Sunday, October 9, 2022

Pressing Engagements -- John McKean (1998)

The author in the starting position for a 
reverse-grip press. 

Physique contests during the early sixties were always a special treat. Held after every major weightlifting event, sometimes in the wee hours of the next morning, crowds always stayed, or even grew, in anticipation of viewing an ever-changing variety of rugged physical specimens. 

Usually some of the more defined weightlifters posed; often most bodybuilders had competitive lifting experience. Strength was definitely the universal ingredient, and it showed, light pumpers in those pre--widespread steroid days were virtually laughed off stage. Contests were a straightforward display highlighting the benefits of proper weight training -- just a quick session of four basic poses with no music, no dancing, no theatrics, and no comparative shoving matches. 

In our hotbed of weightlifting/physique shows was the Boy's Club of Pittsburgh, a small dingy gym residing in a rough, back alley neighborhood of town. Meet promoter Ed Nowosielski, our local AAU weightlifting chairman, was especially vigilant over the years to insure that top weightlifting talent would participate in his home club's annual four meets. Fans were treated to the likes of Olympic/world champions such as Norb Schemansky, Russ Knipp, Jim George, Phil Grippaldi, Fred Lowe, Bill March, etc., along with equally top notch physique contestants. 

What was funny was that many of us novices often couldn't tell in the warmup room who was to compete in which discipline -- all looked massive, extremely broad-shouldered, powerful and athletic. They all had the "real man" look about them, as opposed to steroid-stuffed physique freaks with their clown-like bloat and vein appearance. 

A major reason for the impressiveness, clean lines, and power look of Mr. Nowosielski's physique contestants was his absolute enforcement of the AAU judging requirement to all 25% of an entrant's total score for "athletic points." An interview and background check was given to each bodybuilder to determine if his muscles actually were functional -- could he offer proof of involvement in some activity requiring coordination, agility, speed, skill, and/or strength? Naturally, the higher level sportsmen were given the majority of points in this category. 

Most of the present crop of mirror athletes would never have had a prayer in Ed's contests, since their concept of "sport" is where every muscle contracts yet the body hardly moves and gets nothing accomplished! 

Many bodybuilders of the sixties acquired their athletic points through the most natural means available at the time -- Olympic weightlifting. Specifically, these guys loves the Clean & Press for its extreme developmental effect on the popular wide-shouldered look of that day. It was a happy marriage between form and function -- when we in the audience witnessed a bigger poser possessing a dense upper body, tree trunk like upper arms and killer delts; it was a foregone conclusion that he was a 200-300 pound presser. In short, these men looked brutally strong, because they were. No one who desired success in the Pittsburgh Iron Game dared not cultivate pressing power during every workout.

Growing up, the question was always the same when encountering anyone who we learned was weight training -- "How much can you press?" Shoulder width and one's prowess at strictly pushing a big weight overhead was, to most, the total equation to success. 

Understand, this was just before the days of official powerlifting where everybody became lazy and started lying down to do their pressing. This is also the dismal time in Iron Game history when the weightlifter's sign of manhood -- thick, wide delts -- was replaced in the minds of bodybuilders with jiggly protruding pecs.   

When I began training, at 15, a burning desire was to get my press poundage at least up to par with my peers'. Since that lift was the standard barometer of all success, I was ashamed to admit to many that I even owned a barbell! Man, was my press pathetic. So I hatched a secret scheme to "cheat" on progress, by training alone in our home basement and singling up to a limit every training day, instead of utilizing the standard 3 sets of 10 reps. 

Quickly my ability grew, virtually rocketing past local teen trainees. And though I was certain I'd have to go back to cover lost ground in the bodybuilding department, since I'd skillfully skirted such training, everyone seemed amazed at my "instant" delt development. It wasn't until years later, after applying my intuitive singles system to many other lifts, that I realized such heavy, near-limit training is the answer to impressive muscular size as well as power. 

Throughout the years and right to the present, various forms of pressing have served me well always giving the upper body the satisfaction that it was pushed in a most productive manner. In all general workouts, where a contest isn't imminent and some lift isn't given short term specialization, a press is always done first. After that important "main course," it's my contention that all else is simply gravy! 

The Modern State of Affairs

Today, very few men devote time to heavy pressing. This is truly a shame because much of the essence of weight training is lost when this king of upper body exercises is shunned, or never fully recognized. Even developing athletes (in all sports), who would be served extremely well with a steady diet of increasingly heavy overhead pressing, find themselves betrayed when their bench press blasted boobs actually get in the way and thwart certain arm-crossing skills.

Recently a young friend, who works part time as a fitness instructor in  large health spa, was lamenting about the boredom of current instruction. "You only have to show someone the proper machine to work his delts or traps, give a suggestion for sets and reps, and that's it. No challenge, very little real training insight to motivate my clients. Makes me wonder why I spent so much time in college studying all the research required for certification in this field!" 

