Category Archives: Overhead Press

6 Primo Pressing Permutations

6 Primo Pressing Permutations
For some, upper body pressing begins and ends with the bench press and the overhead press.
That’s cool, and those are definitely great exercises, but I like more variety than that. I like to rotate exercises periodically to avoid repetitive overuse injuries, keep the shoulders happy, give the muscles a different stimulus, and perhaps most importantly, stave off boredom.
If you’re like me and enjoy a change from time to time, here are six pressing permutations to try.

1. Landmine One-Arm Floor Press

The one-arm dumbbell floor press is one of my favorite pushing exercises and it’s been a staple in my routine for the past couple years. While it’s ostensibly an upper body exercise for the chest, shoulders, and triceps, try it and you’ll quickly realize that it’s a full body exercise that requires total body tension to maintain a stable base of support.
It’s also a great shoulder-friendly alternative for people who might experience pain with full range of motion pressing, or those with lower extremity injuries that preclude them from pushing through their feet.
The problem, however, is that as you get stronger, it can be tricky to hoist heavy dumbbells into position (and back down onto the floor again) when you’re training by yourself. Furthermore, unless you’re blessed to train in a gym with extremely heavy dumbbells, it won’t be long before you’ve maxed them out.
Sure you can add reps to a point, but continually using the same weight will inevitably result in a plateau that feels like your own personal version of Groundhog Day. That gets old, fast.
Enter the landmine floor press.
The landmine allows for greater loading potential, and because the barbell is already elevated off the ground, it’s much easier and safer to get in and out of position. With a simple self-spot from the non-working arm, you should be all set. Like so:

The angled barbell still lets you press with the same range of motion as a regular floor press (i.e., until your triceps touches the floor) and it also allows for a neutral grip, which is easier on the shoulders. Moreover, some folks will find that the thicker handle helps to relieve stress on the elbows, which is an added bonus.
You’ll have to play around a little bit at first to figure out how close to set up in relation to the bar, so start very light and experiment with different body positions until it feels comfortable. Once you get that squared away though, it shouldn’t be long before you’re crushing some serious weight.
If you don’t have a specific device to secure the barbell, place it carefully in a corner with a heavy dumbbell over the tip to keep it in place.

2. Valslide flyes

6 Primo Pressing Permutations
I used to think I’d never find an exercise that smoked my chest more than ring flyes.
Then I tried flyes using the Valslides. (If you don’t have Valslides, furniture sliders will work well too.)

It’s the same idea as ring flyes, only with the added element of friction to ensure that your pecs hate you even more. When you’re using the rings, the eccentric part of the rep is the hardest, but if you can pull that off without doing the famed Ring Dip Face Plant (easier said than done, I might add), the concentric isn’t that bad because the built-up tension of the rings helps bring you back in.
You don’t get that assistance with the Valslides. You have to actively push out on the eccentric and pull back in on the concentric, making both parts of the rep suck equally as bad. Fact is, the concentric is probably even harder than the eccentric.
While it may seem innocuous, it’s really an extremely advanced exercise, so don’t just jump right into it without proper preparation. Doing so will inevitably lead to either a shoulder injury or the aforementioned face plant, neither of which you want.
Start by doing partial flyes where you only extend your arms out a little bit and progress to full flyes over time. Even with full flyes though, you still want to keep a slight bend in your elbows to protect your shoulders and keep the tension on your chest.
You may also want to start from your knees. Seriously. Laugh all you want, but you probably won’t be laughing once you try them.
Be advised that the difficulty of this exercise will vary greatly depending on the surface you’re using, so be sure to take that into consideration. It can be anywhere from very difficult on a smoother floor to downright brutal and almost impossible on a rougher surface. A thin carpet works best, making this a great exercise to do at home or while you’re traveling.
Quick word of caution: This exercise may not jive well with folks with certain shoulder pathologies. If you find it causes any pain (other than a smoked chest), stop doing it and pick something else. That really goes for any exercise though.

3. Valslide Push-up/Fly Combo

This one is similar to the above exercise, only one arm performs a push-up while the other arm performs a fly.
If you’re having trouble picturing how it should look from that wonderfully in-depth description, see the video below:

Usually adding a unilateral component makes an exercise harder, but in this case, it makes it a bit easier from a pressing standpoint since the arm doing the push-up is supporting the majority of the load where the lever arm is shorter. Still, while it might be easier, it’s far from easy, especially when you factor in the friction of the Valslides.
If you do this exercise on the rings, it’s essentially a modified one-arm pushup where the goal is to put as little weight as possible on the outstretched arm, merely using it to counter the rotational demands. With the Valslides, however, the pec of the reaching arm gets worked quite a bit as you push your arm out and then pull it back in.
That arm movement also introduces a huge anti-rotational component as you fight to stabilize your torso and avoid twisting, making it one heck of a core exercise. Fact is, if you choose to put this in your training program, you might try to include it as a core exercise to kill two birds with one stone and get in some additional upper body work while you’re at it.

4. Giant Cambered Bar Overhead Press

Like the name suggests, this is an overhead press with the giant cambered bar, which makes for a pretty wild ride.

Be prepared to drop the weight quite a bit from what you can normally overhead press with the barbell, especially at first as you adjust to the instability of the bar that comes from the plates swinging around. Your numbers should increase as your shoulder and core stability improves though, and when you go back to using the barbell, it’ll feel substantially easier.
I also like this variation because it reflexively teaches good form. You can hear all the standard cues about bracing your core, squeezing your glutes, using your lats, and not pressing out in front of your body, but put the cambered bar in your hands and you’ll quickly figure that stuff out automatically.
Or else you’ll get dominated. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5. Staggered Stance Landmine Press

6 Primo Pressing Permutations
Overhead pressing with the landmine is an awesome alternative for those that can’t do the traditional overhead press (a.k.a. the standing military press) for whatever reason.
The most common reason for people nixing the overhead press is shoulder troubles of some sort. This might be the result of a previous injury, or it could just stem from a lack of shoulder and/or thoracic mobility that makes going straight over head problematic (for more on that, read this article.
Regardless of the reason for the shoulder pain, switching to the landmine for overhead work will usually be better tolerated, both because of the angle of the press – it’s more like an incline press than an overhead press – and because it allows for a neutral grip.
For others, the chief complaint with overhead pressing may be low back pain, as there’s a tendency to lean back and hyperextend at the lumbar spine, which can spell trouble under heavy loads. This may simply be a matter of tightening up the form and increasing core strength, but for those with serious lower back issues or disk pathologies, it’s probably wise to switch to the landmine press as there’s less risk of hyperextending since you’re pressing out in front of you.
That said, just because it’s easier on the joints, don’t think for a second that it’s an easy exercise or that it’s just for injured folks. These will humble anyone that tries them.
They can be done many different ways, but my favorite is using a staggered stance and stepping into each rep explosively to help create momentum, similar to a push press.

Doing the exercise this way requires total body coordination where everything moves in synch. Sometimes I’ll do the reps dynamically with lighter weights and higher reps, and other times I’ll go heavier and pause between reps.
Before you start using momentum, though, it’s best to first master the strict press using a symmetrical stance. You can also do it half-kneeling (one knee) or tall-kneeling (both knees).
Pick your poison. They’re all good.

6. “Bottoms Up” One-Arm Kettlebell Press

6 Primo Pressing Permutations
If you thought the giant cambered bar and landmine presses were tough, wait until you try these.
Any time I’m feeling good about myself in the gym, I can always count on these to bring me back down and make me feel like a huge wuss.
When you find something in your training that you suck at though, that’s usually a sign you should be doing more of it.
Going “bottoms up” helps build tremendous shoulder and core stability while placing an emphasis on grip strength.
Starting in a half-kneeling position helps build hip and pelvic stability while also reinforcing the notion of maintaining full body tension as you press because you’ll quickly lose control of the ‘bell if you don’t. It’s also one hell of a hip flexor stretch and core exercise that trains anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion all at once. Talk about a big bang for your buck.
Here’s what it looks like in action:

If you don’t have access to kettlebells, you can get a similar training effect holding a hex dumbbell vertically. These will absolutely fry your forearms.

Check your ego at the door before trying these because they’ll require you to use a lot less weight than you’re accustomed to with regular pressing work. That’s fine. Try not to think of it so much as a strength exercise (though you should still try to increase the load over time), but more as a stability exercise to help increase your strength on your regular presses as you shore up your weak links.
Another cool thing about “bottoms up” work is that while it leaves you with a huge pump in your shoulders and forearms (you know what Arnold says about the pump, right?), it doesn’t leave you sore the next day, so it shouldn’t interfere as much with subsequent upper body workouts.
You can implement them in your program in any number of ways, but I like to do them once a week on a separate day from my heavier pressing work. Often I’ll even just tack on a few sets at the end of a lower body workout for some supplemental pressing work that won’t impede recovery too much.

That’s a Wrap

There’s no need to overhaul your current program if it’s working well for you, but if you’re sputtering a bit or just sick of the same old stuff, adding some of these exercises may help get you pressing on to new heights in your training.

Fillers: Pairing Strength with Mobility

I grew up in powerlifting gyms and played football into my early twenties. As reluctant as I am to admit it, this upbringing trained me to be a meathead.
I’ll give you an example of my problem solving logic as a nineteen year-old. Every problem could be solved by getting stronger.
Can’t squat deep? You’re weak. Get stronger.
Low back hurt? Stop being soft. Get stronger.
Can’t pick up chicks? It’s because they think you’re a pussy. Stop wearing your t-shirts tucked in. And get stronger.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve changed my focus a bit.
I’m still a big strength advocate, and I think toughness is something most people could use more of. But after some time, education, and experience, I’ve found there’s a lot more to getting stronger than stacking plates and hitting more reps. Clean movement is just as important for continually gaining strength.

Fillers: An Introduction

A few years back I was reading an Alwyn Cosgrove article when something clicked. He explained that making a distinction between strength and mobility training is pointless. They’re inseparably paired, each contributing to the other.
Around the same time, I was reading Eric Cressey’s programming and noticed the mobilizations he used during rest periods. He, and several other established coaches, called them .
These days, the term ‘filler’ is part of training vernacular. Back then, however, I was blown away. What a great idea! Fill time, keep sessions dense, and feel better.
At that point, though, I didn’t understand how to pair the right lifts with the right mobilizations. And I didn’t understand the dramatic effect mobility has on improving strength.
Observation, experimentation, learning more about biomechanics, and reading up on the nervous system gave me the insight to develop a pairing process.

