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January 16, 2011 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Before the rise in popularity of the bench press as the de facto test of upper body strength, the overhead press was king. However, the press began to fall out of favor in the 1970s. Legendary strength coach Bill Starr provides a history of the lift and offers a number of suggestions for strengthening it. Until 1972, the clean and press was one of the three contested lifts in Olympic weightlifting. It was dropped from competition in part because of the dynamic style some lifters developed for the press, which was said to make judging the lift difficult. Bill Starr explains how to perform the technical Olympic-style press, and veteran lifter Tommy Suggs coaches it in a three-part video series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko (46 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
The overhead press truly is a superior exercise to the bench press. Its a shame more people don't train it today.
posted by el chupa nibre at 9:01 AM on January 16, 2011


Strict Press-Push Press-Push Jerk comparison.

Overhead lifting is a wonderful task to perform. The rush of exhilaration that comes from putting something heavy at arm's length above your head, with every muscle from your hands down to your feet working at maximum output, and best of all your mind focused on each, it's a beautiful feeling.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 9:13 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's a less beautiful feeling to push-jerk a loaded Olympic bar directly into one's chin.

(But I agree, the overhead press is vastly superior to the bench press.)
posted by restless_nomad at 9:20 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is one of the most inspirational images of strength I've seen.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:24 AM on January 16, 2011


That Bill Starr article is awesome, thanks. I've been struggling with the overhead press for a long time, although it's good to know I shouldn't feel too bad as I'm coming up on (my relatively low) bodyweight. But yeah, I've always found them really tough.

I also had no idea weighted dips would give one gains for overhead presses. I already do these, and will get more serious with them. Thanks!
posted by dubitable at 9:28 AM on January 16, 2011


I once did a clean and press. It made my shirt looked wonderful.
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:30 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Regarding that "dynamic" style; doesn't that make it easier, since you are leveraging the momentum you can drive into the bar with your hips? Seems a bit like "cheating" to me. Seems like what the Crossfit guys call a "push press" vs. a regular press.

Granted, watching a guy do a "dynamic" press of 500+ lbs is still amazingly impressive...
posted by dubitable at 9:32 AM on January 16, 2011


Keep up the overhead press. The orthopods need to make their vacation home payments.
posted by docpops at 9:36 AM on January 16, 2011


Regarding that "dynamic" style; doesn't that make it easier, since you are leveraging the momentum you can drive into the bar with your hips? Seems a bit like "cheating" to me. Seems like what the Crossfit guys call a "push press" vs. a regular press.

I don't know that "easier" is the right word, but as Starr says in his articles, this style allowed heavier loads to be moved. It's not a push press, as that involves initiating the movement with a knee bend, which is not a part of the Olympic-style press.

More badass photos: Starr pressing. Starr deadlifting. Suggs and Starr in '96.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 9:39 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The "dynamic style" as I understand it refers to the back-and-forth torso motion in the first example. Too much knee bend does make it a push press, and it disqualifies the lift, but the other is much more subtle. (Disclaimer: not a competitive lifter, may be talking out my ass.)
posted by restless_nomad at 9:43 AM on January 16, 2011


Keep up the overhead press. The orthopods need to make their vacation home payments.

docpops, rather than a snarky I-know-more-than-you-but-I-won't-tell-you non-answer without a direct relationship to the post, why don't you try actually sharing your knowledge with us? I, for one, would love to know if there are risks involved in this particular lift (as there are in all lifts) so I can try to avoid them. Otherwise don't bother commenting, huh?

I don't know that "easier" is the right word, but as Starr says in his articles, this style allowed heavier loads to be moved. It's not a push press, as that involves initiating the movement with a knee bend, which is not a part of the Olympic-style press.

Anatoly Pisarenko: thanks for the clarification. I now see in the videos the distinction between those doing a push press with the knee bend and those without...also, the second Starr article has a more deep explanation (that I'm still wrapping my head around, seems like a pretty technical lift to me...).

(and restless_nomad, that's how it appears to me now too, ass-talking or not...haha)
posted by dubitable at 9:47 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


doc pops, what exactly is your problem with strength training? this isn't the first time you've threadshat one of these posts.
posted by el chupa nibre at 10:00 AM on January 16, 2011


If I can, I let someone else pick up a barbell or a bar bill.
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:05 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The suits that the lifters are wearing in those two videos reminds me of Rudi Gernreich's original design for the monokini picture here
posted by Fred Wesley at 10:27 AM on January 16, 2011


I'm guessing docpops' paycheck is dependent to a large extent upon the general population abiding by the usual model of modern living: a lifetime of sedentary laziness punctuated by the occasional brief, uninformed and injurious gym fling. That these people are the bread and butter of most physicians, and that physicians therefore develop a negatively biased view of strength training, is no surprise.

