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When I suggest to a bodybuilder that he could vastly improve development in his shoulders, arms and back if he would include a few overhead exercises in his routine, he generally looks at me as if I've lost my mind. I don't
want to debate that point just now, but the fact is that all the great bodybuilders did more than one overhead exercise regularly and they used very heavy weights.
Currently, if I happen to see anyone doing an overhead exercise, usually military presses, he is using a light weight, which has a much different effect than if he loaded up the bar. Presses have been relegated to being auxiliary, rather than primary, exercises. In the not-so-distant past overhead exercises such as military presses, push presses and jerks were integral core movements for bodybuilders. Competitive weight-lifters and strength athletes did them religiously.
In a great many cases top body-builders preferred military presses to bench presses. Some felt shoulders were more important than pecs, and they knew pressing heavy weights resulted in grapefruit-sized deltoids. The overhead work also produced impressively thick triceps and helped build an athletic back which stood out on the posing platform. On the other hand flat benches tended to overwork the shoulder joints and often created pecs that were totally out of proportion to other bodyparts. Keep in mind that was in an era when overall proportion in a physique was held in higher esteem than sheer size.
Bodybuilders did overhead exercises not only because they helped them do much better in their sport, but also because most of them competed in Olympic weight-lifting contests. Before Joe Weider manipulated control of the sport of bodybuilding away from the Amateur Athletic Union, which was in truth dominated by Bob Hoffman, participants at high-level competitions such as Mr. America and Mr. United States were awarded athletic points. These five points were critical in close battles, and the contestants could earn them in a variety of ways, including gaining a black belt in karate or having played collegiate football. However, most competitors opted to achieve the valuable points by lifting in the Olympic meets since they did many of the same exercises in their programs anyway. Taking part in a contest provided them with the added bonus of being able to show off their muscularity nine times on the platform before the same men who would be judging the physique competition later on that night. The physique shows always took place after the lifting because they brought in a larger crowd.
Another plus for the bodybuilders was that doing the athletic lifts allowed them to display various bodyparts much more dynamically than when they posed later on. Quads, traps and lats take on a different quality during the execution of a heavy lift than they do when they are posed statically.
Once Weider took over, the athletic point system was dropped. This meant the physique contestants no longer had to lift in weightlifting meets. Consequently, competitors stopped doing those exercises needed to excel at Olympic weightlifting, such as snatches, cleans, presses and jerks. This change in training procedure had a filter-down effect. Young bodybuilders figured that if the top guys didn't do the Olympic lifts, they wouldn't either.
At about the same time this transition was taking place, an avalanche of well-designed equipment started appearing on the scene. Before the machine revolution people who weight trained usually did so at a local YMCA, moderately furnished commercial gym, or in a home setup. These weight rooms contained bars, dumbells, plates, squat and/or power racks, flat benches, and maybe calf machines and lat pulleys, but that was about all. Yet it was enough. Trainers built programs around the bar-i bell and dumbells. One of the very best exercises was the simple clean and press. It was ideal for the push-pull concept that is very much in vogue today. Moreover, you could do it without any assistance. If you couldn't complete the lift, you either lowered the bar back to your shoulders or dropped it to the platform.
When gyms became fitness facilities and installed row on row of beautiful, well-padded machines, customers began avoiding the old-fashioned bars and dumbells in favor of the more advanced method of working out. Why k struggle with a barbell when you could sit on a comfortable seat and do your presses? Or even better, forget the overhead press, lie down and do benches instead.
While these events were going on, overhead lifting - and particularly the press - took more hits. In 1972 the IOC dropped the press from Olympic weightlifting competition. Coinciding with this edict came the emergence of the sport of powerlifting and the large-scale introduction of strength training for athletes in high schools and colleges. The strength programs and powerlifting both included the bench press. All of a sudden the military press was no longer considered necessary - or even useful. The bench press became the standard for upper-body strength, replacing the lift the Olympic Committee deemed dangerous to the lower back - the overhead or military press.
However, those close to Olympic weight-lifting knew the real reason why the press was dropped from official competition had nothing to do with safety. That was a smoke screen. Lifters were not hurting their backs more than their shoulders, elbows or knees. The press was eliminated because judging for the lift had become erratic. Evaluating the newer style of pressing, which was much faster than the traditional technique, was very subjective and varied drastically from class to class. One weight group would have to do the lift in strict form, whereas the next might be allowed to knee-kick the weight up and bend backward to ridiculous extremes. On the international level judging the press became a political football. Finally the powers-that-be concluded the easier solution would be to drop the lift rather than try to enforce the rules.