A Match Made in Rehab

Pairing Strength with Mobility
Matching mobilizations with activation exercises started in sports rehab and has been adapted to fit in the strength world.
I’ve made friends with chiropractors that specialize in rehab – not just cracking necks and cashing checks. When they describe their treatment process to me it usually goes as follows:

That, of course, is my summary, most likely grossly over generalized. But it offers a simple template that we can apply for our own purpose – building mobility into our strength training sessions to add training density and improve big lift performance.
The treatment template above works from broad correction to narrow correction. That’s how we can apply mobility exercises to serve as active rest between sets of strength exercises. Applying a specific mobilization will be narrow, but will improve our overall movement for a given strength movement.
Three principles will guide our mobility exercise selection for each strength lift:

  • Improving sequencing
  • Improving patterning
  • Alleviating tension created by the strength exercise

Improving Sequencing

Muscles work in ‘force couples’ around a joint – agonists and antagonists, extensors in contrast to flexors, and vice versa. This arrangement allows for full joint range of motion with stability, but it can be limiting when trying to generate as much force as possible.
A tight, or short, antagonist limits the function of the agonist for a given movement. Not only will the tension in the antagonist limit joint range of motion, it’ll also divert neural drive away from the agonist. Recruited before the agonist, synergists are bumped from the supporting cast to the main roles.
Relaxing the antagonist while improving its extensibility will improve sequencing and function of the agonist for a given movement.

Improving Joint Positioning and Patterning

Pairing Strength with Mobility
I use the Joint-by-Joint approach to picture joint movement during lifts. If you’re unfamiliar, it is the system of understanding mobility and stability developed by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle.
Here’s a quick and dirty synopsis:

That’s simple enough. We give joints that require mobility more range of motion while improving the stability of joints that move less. By doing so, we can better position our bodies at the beginning of the lift and through its completion. You move better within a given lift and put more weight on the bar.
However, you won’t perform optimally if you can’t put your body in good positions. The key is matching the right mobilizations with the right lifts to improve specific function.

Alleviating Tension

Joint and segmental stability require a lot of tension. During the lift this is good – it means that you’re tight enough in the right places. Unfortunately, this tension can hang around even after the given lift, or session, is over.
Include drills that alleviate the tension during heavy lifts and you won’t have to buy slip on shoes and look like Herman Munster when you turn in your chair.

A Grand Interplay

The grand interplay between strength and mobility is facilitated by several factors: joint range of motion, joint positioning, patterning, and sequencing. These qualities are inseparable – they affect each other at all times, improving or impairing performance for each lift.
For example, poor thoracic mobility while squatting mars hip positioning. Sequencing is skewed, the wrong muscles fire at the wrong time, and the squatting task is unevenly distributed. Performance on a given lift is both affected acutely and over time because of sub-par mobility. Tragically, the story ends with a lot of shoulda-coulda-wouldas.
To avoid this, address joint limiting factors between sets of your big movements. Below is a chart that I put together to help with predictable limiting factors for each movement.

Movement Limiting Factors
Squat Ankle dorsiflexion, thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, anterior core strength
Bench Upper-back strength/scapular stability, anterior hip mobility/hip stability, shoulder stability
Conventional Deadlift Thoracic spine mobility, hip mobility, hamstring extensibility
Overhead Press Thoracic spine mobility, shoulder stability, shoulder mobility, core stability

These are typical limiting factors – you may have one or more, you may have none. This is where training partners and taping your lifts come in handy. If you don’t have access to a camera and lift alone, it’s easiest to address them all.

Make the Match

Based on the potential limitations of each lift, and in the spirit of hoisting superior iron, here are solid strategies for adding mobility fillers to the big four lifts. Remember, the goal is performance. Pre-habilitation is great, and necessary, .

Deadlift

Pairing Strength with Mobility
Since the deadlift is all about starting strength, pre-lift positioning is big for promoting a successful lift. Check the chart above and you’ll find thoracic spine mobility listed first as a limiting factor.
Poor t-spine mobility devastates positioning, so train thoracic movement frequently before and between sets. Here’s how.

T-Spine Strategy:

  • Train t-spine mobility, extension and rotation
  • Before starting deadlift sets, train t-spine extension using bench t-spine extension mobilizations.
  • As a filler during your deadlift sets, train thoracic extension with rotation. The quadruped extension rotation series works well to meet this end.

Train extension before pulling to prepare for a neutral set-up. I like to avoid stretching the lats during deadlift sets – even if the stretch is active, I’d rather not take the chance and lose lat tightness. That’s why we use extension rotations as the filler during sets.
We also want the glutes to fire like a cannon. Screaming tight hip flexors limit glute recruitment, so we’ll use active  to quiet them down.

Hit sets of five to eight between all of your deadlift sets. If you have a side that doesn’t extend and rotate as well, do more reps on that side.

Squat

The squat is a tricky vixen. Since the movement starts with full-body eccentric movement and reverses into a strong concentric movement, the mobility and stability needs change constantly. It’s not as simple as grabbing a bar and standing up with it.
Though the squat starts with top-down movement, I like to insert fillers starting from the ground and moving up.

Ankle Strategy

Poor ankle dorsiflexion turns a squat into a grotesque good morning hybrid. It’s always the first limiting factor I address during squatting. Active mobilizations, such as ankle rocks and wall mobilizations, work well as fillers because weight bearing is required. But I also like to pull the ankle into dorsiflexion while it’s relaxed.

Pick a dorsiflexion move and hit five to eight reps between each squat set.

Avoiding the Knee Cave

Caving knees turn a powerful squat into something resembling the Carlton dance. Limited glute strength is a big player, but poor adductor extensibility also plays a role.
Pushing the knees out while ‘spreading the floor’ tracks the knees while creating tension and recruiting the posterior chain. As you sink into the squat, tight adductors will pull the knees in, causing them to cave. I use two strategies to avoid the knee cave.

  • Simply foam roll your adductors between squat sets, as it’s often enough to calm those bad boys down enough for your knees to track well and get better drive.

Sometimes, however, rolling isn’t enough and mobilization is warranted. You need a great adductor mobilization drill. Here’s one I picked up from Steve Maxwell. It trains adductor length and internal rotation simultaneously.

Bench Press

Pairing Strength with Mobility
Most great benchers have a great arch. It looks like the bench is the only thing stopping them from rolling completely into a circle. I’ve worked for years, training myself to arch this way, but it just won’t happen. Scoliosis is a mean bitch.
An impressive arch requires spinal extension out the wazoo. But it also requires something many lifters forget, namely glute drive. This is especially true for those of us without an impressively mobile spine.
Benching with rigid glutes facilitates your arch by giving you better leg drive. As a result, you’ll set up higher on your shoulders. Activated glutes also keep you stable on the bench.
For these reasons, I like to include glute activation in between sets of bench, especially when a lifter is learning to arch.
Typically, I use lateral activation drills or glute bridging variations. See the videos below.

Upper-back tightness necessary for heavy bench efforts locks up the t-spine. To perform well on squat and deadlift efforts, you have to keep your t-spine moving freely about.
Including thoracic mobility drills between bench sets is the best strategy I’ve found to keep heavy bench training from affecting squat and deadlift training. The drills included during the deadlift section work well, but standing thoracic mobilizations are great in concert with glute activation drills because they alleviate tension in the lower back.

Overhead Press

Pairing Strength with Mobility
The rest between overhead pressing sets is free time. Rather than spend it updating your Facebook status about your latest PR attempt (you know who you are), this is a great time to address mobility and stability weaknesses that can pay dividends in the rest of your training.
If you press at the beginning of the week, use t-spine mobility drills and glute activation exercises as your fillers. T-spine drills keep your scapulae moving well, and glute activation sets anchor your hips and core so you can press with optimal force.

Conclusion

Mobility fillers help improve patterning, improve sequencing, and keep unnecessary tension from affecting future lifts. Pairing strength with mobility is a no brainer – even for this meathead.

Are You Ready to Overhead Press?





Are You Ready to Overhead Press?


I love the overhead press. It’s the consummate badass exercise. There’s a lot of testicular fortitude involved in loading weight on a bar, stepping back from the rack and pressing it overhead without so much as a dip in the hips or using the legs.
In a perfect world, everyone would overhead press. Grandma would hoist barbells while she baked pies, and setting a pressing PR would be an excused absence from school.
Oh, what a wonderful world it would be.
However, there are two factions at opposite ends of the overhead-pressing continuum. One says that overhead pressing is an unhealthy exercise for everyone. Those on the opposite side say that everyone should overhead press.
The reality is not everyone is ready to overhead press. Here are some telltale signs that indicate whether the overhead press is a good movement for you.
  • Does your thoracic spine extend properly?
  • Are you setup for impingement and/or scapular instability?
  • Are you able to brace your core tightly and lock your rib cage?


T-Spine Extension

Thoracic spine mobility is important for health in the majority of human movements, but in the overhead press its importance is compounded. If the t-spine isn’t extending properly during the overhead press, it will be difficult to fully flex the shoulders, resulting in the weight increasing the amount of lumbar extension during the lift, not to mention putting unwanted stress on the cervical spine.
The transfer of force will be altered, with the weight ending up in front of the head rather than overhead, and the lumbar spine taking the brunt of the extension needed to move the weight vertically. That range of motion has to come from somewhere and if the upper-back isn’t doing a whole lot of moving, the parts at each end of the chain will suffer.
There are two simple screens that you can do to determine if there’s sufficient extension in the thoracic spine for overhead pressing to be a fit in your program.
Option number one is to do a scapular wall slide. If you can keep your forearms, upper-back, and head against the wall throughout the movement without the arch in your lower-back increasing or your butt moving off the wall, you have enough extension in your thoracic spine to press overhead. If not, you probably have some anterior shoulder issues and lat tightness, and you also need more extension out of your t-spine.

Here’s a video of someone with sufficient t-spine extension through the wall slide.

And here’s yours truly butchering the wall slide.

Next is a simple shoulder flexion test, made popular by Eric Cressey, Mike Robertson, and Bill Hartman. Stand erect with your hands at your side and in the neutral position. From there, keep your elbows extended and raise your arms by flexing your shoulders. Have a partner watch from the side while you flex your shoulders until your arms are parallel with your ears.
Your partner should be watching for whether you can align your arms with your ears, if your rib cage sticks out more as your arms go up, and if the arch in the lower-back increases as your arms are raised. If you can’t get your arms parallel with your ears, or if your lower-back arches as your arms go up, your t-spine isn’t extending well enough. (Cressey, Hartman, & Robertson, 2009)
Here’s a solid example of the shoulder flexion test.

