need to do some overload work to strengthen the top portion of the movement, the hip presses are excellent supplements for doing just that. I would include the Push Press as a viable tool for that job as well.

Also, if the lifter is competitive and the press is a contested lift then by all means they should be trained alongside the more strict versions assuming the hip motion and layback are within the rules of the federation. I find that using the 1.0 or 1.5 for volume work combined with using the 2.0 for intensity work over a given week is a great way to expose an intermediate level lifter to sufficient doses of stress while hitting the key factors of tonnage, load, and novelty. It also allows the lifter to practice the competition movement for weeks or months leading up to a meet.

Be cautious though, the siren song of simply pulling out a few tricks to add pounds to the bar is a tempting one. If progress is starting to wane, or the lifter feels the need hip bump and double layback every rep starting with the empty bar, it’s probably time to take it back to the basics and exclusively work on some raw pressing strength.

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