As a result the press suddenly gained the reputation of being a dangerous lift. This just isn't true. When done correctly, it is quite safe. The injuries that did occur to lifters' lower backs were always due to an excessive back bend. Some resembled a standing bench press. Obviously this outlandish maneuver should be avoided, but my experience has been that athletes have difficulty leaning back even slightly when pressing. A bit of a lay-back is useful to help keep the bar over the base of power, yet this move is not easy to achieve. It is accomplished only through long practice. I have never had to worry about any of my athletes bending back too far. Their problem is bending back enough to help them complete the lift.
Over my years of teaching the overhead press to athletes, I have never had any of them injured doing the lift. This isn't the case for bench pressing, which is a great deal riskier to the shoulders and elbows than the overhead press. I insert the military press early on into the program of every beginner, including youngsters and ladies. I do this because I understand the exercise is most useful in helping to establish a foundation for the shoulders and arms, and I also know it is very valuable for building back and overall structural strength.
Beginners can readily enhance structural strength by holding a weighted barbell firmly overhead for several seconds at the completion of a press, as well as after finishing a jerk or power snatch. The European Olympic coaches are so convinced of the importance of building structural strength in the formative stages of training that they start youngsters with simply holding a bar or a bar with light weights overhead even before they teach them any of the overhead movements.
When a bar is locked out overhead and held for a five - or six-second count, the lifter is forced to tighten every muscle in his body. If he relaxes his shoulders, arms, back, or any part of his legs, the bar will waver. When he holds it solidly, all those muscle groups are strengthened. This strength is critical for long-term progress. The Europeans found a positive side effect in young athletes who improved their structural strength -it benefited their posture. A nice bonus.
While most bodybuilders realize overhead exercises such as military presses, push presses and jerks strengthen their deltoids and triceps, they are often unaware of how much these lifts directly work the muscles of the back. Whenever I start an athlete on military presses, the area of his body that gets the sorest from the workout is his back, specifically his upper back right over his shoulder blades. This work is very beneficial because the muscles that constitute the rotator cuff are located there.
People who have been involved in some form of weight training for any length of time can recall that when the overhead press was the primary upper-body exercise rather than the bench press, injuries to the rotator cuff were unheard of. We didn't even know where the rotator cuffs were located. The press and other over-head lifts kept these small muscles strong and in proportion to the rest of the back. However, when bench pressing replaced the overhead press and the athlete failed to include some specific exercises for his upper back, problems resulted big time. Today I can walk into any gym in the country and be sure that at least a couple of people training there have rotator-cuff problems. More than likely there are twice that many.
On this subject I need to mention that one of the best ways to remedy or rebuild a rotator-cuff injury is to start doing overhead presses. If the problem is severe, use dumbells and gradually work the numbers and workload up. Recovery may take some time, but if you are able to improve to the point where you are handling some decent weights you will be able to strengthen the muscles of your upper back to the extent that your rotator cuff no longer bothers you. Naturally, if the injury is of such a nature that you require surgery, that's a pony of a different color. Just remember to include some pressing in your rehab routine.
Every athlete - young, old, amateur, professional or recreational -should include some overhead exercises in his routine. Military presses, push presses and jerks are of greater value to athletes than either flat or incline benches because the overhead lifts relate more directly to the performance of the various sports. The strength gained from doing the overhead lifts transfers more readily to the movements of any physical activity than that achieved from benching. Overhead work strengthens the shoulders, arms, back and legs, all of which are useful to athletes in every sport, whereas the flat and incline bench benefit only the upper body with most of the emphasis on the pecs, which do very little in most sports. The angle of the flat bench does not relate to nearly as many sports as the overhead lifts. The incline is somewhat better, but still not as good as overhead movements.
Tennis, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, baseball, field events and other athletic activities require strong shoulders, arms, back and legs much more than strong pecs. The vertical strength gained from the overhead lifts is always useful. Horizontal strength is not. Even football coaches who have traditionally given priority to the flat bench should start including some overhead lifts in their strength programs. I would much rather have an offensive or defensive player who could military-press 300 pounds than one who could bench-press 400. In a one-on-one situation my money is on the military presser.
In sports where shoulder flexibility is crucial for success, such as gymnastics, wrestling and fencing, I definitely recommend overhead exercises over flat benches. The overhead movements can actually improve shoulder flexibility, whereas a steady diet of flat benching will invariably restrict range of movement.
Now that I have stated my case as to why I like the overhead lifts, I will present a short course in how to do them correctly. I should mention that in order for presses to be beneficial, form does not have to be perfect. However, it does need to be at least good. The military press is easy to learn but very difficult to master. This is why you seldom see an athlete using really heavy weights in the press. In my combined fifteen years of strength coaching at universities, only two athletes exceeded 250 pounds. Pressing heavy weights is a high-skill exercise. I can teach someone how to snatch or clean faster than I can teach him how to press max poundages.