And a not-so-solid example.

Both these tests giving you trouble? You need to get your thoracic spine extending properly and make sure the lats have good extensibility.
The typical thoracic mobility drills and lat stretches apply. When it comes to t-spine mobility you have the quadruped extension rotations, extensions on a foam roller, and side-lying windmills. Lat stretches with a jump stretch band and the old squat rack post and lean-away also work, but there’s a great drill that hits thoracic extension and lat extensibility at the same time.
Tony Gentilcore took the time to teach me the bench thoracic extension mobilization while visiting Cressey Performance. If you’ve never tried them, you’ll feel the lat stretch and extension in your t-spine immediately.
Here’s a video of Tony Gentilcore doing the bench thoracic extension mobilization.

Continually monitor your progress by repeating the two thoracic extension tests discussed earlier (scapular wall slide and shoulder flexion test) while you include more thoracic mobility drills into your program. As you start gaining sufficient t-spine mobility you can start working overhead pressing back into your program.


Are You Setup for Impingement and Scapular Instability?

Movement at the shoulder joints is a complex operation. You could liken it to a government bureaucracy – if one guy (joint) is pissed off it can screw up the entire works. The act of pushing a barbell overhead requires effort from all the shoulder joints.
Before you start shoulder pressing we need to assess a few things:

  • Excessive internal rotation at rest
  • Scapular anterior tilt
  • Scapular winging.

If you’ve done a considerable amount of benching throughout your training career, there’s a strong chance that at least one of these three issues is present to a certain degree. The key is to make sure that your shoulders don’t get beat down further because of them.


Internal Rotation at Rest

You need room in your glenohumeral (GH) joint to be able to vertically press and pull. Along with excessive internal rotation comes altered roll and slide mechanics within the GH joint. Impingement results from the bursa and rotator cuff tendon getting pinned beneath the acromion because the head of your humerus didn’t roll and slide properly.

Before you Overhead Press

If you’re excessively internally rotated at rest there isn’t going to be room for your humeral head to move within the GH joint when you try to press above your head.
An easy way to check your resting internal rotation is by using the time-proven pencil test. Hold a pencil in each hand so that most of the pencil is visible in front of your hand. Make sure that you’re relaxed and you aren’t trying to alter your normal posture in any way. Now, look down at the pencils and extend an invisible line out from each one.
In most cases, the invisible lines are going to cross at some point. But if they’d cross less than a foot to a foot and a half from your body, then you’re at a high risk for shoulder damage if you go overhead.


Scapular Anterior Tilt and Scapular Winging

Along with internal rotation, anterior tilt of the scapulae is common in lifters. It comes from tightness in the pec minor and weakness in the mid- and low-trap. It’s visible when the inferior angle of the scapula sticks out.
Anterior tilt doesn’t allow your scaps to rotate upward properly as you press overhead. Good upward rotation of the scaps while overhead pressing is necessary for healthy movement at the GH joint.
Winging of the scapulae is caused by weakness or inhibition in the serratus anterior (the muscle that holds your scaps tight to your rib cage). If the medial (closest to the spine) borders of the scapulae stick out or are prominent, you have scapular winging. This is bad when it comes to pressing overhead.
Normally, the traps, delts and serratus anterior work in a force couple to upwardly rotate the scapula as the humerus abducts and flexes at the GH joint. But if the serratus anterior, mid and low-traps are weak, upward rotation will suffer, messing with your range of motion and altering the way your shoulders move. (Neumann, 2002)

Before you Overhead Press


A Well-Rounded Strategy

Are You Ready to Overhead Press?


Corrective exercise isn’t fun, but if you want to keep pushing and pulling heavy things (especially over your head), a certain amount is necessary. If you have the problems discussed above and want to keep overhead pressing, you need to take a break from it and do something preventive to keep the scalpel away.
The first step was addressing thoracic mobility. Now we have to get the serratus anterior firing, activate the mid and low-trap, and get the pec minor to relax. We also need to take care of the external rotators, as they dynamically stabilize the humeral head while the bigger muscles generate movement.
This is basic shoulder maintenance that everyone should be doing; it just so happens that problems become exacerbated with weight overhead.
Now I’ll hit you with some great drills to address the issue, followed by a sample routine that can help keep your shoulders in pressing balance. If you have specific questions shoot them on the LiveSpill.

GH Internal/External Rotation:


  • Sleeper stretch with lacrosse ball
  • Active pec mobilization with stick
  • Lat stretch with jump stretch band
  • No money drill (with or without bands)

Serratus Anterior Activation


  • Forearm wall slide
  • 5 count scap push-up
  • Push-up plus
  • Feet elevated push-ups

Mid and Lower Trap Activation


  • Floor blackburns
  • Band pull aparts (front, behind the neck and diagonal)
  • No money drill with band
  • Scapular wall slides

Here’s a sample routine.

Exercise Sets Reps
A Sleeper stretch with lacrosse ball 3 5*
B Active pec mobilization with stick 2 5**
C Forearm wall slide 2 10
D Floor blackburns 2 10***
E No money drill with band 2 10


Is Your Brace Strong Enough?

One of the first things that any serious lifter should learn how to do is brace their core. I thought that I was doing a good enough job of it until Smitty (James Smith) of the Diesel Crew and Diesel Strength and Conditioning coached me up.
If your core isn’t as tight as it needs to be there’s going to be instability throughout your entire body. This can leave you with an undesirable over-extension in the lumbar spine, along with the extension issues in the t-spine. Keeping your core braced tight will not only keep you safer while lifting but will also help you push more weight.
I use four coaching cues when bracing for the overhead press: air, abs, ass, and lats.

The abs and lats steps are super important. Locking the rib cage with the abs ensures that there won’t be excessive extension in the lumbar spine. Tightening the lats helps to create a corset affect by pulling tight the thoracolumbar fascia, which will further tighten the rest of the core musculature. Of course, once you press the lats will relax a bit, but tightening them at the start helps sustain tightness through the press.
Follow those four steps and you’ll have a tightly braced core for the overhead press.


Coaching Cues for Solid Press Performance

Are You Ready to Overhead Press?

The goal is to create as much tension throughout your body before you lift, as more tension equals more strength. Tension starts with the hands. While I agree with other coaches that it’s advantageous to take a false grip while overhead pressing, that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze the hell out of the bar with a full grip. You can create tension throughout the rest of your body simply by keeping everything tight and contracted.

Setting your grip wide on an overhead press isn’t necessary in most instances unless you’re training for the axel press at a strongman competition. It’s much better to keep your grip narrow (shoulder width) as it will help keep good shoulder alignment as you press.

It’s also important to get the elbows up. As discussed earlier, this helps create a lat shelf for bracing. This places the shoulders and arms in a safer, stronger pressing position.

Every press should finish with the weight directly over the head with the arms parallel to the ears. To finish in this position, the chin should be tucked and the shoulders fully flexed. “Pushing your head through” at the top of the movement can help accomplish tucking the chin and aligning the arms with the ears. It’s important to keep things simple, so one cue for two tasks makes things simpler.
Here’s a little pressing poetry in motion:

My business partner, Chris, shows us less than stellar form:


Progressing Back to the Barbell

I hope you take my advice and back off the overhead pressing with a barbell until your issues are resolved. After your hiatus, aim to get back under the bar and moving weight again with this sample progression.

Exercise Sets Reps Weight
Week 1 Split Stance DB Press 4 12 Light Resistance
Week 2 Standing 1 Arm DB Press 3 8-10 Medium Resistance
Week 3 Standing 2 Arm DB Press 3 8-10 Medium Resistance
Week 4 Standing Barbell Press 3 8 Light Resistance

Place this progression in your program where you’d normally barbell overhead press or as upper-body assistance work. Including other shoulder stability work such as different push-up variations during the overhead press progression is also a smart idea. Hopefully by the end your shoulders feel good and are moving well. If that’s the case, cut loose and start pressing some weight your grandma would be proud of!


References

Cressey, E, Hartman, B, & Robertson, M. (2009). Assess and correct (PDF E-Manual).
Neumann, D.A. (2002). Kinesiology of the musculoskeletal system: foundations for physical rehabilitation. St. Louis: Mosby.

Wikio

Long Live the Overhead Press


Long Live the Overhead Press

Long Live the Overhead Press

Overhead pressing should be a staple in almost everyone’s workouts. Unfortunately, some people can’t overhead press pain-free, period.
I know I’m going to catch some flack. “But Mike, back in the day guys overhead pressed all the time and never had shoulder issues. What gives?”
I hate to break it to you, but a lot has happened since then.
Computers. Gaming. More driving. And a much more sedentary lifestyle. These things have greatly affected our ability to not only overhead press, but often to just reach overhead!
Look, I think overhead pressing is awesome. I’d rejoice in a world where everyone could do it safely and effectively, building the kind of superhero deltoids that any pro-level bodybuilder would be proud to sport.
But for many that’s not the case. If you’re serious about training, and not just getting strong but staying healthy and doing it for a long time, you need to be qualified to overhead press.

An Anatomy Primer

Let’s quickly discuss the pertinent anatomy involved. Effective overhead movement begins and ends with the thoracic spine. Quite simply, if you’re in an excessively kyphotic or “slouched” shoulder position, there’s no way you’re going to safely press overhead.
When the thoracic spine is excessively kyphotic, it places the scapulae in a poor position. Instead of being tucked down and back a bit, it’s forced to ride up higher on the ribcage. This forward drawn position also narrows the subacromial space, which will force you to impinge sooner.
(Granted, there’s some degree of “impingement” any time you press overhead. The real issue is when your mechanics are off and this impingement becomes excessive, problematic, or causes pain.)
Finally, by being excessively kyphotic you lose the ability to fully flex the shoulder.

Long Live the Overhead Press

Try this right now.

  • Slump forward while sitting at your computer.
  • Reach up as high overhead as you can. Note how high you get.
  • Now, sit up as straight as you can and repeat the test.

Chances are your shoulder range of motion improved dramatically. You just learned how important the thoracic spine is!
Quality overhead movement goes further than just the t-spine. You also need quality upward rotation of the scapulae. The upper traps, lower traps, and serratus anterior all play a role in promoting upward rotation.
Finally, a strong rotator cuff will help depress the humeral head and position it appropriately in the glenoid fossa.
To summarize, you need three things to overhead press well:

  • Adequate thoracic spine extension.
  • Adequate upward rotation of the scapulae.
  • A strong and stable rotator cuff.

