Problems of the Press
Part Two – Hand Spacing
by Charles A. Smith
In my last article -
I discussed the favorable and adverse qualities that determine the ability to press. The good presser has a combination of favorable leverage and muscle attachment, in itself a “leverage” factor. The good presser has long upper arms and relatively short forearms. His deltoids are low on the humerus. His shoulders are wider than average usually, and there is some slight “mal posture” – a curve to the lower spine that enables him to press the weight straight overhead, without “curving” it around the face. The poor presser has a short upper arm with a high deltoid insertion on the humerus, comparatively narrow shoulders and an extremely upright stance, or else a “mal-formation” of the UPPER BACK. This makes it difficult for him to get the weight past the sticking point. His upright stance forces him to press the weight slightly forward and then back, with a subsequent violation of lifting rules . . . But we are not concerned with rules now. You know what will get you ruled out, and you must carefully watch the standard of judging so that you will . . . to be perfectly blunt . . . know what you can get away with. Not every official keeps strictly to the letter of the law! Now we are going to see how we can make the most of good pressing qualities and improve the bad ones.
First, the width of hand spacing is extremely important. The good presser will have a naturally wider grip, but it is not the width itself that we are concerned with now. It is determining that you have the width of hand spacing that you are accustomed to using. Not all bars have the same knurling measurement. Some have two smooth spaces dividing the bar, while others have no break in the bar’s knurl, which continues right up to the collars. First of all, keep adjusting the grip on the bar until, when you pull it into the shoulders, you feel comfortable and the bar is “in the groove.” Get a training partner to mark off where your hands are. Place the bar on the ground. Then put both thumbs together in the very center, span out with both hands from here until you know how much movement of the hands you have to make to reach your hand spacing for the press. Practice this movement a few times and you’ll soon be able to get your accustomed and proper hand spacing on any bar at once. Then, when you have to lift on a “strange” bar you’ll labor under no handicap. (See Illustration 1)
So much for making sure you get your normal hand width every time you have to press. Now, to determine the best WIDTH OF GRIP you must use to get the maximum poundage over your head (don’t forget that grip width is but one factor). You already know that the good presser, because of his natural advantages will choose a wide grip with the elbows pointing straight down. Now the upper arms are sloping away from the body, yet touch the lats near the top. (See Illustration 2) THE LATISSIMUS MUSCLES SHOULD BE CONTRACTED so that they help to “support” the barbell. Thus instead of the bar resting dead across the clavicles and the lifter having to overcome the “inertia” of a “dead start,” the weight is distributed evenly, and there is a light feeling to it because of this even sharing of the burden. Here is that very important psychological factor.
The bad presser has other problems. His skeletal structure makes it advantageous for him to widen his grip in order to place the action of the deltoids in a more favorable position, by increasing the angle between the body and the upper arms. This will help him in bringing the bar to the sticking point, to where the upper arms are level with the shoulders. But he loses from here on because his triceps are not able to exert their full power. To overcome this, the bad presser should use a WIDE grip, but one where the elbows incline INWARD. Here again, the latissimus muscles must be contracted and the upper arms resting against them. (See Illustration 3) This type of hand spacing is good for the man with narrow shoulders who finds himself obliged to use a wide hand spacing. It also allows the shoulder blades to rotate without hindrance.
Now, what the reasons against using a narrow hand spacing? The reason is that the narrow grip is restrictive . . . it restricts the movement of the shoulders in the area of the sticking point. A narrow grip has been used by some lifters successfully, but these men were never in the top flight of pressers. The next time you get the opportunity, watch the man who uses the narrow hand spacing. You will observe that he keeps his hands closer together in order to get a lower position . . . commencing position . . . of the bar. This gives him more space in which to gain momentum . . . he has a greater distance through which he can “drive” the bar and carry it past the sticking point.