It's unfortunate that almost every time an athletically-inclined person has to deal with the medical establishment, they're in for a long, frustrating schpiel of risk-averse thinking that, while perhaps beneficial for the greater good of an ignorant population, doesn't do a bit of good for the sensible minority of educated and sensible adherents.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 10:37 AM on January 16, 2011 [15 favorites]


I don't know about docpops, but it seems to me like putting that much extra weight above your spinal column can't be great for your back in the long run. People who carry more body weight on their upper body suffer from all kinds of back problems, it seems like lifting weights over your head would have a similar effect.
posted by paisley henosis at 10:55 AM on January 16, 2011


It's unfortunate that almost every time an athletically-inclined person has to deal with the medical establishment, they're in for a long, frustrating schpiel of risk-averse thinking that, while perhaps beneficial for the greater good of an ignorant population, doesn't do a bit of good for the sensible minority of educated and sensible adherents.

I can't favorite this comment enough. The last time I went in and talked to a sports-training focused (!) physical therapist, I mentioned that I occasionally had tightness in my back, and felt like my form was bad when doing just this lift—the overhead press. I was pro-actively trying to get some guidance from him on proper form (and, by the way, I never lifted very heavy up until then anyways, because I'm pretty cautious and don't want to hurt myself), and I was hoping that, at the least, he could bring his knowledge of anatomy to bear on my question, even if he didn't know the particular lift in question (i.e., "be careful 'cause you can do X when you lift that way, and muscles Y and Z are used as stabilizers," etc. etc.).

His response? "Oh, don't do that lift. Don't lift things over your head." That's all. End of discussion.

I didn't go back to him, but I've yet to find a new physical therapist. He was the second I'd seen in as many months. In the meantime I read as much as I can and am very cautious when I'm in the gym. Articles like the Bill Starr ones above are incredibly helpful as well (thanks again Anatoly Pisarenko)!

On preview, paisley henosis: I don't know about docpops, but it seems to me like putting that much extra weight above your spinal column can't be great for your back in the long run. People who carry more body weight on their upper body suffer from all kinds of back problems, it seems like lifting weights over your head would have a similar effect.

People who carry more body weight on their upper body detrimentally the way you're describing usually are carrying it in their bellies, not their chest and back and core, and they are not doing strength training (or any for that matter; that is, poor cardiovascular health is implied as well), and for heaven's sake they are walking around all the time with that weight. If you build up strength properly you are strengthening the muscles supporting your spine as well (especially!). No one doing a proper strength training program is only doing overhead presses, but is doing plenty of squats and deadlifts to build that core support.
posted by dubitable at 11:04 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Joe Beese: See this video for Nicole being inspirational.

I like the overhead press and push press, too. I get a I'm-a-bad-ass (for a 6' 140 guy) feeling that the bench press just doesn't give me.
posted by ctmf at 11:08 AM on January 16, 2011


People who carry more body weight on their upper body suffer from all kinds of back problems, it seems like lifting weights over your head would have a similar effect.

Well, you can hurt yourself if you lift any weight in any direction that your body is not ready for. And I don't know upper pressing from nothing.

But an awful lot of backpackers, walking 100s of miles over weeks with heavy weights on their backs would disagree with the blanket statement that weights on your upper body are bad for you.
posted by eye of newt at 12:10 PM on January 16, 2011


Can I just interject a glimmer of common sense here and state that carrying a gut or going for long treks wearing a backpack entail movement patterns not even remotely close to heavy overhead pressing and as such offer zero insight into the pros and cons of the lift.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 12:23 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


going for long treks wearing a backpack entail movement patterns not even remotely close to heavy overhead pressing

I agree--I'm just trying to counter a very broad warning of harm caused by weight carried on the upper body. I wouldn't want people to avoid the overhead press because of this unfounded fear.
posted by eye of newt at 12:34 PM on January 16, 2011


I wouldn't take the thread-shits or snark personally.

MetaFilter has a lot of active participants who associate lifting with that guy who wedgied them in sophomore year.

If you want to do these sorts of threads here, you just have to accept these annoyances as part of the background noise.