There are three types of acromions, and they’re roughly distributed between thirds of the population. In other words, 1/3 of you have a Type 1, another 1/3 have a Type 2, and the final 1/3 have a Type 3.
Check out the picture below:

Long Live the Overhead Press

I’m a huge believer in mechanics. You can’t “fix” your anatomy, but you can absolutely take an active role in improving your movement. Some people may not be the most genetically blessed to overhead press safely and effectively, but you’ll never really know unless you take the necessary time to fix your mechanics.
That said, let’s look at some things you can implement in your program immediately to qualify yourself to overhead press.

Moving and Shaking with the T-Spine

Long Live the Overhead Press

The t-spine is a driver to the rest of the upper body. If your t-spine is out of whack or in poor alignment, it throws off everything else down the kinetic chain.
Poor t-spine extension may not necessarily manifest itself in shoulder issues, either. I’ve seen many people with crappy t-spine mobility compensate by excessively arching and compressing the hell out of their lower back. Either way, your lack of t-spine motion will cost you.
Best case? Your performance suffers. Worst case? You end up seriously injured.
To get the t-spine in better alignment, I like a multi-pronged approach.

  • Behavior modification.
  • Specific mobility drills.
  • Skewed programming.

Let’s examine each.
Behavior modification is easy. If you sit all day long, you need to improve the position in which you sit. Sounds simple, right?
When you read that, did you just adjust your posture? Did you sit up a bit taller?
I’m assuming you did, and that’s fine. What we need is a subtle cue that you can use throughout the day to get tons of these little “corrections.”
While paying the new kid in accounting 10 bucks a day to jab you with a cattle prod every time he sees you slumping at your desk may be effective, it likely isn’t practical, so I have a more tech-savvy approach.
I’m assuming you have a cellphone with a timer on it. If not, go to any department store and pick up a cheap kitchen timer. Whenever you’re working at a desk, driving your car, gaming, etc., set the timer for 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, check your posture and if it ain’t kosher, fix it.
Once you’ve done that, start the timer up again and repeat this process throughout the day. So if you work a standard eight-hour shift, and you correct your posture four times every hour, that’s 32 postural corrections every workday!
Does this excite anyone else or is it just me?
In all seriousness, this is a simple but critical step. If you want to improve your t-spine posture, get serious about fixing it throughout the day.
Next, mobility drills are key. You need a blend of thoracic spine extension, and thoracic spine rotation.
For extension, there’s nothing better than working to wrap your upper back over a foam roller pre-workout. It’s like what I predict a date with Lindsay Lohan will be in 2013, cheap, easy, and effective.

Once you have more extension, it’s time to get more rotation. Concerning the t-spine, extension is the key that unlocks rotation. If you can’t extend, you sure as heck won’t be able to rotate well!
One of my favorite drills to unlock t-spine rotation is the quadruped extension-rotation.
Start off in the quadruped position and place the fingertips of one hand behind your head. From here, take your elbow down towards the opposite side knee, and then reverse the motion and “open up” towards the ceiling. I find that using the head and eyes as a driver really helps with the motion.

You can use these movements pre-workout as well as before bed, or within a “mini-mobility” circuit that you perform on off days.

Scapular Upward Rotation

Long Live the Overhead Press

Once the t-spine is in proper alignment, we need the upward rotators to be on point so they can help “drive” the scapulae into the correct position.
As mentioned, the upper traps, lower traps, and serratus anterior all play a role in upward rotation. It’s very rare to find a truly “weak” upper trap, so let’s focus on the other two muscle groups.
The lower traps are not only involved in upward rotation of the scapulae, but in scapular depression (think about tucking your shoulder blades into your back pockets).
Similarly, push-ups not only upwardly rotate the scapulae, but protract them (think about gliding them around your rib cage towards the front of your body).
What you often see in gyms are guys and gals trying in vain to “activate” these muscles.
Fortunately, there are non-sissy options for developing both the lower traps and serratus, and they’re exercises you may already be incorporating into your routine. The key, however, is doing them with precision and focusing on the little things that most trainees gloss over.
For the lower traps, I’ve found nothing better than chin-up and pull-up variations. However, most people take that term “chin-up” too literally. I almost prefer the term “chest-up” as your goal should be to get your chest/collarbone to the bar.
As you’re approaching the midpoint (top) of each repetition, think about keeping your chest out and pulling the shoulder blades down into your back pocket.

This is true scapular depression, and for many, those last 2-3 inches of getting to the bar will be incredibly difficult. If this is the case, don’t let your ego get in the way –try either a chin-up ISO, or a band-assisted chin-up to ensure you can get to that top position.

Push-ups are cut from a similar cloth. Many know about the benefits of doing push-ups, but there’s one subtle thing most miss out on.
When performing push-ups, folks rarely finish the rep. In other words, they don’t exaggerate pushing their body away from the floor. I almost hate the name “push-up plus.” I want everyone doing the “plus” at the end of their push-up, as that’s what really develops the serratus.
When performed correctly, you should feel a burn along the side of your ribcage. Many will confuse this with the lats, but it’s really the serratus doing the work.
Furthermore, don’t feel constrained to simply doing push-ups with body weight. There are many awesome push-up variations such as X-vest push-ups, band-resisted push-ups, and of course, chain push-ups. (Deep down, we all know that any time you use chains, you’re immediately more badass.)

If overhead pressing just isn’t happening for you, make these lifts a priority over the next 2-3 months. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the result.

A Strong, Stable ‘Cuff

The final component to safely pressing overhead is a strong and stable rotator cuff.
People assume far too often that if they do some internal and external rotations at the end of their workout that they’re somehow free and clear of any shoulder pain.
Wrong.
The rotator cuff is much more dynamic than people give it credit for. Instead of focusing on basic rotation exercises, your goal should be to get more integrated in your approach. The goal is to get your ‘cuff to naturally or reflexively turn on when it’s supposed to, so it can put the humeral head in the right position.
Rather than finding 50 more external rotation variations, try these two exercises below.

A final option is to just setup several med balls next to each other and “walk” across them using your hands. This is incredibly taxing on the rotator cuff and integrates the core to boot!

One Last Thing

I know some of you will incorporate these tools into your program and then immediately want to throw down a PR overhead press. Please don’t do this!
It’s much wiser to ease back into overhead pressing. For example, start with a single-arm, neutral grip overhead press to start. This will get your core engaged, open up that subacromial space, and get you back into pressing without killing yourself the first workout.
From there, use a two-dumbbell variation (still with a neutral grip), or even go back to a more standard grip for a month.

Once you’ve worked your way through that progression, test the waters with a barbell and see where you stand.

Summary

Long Live the Overhead Press

Although it warms my heart to see the sheer awesomeness of the overhead press finally being recognized, it unfortunately isn’t a lift that certain populations can do safely or effectively.
For those who qualify to press overhead, I wish you all the best in your efforts to fill out your sport coats. For those who don’t quite measure up, there are other methods you should explore before hoisting the heavy iron to the ceiling.
Got a question or comment? Leave them in the LiveSpill and I’ll do my best to help you out!


Wikio

>The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding’s Forgotten Muscle Builder

>

If I asked you to name the best upper-body pressing exercise — one that lets you move serious weight and builds size and strength in just about every muscle above the waist — what would your answer be? If you said “the bench press,” you’re thinking like a typical modern gym rat.

If your answer was “the overhead press,” then you’re thinking like bodybuilding’s pioneers, the guys who built bodies that inspired the lifters of the sport’s Golden Age.

Back in the day, the standing overhead press was the cornerstone exercise of some of the most impressive physiques. But it was more than just a muscle builder. It was a key marker of manliness itself, on top of being a fundamental strength-building exercise and even a competitive Olympic lift.

Sure, it’s out of favor today, thanks to a combination of intimidating difficulty and injuries caused by bad technique. But if you’re an ambitious lifter with a healthy back and shoulders, it deserves a place of honor in your training program.

When the Press Was Clean

The overhead press has always been a potent symbol of athletic masculinity. The silhouette of a figure with a loaded barbell locked out overhead is a classic image expressing brute strength, raw power, and an attitude that asserts, “Yep, I just made this barbell my bitch.”

Through the years, all the big-name musclemen — from Sandow and Saxon to Reeves, Reg Park, and Arnold — used overhead pressing. The shift toward the bench press as the primary upper-body pushing exercise is relatively recent. There’s an obvious connection to powerlifting’s rise in popularity in the 1960s, but there’s also a surprising link to an even older strength sport: Olympic weightlifting.

Until 1972, the Olympics included three lifts: press, snatch, clean and jerk. “But the competitive press became sloppier and sloppier, resembling a laid-back standing bench press rather than a strict military press,” says longtime TMUSCLE contributor Dan John. “Between the danger of injured backs and just ugly, difficult-to-judge lifts, it was time to move on.”

Just before it was finally removed from competition, superheavyweight Olympic lifter Vasiliy Alekseyev, weighing nearly 340 pounds, pressed 520. At that same time, 123-pound bantamweight Imre Foldi pressed 280. Even with ugly form, those are awe-inspiring numbers.

With the disappearance of the overhead press, bodybuilders had one less reason to incorporate the Olympic lifts into their training, according to physical-culture historian Randy Roach, author of Muscle, Smoke, & Mirrors.

“A lot of bodybuilders are really hybrid powerlifters-bodybuilders, and they train with most of the same exercises,” Roach says. “But Olympic weightlifting was a sport that relied heavily on skill.”

The shoulder press was the least skill-dependent of the Olympic lifts. When it was taken out of competitions in 1972, Roach says, “it kind of burned all connections with bodybuilding and powerlifting.”

Before 1972, it was common for a lifter to use the barbell shoulder press as a measure of his overall strength. After 1972, it became the forgotten lift. If bodybuilders compared their strength, it was usually with the bench press. As a result, all variations on Olympic lifts — cleans and high pulls along with standing presses, jerks, and snatches — began to disappear from bodybuilding routines.

Shoulder presses were still included, but from a seated position, often with the back against an upright bench. That may target deltoids more directly — at least, that’s the idea — but it leaves out a lot of muscles that come into play when you stand up and lift the way men were meant to lift.

Your core muscles — abs, lower back, glutes, and upper thighs — have to be strong and stable to do a standing press with good form. That’s in addition to the muscles you’re targeting: delts, traps, triceps, and serratus.

