It's been my observation that when people organize a strength program, they often make it too complicated - and they also overlook the obvious.
That's particularly true when it comes to developing leg strength. They lay out a whole series of movements, rather than concentrating on the one that will bring the most results - the squat.
It's also the case with routines designed to enhance shoulder size and strength. They list enough exercises to fill a yellow pad - the basics plus an entire battery of dumbbell and machine movements - when in fact one exercise is sufficient to build strong, wide shoulders - the overhead press.
For those of us who have been involved in strength training for any length of time, it seems odd that what was once the standard test of strength has become little more than a tame exercise, usually relegated to auxiliary status. Until trhe early 1970s, when people who were curious about how strong you might be asked, "How much can you press?" they meant the overhead press, not the bench press. The gauge of excellence for any beginner was to be able to press bodyweight.
The next level was to be able to clean and press 200 pounds. That's what separated the men from the boys. That's what separated the men from the boys. It still does, for a person who can do it has risen to a rather lofty level of shoulder strength. If you doubt my contention, check out how many people you see training in modern fitness facilities who can clean and press 200. I haven't seen it done in years, and very few of my athletes reach that mark, even when they strive for it.
The current gauge of strength is the bench press, and 300 pounds is the number that separates the men from the nonmen. There are reasons for the shift, and they all came about nearly at the same time, in the early '70s. First, the International Olympic Money Laundering Cartel and Hypocritical Men Ruling Sport Poorly Committee dropped the overhead press from Olympic weightlifting. Strike one. Then came the surge of interest in the sport of powerlifting, which fit the needs of many who wanted to compete in a strength event. The three powerlifts - bench press, squat, and deadlift - were much easier to master than the more involved snatch and the clean and jerk. It takes a minimum of equipment and space to do the powerlifts, and you can do them without the benefit of a coach. Strike two for the overhead press.
Strike three came about with the athletic community's increased interest in incorporating some form of weight training into athletes' training regimens. Since it was much easier to teach high school or college athletes how to bench press than it was to teach them the overhead press, the bench became the core exercise for the upper body.
I have to confess that I played a role in that development when I published The Strongest Shall Survive, which includes the bench press as one of the big three exercises. I chose it because, when you do it properly, it does work all the major muscle groups of the upper body.
So over time the overhead press slipped from being a primary strength exercise to an auxiliary one - if it was used at all. Most programs don't even include it [article published August 1999], and if they do, it's in the form of seated presses. Seldom, if ever, do trainees perform it as a pure strength movement.
There's one other reason that the overhead press has been relegated to minority status. Some people feel it's harmful to the lower back. That's the reason the IOC gave for eliminating it from competition. In truth, the IOC had other motives that aren't pertinent here. The fact of the matter is that heavy overhead presses are no riskier than heavy bench presses, and they're perhaps even less risky. Yes, but which one is friskier? Studies?
In most instances an overhead press attempt is either made or missed quickly, while a bench press attempt may linger at the sticking point for an eternity as the lifter twists, bridges and does more gyrations than a belly dancer trying to complete the lift,and all those extra movements are potentially harmful.
The safety aspect of the overhead press is exactly the same as it is for any other strength movement. If you use proper form, it's safe. If you use faulty form, there's a risk even on tame exercises, such as straight arm pullovers.
The potential stress to the lower back comes when lifters, trying to move the bar through the sticking point, lean too far backward, which is certainly not a recommended position. I try to teach my advanced lifters how to lean back slightly to move the weight through the sticking point, but, in reality, few can learn to do that because it's very difficult. Olympic weightlifters have to practice as much as four times a week to master it. Most people who do overhead presses as part of their regular routine rarely lean back at all. The fact is, though, that some back lean is desirable, for it allows you to bring your hips under the bar better.
In addition, keep in mind that before lifters ever attempt pressing a relatively heavy weight, they've done plenty of foundation work, not only for the pressing muscles but also for their lower back muscles. In other words, by the time they're ready to overhead press 200 or more pounds, they have a firm enough foundation to handle the stress.