Now to be sure, my friend is neither a weightlifter nor a bodybuilder, just a very fit, slender, well-shaped user of all the "in" machinery and light exercise. I know for a fact that a 110-pound clean and press with a real barbell would be impossible for this individual. Yet, as a 37-year veteran of the Iron Game, I have to seriously question how anyone can claim to be a teacher of body development when they have not personally discovered the delicious experience of pressing for power -- in all its many free-weight variations. College degree or not, there's a crying need for today's trainers to spend some intensive time back in the "school of hard knocks" (or more appropriately here, visits to a real gym featuring a platform and Olympic set to offer practical hands-on experience with seriously challenging overhead presses). 

Note: Six days a week on my way home from work, I wait outside a fair big gym while waiting for transit. I really like having a cold one in hand and watching the instructors walk the floor and take people through an introduction to the equipment and exercises. Man, some nights I even decline taking the first bus to show up so I can spend another 20, 30 minutes watching these types noodle around with all manner of secondary, currently popular and oh-so-important shite in hopes of eventually getting laid . . . as the saying goes, If the women don't find you interesting they should at least find you idiotic . . . lately I'm seeing a lot of one-legged kettlebell squats with the other leg on a bench while yet another "trainer of champeens" kid helps support the poor newb. The barbell hip raise is also top-a the list. Oddly enough, barbell back squats, when I rarely see a trainer-on-salary going anywhere near 'em, are light weight, way above parallel, stiff as a board train wrecks. And that's the trainers. If I ever win a huge lottery, first thing I'm gonna do is go in there half-cut and full-ready and take a big wet dump on the rug. I could do it with a bar on my back so's they learn how to do a squat . . . finally. 

It's Bloody Hilarious!!! Good times. 

Barbell Pressing

Though we'll be looking at several forms of overhead pressing, the standard barbell version is king and really all that ever needs to be done. Two sets of the most massive delts in history, those belonging to Paul Anderson and those of Doug Hepburn were built almost exclusively with the clean & press, or rack press [overhead press taken from the rack, not cleaned]. Both men developed "boulder shoulders" by concentrating on getting their single press as far above 400 pounds as possible. Although there's little doubt that a 400-pound press would leave anyone with a pair of cannonballs, most trainees will do well to shoot for the age-old standard of a strict, bodyweight press; this will put you in the 99th percentile strength-wise to all humans on the planet and supply he-man sized, functional deltoids.

Perhaps the best way I've found to train the clean & press is what I've described as "stacking nickels." That is, start at a fairly easy poundage, clean and press for a single, replace it to the platform, then add a pair of 5-pound plates. Keep stacking on the discs through subsequent sets until you are forced to support an aborted heavy attempt for an isometric hold (in itself a great strength/muscle builder). Man Olympic lift competitors of the forties, fifties and sixties trained their press in exactly this manner. Without any extra frills, this simple scheme was probably responsible for placing more meat on more delts than all other exercises or programs in iron Game history.

Presses behind the neck may be deemed dangerous for some, but for others this lift seems to follow a better groove, or direct route to completion, than front presses. Seated or standing, some guys just love the continuous tension on the delts that this lift provides. It is actually a better movement for pumping up multiple reps than a frontal move where the chin and head sometimes demand a curved motion. Sets of 3-5 reps will give you a sensation I can best describe as a "power pump" which will, over time and increased poundage, yield you a pair of genuine coconuts! 

One of the wildest individuals I ever met trained with me just once during the late sixties. Though a humble, friendly, talkative fellow, I never caught his name nor saw him again after that winter morning when the two of us were the sole occupants of the dingy little YMCA weight room in Erie, Pennsylvania. It was my habit back then to hitchhike 25 miles from college on Saturdays to get a crack at the "real weights" once each week. Arriving early in the morning, I usually trained alone. But I'll never forget this fellow casually talking with me while doing easy, effortless seated presses behind the neck with 315 pounds! Sure, I kept my cool and acted as nothing was unusual, but, damn, the guy was about 5-6 tall, weighed around 215, and seemed to swell to each border of the three big Olympic plates hanging on each side of the bar. Talk about a vivid, etched memory of a lift and its productivity! 

Alternate Dumbbell Press

Another really dynamic press variation is the alternate dumbbell press. Nicknamed the see-saw press due to its left to right body thrusting, serious weight can be used to really slam the delts. Its peculiar rocking motion creates a momentum which automatically leads to higher reps than other pressing forms. And when a person approaches bodyweight on two dumbbells for around reps a set, a high degree of development is assured. I've never known anyone proficient at the alternate dumbbell press who wasn't physically impressive. One huge man, Frank Leight, won the Mr. America title almost exclusively due to his steady diet of alternate DB presses with 110 pounders.