If you’re weak in any of those areas, those deficits are exposed on a standing press. A genuinely strong guy should be able to press the equivalent of his body weight overhead, according to prolific TMUSCLE contributor Christian Thibaudeau, with good form and no momentum generated by your lower body.

Now let’s talk about how to get there.

Meet the Press

Thibaudeau, an Olympic weightlifter-turned-bodybuilder-turned-coach, offers these key points about form:

While a truly strict “military” press requires the heels to touch, you’ll get a more stable and powerful base if your feet are about shoulder-width apart. Also, be sure to keep the legs straight, but not locked, throughout the set. The exception is when you’re doing a push press, which I’ll describe in a moment.

If your heels come off the ground when you press, your stance is probably too narrow. If your toes come up, that’s a pretty good sign that your torso is leaning too far back.

Full-Court Press

While the standing barbell press is the most basic way to get the bar overhead, it certainly isn’t the only way. These are Thibaudeau’s top variations (plus one from Dan John):

Dumbbell overhead press

The benefits of using dumbbells instead of a barbell range from the obvious to the obscure. First, of course, is versatility. You can use a pronated grip to mimic the hand position of a barbell press, or a neutral grip to make it easier on the shoulder joints of injured lifters. With a neutral grip, Thibaudeau says, you’ll also get more triceps involvement, making it a good choice for lifters who do total-body workouts with little or no direct arm training.

You can also do one-arm shoulder presses to incorporate more of a challenge to your core muscles. (It’s possible to do this with a barbell, if you’re feeling brave, but it’s not a recommended move in a crowded gym.)

Dumbbell variations potentially hit more of the stabilizer muscles in your shoulder girdle, which is a nice benefit. But the biggest reason to choose dumbbells, Thibaudeau says, is to give your central nervous system a break, a tip he got from powerlifter Dave Tate. When an athlete has a drained CNS, the first thing to do is take the barbell out of his hands. He’ll suffer less fatigue from that workout, and recover more fully from previous training sessions. Thibaudeau recommends switching to dumbbells every three or four workouts in which the shoulder press is a primary exercise.

Push press

According to Thibaudeau, as soon as a lifter builds a solid overhead press, using at least the equivalent of his body weight, he should learn the push press.

Set up as you would for a traditional barbell shoulder press. Dip your hips and knees, and then straighten them explosively as you push the bar overhead. It should feel like you’re jumping and throwing the weight overhead at the same time, and your momentum could take your feet off the floor when you’re learning the lift and working with lighter weights. Even with heavier weights, you could come up on your toes.

The push press is a good move to use when your progress on the traditional shoulder press comes to a halt, especially if you perform the eccentric portion slowly. You’ll get your body used to pushing heavier weights overhead, which should help when you return to the original exercise. You’ll be able to press heavier weights, which means increased strength and a bigger hypertrophy stimulus.

You can also do this with dumbbells, using a pronated or neutral grip.

Bradford press

Hold a barbell on your front shoulders, as you would for a traditional shoulder press. Press it just high enough to clear your head, rotate it behind the back of your head, and then lower it halfway down to your shoulders. Now press it back up until it just clears your head again, and lower it to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Keep going in a rhythmic fashion. “It’s a constant-tension exercise, so you can’t use much weight,” Thibaudeau says. “For example, if you 250 pounds for your military-press set, use around 165 for Bradfords.”

Don’t be intimidated by the behind-the-neck portion of the lift. Yes, behind-the-neck presses are completely contraindicated, as explained below, but with Bradfords you’re only lowering it to about the level of your ears. “I have a client who can’t do military presses but can actually do Bradfords,” Thibaudeau says.

Power clean and press

If you can do a good power clean — pulling the bar from the floor to your shoulders — then the power clean and press is the ultimate overall shoulder builder.

Explosive lifts like the push press and power clean teach your body to recruit the high-threshold motor units more efficiently. Those are the fibers with the most potential for growth.

The power clean involves more upper-back muscles, so combining it with a shoulder press gives you more total muscle stimulation than any other upper-body exercise. Of course, there’s also a price you pay in terms of CNS fatigue — it takes a lot out of you, and requires more recovery time than other upper-body exercises. But if you’re an advanced lifter who’s looking to get a lot accomplished in a limited amount of time, this is an exercise you should consider.

To do a power clean, set up as you would for a deadlift, with your feet a bit less than shoulder-width apart. Grab the bar overhand with your arms just outside your legs. Start with your back flat, hips loaded, knees bent slightly, and feet flat on the floor.

The first part of the exercise, called the first pull, is to the top of your knees. While the bar is still moving upward, quickly and powerfully straighten your hips and knees and come up on your toes to generate momentum. When your hips and knees are straight and your heels are off the floor, shrug your shoulders as hard as you can.

Now comes the trickiest part: As the bar moves upward, dip under it by bending your hips and knees. Catch it on the front of your shoulders, allowing the bar to roll to the ends of your fingers as your elbows come up. In the perfect catch position, your feet are flat on the floor, with your knees and hips bent, torso upright, head elevated slightly, and your upper arms parallel to the floor (and thus perpendicular to your torso).

Straighten your hips and knees, and then do a standard shoulder press. Then lower the bar to the floor for the next rep.

Pressout

Dan John often includes this supplement to the shoulder press with his lifters. After you lock out the final rep of any set of overhead presses, you can do a handful of partial reps where you only press the bar the final two or three inches.

This extra work not only reinforces correct lockout technique and body position, it helps to make the entire body, from the armpits down, tighter and stronger. After including pressouts for several sessions, you’ll become intimately familiar with the location and function of your serratus anterior muscles.

Pressing Issues

Because of the sometimes-delicate nature of the shoulder joint, anyone with a history of shoulder pain is quick to write off the overhead press, and that’s usually fine. “If it hurts, don’t do it,” is an excellent maxim, and not one I’ll try to convince you against.

The trouble is that even people without a history of shoulder problems are sometimes intimidated by overhead press variations. Some won’t do any overhead exercises, which is a clear overreaction. Others are scared away from variations like the behind-the-neck press, seated shoulder press, and any type of overhead press using a machine.

To figure out the true risks that these variations may pose, I checked with Clay Hyght, a chiropractor and trainer as well as a competitive bodybuilder and bodybuilding judge. He didn’t hesitate to come down hard on one of those exercises:

“The risks of doing behind-the-neck presses far outweigh the benefits,” Hyght says. “There are simply too many other good shoulder exercises that are both safe and effective.

“Many people say, ‘But I’ve been doing them for 20 years and I’ve had no shoulder problems.’ Sure, and I know people that smoke a pack a day for just as long, and they don’t have lung cancer. But we undoubtedly know that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. So, if you want to have shoulder problems, go ahead and do behind-the-neck presses. Otherwise, do something that makes more sense, like a dumbbell shoulder press.”

While the basic overhead press is done standing, the majority of barbell shoulder press stations you’ll find in your gym will have an upright seat back. The message bodybuilders receive is that overhead presses are supposed to be done seated, with the rear shoulders resting against a pad.

This extends to the dumbbell stations, where adjustable benches are usually set to the fully upright position when lifters do shoulder presses.

But are seated presses really a good idea? Hyght gives the seated press a conditional thumbs-up, with a caution for those with a history of lower-back problems. “Seated shoulder presses do increase the compressive load on the intervertebral discs,” he says.

“It’s still a rather safe movement,” Hyght adds. “Assuming you have a healthy spine, keep your abs tight, and avoid hyperextending at the lumbar spine, you won’t likely develop any problems from doing seated presses. We basically have to pick our battles, and the seated shoulder press isn’t a battle that most people should worry about.”

Then there’s the machine shoulder press. Sometimes the equipment you find in gyms is well designed and useful, and sometimes it isn’t.

“There are quite a number of biomechanically sound shoulder machines,” Hyght says. “They typically offer a good combination of safety versus effectiveness. Hell, just about any shoulder press machine would be far safer than a behind-the-neck press!”

But Hyght says that machine presses should never replace dumbbell and barbell exercises as your primary overhead lifts. “I might choose a machine shoulder press as the primary shoulder movement once every five training cycles,” he says. “And even then, it would probably be specifically for intensity-boosting techniques, like rest-pause or forced reps.”

Whatever variation you choose, the key is to do some type of overhead pressing for shoulder development. “You couldn’t win the lightweight teenage division at a local drug-tested contest if you didn’t train your shoulders directly,” Hyght says. Lateral raises alone are unlikely to work.

Press Here for Impressive Shoulders

Christian Thibaudeau created this four-week program to widen and thicken your shoulders. Do each workout once a week.

Workout 1 – Heavy Loading

Exercise Sets Reps Technique(s)
A) Barbell seated shoulder press from the bottom position 2 3 Increase the weight for the second set; use cluster reps (see below)
B) Barbell seated shoulder press 2-4 3 See below
C) Push press 5

5,4,3,2,1

Increase weight for each set; use slight leg drive

Barbell seated shoulder press from the bottom position

Set up a bench in the power rack, and set the bar on safety pins at the level of your mouth. Start each rep from the pins. Rest 10 seconds between reps. So you’ll press the weight from the pins, set it back on the pins, rest 10 seconds, press it again, set it down, and then press it one more time. Increase the weight for the second set, and do it the same way.

Use more weight than you would for standard shoulder presses (after a thorough warm-up, of course). Your goal here is to prime your central nervous system for the standard shoulder presses that you’ll do after these.

Barbell seated shoulder press

Start with a weight that’s slightly less than what you used for your second set of the first exercise. Raise the pins so you start each set with your arms fully extended. Do 3 reps, then add 10 pounds. Continue adding sets with increasing weight until you can no longer get 3 good reps without having an eyeball pop out of the socket.

Workout 2 – Contrast Loading

Exercise Sets Reps Technique
A1) Push press 5 3 Explosive reps
A2) Dumbbell lateral raise 5 5
B1) Dumbbell neutral-grip push press 5 3 Explosive reps
B2) Barbell front raise 5 5
C1) Barbell power clean or power high pull 5 3 Explosive reps
C2) Dumbbell bent-over lateral raise 5 5

Rest 15 seconds in between sets of the paired exercises. So you’ll do push presses with explosive reps, rest 15 seconds, then do lateral raises with a traditional lifting tempo. Rest as much as you need before you repeat the two exercises.

