The military press is one of the best known exercises in resistance training. Many trainees avoid it, however, because of injuries, because they don't understand what the exercise actually does and/or because other movements such as the bench press have become more popular.
Before the bench press gained such overwhelming prominence, the military press was the standard indicator of upper body strength, and it was to this movement that people referred when they asked, "How much can you press?" The military press is also known as the overhead press (here, the definition of the original "military" press could be discovered with a little effort, the foot spacing, judging rules, etc. If you're so inclined. "Bro, how much do you incline?").
It was one of the Olympic lifts, which were performed in the following order: clean & press; snatch; and clean & jerk. The press was dropped in the early 1970s because it was very difficult to judge.
The original performance position for the press was to keep the back straight and still while pressing the bar overhead; hence the name "military" press. Strict. Very strict. As with any rule, however, subjective interpretation [and of course out-and-out favoritism by judges and obvious cheating by lifters] comes into play, and the rules for performing the Olympic press were subjectively bent and twisted so that athletes were bending backward excessively at the waist -- that is, they were hyperextending their spines -- and the movement turned into a standing bench press when viewed from the side.
If you have been around the iron game for a while, you may recall the difference in body positions for the press between Paul Anderson, who pressed more than 400 pounds with a relatively straight back in the '50s, and later phenomenons Vasily Alexeev and Ken Patera, who pressed more than 500 pounds with hyperextended backs. Even in the lighter classes such athletes as nine-time 198-pound world champion David Rigert pressed in excess of 400 [pounds using the hyperextended style.
The bench press came into prominence in the late '50s and early '60s. The movement of pushing up the bar while lying on your back was similar to that of the press; hence the name "bench press." Likewise the behind the neck presss got its name because of its similarity to the military press movement.
If you look at photos of bodybuilders from that pre-bench press era before the late '50s, you'll notice that the athletes' chest development was not as thick or complete as that of today's bodybuilders or even as thick as what those earlier athletes achieved on the rest of their physiques.
As suggested above, there is much confusion as to which training category the military press belongs in, what bodypart it develops and when and if ever it should be used.
My goal here is to clear up some of that confusion to help you determine whether this exercise belongs in your routine.
Biomechanics: Which Muscles are Involved?
The military press, or press, is an exercise of shoulder abduction and elbow extension, and the shoulder abduction also causes what is known as upward scapular retraction. In effecting these various movements, the press targets several key muscles of the upper body.
The prime shoulder abductor is the deltoid; however, the smaller rotator cuff muscle known as the supraspinatus also contributes somewhat. The serratus anterior primarily accomplishes the upward scapula rotation, and the triceps brachii is responsible for the elbow extension.
Understand that the action of this exercise is not flexion of the shoulder but abduction. True shoulder flexion would require that the elbows be in front of your body, only one foot apart, as you raise your arms. In the military press, however, the elbows are raised out to the sides.
Also, while it's true that performing the press will strengthen and develop your deltoids, this exercise is erroneously known as a front deltoid developer, that is, one that primarily works the front delt heads. The military press is one of the basic, compound weight training movements. It is a mistake to try to categorize it as a so-called isolation exercise. As I've stated in previous columns, it is questionable whether such a thing even exists. EMG studies have shown that all the heads of the deltoid re recruited during movements that many training "authorities" claim isolate one head or the other.
The serratus anterior is the cornerstone of the shoulder girdle. It originates along the ribs, which gives it its serrated appearance, and inserts along the medial scapula, or shoulder blade, that's closest to the spine.
The serratus anterior functions to pull the shoulder outward and upward; that is, the upward rotation of the scapula. This turns the face of the glenoid fossa, or shoulder socket, upward to assist in raising your arm over your head, which is the abduction movement.
Olympic weightlifters have the heaviest serratus anterior development among weight trainees. This is because the bulk of the upper body work that they do involves overhead support. The serratus anterior must be able to hold the scapula in place while the lifter hoists hundreds of pounds overhead. The contraction of the serratus anterior is also what produces the lat spread in bodybuilding competition, as it is this muscle and not the latissimus dorsi that pulls the shoulder blades up and out.