But this narrow grip works adversely after the upper arms have reaches shoulder level position. The deltoids are fully contracted here and it is then that the shoulder blades start to turn, or rotate outwards, and the triceps and other muscle groups involved take over. A narrow grip prohibits this. Thus we see that the weightlifter with poor leverage and other adverse physical factors can overcome them by choosing a wide grip with INWARD-DOWNWARD INCLINATION OF THE ELBOWS. He will be able to retain all the advantages of a low position on the chest and the long drive it gives, plus enabling the deltoids, the triceps, the trapezius, the serratus magnus and sections of the pectoral muscle to exert their full power.
Now, there is another extremely good reason why a narrow grip works against good pressing performance. We have seen how a narrow handspacing restricts the rotation of the shoulder blades. The lifter may have a heck of a lot of power in getting the barbell away from the shoulders and bringing it to the area of the sticking point, yet from here on it is hard to continue, resulting in a slowing up of the bar and a possible miss of the lift. Why does this common fault in pressing occur? Just take a look at Illustration 4 and you will have your answer.
Here we see a presser who has just got the bar to the area of the sticking point . . .which can be anywhere from the nose to just atop the crown of the head, depending on the athlete’s skeletal structure. Take careful note of the angle formed by the upper arm and the forearm. Acute, isn’t it? Let us suppose that a lifter HAS very supple shoulders which even a narrow handspacing does not restrict in motion . . . that OUTWARD rotation. Now, why is this advantage nullified? It is because of the extremely bad mechanical position of the triceps muscle.
Let me illustrate my point more clearly. There is an exercise for the triceps known as the french press . . . you can use either a barbell or dumbbell. Make this experiment for yourself. Hold a dumbbell in any hand. Keep the upper arm tight against the head. Lower the forearm as far down as you can, then straighten the forearm on the upper arm – hard, isn’t it? (See Illustration 5A)
Now, allow the upper arm greater freedom of movement . . . keep it away from the side of the head and allow it to move as you straighten the arm . . . MUCH EASIER, ISN’T IT? (See Illustration 5B)
Now you have what I am driving at. The function of the triceps is to extend the arm, and where the upper arm is held immobile, to straighten the forearm on the upper arm so that both are in one straight line. The greater the angle to be overcome, the more difficult the movement. Now take a look at Illustration 6. Here we see a man who uses a wide grip bringing the bar to the area of the sticking point. You will notice that not only does his scapulae have complete freedom of movement, but the triceps muscles are also in a position of greater mechanical advantage.
The lifter using a wide handspacing has a much better opportunity to apply the FULL power of the triceps, for his handspacing places the muscles in a much more favorable mechanical position. He is able to keep the weight moving through the area of the sticking point because the muscles themselves are in a stronger position. And forgive me for constant repetition, but I am very anxious to make my point as clearly as possible.
You will remember how I explained that the man with a narrow handspacing could get more drive because of the greater distance he had in which to gain initial pressing momentum. He also overcame the disadvantages attached to the first phase of the press –
from clavicles to sticking point – that is his elbows inclined inwards and pointed forward and up, slightly of course. As the bar reached the sticking point, in order to allow the shoulder blades to rotate, the lifter had to try and turn them outwards, but as you can clearly see from Illustration 4, the triceps are working under unfavorable leverage conditions and thus are unable to apply their full power, and keep the barbell moving.
GOOD PRESSERS can, with advantage, use a WIDE GRIP, with the weight evenly distributed on the hands, across the clavicles and the entire shoulder musculature, and thus be assured of a more efficient pressing position and a subsequent poundage improvement. The POOR PRESSER must also use a WIDE GRIP with a DOWNWARD-INWARD INCLINATION of the elbows as in Illustration 3 with almost the entire upper arm supported on the CONTRACTED LATISSIMUS MUSCLES. Then, in both cases - the GOOD and the POORLY endowed physically, pressers will PRESS UNDER THE MOST FAVORABLE CONDITION.
Article made available thanks to the generosity of Larry Aumann.