Barbell front raise

Stand holding a light barbell (even an unloaded Olympic bar may be too much weight for this movement) with straight arms in front of your thighs. Raise the bar straight out in front of you until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Lower the bar and repeat.

Barbell power high pull

The high pull starts the same way as the power clean: Pull the bar from the floor, generate momentum with powerful hip and knee extension and by coming up on your toes, and shrug your shoulders. But instead of dipping under the bar and catching it on your shoulders, stay upright. Allow your elbows to bend and lean back as the bar comes up to, or just past, the level of your chin.

Lower the bar to the floor for the next rep.

Some will perform this movement as a fast-motion upright row, but it’s really a different exercise. A row uses upper-body muscles — traps, delts, biceps — with no contribution from the lower body. A high pull gets most of its power from the hip-extensor muscles, with the final pull coming from the traps. The delts and arms are just along for the ride.

Pressing On

To sum it up:

The return you get from putting the bar overhead is a wider, thicker set of shoulders that look like you’re wearing shoulder pads even when it’s all you under that T-shirt.

Press on, brothers.

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The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

The forgotten exercise.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

No doubt about it, full, round delts look bitchin’.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

Olympic lifters had ugly form on their shoulder presses, but the strength it took to push huge weights overhead is undeniable.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

Behind-the-neck presses are a recipe for disaster.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

A high pull gets most of its power from the hip-extensor muscles, with the final pull coming from the traps.

© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wikio

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding’s Forgotten Muscle Builder

If I asked you to name the best upper-body pressing exercise — one that lets you move serious weight and builds size and strength in just about every muscle above the waist — what would your answer be? If you said “the bench press,” you’re thinking like a typical modern gym rat.

If your answer was “the overhead press,” then you’re thinking like bodybuilding’s pioneers, the guys who built bodies that inspired the lifters of the sport’s Golden Age.

Back in the day, the standing overhead press was the cornerstone exercise of some of the most impressive physiques. But it was more than just a muscle builder. It was a key marker of manliness itself, on top of being a fundamental strength-building exercise and even a competitive Olympic lift.

Sure, it’s out of favor today, thanks to a combination of intimidating difficulty and injuries caused by bad technique. But if you’re an ambitious lifter with a healthy back and shoulders, it deserves a place of honor in your training program.

When the Press Was Clean

The overhead press has always been a potent symbol of athletic masculinity. The silhouette of a figure with a loaded barbell locked out overhead is a classic image expressing brute strength, raw power, and an attitude that asserts, “Yep, I just made this barbell my bitch.”

Through the years, all the big-name musclemen — from Sandow and Saxon to Reeves, Reg Park, and Arnold — used overhead pressing. The shift toward the bench press as the primary upper-body pushing exercise is relatively recent. There’s an obvious connection to powerlifting’s rise in popularity in the 1960s, but there’s also a surprising link to an even older strength sport: Olympic weightlifting.

Until 1972, the Olympics included three lifts: press, snatch, clean and jerk. “But the competitive press became sloppier and sloppier, resembling a laid-back standing bench press rather than a strict military press,” says longtime TMUSCLE contributor Dan John. “Between the danger of injured backs and just ugly, difficult-to-judge lifts, it was time to move on.”

Just before it was finally removed from competition, superheavyweight Olympic lifter Vasiliy Alekseyev, weighing nearly 340 pounds, pressed 520. At that same time, 123-pound bantamweight Imre Foldi pressed 280. Even with ugly form, those are awe-inspiring numbers.

With the disappearance of the overhead press, bodybuilders had one less reason to incorporate the Olympic lifts into their training, according to physical-culture historian Randy Roach, author of Muscle, Smoke, & Mirrors.

“A lot of bodybuilders are really hybrid powerlifters-bodybuilders, and they train with most of the same exercises,” Roach says. “But Olympic weightlifting was a sport that relied heavily on skill.”

The shoulder press was the least skill-dependent of the Olympic lifts. When it was taken out of competitions in 1972, Roach says, “it kind of burned all connections with bodybuilding and powerlifting.”

Before 1972, it was common for a lifter to use the barbell shoulder press as a measure of his overall strength. After 1972, it became the forgotten lift. If bodybuilders compared their strength, it was usually with the bench press. As a result, all variations on Olympic lifts — cleans and high pulls along with standing presses, jerks, and snatches — began to disappear from bodybuilding routines.

Shoulder presses were still included, but from a seated position, often with the back against an upright bench. That may target deltoids more directly — at least, that’s the idea — but it leaves out a lot of muscles that come into play when you stand up and lift the way men were meant to lift.

Your core muscles — abs, lower back, glutes, and upper thighs — have to be strong and stable to do a standing press with good form. That’s in addition to the muscles you’re targeting: delts, traps, triceps, and serratus.

If you’re weak in any of those areas, those deficits are exposed on a standing press. A genuinely strong guy should be able to press the equivalent of his body weight overhead, according to prolific TMUSCLE contributor Christian Thibaudeau, with good form and no momentum generated by your lower body.

Now let’s talk about how to get there.

Meet the Press

Thibaudeau, an Olympic weightlifter-turned-bodybuilder-turned-coach, offers these key points about form:

While a truly strict “military” press requires the heels to touch, you’ll get a more stable and powerful base if your feet are about shoulder-width apart. Also, be sure to keep the legs straight, but not locked, throughout the set. The exception is when you’re doing a push press, which I’ll describe in a moment.

If your heels come off the ground when you press, your stance is probably too narrow. If your toes come up, that’s a pretty good sign that your torso is leaning too far back.

Full-Court Press

While the standing barbell press is the most basic way to get the bar overhead, it certainly isn’t the only way. These are Thibaudeau’s top variations (plus one from Dan John):

Dumbbell overhead press

The benefits of using dumbbells instead of a barbell range from the obvious to the obscure. First, of course, is versatility. You can use a pronated grip to mimic the hand position of a barbell press, or a neutral grip to make it easier on the shoulder joints of injured lifters. With a neutral grip, Thibaudeau says, you’ll also get more triceps involvement, making it a good choice for lifters who do total-body workouts with little or no direct arm training.

You can also do one-arm shoulder presses to incorporate more of a challenge to your core muscles. (It’s possible to do this with a barbell, if you’re feeling brave, but it’s not a recommended move in a crowded gym.)

Dumbbell variations potentially hit more of the stabilizer muscles in your shoulder girdle, which is a nice benefit. But the biggest reason to choose dumbbells, Thibaudeau says, is to give your central nervous system a break, a tip he got from powerlifter Dave Tate. When an athlete has a drained CNS, the first thing to do is take the barbell out of his hands. He’ll suffer less fatigue from that workout, and recover more fully from previous training sessions. Thibaudeau recommends switching to dumbbells every three or four workouts in which the shoulder press is a primary exercise.

Push press

According to Thibaudeau, as soon as a lifter builds a solid overhead press, using at least the equivalent of his body weight, he should learn the push press.

Set up as you would for a traditional barbell shoulder press. Dip your hips and knees, and then straighten them explosively as you push the bar overhead. It should feel like you’re jumping and throwing the weight overhead at the same time, and your momentum could take your feet off the floor when you’re learning the lift and working with lighter weights. Even with heavier weights, you could come up on your toes.

The push press is a good move to use when your progress on the traditional shoulder press comes to a halt, especially if you perform the eccentric portion slowly. You’ll get your body used to pushing heavier weights overhead, which should help when you return to the original exercise. You’ll be able to press heavier weights, which means increased strength and a bigger hypertrophy stimulus.

You can also do this with dumbbells, using a pronated or neutral grip.

Bradford press

Hold a barbell on your front shoulders, as you would for a traditional shoulder press. Press it just high enough to clear your head, rotate it behind the back of your head, and then lower it halfway down to your shoulders. Now press it back up until it just clears your head again, and lower it to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Keep going in a rhythmic fashion. “It’s a constant-tension exercise, so you can’t use much weight,” Thibaudeau says. “For example, if you 250 pounds for your military-press set, use around 165 for Bradfords.”

Don’t be intimidated by the behind-the-neck portion of the lift. Yes, behind-the-neck presses are completely contraindicated, as explained below, but with Bradfords you’re only lowering it to about the level of your ears. “I have a client who can’t do military presses but can actually do Bradfords,” Thibaudeau says.

Power clean and press

If you can do a good power clean — pulling the bar from the floor to your shoulders — then the power clean and press is the ultimate overall shoulder builder.

Explosive lifts like the push press and power clean teach your body to recruit the high-threshold motor units more efficiently. Those are the fibers with the most potential for growth.

The power clean involves more upper-back muscles, so combining it with a shoulder press gives you more total muscle stimulation than any other upper-body exercise. Of course, there’s also a price you pay in terms of CNS fatigue — it takes a lot out of you, and requires more recovery time than other upper-body exercises. But if you’re an advanced lifter who’s looking to get a lot accomplished in a limited amount of time, this is an exercise you should consider.

To do a power clean, set up as you would for a deadlift, with your feet a bit less than shoulder-width apart. Grab the bar overhand with your arms just outside your legs. Start with your back flat, hips loaded, knees bent slightly, and feet flat on the floor.

The first part of the exercise, called the first pull, is to the top of your knees. While the bar is still moving upward, quickly and powerfully straighten your hips and knees and come up on your toes to generate momentum. When your hips and knees are straight and your heels are off the floor, shrug your shoulders as hard as you can.

Now comes the trickiest part: As the bar moves upward, dip under it by bending your hips and knees. Catch it on the front of your shoulders, allowing the bar to roll to the ends of your fingers as your elbows come up. In the perfect catch position, your feet are flat on the floor, with your knees and hips bent, torso upright, head elevated slightly, and your upper arms parallel to the floor (and thus perpendicular to your torso).

Straighten your hips and knees, and then do a standard shoulder press. Then lower the bar to the floor for the next rep.

Pressout

Dan John often includes this supplement to the shoulder press with his lifters. After you lock out the final rep of any set of overhead presses, you can do a handful of partial reps where you only press the bar the final two or three inches.

This extra work not only reinforces correct lockout technique and body position, it helps to make the entire body, from the armpits down, tighter and stronger. After including pressouts for several sessions, you’ll become intimately familiar with the location and function of your serratus anterior muscles.

Pressing Issues

Because of the sometimes-delicate nature of the shoulder joint, anyone with a history of shoulder pain is quick to write off the overhead press, and that’s usually fine. “If it hurts, don’t do it,” is an excellent maxim, and not one I’ll try to convince you against.