Great post, by the way! Thanks for sharing it with us!
posted by jason's_planet at 12:38 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just was inspired to go back and go through my copy of Starting Strength and realized that there is a killer pic of Bill Starr in the beginning of the press section (I also realized I missed a lot of details in that book regarding the press). The guy looks great, and in the picture he looks to be in his forties, I'd guess (although could be older considering his shape). He's pressing 350 lbs in that pic. Amazing. It's the same pic that can be found here; sorry I couldn't find a better one (that's Arnold on the right, and Bill Starr on the left, if it's not clear).
posted by dubitable at 12:54 PM on January 16, 2011


The fact that a couple peoples' first reactions to hearing about an overhead press is that it's bad for you is a testament to how weak and sedentary our culture is.

On the other hand, I've found that the medical community as a whole is not completely anti strength training. A friend of mine had knee problems and was encouraged by his doctor to do more squatting, which eventually alleviated all his symptoms.
posted by aesacus at 1:40 PM on January 16, 2011


Yeah, if you're religously doing squats for lower body then you should also be doing overhead press' for your upper body. Even if you dropped benching from your program for a awhile your shoulders would probably thank you. Speaking of.... I'm not sure what docpops was getting at, but there are a couple of thing to be aware of. The Glenhumoral joint is the most unstable joint in the body and is susceptible to injuries like Shoulder Impingement Syndrome. the other, is that the spine works in a very complicated manner and excessive compressive forces placed on it tend to do bad things. None of that means doing overhead work is necessarily bad, just that you should (as always) be careful and use proper form.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:27 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had to stop overhead pressing due to a rhomboid injury last year - It's a shame because it is certainly a great feeling to get that weight up.
posted by smoke at 2:29 PM on January 16, 2011


I don't know about docpops, but it seems to me like putting that much extra weight above your spinal column can't be great for your back in the long run. People who carry more body weight on their upper body suffer from all kinds of back problems, it seems like lifting weights over your head would have a similar effect.

I will interject here to note that this is why I, an able-bodied young man in the prime of his life, have restricted myself to an electric scooter steered with a small joystick to save my body from the undue stress of ambulation. It reclines when I require sleep and is equipped to accommodate toilet facilities. I have hired an attendant to blend all of my meals into a fine, uniform paste to prevent wear on my teeth and keep them in pristine condition. I will outlive all of you fools.
posted by indubitable at 2:34 PM on January 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


I, an able-bodied young man in the prime of his life

Thank you, this is exactly the alternative to not engaging to particular lifts which might be damaging to joints or the spine. I'm not familiar with the epi of weight training injuries, but I hold out the possibility that some activities carry more risk than others.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:52 PM on January 16, 2011


it seems to me like putting that much extra weight above your spinal column can't be great for your back in the long run

Do you think it's any better to hold an extremely heavy bar directly over your rib cage? Yet nobody has any problems with the bench press. Squats? There's a million wrong ways to do a squat. But you're exercising, like, 200 different muscles. Pros and cons.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:01 PM on January 16, 2011


I wish this went without saying, but: any physical activity strenuous enough to cause an adaptation also carries with it a risk for injury, from running, to playing tennis, to lifting; however, one must consider that sitting around doing nothing likely represents a much greater risk in the long run. The eventual degradation of the human body over time is an unfortunate fact; all we can do is try to keep it as capable as possible as long as possible. The press is one of the oldest and most useful exercises around, and there is nothing inherently dangerous about it, unlike the bench press (which is, in spite of this, also a valuable movement and safe when performed properly) or some of the foolishness that goes on in gyms. I hit the milestone of a bodyweight press in September and don't plan to stop, because I'm more concerned with the dangers of not pressing.

With that said, my technique tip for anyone performing this exercise is to make sure and yell out "ARNOLD!" during each rep.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 3:02 PM on January 16, 2011 [4 favorites]


Anatoly: That photo is absolutely jaw-dropping. Why doesn't it surprise me that there's a couple of leg press machines in the background?
posted by leotrotsky at 3:19 PM on January 16, 2011


Foolishness? That's just plain idiocy. Swiss balls are useful, but they're also great for blowing out ACLs.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:24 PM on January 16, 2011


I'm not familiar with the epi of weight training injuries, but I hold out the possibility that some activities carry more risk than others.

As far as I've read, weight lifting is one of the safest activities one can do for exercise. The majority of injuries seem to come from dropping the weight. With only 2-3 injuries occurring per 1000 of training. That's not to say horrible lifting form isn't, well, horrible. Just that using the proper movements in lifts is pretty safe, all things considered.
posted by swashedbuckles at 5:09 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


As others have said, I love the feeling of doing overhead presses. It's the one time of the week when I feel like a "real" weight-lifter. I've so far converted at least three other women to trying them, who were previously convinced they would hurt themselves. No injuries yet, in the five years I've been doing it.