Heavy overhead pressing isn't the only pressing variation that has lost favor in strength training. The other forms that are based on heavy presses and are very beneficial for most people have been forgotten as well. They're exercises that not only add variety to any program, but they also help to build massive shoulders and arms. There were all essential to the strength athletes of the '50s and '60s, and they include heavy push presses, heavy dumbbell presses, and a series of pressing positions performed inside the power rack.
Heavy presses were a part of every weight trainer's routine back then, and it was partly due to the fact that the press was the first competitive lift. In order to excel in Olympic lifting, you had to have a strong overhead press. Bodybuilders used the exercise as well. Most did it because they competed in Olympic meets, but they also knew that pressing heavy weights builds huge deltoids and hits the triceps in an entirely different manner from any other exercise.
Check out old photos of the bodybuilders of the '50s and '60s and you'll see shoulder development that today's competitors can't match. John Grimek had superb shoulder strength, and it showed in all his poses. He could clean and press 350 pounds at a bodyweight of just over 180.
In fact, he told me that when he cleaned 350 for the first time, he pressed it, then push pressed it, and finally jerked it because he wasn't sure he would ever have that much weight on his shoulders again.
Vern Weaver, Val Vasileff and Bill Pearl could also handle very heavy weights on the press, but the greatest presser of all, in my opinion, was Bill March who elevated 390 in strict fashion at a meager bodyweight of 224. He won a Mr. Universe title mainly on the strength of his huge shoulders and arms. They were developed with overhead presses, for Bill never did benches or inclines.
There's another important reason that everyone did overhead presses. They required very little in the way of equipment. You could even use a standard bar in the event that the gym didn't have an Olympic set. Gyms often lacked flat benches and inclines, and you rarely found a seated press. Of course, the great number of machines so evident today didn't exist. Many facilities had squat racks, platforms and Olympic bars, period. If you wanted to work your upper body, you pressed - and that was enough.
We now realize that the press is so useful because it's what we call a compound movement. That is, it's a compound movement when you clean the bar first. Lately, that's become a big thing in strength training circles - sort of like doing two exercises in one.
The clean and press is still a useful compound exercise when you don't have much equipment available; for example, when you're on vacation and the only gym around is filled with machines, set bars and dumbbells. You can always use those set bars and dumbbells and get an excellent upper body workout.
Nevertheless, most trainees today either avoid the overhead press completely or do it with very light weight. They substitute a score of shoulder exercises done with light dumbbells, cables and machines - for higher reps - contending that they're better able to hit all the smaller muscle groups in the shoulders. I believe, however, that working with cables, machines and light dumbbells is a great deal easier than trying to press a heavy weight. You see the same pattern in almost every training facility in the country: No stress, no strain and, not surprisingly, no results.
Another factor in the decline of overhead pressing is the desire for larger pecs, which grew out of a thirst for a big bench press. Trainees do flat bench presses by the hour, followed by an ample dose of dumbbell flyes, inclines and even declines. sure enough, those big pecs arrive, but, unfortunately, big pecs - especially big lower pecs - pose a problem unlike those of any other bodypart. They're extremely difficult to maintain as you grow older. That isn't the case with legs, back or even shoulders, but any layoff from the concentrated pec work and those muscles quickly turn to putty. To add to the problem, it's tough to get them back into shape even with more hard work. The consequence is often sagging pecs. Now, I ask you, is there anything that looks worse?
In contrast, shoulders hold their shape much better. Even if you have a period in which you don't train of don't train diligently, all that will happen is you'll lose some size - but not a great deal, for you're constantly using your shoulders in everyday activities. That's not the case with the pecs,as they're seldom called upon outside the gym. The point is, wide, athletic shoulders look much better on anyone, young or old, than an oversize, out of proportion chest, so you're better off focusing on overhead pressing, rather than doing the benches.
Lastly, I like the overhead press as a basic strength movement because the muscles it develops are very functional. That's particularly true for athletes, for the shoulders and arms are used in every sport. It's not true for the pecs, as very few athletic endeavors use the muscles of the chest to any extent.
Having made my case for the merits of the overhead press, along with some other pressing movements, I'll describe how to perform them, beginning with the overhead press from a rack. If you don't have a rack, do the clean and press.
