What if I told you that military presses are a great way to work your abs? Or that overhead work can improve your ability to perform chin-ups and pull-ups? Seriously. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back by starting with a brief history of the Olympic press.
The modern-day version of the sport of weightlifting consists of two lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk. There used to be three lifts. The press was adopted as a competitive weightlifting exercise after the 1928 Olympics, and was considered more of a test of strength than the other two lifts. The result is that extremely strong men who did not excel in the snatch, which was considered more a test of speed and agility, could make up the difference with a good result in the press.
Besides being performed by competitive weightlifters, overhead presses were also key exercises for bodybuilders – and for that matter any athlete desiring to be strong. They did military presses, behind-the-neck presses, dumbbell presses – if you wanted to get strong, you lifted weights overhead. So whereas the typical weight trainer today often has accelerated chest and biceps development from an overemphasis on bench presses and curls, their predecessors often had exceptional development of the chest and shoulders. This pattern even carried over to the physique competitors.
Two of the most famous bodybuilders of their era were John Grimek and Steve Reeves. After Grimek won his second AAU Mr. America title in 1941, the organizers of the event established a rule that a competitor could not win the title more than once, as it was obvious to the organizers of the event that no one could defeat Grimek. Reeves won the AAU Mr. America title in 1947 and the Mr. Universe title in 1950, and when Reeves appeared in a series of Hercules
movies, many young men were bitten by the bodybuilding bug. Moreover, both Reeves and Grimek were extremely strong.
Grimek was a champion weightlifter, having represented the US in the 1936 Olympics, and had overhead pressed 285 pounds in competition. Grimek used a pressing style in which he started from a layback position, but his technique was within the rules, as he maintained that layback throughout the press. Although Reeves was not a competitive lifter, he did show raw potential to become a good lifter. Reeves could clean 225 pounds from a kneeling position, and he once did a 400-pound deadlift by grasping the outside lip of the inside 45-pound plates with just his fingers!
Reeves and Grimek were the best bodybuilders of their day, but if you look at physique photos of them in their prime, you’ll see that they had relatively weak pectoral development compared to their delts. This was perhaps a result of concentrating more on overhead press movements – more specifically, “strict” overhead press movements.
A Question of Speed
In Grimek’s era, the performance of presses was extremely strict and relied mainly on tremendous shoulder and triceps strength – until the rules relaxed and the game changed.
After cleaning the weight, a lifter had to assume an upright position with the legs straight – at this point the referee would give the lifter a signal to begin the press. Then, using the dynamic start, the lifter would lean back, explosively whip the weight up with the strength of their abdominals and hip flexors, and then lean back again – a whipping movement that could be described as a slingshot. It was possible to cheat by starting with the legs slightly flexed (a posture that was difficult for the judges to see if the lifter had extremely large quads), and then straightening them as they finished the extension of the torso. The US lifter who excelled in this lift and is credited for introducing it in the US was Tony Garcy.
Garcy represented the US in the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, and broke American records in the press in both the 148- and 165-pound bodyweight divisions. In 1967 Garcy broke Tommy Kono’s clean and jerk record with 375.75 pounds – in comparison, consider that at the 2011 Senior Nationals, the second highest clean and jerk in the 169-pound class was 341 pounds. Here is how Don Reed, a former editor at Strength and Health
magazine and member of the York Barbell Club, described Garcy’s technique:
“I remember hearing Steve Stanko [former US heavyweight champion] describe the initial reaction to the Garcy press. He power cleaned the weight and sank into the forward-leaning slouch. The three judges looked at each other, then the head judge shrugged and made the handclap signal. The weight flashed up, almost as fast as a jerk – boom, there it was! Again the judges looked at each other and then three thumbs lifted (no white lights yet). The crowd roared, and the modern Olympic press was born.”
The combination of the dynamic start and layback enabled the lifter to drive the weight more easily through the sticking point. It was also a difficult technique to master, and the result is that the weightlifters who had tremendous upper body strength lost much of their advantage. It also led to more record breaking over the years.
In 1936 the 300-pound barrier was broken in the press by German heavyweight Sepp Manger, and 19 years later Paul Anderson exceeded the 400-pound mark, a remarkable lift, as it surpassed the world record held by Canada’s Doug Hepburn by 22 pounds. Anderson broke the record twice more, finishing his career with 408.5, and then Russia’s Yury Vlasov took over in 1962 with a new standard of 410. But just 10 years later, after changes in judging criteria, the great Vasily Alexeev bumped the record to 521. That represents an increase of 111 pounds, compared to an increase of just 55 pounds in the clean and jerk during that time period. Likewise, the 198-pound press record was 351.5 pounds in 1962 by Russia’s Vasily Stepanovs, but 10 years later his comrade David Rigert kicked that up 85 pounds with a best of 436.5 pounds – and this compared to a 39.5-pound increase in the clean and jerk.
Stop the Presses!
The Olympic press was eliminated from competition in 1972 for several reasons, one possibly being the tremendous stress the lift put on the lower back. One of the most common complaints among lifters was not injury to the shoulder or knee, but lower back pain (one former US champion described the sensation of doing a press as having a little man jump up and down on his fifth lumbar vertebra). However, I should note that the late Dr. Mel Siff examined the research in this area, and found that the major cause of back pain appeared to be from rising out of the clean, not from pressing.
Another possible reason for the elimination of the press was time. In the days of the press, athletes were allowed two minutes’ rest between attempts – three minutes if a lifter was following himself. With three lifts, and three attempts allowed for each lift, the competitions often finished late in the day. And it was quite an ordeal. At the 1972 Olympics, over the span of several hours Vasily Alexeev pressed 518 pounds, then snatched 385, and finished with a clean and jerk of 507. Can you imagine having to clean a maximum weight, then having to come back perhaps two hours later and do it all over again?