The trouble is that even people without a history of shoulder problems are sometimes intimidated by overhead press variations. Some won’t do any overhead exercises, which is a clear overreaction. Others are scared away from variations like the behind-the-neck press, seated shoulder press, and any type of overhead press using a machine.

To figure out the true risks that these variations may pose, I checked with Clay Hyght, a chiropractor and trainer as well as a competitive bodybuilder and bodybuilding judge. He didn’t hesitate to come down hard on one of those exercises:

“The risks of doing behind-the-neck presses far outweigh the benefits,” Hyght says. “There are simply too many other good shoulder exercises that are both safe and effective.

“Many people say, ‘But I’ve been doing them for 20 years and I’ve had no shoulder problems.’ Sure, and I know people that smoke a pack a day for just as long, and they don’t have lung cancer. But we undoubtedly know that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. So, if you want to have shoulder problems, go ahead and do behind-the-neck presses. Otherwise, do something that makes more sense, like a dumbbell shoulder press.”

While the basic overhead press is done standing, the majority of barbell shoulder press stations you’ll find in your gym will have an upright seat back. The message bodybuilders receive is that overhead presses are supposed to be done seated, with the rear shoulders resting against a pad.

This extends to the dumbbell stations, where adjustable benches are usually set to the fully upright position when lifters do shoulder presses.

But are seated presses really a good idea? Hyght gives the seated press a conditional thumbs-up, with a caution for those with a history of lower-back problems. “Seated shoulder presses do increase the compressive load on the intervertebral discs,” he says.

“It’s still a rather safe movement,” Hyght adds. “Assuming you have a healthy spine, keep your abs tight, and avoid hyperextending at the lumbar spine, you won’t likely develop any problems from doing seated presses. We basically have to pick our battles, and the seated shoulder press isn’t a battle that most people should worry about.”

Then there’s the machine shoulder press. Sometimes the equipment you find in gyms is well designed and useful, and sometimes it isn’t.

“There are quite a number of biomechanically sound shoulder machines,” Hyght says. “They typically offer a good combination of safety versus effectiveness. Hell, just about any shoulder press machine would be far safer than a behind-the-neck press!”

But Hyght says that machine presses should never replace dumbbell and barbell exercises as your primary overhead lifts. “I might choose a machine shoulder press as the primary shoulder movement once every five training cycles,” he says. “And even then, it would probably be specifically for intensity-boosting techniques, like rest-pause or forced reps.”

Whatever variation you choose, the key is to do some type of overhead pressing for shoulder development. “You couldn’t win the lightweight teenage division at a local drug-tested contest if you didn’t train your shoulders directly,” Hyght says. Lateral raises alone are unlikely to work.

Press Here for Impressive Shoulders

Christian Thibaudeau created this four-week program to widen and thicken your shoulders. Do each workout once a week.

Workout 1 – Heavy Loading

Exercise Sets Reps Technique(s)
A) Barbell seated shoulder press from the bottom position 2 3 Increase the weight for the second set; use cluster reps (see below)
B) Barbell seated shoulder press 2-4 3 See below
C) Push press 5

5,4,3,2,1

Increase weight for each set; use slight leg drive

Barbell seated shoulder press from the bottom position

Set up a bench in the power rack, and set the bar on safety pins at the level of your mouth. Start each rep from the pins. Rest 10 seconds between reps. So you’ll press the weight from the pins, set it back on the pins, rest 10 seconds, press it again, set it down, and then press it one more time. Increase the weight for the second set, and do it the same way.

Use more weight than you would for standard shoulder presses (after a thorough warm-up, of course). Your goal here is to prime your central nervous system for the standard shoulder presses that you’ll do after these.

Barbell seated shoulder press

Start with a weight that’s slightly less than what you used for your second set of the first exercise. Raise the pins so you start each set with your arms fully extended. Do 3 reps, then add 10 pounds. Continue adding sets with increasing weight until you can no longer get 3 good reps without having an eyeball pop out of the socket.

Workout 2 – Contrast Loading

Exercise Sets Reps Technique
A1) Push press 5 3 Explosive reps
A2) Dumbbell lateral raise 5 5
B1) Dumbbell neutral-grip push press 5 3 Explosive reps
B2) Barbell front raise 5 5
C1) Barbell power clean or power high pull 5 3 Explosive reps
C2) Dumbbell bent-over lateral raise 5 5

Rest 15 seconds in between sets of the paired exercises. So you’ll do push presses with explosive reps, rest 15 seconds, then do lateral raises with a traditional lifting tempo. Rest as much as you need before you repeat the two exercises.

Barbell front raise

Stand holding a light barbell (even an unloaded Olympic bar may be too much weight for this movement) with straight arms in front of your thighs. Raise the bar straight out in front of you until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Lower the bar and repeat.

Barbell power high pull

The high pull starts the same way as the power clean: Pull the bar from the floor, generate momentum with powerful hip and knee extension and by coming up on your toes, and shrug your shoulders. But instead of dipping under the bar and catching it on your shoulders, stay upright. Allow your elbows to bend and lean back as the bar comes up to, or just past, the level of your chin.

Lower the bar to the floor for the next rep.

Some will perform this movement as a fast-motion upright row, but it’s really a different exercise. A row uses upper-body muscles — traps, delts, biceps — with no contribution from the lower body. A high pull gets most of its power from the hip-extensor muscles, with the final pull coming from the traps. The delts and arms are just along for the ride.

Pressing On

To sum it up:

The return you get from putting the bar overhead is a wider, thicker set of shoulders that look like you’re wearing shoulder pads even when it’s all you under that T-shirt.

Press on, brothers.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

The forgotten exercise.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

No doubt about it, full, round delts look bitchin’.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

Olympic lifters had ugly form on their shoulder presses, but the strength it took to push huge weights overhead is undeniable.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

Behind-the-neck presses are a recipe for disaster.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

A high pull gets most of its power from the hip-extensor muscles, with the final pull coming from the traps.

© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wikio

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding’s Forgotten Muscle Builder

If I asked you to name the best upper-body pressing exercise — one that lets you move serious weight and builds size and strength in just about every muscle above the waist — what would your answer be? If you said “the bench press,” you’re thinking like a typical modern gym rat.

If your answer was “the overhead press,” then you’re thinking like bodybuilding’s pioneers, the guys who built bodies that inspired the lifters of the sport’s Golden Age.

Back in the day, the standing overhead press was the cornerstone exercise of some of the most impressive physiques. But it was more than just a muscle builder. It was a key marker of manliness itself, on top of being a fundamental strength-building exercise and even a competitive Olympic lift.

Sure, it’s out of favor today, thanks to a combination of intimidating difficulty and injuries caused by bad technique. But if you’re an ambitious lifter with a healthy back and shoulders, it deserves a place of honor in your training program.

When the Press Was Clean

The overhead press has always been a potent symbol of athletic masculinity. The silhouette of a figure with a loaded barbell locked out overhead is a classic image expressing brute strength, raw power, and an attitude that asserts, “Yep, I just made this barbell my bitch.”

Through the years, all the big-name musclemen — from Sandow and Saxon to Reeves, Reg Park, and Arnold — used overhead pressing. The shift toward the bench press as the primary upper-body pushing exercise is relatively recent. There’s an obvious connection to powerlifting’s rise in popularity in the 1960s, but there’s also a surprising link to an even older strength sport: Olympic weightlifting.

Until 1972, the Olympics included three lifts: press, snatch, clean and jerk. “But the competitive press became sloppier and sloppier, resembling a laid-back standing bench press rather than a strict military press,” says longtime TMUSCLE contributor Dan John. “Between the danger of injured backs and just ugly, difficult-to-judge lifts, it was time to move on.”

Just before it was finally removed from competition, superheavyweight Olympic lifter Vasiliy Alekseyev, weighing nearly 340 pounds, pressed 520. At that same time, 123-pound bantamweight Imre Foldi pressed 280. Even with ugly form, those are awe-inspiring numbers.

With the disappearance of the overhead press, bodybuilders had one less reason to incorporate the Olympic lifts into their training, according to physical-culture historian Randy Roach, author of Muscle, Smoke, & Mirrors.

“A lot of bodybuilders are really hybrid powerlifters-bodybuilders, and they train with most of the same exercises,” Roach says. “But Olympic weightlifting was a sport that relied heavily on skill.”

The shoulder press was the least skill-dependent of the Olympic lifts. When it was taken out of competitions in 1972, Roach says, “it kind of burned all connections with bodybuilding and powerlifting.”

Before 1972, it was common for a lifter to use the barbell shoulder press as a measure of his overall strength. After 1972, it became the forgotten lift. If bodybuilders compared their strength, it was usually with the bench press. As a result, all variations on Olympic lifts — cleans and high pulls along with standing presses, jerks, and snatches — began to disappear from bodybuilding routines.

Shoulder presses were still included, but from a seated position, often with the back against an upright bench. That may target deltoids more directly — at least, that’s the idea — but it leaves out a lot of muscles that come into play when you stand up and lift the way men were meant to lift.

Your core muscles — abs, lower back, glutes, and upper thighs — have to be strong and stable to do a standing press with good form. That’s in addition to the muscles you’re targeting: delts, traps, triceps, and serratus.

If you’re weak in any of those areas, those deficits are exposed on a standing press. A genuinely strong guy should be able to press the equivalent of his body weight overhead, according to prolific TMUSCLE contributor Christian Thibaudeau, with good form and no momentum generated by your lower body.

Now let’s talk about how to get there.

Meet the Press

Thibaudeau, an Olympic weightlifter-turned-bodybuilder-turned-coach, offers these key points about form:

While a truly strict “military” press requires the heels to touch, you’ll get a more stable and powerful base if your feet are about shoulder-width apart. Also, be sure to keep the legs straight, but not locked, throughout the set. The exception is when you’re doing a push press, which I’ll describe in a moment.

If your heels come off the ground when you press, your stance is probably too narrow. If your toes come up, that’s a pretty good sign that your torso is leaning too far back.

Full-Court Press

While the standing barbell press is the most basic way to get the bar overhead, it certainly isn’t the only way. These are Thibaudeau’s top variations (plus one from Dan John):

Dumbbell overhead press

The benefits of using dumbbells instead of a barbell range from the obvious to the obscure. First, of course, is versatility. You can use a pronated grip to mimic the hand position of a barbell press, or a neutral grip to make it easier on the shoulder joints of injured lifters. With a neutral grip, Thibaudeau says, you’ll also get more triceps involvement, making it a good choice for lifters who do total-body workouts with little or no direct arm training.

