Sir Edward Barton-Wright, grandpappy of MMA and superheavyweight of badassery in the early 20th C.
Imagine yourself in this time... maybe riding one of those ridiculous penny farthing contraptions down to your local beer garden for a couple of pints, and then walking into the adjoining building, taking off your shirt, grabbing a preloaded barbell and heaving the thing overhead while bullshitting with your buddies. This, my friends, was the time we should be emulating in the gym. This was the era of Saxon, Goerner, Hackenschmidt, Maxick, Sandow, and Aston- ripped, ridiculously strong guys who lifted weights no one can duplicate today, all natural. These are the men from whom we can learn, and guys we should emulate.
Every now and again I'll go back to the well on exercises, and dig up one that I've either not done recently or never done before, and it's invariably one from the pantheon of exercises these hard-as-nails motherfuckers held in ridiculously high esteem. I recently did that again, and started doing an exercise that's about as unlike me as you could imagine, as it's not the kill-everyone-and-fuck-form-I'm-fucking-lifting-get-the-fuck-out-of-my way lifts, but rather the strictest of the strict lifts. Allow me to present the old school military presses.
The Military Press can be done one of two ways- one handed or two handed. The rules, essentially, remain the same, but I'll cover them both. For the two handed version (according to Maxick's book Great Strength By Muscle Control), the lift is conducted thusly: "Holding all the muscles rigid, lift the bell upward and forward as far as possible by means of the deltoid, until you reach the position shown in Fig. 9. It would obviously mean disqualification if the lifter were to bend farther back than illustrated by Fig. 9. The rules provide that the heels must be kept closed, the legs straight, and the body quite erect throughout the lift.(Maxick, p.39)
"An excellent performance in this lift would be one and a half times the lifter's bodyweight."(Maxick, p. 41) Frankly, I only do these on ultra light days, and have thus not attempted all that much weight on these. I like them, however, as a warmup for BTNPPs and for heavy push presses, and have started giving them a try as a stand-alone exercise. They're... interesting. Humbling, to say the least. Having one's heels together definitely removes much of your base, so you're really left with just your pressing power and little else at play. Having done them a bit heavier, I understand why random 150 lb guys in the early 20th century had such sick shoulders- it was strict military presses, along with a paucity of benching.
Saxon appears not to have been a fan of this lift, as he completely glosses over it in his book Text Book of Weightlifting, although "he pressed between 250 and 260 lbs., accomplished as if he had a lot in hand and let it be known that he did not bend back an inch or sway or move in any way, just forced the bell up with sheer power in a perfect “military” style of press as we then called that style of lift. He could have raised much more by leaning back" according to Thomas Inch. (Inch) Saxon was, of course, the manliest motherfucker ever to walk the Earth, and a guy whose lifts are probably never going the be duplicated. Another guy from that era who tore it the fuck up on this lift was Maxick, who hit a two hands military press of 230 pounds at a bodyweight of 145. That lift, according to David Willoughby, "which he performed in 1909, would be equivalent today to a lift in the same strict style of about 267 pounds, or to a Two Hands Olympic Press of about 312 pounds That is to say, in pressing power Maxick was the equal, in his day, of any of the light-weight Olympic champion pressers of the present time."
145 lbs of "fuck you up".
The other version, obviously, is the One Arm version. Form on this is much the same:
The other version, obviously, is the One Arm version. Form on this is much the same:
"the One Arm Military Press strict rules are still followed, and the lift is just what it is called – a press while at military attention.
There are two ways that the lift has been performed. The athlete could use his discretion regarding what to do with his free arm. He could keep it at the side of his left thigh (assuming that he is pressing with the right arm), or he could hold it out at right angles to the shoulder. The strictest way would be holding the arm at the thigh, for that would be more in keeping with “Military Attention.”
For record attempts a dumbell would always be used and the athlete would spread his feet just far enough to allow the weight to be straddled. He would then lean over, and in a rather quick clean pull the weight to the shoulder, and almost at the same time snap his heels together and start getting his body braced for the lift. Here is where a little so-called “science” can be used.
The elbow is carried back a bit, the handle of the weight must be in line with the chin, and now the athlete can get his back rigid. He contracts his thighs, and at the same time his buttocks. This gives him stability and a firmness which the beginning does not realize is important in all overhead pressing. Here is where the lifter can use discretion as to how he wants to hold his free arm. If he holds it at the side he can, by pressing against his thigh and tensing his arm, give himself rigidness. He can also get almost the same effect by keeping his arm at right angles to the shoulder, and tense his upper back, by pressing it in a downward motion. All this is done by the experienced One Arm Military presser, but it is not apparent. It is just about all the “science” there is to the lift. Eyes are kept looking straight ahead. Some lifters will keep the palm of the hand facing them throughout the lift, while others may turn it just the least bit toward the front, which is also permissible, and may be of some help. Now the weight is slowly but steadily pressed over the head, without the body swaying front, back, left or right." (Klein)Seems pretty simple, and I've done them with reasonably light weights on more than one occasion. While I've been content with 100 lb singles, however, old-school strongmen were not. They took this exercise seriously, did it constantly, and had sick weights to show for it. Edward Aston, for instance, could one arm military press 172 at a bodyweight of under 200 lbs, while Sandow put up 121, Saxon pressed 127, and Grimek easily did 120 for three with a barbell, which had to have take some ridiculous grip strength. According to Alan Calver, the guys in Europe were even better at this lift, as "Witzelsberger, of Vienna, had done 154 lbs., but I have since been told that while Witzelberger kept his heels together and his legs straight, he bent his body over slightly. It is said that Cyr once made a military press with a 165-lb. bar-bell, and Mr. Jowett says he saw the giant, La Vallee, do 165 lbs."(Calver)
Grip strength appears not to have been a problem for Grimek.
Different writers seemed to have different ideas of what a good one arm military press was. Sig Klein, champion trainer and all around awesome guy, though that "one-half of [a lifter's] body weight [is] a fairly good One Arm Military Press. If he can do two-thirds of his body weight he can be considered exceptionally strong, and very few athletes have succeeded in doing this." (Klein) Maxick, however, thought that anyone who could put up 90 lbs with one hand and strict form was a badass. They took this exercise seriously, though, and this was apparently the only way overhead lifts were performed for a long time.
No matter how much weight you're using in this lift, it definitely appears to have contributed far more to awesome shoulders than the highly vaunted lateral raises ever did. The next time you're considering that exercise, think about this- when was the last time you saw a guy at your gym with truly awesome shoulder. Probably on the 7th of never. Even if you did, it's far more likely that they guy was an Olympic lifter than a bodybuilder. No matter what the magazines might tell you, pressing builds shoulders. Thus, grab a dumbbell, force it overhead with nothing but willpower, a fuck-you attitude, and a haughty disdain for gravity, and harken back to the good old days.
Just leave your penny farthing at home.
Calver, Alan. Super Strength- Chapter 14- Lifting a Barbell From Floor to Chest. http://www.bobwhelan.com/history/superstrength14.htm
Inch, Thomas. "My Friendship with Arthur Saxon" http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2009/01/my-friendship-with-arthur-saxon-thomas.html
Klein, Sig. The One Arm Military Press. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2010/06/one-arm-military-press-sig-klein.html
Maxick. Great Strength By Muscle Control. http://www.maxalding.co.uk/Great%20Strength/gs-intro.htm
Willoughby, David. The Super Athletes.