(My doctor, on the other hand, flat out says, "I don't think women should lift weights" whenever I go to her for ANY reason. High blood pressure? "I don't think women should lift weights. Stop lifting weights and it will probably go away." (No, actually it went away when I switched contraceptive pills.) Sore wrist that is interfering with my bench press? "I don't think women should lift weights. If you stop lifting weights, the pain won't interfere with your daily life anymore." Well no, not at first. But when it turns out to be RSI and keeps getting worse, actually, perhaps not lifting weights is not the best solution.)
posted by lollusc at 5:49 PM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well, I run and lift five days a week every morning before work at 5:30 and encourage all my patients to do the same. As I tell someone at least once a day, exercise will fix or prevent everything we can't do anything useful for. So I apologize for the threadshit. But, in all seriousness, the most common and reliable mechanism for injuring your rotator cuff, in the setting of a person trying strength training, is the overhead lift, although there is less risk with with free weight than with the machine version. When the oblong humeral head is rotated upward, it assumes a longer axis and can easily impinge, very seriously, the rotator cuff against the acromion when the arms are overhead, and in an instant produce a disabling injury. Some of that risk can be mitigated if the arms are not brought quite as far back over the head, so using a machine, with it's fixed mechanism, can be more problematic.

Anyway, I tend to forget that weightlifting threads have litttle in common with fitness in general for most people. But the overhead press is something that many people will try in the gym only to seriously screw up their shoulder, unlike, say, trying to curl a shitload of weight or bench more than they should.
posted by docpops at 8:04 PM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I’m repeating this often-told story because it fits so perfectly. Norb Schemansky was approached by an eager fan and asked, “How do I get my press stronger?” Ski replied, “Press.”

I'm using this as an epigram for my next paper that has the slightest relation to practicing or repetition.
posted by ersatz at 8:12 PM on January 16, 2011


As others have said, I love the feeling of doing overhead presses. It's the one time of the week when I feel like a "real" weight-lifter. I've so far converted at least three other women to trying them, who were previously convinced they would hurt themselves. No injuries yet, in the five years I've been doing it.

It's always heartening to see women lifting barbells. Good on you for sticking with it.
posted by indubitable at 8:32 PM on January 16, 2011


docpops, I think you are missing some of the finer points of pressing mechanics and vastly exaggerating the risk of injury. From Mark Rippetoe:
The term “active shoulder” has been used to describe what happens when the muscles of the shoulder girdle are used to support weight overhead in a way that protects the joint from impingement and places the load in balance over the scapulas. It involves the active contraction of the trapezius muscles, in recognition of the fact that the scapulas articulate with and therefore support the arms in the overhead lockout position, and that the traps thus ultimately hold up the weight of the bar if it is in balance directly over the glenoid fossa, the “socket” of the ball-and-socket joint of the shoulder. The active concentric contraction of the traps at the top of the scapula combined with the tension at the bottom of the scapula from the serratus anterior combine to tilt the top of the bone in the medial direction, away from the humerus in its position of lockout overhead, thus preventing any possible impingement of the soft tissue between the acromion process and the humerus. In effect, the triceps and deltoids bring the arm bones into alignment and hold them that way, but the traps hold the load up overhead by holding up the scapulas, the bones over which the bar is balanced and supported.
There are many ways to cause injury to the shoulder, but the great majority of anecdotes I've heard from people who perform this exercise regularly and correctly is that it it's more likely to ameliorate shoulder instabilities and rotator cuff issues than cause them. Personally I've yet to have any shoulder issues despite pressing overhead once or twice a week every week for the past 2.5 years, with loads up to 200 pounds.

Conversely, I've heard many tales of shoulder problems developed after years of bench pressing while performing little to no overhead work, as is relatively standard practice among modern gym-goers; the anterior muscles of the shoulder girdle get strong, while the posterior muscles (which contribute isometrically to the lockout of a press but receive little work in the bench press) do not, and potentially injurious imbalances can develop.

See also exrx.net on overgeneralizations: "The justification of contraindication is derived from the philosophy of training at the level of the lowest common denominator. There are very few exercises that should be contraindicated. There are lots of people who should not be doing certain exercises."
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 9:48 PM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


Let's not get the wires crossed here. It's an undeniable fact that overhead movements cause impingement. It is. There's no arguing that. Even if you got a qoute from Jesus talking about how his dad didn't create the human body in a way that causes impingement, you couldn't deny the scientific fact it does occur. BUT, obviously, not all movement patterns are the same. Typically when doing the Overhead Press most people keep their arms forward 30 degrees of the frontal plane, which should put you in the clear. Although, according to Eric Creasy even that might not be good enough for some people.
It seems logical, but we all know how tough it is to resist the exercises we've grown to love. Face the facts; you just might not be able to overhead press or bench with the straight bar.