As discussed above, it is the triceps brachii that extends, or straightens the elbow during a press. When you get into the starting position of this movement, it is easy to see how much the elbow is bent, or flexed. Logically, then, the triceps is heavily recruited in this exercise. When you watch someone perform the military press, you can see the triceps contracting. Some powerlifters even categorize the press as a triceps exercise and use it as an accessory to the bench press.
When trainees use the press in a shoulder routine, such workouts are frequently redundant and lead to overtraining. The typical shoulder session includes military presses "for front delts," lateral raises (in all variations) "for side delts," rear laterals "for the rear heads" and then cable lateral "to really isolate the side delts."
If you are healthy with respect to the injuries discussed in the following section, cut back on the number of exercises -- especially the so-called isolation movements -- and train with a few more basic movement, less frequently. I've dealt with this subject in several previous columns (see "Too Much of a Good Thing," Sept. 1989 Ironman, and "Effective Bodybuilding and Strength Training," Sept. 1990).
Injuries: Should You Do Presses?
The military press lends itself to relatively light weights for an upper body exercise, and trainees usually drop it from their routines once they've suffered a shoulder injury. Shoulder injuries are generally complex both in terms of what they involve medically and what the trainees did in the gym to incur them. Typically, other "isolation" or "specialization" exercises contribute their share to the problem.
The pain associated with shoulder injuries is usually felt in the front of the shoulder or in the so-called rear delt, the posterior aspect of the shoulder, but it can also be felt in the side of the shoulder and moving down to the middle of the upper arm. If you experience this sort of pain, however, don't attempt to diagnose yourself. There are numerous problems the pain could be signaling, and this is best left to your physician.
The typical pattern is that the injured trainee stops doing behind the neck presses and switches to military presses. When that doesn't eliminate the pain, he or she cuts out either incline presses or flat bench presses. The elimination process continues until the trainee is left with a limited and usually ineffective routine consisting of flyes for the chest, laterals for the shoulders and pulldowns for the back.
A trainee who continues on this course is not using a full range of motion for overhead movements, and his adductors (pectoralis major, teres major, latissimus dorsi and short head of the biceps brachii) may adaptively shorten, since they are receiving more than their share of work and are not lengthening adequately in the training. Eventually this leads to increases loss of the trainee's range of motion and numerous shoulder problems.
For trainees who get proper medical care, however, the military press can have a very therapeutic effect during rehabilitation from shoulder injuries. Therapeutic use of this movement starts with very light weights -- the bar alone is fine. The purpose is not overt strength training but to achieve normal range of motion by inhibiting the adductors during the abduction motion. In other words, the brain causes the muscles that pull your arm down, the adductors, to not work when the muscles that raise your arm over your head, the abductors, do work.
Performing the press motion with light weight can get some of these muscles to start lengthening and contracting more normally. This can be a slow process, but if you have reached the stage where you can't perform the exercises anymore, then it makes no difference how long it takes. You may never need or want to perform heavy military presses, but there is much to be gained by including a few light sets of them in your routine. 15 reps at most -- no need to get carried away -- will go a long way toward aiding the rehabilitation process.
Lower back injuries can also prevent you from doing the military press. As you may well know, the lower back is a common site of injury in weight training, and unfortunately, many low back injuries come from improper abdominal training (See "Ab Training and Low Back Pain," June 1989; "Ab Training Myths," May 1990; and "Twisting and the Spine," June 1991). The press can aggravate the lower back because that bodypart helps balance and support the weight during this movement and because that bodypart helps balance and support the weight during this movement and because the press involves a slight arching of the lower back (which the Olympic lifters took advantage of).
If you have previously injured your lower back, the arched and weight bearing position can strain the site of an old injury. Even if you haven't, the same factors can cause a new injury. In addition, if your abdominal muscles aren't as strong as they should be and you arch your lower back farther than your effective abdominal strength can handle, the imbalance can lead to a variety of problems. Soviet superheavyweight Vasily Alexeev once told a Los Angeles Times reporter that an Olympic weightlifter needs abs "so strong they can stop a bullet, but don't print that. Somebody might try."
Unfortunately, the complexity of lower back injuries leaves you few alternatives for the military press. You may wish to try a press machine in the seated position, which may alter the stress somewhat. Don't be surprised, however, if you are unable to perform this movement. Most likely, if you have a lower back problem, you will have to drop the movement from your routine altogether.
Durn It . . . no matter . . .
Enjoy Your Lifting!