The fact that each dumbbell is literally rammed upward due to total body involvement is a huge factor in favor of the alternate DB press. I suppose you could call this unique form of overhead heaving "fantastically fast" exercise. All the thrusting, bending, leaning, and swaying tend to work the entire upper body in a manner not possible by any other lift. [You realize he's talking of the standing version, I am certain.] Strongly affected are the hips and butt, external obliques lower back, abs, lats, delts, and arms. I still maintain a visual image of a sixties magazine article featuring the awesome-upper-bodied Jack Delinger performing these. And from much personal experience with the exercise, if I were restricted to only one weight training movement, it would be the alternate dumbbell press.

Cable Back Pressing     

Having named me favorite weight pressing movement, allow me now to glow on about what I consider to be the absolute ultimate builder of solid delt flesh, amazingly, a non-weight exercise. Now, hold on -- don't anyone panic -- old John is not reaching a midlife crisis and delving into the junk exercise netherworld of machines. Rather, I'll discuss an age proven device which is superior in every aspect to expensive, complicated configurations of steel, pulleys, and chains. 

In a word, cables.

More specifically, I'll state unequivocally that the cable back press with surgical rubber bands will slap on shoulder mass, along with a unique form of delt strength, faster than anything.

As a quick aside, cable training seemed to develop right alongside weightlifting from the early 1900s. Based on photos I've viewed, some of the early bodybuilders who exclusively utilized cable training developed phenomenal upper torsos. In Great Britain this practice even evolved into competitive strand-pulling contests, participants of which always displayed unusual thickness throughout their shoulders and arms. Bob Hoffman, John Grimek, and their York team long advocated cable training in America. Many photos of Grimek pulling apart the strands supplied us trainees of the fifties and sixties with definitive images of what ultimately developed deltoids looked like under this amazing form of tension. 

Back pressing is done by simply pulling the cables down behind one's neck, knuckles pointing outward, and slowly punching straight out to each side. The arms end up in a crucifix position with cables draped alongside and roughly parallel. Just as the early "miracle" cam machines were meant (or advertised) to do, the cable press keeps continuous tension on the delts throughout every millimeter of movement with resistance increasing toward total stretch to match one's own power curve. Unlike with barbells or dumbbells, neither momentum nor acceleration come into play to reduce the muscles' work or benefits.

Repetitions are the way to go with cables, although back pressing with a maximum number of strands for one big push is a standard at strand pulling events. In fact, a big cabled single in the back press gave me one of my biggest thrills in weight training. I'd brought my cable set to the gym for assistance work, the guys became anxious to fool around, and naturally a mini-competition broke out. When big Frank Remschel, a skilled Olympic lifter

capable of strictly pressing 380 pounds failed with a large number of strands, yours truly stepped in and showed him the way. To be fair, I had many years of practice, shorter arms, and, with a much smaller frame, better beginning leverage. Still, whenever I can claim victory over a nationally rated heavyweight presser, I'll take it.   

But for most training it's strongly advised to shoot for 2-3 sets of 12-20 reps. It seems with cables that the sheer length of time devoted to an exercise provides the continuous tension which really reaches the depth of tissue. Besides, a steady diet of low cable reps will tear you up in a hurry.

Other Pressing Maneuvers

Three other outstanding pressing maneuvers, gleaned from all-round lifting competition, are the kneeling clean & press, reverse grip press, and alternate grip press. Each are performed with thick handled barbells -- not out of necessity, just because the fat bars add another factor of intensive muscular involvement. Though these lifts may sound awkward, poundages are actually reduced due to technical difficulties -- this insures strict, smooth, pure pressing. If anything, these exercises are actually comfortable and sort of soothing to the delts! You know the weight won't be a real pressing problem, but all the control elements create a need for extra concentration on slower, concise grooves. Hence, the delts, arms, and all stabilizing muscles are forced to struggle and work every inch of the way.

For example, the clean & press on knees will seem strange at first. Part of the difficulty is trying to clean a thick bar without using the legs (yet this really hits the traps and forearms). Once the bar is in place the actual push overhead is fairly easy as long as one carefully watches balance so the sole supporting upper torso doesn't collapse to the front, back, or side. Maybe it's just that the mind is so occupied on other areas that a trainee doesn't have time to focus on how much the delts are being worked! 

I use an unusual rep pattern for these last three lifts. No matter which exercise I'm using for a particular workout -- never all at once, usually only one pressing movement, or at the very top, two should ever be done in a single workout, totaling 6 sets, max -- I do 3 rest-pause singles for an initial light set, add 10 pounds and perform 3 more quick singles, and a final weight increase for a few more singles. Although I could easily do a straight 3 reps on the first two sets, the individual lift assures absolutely perfect form, concentration and employment of the muscle and its function, and largely eliminates any chance of injury due to lapses in attention or style.

Time to place some pressing back into your life. Stand up and be proud -- let the lard butts continue lying on their beaches, and give the pumpers their pulleys and comfy padded stools. Picture the great overhead lifters who achieved massive shoulder fame such as Grimek, Klein, March, Reding, Stanko, and Eder, while seeking to press progressively and powerfully as they did. We may never match these giants strength-wise, but we can sure join them in the swell-delt department! 

Enjoy Your Lifting!   


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