Not all bodies are created equal in the first place; a good example would be the different types of acromions, a portion of the scapula. Those with type III acromions are more likely to suffer from subacromial impingement due to the shape of this end of the scapula
So for most people, most of the time, the Overhead Press should be regular part of their weight training routing.

I tend to forget that weightlifting threads have litttle in common with fitness in general for most people

Yeah, some people just don't get that aspect at all. It took me years to figure out that I was doing weight training and martial arts to not be hurt.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:31 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


So for most people, most of the time, the Overhead Press should be (a) regular part of their weight training routin(e as long as it's done correctly.)
posted by P.o.B. at 11:36 AM on January 17, 2011


"Overhead movements" is a very broad category. Behind-the-neck presses, for example, seem to be pretty much universally condemned, including by Starr in the Olympic Press article from the FPP. To say bluntly that it's a scientific fact that overhead movements cause shoulder impingement is an overgeneralization. There is a potential for injury with many movements; the deadlift has the potential to cause herniated discs, the bench press has the potential to cause death when you get stuck under the bar. Then again, a body unused to handling heavy loads is at risk for all sorts of injuries when one must be handled. A great many coaches and trainees have decided that the benefits of these movements generally outweigh the risks. As always, YMMV.

That said, it's not possible to support a heavy weight overhead, whether it's a press, a snatch, or a jerk, with arms 30 degrees forward of the frontal plane; the weight will be missed forward. A heavy weight overhead can be supported in only one position, with the load balanced over the scapula and the midfoot, which represents the center of gravity of the lifter and barbell system.

In any case, Eric Cressey's advice to "avoid what hurts" makes sense. As I've personally never experienced any pain from pressing, I will continue to press. As no one I've trained with who presses has had any problems with the movement, I expect they'll do the same. There's nothing wrong with talking about the potential pitfalls of an exercise, but I think it'd be doing someone a disservice to imply that they might walk into a gym and put an empty barbell overhead for the first time only to have their shoulders instantly explode.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 12:40 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think you're misunderstanding. The elbows should be pointing 30 degrees or more forward throughout the movement, the lockout at the top is a different matter. Both of your YT links, Redding and Alexyev, shows the lifters arms well forward of 30 degrees. I believe most all the links here show that, as well as most of the pictures here.
People naturally do this with heavy loads anyway, but as docpops mentioned when people get on a machine (or get bad instruction) then they may push their elbows to the outside of their range of motion. That's why athletes who commonly move through that plane of motion will come up with shoulder problems' like pitchers, or tennis players, and etc..
posted by P.o.B. at 6:59 PM on January 17, 2011


Oh, I read that as 30 degrees off the vertical, in which case Anatoly is right, there's no way to safely support the weight.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:02 PM on January 17, 2011


Well, those pictures, as well as the videos in the FPP, are demonstrating significant layback, which is a major part of the Olympic-style press. As Starr describes in the article, it's this layback which caused the movement to be demonized as supposedly dangerous to the lower back. As the upper body leans backward, the bar will necessarily be farther from the face in order to stay balanced. All barbell presses have to involve some layback in order for the bar to get around the head -- but with a "stricter" style of pressing the bar will pass very close to the face, like in this video or this one.

The bar always has to end up in the same place anyway, which is over the scapula, and this requires moving the torso under the bar after it passes the forehead. On the rare occasions that I see anyone in the gym trying to press, this tends to be the part that they don't get, and so they end up pressing very light weights because they've got the bar way out in front of them.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 7:42 PM on January 17, 2011


It's off the coronal or frontal plane and I'm not talking about the layback. The elbows naturally push forward while doing overhead stuff so it's kind of moot point we're going back and forth on but the placement of the arms in full external rotation is the reason the behind the neck presses are a bad idea and can cause impingement.
As far as the back is concerned in compression I would be more worried about people keeping a neutral spine along the neck/cervical spine. You go to any gym, even hardcore ones, and you'll see people with atrocious form concerning that.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:01 PM on January 18, 2011


I'm way late on this, but for anyone interested, I just happened to find a link that I was searching for when I made this FPP, but couldn't locate. There are some totally awesome old-school clean and press videos here that I haven't seen anywhere else.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 10:29 AM on January 21, 2011


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