The grip for the overhead presses is basic - the same grip I use for most pulling movements. Extend your thumbs on an Olympic bar so that they just touch the smooth center. some people find a slightly wider grip suits them better, but you don't want it to be too wide, for that will detract from the power source and place a bit more stress on the shoulder girdle.
Fix the bar firmly to your shoulders before pressing. It should rest on your front deltoids, not on your collarbones. Your elbows should be down and tucked in close to your body. Keep your wrists straight throughout the movement. Any flexing of the wrists dilutes the power generated from the shoulders into the arms.
After you take the bar off the rack and set it correctly, make your body as taut as possible. The process starts with your feet. Think about gripping the floor with your toes. Once you lock your feet to the floor, you can then tense your legs, hips, back and shoulder girdle. Don't elevate the bar until every muscle is tight as possible. Without a rock-solid foundation you'll never be able to press the big weights.
The most common mistake made on the press is that lifters place one foot in front of the other, rather than in a line. There are two problems with that form of pressing. It puts and uneven stress on your lower back, and it keeps you from establishing a solid base. Without a solid foundation you won't be able to grind the heavy weights through the sticking point. Most people like to position their feet slightly beyond shoulder width, but some find a broader stance more functional.
Once you're set, take a breath and drive the bar upward using the muscles of your shoulders and back. Don't give it any knee kick. It isn't a push press. It's best to learn to press strictly first, them move to the other exercise. Those who start out doing push presses have a much more difficult time learning how to do strict presses than those who begin with the basic move. Drive the bar up forcefully and keep it extremely close to your face. It should nearly touch your chin and nose.
When the bar moves upward past your head, push your head through the gap you created. That will help keep the bar close to your body, which is critical when you handle heavy weights. Don't look up at the bar, but, rather, tuck your chin and keep your eyes forward, away from the power base. Once the bar passes through the sticking point, which for most people is directly over their heads, turn your elbows out just a bit and fix the pressed weight with locked arms. If you were to draw a line up from the back of your head to a point overhead, that's where the bar belongs.
Maintaining the firm base, lower the bar back to the starting position under control. In other words, don't let if fall to your shoulders, for that will put you out of position for the next rep. You can breathe before pressing and again once you get through the sticking point, but don't get in the habit of breathing while the bar moves upward. That also breaks the power base.
Stay with 5 reps until you feel you've learned the technique, then you can do some lower reps. One very useful program is to do 2 or 3 sets of 5 and then select a work weight that you can handle for 3 reps. Work up to performing as many as 5 work sets with that weight, and when you can handle all 5 work sets successfully, add weight to your work sets the next time you press; for example, 115x5, 135x5, 155x5, followed by 3 to 5 work sets of 175 x 3.
You can do clean and presses in the same manner as described for presses off the rack. Most lifters find clean and presses a bit easier to do than presses off the rack, since they have better control of the weight after cleaning. Every so often it's useful to try a heavy single, as singles help to point out and highlight form mistakes.
After you've been pressing for some time, you may want to do some push presses, for they're useful for overloading. A person who presses 200 in strict form will be able to push press 250 or more, which is beneficial both psychologically and physiologically. I prefer lower reps - threes, twos, and singles - for push presses, as the heavier weights are much harder to readjust on your shoulders after each rep. The only difference between a strict press and a push press is that you elevate the bar with a knee kick. it shouldn't be so much of a knee kick that you don't have to press the weight at all. That's a push jerk. You should press the weight out the final few inches. It's also extremely critical to stay very tight throughout the push press, and the line of the press is more exact than in a strict press.
Cleaning and pressing dumbbells is another great exercise for building strong shoulders. The old standard of excellence was to be able to clean and press a pair of 100-pound dumbbells. The beauty of dumbbells is that you have to control them so much more than a barbell. That forces the pressing muscles to work harder, which in strength training is a good thing.
Overhead pressing in any form not only builds powerful shoulders and arms, but it also develops the upper-middle back in a very positive way. Holding a heavy bar overhead hits some different muscles from what you work with any other exercise. Pressing isn't complicated, and it takes a minimum of equipment and space, but it brings huge dividends.