Place your feet at shoulder width, toes forward and on a line. One of the most common mistakes beginners make is to place one foot behind the other when they press. This stance doesn't work when the bar is loaded, and it also places an unequal stress on your lower back.
Grip the bar at shoulder width. A bit of trial and error may be necessary for you to find the best grip for your particular build. Too wide and you give away upward thrust. Too narrow and you will have difficulty pressing the bar in the proper groove because it will tend to run forward. Make sure your thumbs are around the bar. That will help you control the line of the bar as it moves upward.
You can either clean the weight or take the bar off a rack. Either way is effective. I have my beginners take the bar from a rack so that they can concentrate on the pressing motion and don't have to worry about cleaning it. Whether you clean the weight or take it from a rack, fix the bar across your front deltoids, not on your collarbone. Elevate your shoulder girdle to create a muscular ledge to set the bar on. Your elbows should not be high or pointed downward, but placed somewhere between those two positions. Your wrists must stay locked throughout the lift. If this requirement poses a problem, tape them.
Once the bar is resting properly on your shoulders, take a moment to tighten all the muscles of your body. Start with your feet. Don't just stand on the floor, but drive your feet down into it and grip it with your toes. Then move up your body, contracting your legs, glutes, back, shoulders and arms. Every bodypart needs to be extremely taut, almost to the point of cramping. Your body should be erect with your knees locked. Make sure they stay locked until you have completed the lift. You can bend them when you lower the bar back to your shoulders, but they must stay locked while you are pressing.
Look straight ahead from start to finish. Do not look up as the bar passes your face because this loss of focus will take you out of a strong pressing position. Until you learn the form, press the weights deliberately to establish the correct line. Once you feel confident with your technique, think about exploding the bar off your shoulders. The initial thrust will be like a boxer's punch - quick and powerful.
That forceful drive is close to your face, the bar almost touching your nose. It should carry the bar to the top of your head. When it reaches that height, extend your head forward into the gap you have created. Your upper body will follow automatically. This forward head move places the bar in a position that enables you to utilize your levers more efficiently. Should the bar stick at some point, don't lean back away from it. Instead, push your hips forward so that they are under the bar. Your back will bow, but that's okay, since the lean is not excessive and helps you keep your power base under the moving bar until you complete the lift.
When the weights get heavy, the bar will always try to run forward. You must fight this tendency. If it goes too far out front, you will be unable to apply enough force to finish the lift.
Locking out, if you visualize a line from the back of your head upward, that's where you should hold the bar. Don't merely hold it overhead, but push up against it in a dynamic fashion. This aggressive action will help you to keep your body tight and is more effective than just passively holding the weight overhead. Hold it overhead for five or six seconds.
Lower the bar back to your shoulders in a controlled manner. Never let it crash downward. An out-of-control falling bar will not only bang up your shoulders, but it will also jar them out of the proper starting position and adversely affect the next rep. You can bend your knees to help cushion the descending bar. Reset, lock your knees, tighten up, and do your next rep.
Although the press consists of a start, middle and finish, the three segments must blend together into one continuous, fluid movement. After you drive the bar off your shoulders, follow through immediately and it will shoot through the middle. When it does that, the finish is much easier. With practice you will begin to feel the rhythm of pressing a weight, and the bar will glide upward with no hitches whatsoever.
The technique for the push press is exactly like the military press except that you use a knee kick to set the bar in motion. The knee kick lets you handle more weight, and that's the point. It's a way to overload the pressing muscles and further strengthen your overhead power. Make sure you don't drive the bar all the way to lockout. You want to press it out for the final four or five inches. As soon as you drive the bar upward, relock your knees so that you have a solid base from which to finish the lift. Lock it out and hold it for several seconds. You will feel how it forces your back and leg muscles to do extra duty to control the weight.
Jerks are similar to push presses. The only difference is that you want to drive the bar all the way to lockout when you jerk. You don't want to press it out even the slightest bit. You can split your feet, but you don't have to in order to gain the benefits. Some of the best Olympic weightlifters in the world do not move their feet when they jerk. On both the push press and the jerk you must drive the bar very close to your face. You have to keep your entire body extremely tight or you will not have a firm enough foundation to control the weight when it hits the top position.
I recommend doing military presses in sets of 5 reps and the other two lifts in sets of 3. An excellent, although demanding, overhead workout would consist of doing 5 sets of presses followed by 3 or 4 sets of either push presses or jerks.
I mentioned that the strength derived from doing these overhead lifts converts directly to every sports activity. In addition, they also have a positive effect on the other upper-body exercises such as inclines, benches, and all the auxiliary movements done for shoulders, arms and chest. Once you are able to start using heavy weights in any of the three lifts, you will see a definite change for the better in your physique.