But the number-one issue with the press was the difficulty in judging it, which led to many accusations about political shenanigans among referees. During the 1972 Olympics, US middleweight Russ Knipp pressed a world record, one that would have lived forever in the record books, but it was turned down due to Knipp’s apparent use of a knee kick. And I should note that the motion to eliminate the press was also brought up after the 1964 and 1968 Olympics.
With the press eliminated, the popularity of the sport of weightlifting declined and moved on to powerlifting and even bodybuilding and strongman. During the ’70s the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger boosted those pursuits, and it is not surprising that the US saw a gradual decrease in interest in weightlifting. In fact, at the time of this writing, the US’s performance in weightlifting has decreased to the point that we have not earned a high enough status in the sport to qualify a single man in the 2012 Olympics.
Getting back to my point about presses being potentially bad for weightlifting, this is true – especially if they are overworked. Although you would think that presses would help lifters, they can hurt them because of the timing. With the press the upper body will be tense at the start, and tensing the shoulders reduces the amount of tension that can be produced by the legs. In fact, historically many of the best jerkers have been terrible pressers – one of my colleagues jerked 335 off the racks, but the same day got pinned with a 205-pound bench press! This same phenomenon applied to throwers.
In the ’70s and ’80s, one of the most noticeable differences between the European throwers and their US counterparts was in upper body hypertrophy. Whereas many US throwers displayed tremendous upper body development, the Europeans had relatively smaller upper bodies with more of a “Christmas tree” type of shape.
Rare video footage of Tommy Kono and Paul Anderson pressing. In this competition, Anderson became the first man to Olympic press 400 pounds.
Today, the phenomenon of “strong jerk versus poor press” is still at work. Adriane Blewitt, a shot-putter who won seven NCAA titles and who was trained both by PICP Level 5 Master Strength Coach Jud Logan and by me, was named the 2003 NCAA II Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year. Blewitt could clean and jerk 240 pounds, but her bench press was only 205 pounds. In terms of technical language that is covered in the PICP, Blewitt needed to develop optimal strength in the bench press for her sport, not maximal strength.
As for push presses and push jerks, these exercises teach the athlete not only to use the arms differently from how they are used during the jerk but also to position the hips behind the bar rather than directly under the bar as during a jerk. A few weightlifters have reached elite level using this style in competition, such as three-time Olympic champion Pyrros Dimas and Russia’s Viktor Sots, a two-time world champion who broke six world records using this style, but they are the exception – and some people question whether Sots was actually human, as he reportedly could military press 413 pounds from a full squat position!
The main issue is with the timing. In the jerk, the arms and shoulders should achieve their most powerful contraction after the leg drive, not at the initial drive off the chest as with the press (which is needed to help drive the bar past the sticking point). Here is another way to describe it: Just as one of the primary purposes of the arms in lifting should be to help pull the body under the barbell, the major contribution of the arms and shoulders in jerking should be to push the body under the barbell. There’s more.
Russian researcher L.N. Sokolov believed that weightlifters who were good pressers were limited in the jerk because their upper body “muscle tonus” affected their speed of movement. In an article he wrote for Tyazhelaya Atletika that was published in 1971, Sokolov said, “…strengthening the muscles of the arms and shoulder girdle (and this is an obligatory condition to obtain high results in the press) has a negative influence on the assimilation of the technique of the tempo exercises.”
Due to the negative effects on the jerk caused by having high levels of strength in the upper body pressing muscles, weightlifters were forced to rethink the way they designed their workouts. Many of the auxiliary exercises were eliminated, and soon the trend in lifting (pioneered by Bulgarian coach Ivan Abadjiev) was to simply focus on the classical movements and squats. Even so, during an off-season training cycle for a weightlifter – as well as for anyone involved in throwing sports – I believe it would make sense from a structural balance standpoint to perform some overhead presses, preferably with dumbbells. As a general guideline, the optimal ratio between the standing press and jerk performance should be 48 to 52 percent. But even if you’re not a competitive weightlifter, there are many other good reasons to include presses in your workouts. Here are four:
1. To improve your bench press. Because of various inhibition mechanisms, your bench press progress is often stalled until you spend time on the overhead press. Powerlifting legend Ed Coan told me that he was able to break a lengthy plateau by working on his overhead strength. In fact, focusing too much on the bench press to the neglect of overhead pressing can chronically shorten the subscapularis, a rotator cuff muscle that internally rotates the shoulder, and can increase the risk of shoulder injury.
2. To determine structural imbalances. There is a strong correlation between shoulder pain and lack of overhead strength, and that’s another reason that overhead presses are a part of the PICP structural balance testing. For healthy shoulders, the weight used for 8 reps on each dumbbell for a seated dumbbell overhead press should represent 29 percent of the close-grip bench press.
3. To strengthen the core. Overhead presses are a great predictor of weakness in the lower back, but their use can help develop the muscles of the trunk that are involved in stabilization.
4. To improve chin-up performance. If your overhead pressing strength is poor, it reciprocally inhibits your upper body horizontal pulling strength. Try it – you will be impressed at how fast your chin-up strength improves when you add overhead presses to your program.
The ultimate message here is that coaches must be very careful about what exercises they prescribe to an athlete and how much time to spend on exercises that have little carryover to their sport. Overhead presses can have a place in any athlete’s strength and conditioning program, but some athletes need to be careful not to overemphasize them in their training. Athletes need to train hard, but they also need to train smart.