You can also do one-arm shoulder presses to incorporate more of a challenge to your core muscles. (It’s possible to do this with a barbell, if you’re feeling brave, but it’s not a recommended move in a crowded gym.)

Dumbbell variations potentially hit more of the stabilizer muscles in your shoulder girdle, which is a nice benefit. But the biggest reason to choose dumbbells, Thibaudeau says, is to give your central nervous system a break, a tip he got from powerlifter Dave Tate. When an athlete has a drained CNS, the first thing to do is take the barbell out of his hands. He’ll suffer less fatigue from that workout, and recover more fully from previous training sessions. Thibaudeau recommends switching to dumbbells every three or four workouts in which the shoulder press is a primary exercise.

Push press

According to Thibaudeau, as soon as a lifter builds a solid overhead press, using at least the equivalent of his body weight, he should learn the push press.

Set up as you would for a traditional barbell shoulder press. Dip your hips and knees, and then straighten them explosively as you push the bar overhead. It should feel like you’re jumping and throwing the weight overhead at the same time, and your momentum could take your feet off the floor when you’re learning the lift and working with lighter weights. Even with heavier weights, you could come up on your toes.

The push press is a good move to use when your progress on the traditional shoulder press comes to a halt, especially if you perform the eccentric portion slowly. You’ll get your body used to pushing heavier weights overhead, which should help when you return to the original exercise. You’ll be able to press heavier weights, which means increased strength and a bigger hypertrophy stimulus.

You can also do this with dumbbells, using a pronated or neutral grip.

Bradford press

Hold a barbell on your front shoulders, as you would for a traditional shoulder press. Press it just high enough to clear your head, rotate it behind the back of your head, and then lower it halfway down to your shoulders. Now press it back up until it just clears your head again, and lower it to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Keep going in a rhythmic fashion. “It’s a constant-tension exercise, so you can’t use much weight,” Thibaudeau says. “For example, if you 250 pounds for your military-press set, use around 165 for Bradfords.”

Don’t be intimidated by the behind-the-neck portion of the lift. Yes, behind-the-neck presses are completely contraindicated, as explained below, but with Bradfords you’re only lowering it to about the level of your ears. “I have a client who can’t do military presses but can actually do Bradfords,” Thibaudeau says.

Power clean and press

If you can do a good power clean — pulling the bar from the floor to your shoulders — then the power clean and press is the ultimate overall shoulder builder.

Explosive lifts like the push press and power clean teach your body to recruit the high-threshold motor units more efficiently. Those are the fibers with the most potential for growth.

The power clean involves more upper-back muscles, so combining it with a shoulder press gives you more total muscle stimulation than any other upper-body exercise. Of course, there’s also a price you pay in terms of CNS fatigue — it takes a lot out of you, and requires more recovery time than other upper-body exercises. But if you’re an advanced lifter who’s looking to get a lot accomplished in a limited amount of time, this is an exercise you should consider.

To do a power clean, set up as you would for a deadlift, with your feet a bit less than shoulder-width apart. Grab the bar overhand with your arms just outside your legs. Start with your back flat, hips loaded, knees bent slightly, and feet flat on the floor.

The first part of the exercise, called the first pull, is to the top of your knees. While the bar is still moving upward, quickly and powerfully straighten your hips and knees and come up on your toes to generate momentum. When your hips and knees are straight and your heels are off the floor, shrug your shoulders as hard as you can.

Now comes the trickiest part: As the bar moves upward, dip under it by bending your hips and knees. Catch it on the front of your shoulders, allowing the bar to roll to the ends of your fingers as your elbows come up. In the perfect catch position, your feet are flat on the floor, with your knees and hips bent, torso upright, head elevated slightly, and your upper arms parallel to the floor (and thus perpendicular to your torso).

Straighten your hips and knees, and then do a standard shoulder press. Then lower the bar to the floor for the next rep.

Pressout

Dan John often includes this supplement to the shoulder press with his lifters. After you lock out the final rep of any set of overhead presses, you can do a handful of partial reps where you only press the bar the final two or three inches.

This extra work not only reinforces correct lockout technique and body position, it helps to make the entire body, from the armpits down, tighter and stronger. After including pressouts for several sessions, you’ll become intimately familiar with the location and function of your serratus anterior muscles.

Pressing Issues

Because of the sometimes-delicate nature of the shoulder joint, anyone with a history of shoulder pain is quick to write off the overhead press, and that’s usually fine. “If it hurts, don’t do it,” is an excellent maxim, and not one I’ll try to convince you against.

The trouble is that even people without a history of shoulder problems are sometimes intimidated by overhead press variations. Some won’t do any overhead exercises, which is a clear overreaction. Others are scared away from variations like the behind-the-neck press, seated shoulder press, and any type of overhead press using a machine.

To figure out the true risks that these variations may pose, I checked with Clay Hyght, a chiropractor and trainer as well as a competitive bodybuilder and bodybuilding judge. He didn’t hesitate to come down hard on one of those exercises:

“The risks of doing behind-the-neck presses far outweigh the benefits,” Hyght says. “There are simply too many other good shoulder exercises that are both safe and effective.

“Many people say, ‘But I’ve been doing them for 20 years and I’ve had no shoulder problems.’ Sure, and I know people that smoke a pack a day for just as long, and they don’t have lung cancer. But we undoubtedly know that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer. So, if you want to have shoulder problems, go ahead and do behind-the-neck presses. Otherwise, do something that makes more sense, like a dumbbell shoulder press.”

While the basic overhead press is done standing, the majority of barbell shoulder press stations you’ll find in your gym will have an upright seat back. The message bodybuilders receive is that overhead presses are supposed to be done seated, with the rear shoulders resting against a pad.

This extends to the dumbbell stations, where adjustable benches are usually set to the fully upright position when lifters do shoulder presses.

But are seated presses really a good idea? Hyght gives the seated press a conditional thumbs-up, with a caution for those with a history of lower-back problems. “Seated shoulder presses do increase the compressive load on the intervertebral discs,” he says.

“It’s still a rather safe movement,” Hyght adds. “Assuming you have a healthy spine, keep your abs tight, and avoid hyperextending at the lumbar spine, you won’t likely develop any problems from doing seated presses. We basically have to pick our battles, and the seated shoulder press isn’t a battle that most people should worry about.”

Then there’s the machine shoulder press. Sometimes the equipment you find in gyms is well designed and useful, and sometimes it isn’t.

“There are quite a number of biomechanically sound shoulder machines,” Hyght says. “They typically offer a good combination of safety versus effectiveness. Hell, just about any shoulder press machine would be far safer than a behind-the-neck press!”

But Hyght says that machine presses should never replace dumbbell and barbell exercises as your primary overhead lifts. “I might choose a machine shoulder press as the primary shoulder movement once every five training cycles,” he says. “And even then, it would probably be specifically for intensity-boosting techniques, like rest-pause or forced reps.”

Whatever variation you choose, the key is to do some type of overhead pressing for shoulder development. “You couldn’t win the lightweight teenage division at a local drug-tested contest if you didn’t train your shoulders directly,” Hyght says. Lateral raises alone are unlikely to work.

Press Here for Impressive Shoulders

Christian Thibaudeau created this four-week program to widen and thicken your shoulders. Do each workout once a week.

Workout 1 – Heavy Loading

Exercise Sets Reps Technique(s)
A) Barbell seated shoulder press from the bottom position 2 3 Increase the weight for the second set; use cluster reps (see below)
B) Barbell seated shoulder press 2-4 3 See below
C) Push press 5

5,4,3,2,1

Increase weight for each set; use slight leg drive

Barbell seated shoulder press from the bottom position

Set up a bench in the power rack, and set the bar on safety pins at the level of your mouth. Start each rep from the pins. Rest 10 seconds between reps. So you’ll press the weight from the pins, set it back on the pins, rest 10 seconds, press it again, set it down, and then press it one more time. Increase the weight for the second set, and do it the same way.

Use more weight than you would for standard shoulder presses (after a thorough warm-up, of course). Your goal here is to prime your central nervous system for the standard shoulder presses that you’ll do after these.

Barbell seated shoulder press

Start with a weight that’s slightly less than what you used for your second set of the first exercise. Raise the pins so you start each set with your arms fully extended. Do 3 reps, then add 10 pounds. Continue adding sets with increasing weight until you can no longer get 3 good reps without having an eyeball pop out of the socket.

Workout 2 – Contrast Loading

Exercise Sets Reps Technique
A1) Push press 5 3 Explosive reps
A2) Dumbbell lateral raise 5 5
B1) Dumbbell neutral-grip push press 5 3 Explosive reps
B2) Barbell front raise 5 5
C1) Barbell power clean or power high pull 5 3 Explosive reps
C2) Dumbbell bent-over lateral raise 5 5

Rest 15 seconds in between sets of the paired exercises. So you’ll do push presses with explosive reps, rest 15 seconds, then do lateral raises with a traditional lifting tempo. Rest as much as you need before you repeat the two exercises.

Barbell front raise

Stand holding a light barbell (even an unloaded Olympic bar may be too much weight for this movement) with straight arms in front of your thighs. Raise the bar straight out in front of you until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Lower the bar and repeat.

Barbell power high pull

The high pull starts the same way as the power clean: Pull the bar from the floor, generate momentum with powerful hip and knee extension and by coming up on your toes, and shrug your shoulders. But instead of dipping under the bar and catching it on your shoulders, stay upright. Allow your elbows to bend and lean back as the bar comes up to, or just past, the level of your chin.

Lower the bar to the floor for the next rep.

Some will perform this movement as a fast-motion upright row, but it’s really a different exercise. A row uses upper-body muscles — traps, delts, biceps — with no contribution from the lower body. A high pull gets most of its power from the hip-extensor muscles, with the final pull coming from the traps. The delts and arms are just along for the ride.

Pressing On

To sum it up:

The return you get from putting the bar overhead is a wider, thicker set of shoulders that look like you’re wearing shoulder pads even when it’s all you under that T-shirt.

Press on, brothers.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

The forgotten exercise.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

No doubt about it, full, round delts look bitchin’.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

Olympic lifters had ugly form on their shoulder presses, but the strength it took to push huge weights overhead is undeniable.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

Behind-the-neck presses are a recipe for disaster.

The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder The Overhead Press: Bodybuilding's Forgotten Muscle Builder

A high pull gets most of its power from the hip-extensor muscles, with the final pull coming from the traps.

© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wikio

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