25 October 2011

Pimpin' Ain't Easy, But Overhead Pressing Is

The B-I-G D-A-double D-Y K-A-N-E

One of my least favorite bodyparts to train, historically, has been my shoulders.  Until the last couple of years they've fucking sucked, and I've almost always had training partners born with sick shoulders who rubbed that fact in my face every time we trained them.  It started in college, where my lifting partner and fellow wrestler had ridiculous shoulders in spite of a workout routine that began with lateral raises and ended with upright rows.  As my traps have dominated my shoulders as long as I can remember, that type of routine did exactly fuckall for me.  Throw on top of that fact that I was weak as Michael Jackson's drug infused corpse at putting weight over my head, and I had a recipe for disaster anytime I tried to do something useful in that regard.  Thus, in spite of the fact that I was benching into the 300s, I struggled to get anything over 200 overhead with a push press of any kind, and jerking was out of the question due to shit flexibility and a lack of confidence that makes that squirrelly kid from Superbad seem like the Dos Equis guy. 
To those of you who've emailed me about adding me on Facebook:
I plan on having my FB profile live on or about the 7th of Never.

Clearly, I don't have this problem any more- if anything, my shoulders are one of my best bodyparts, and are headed in the direction of being some of my strongest as well.  Thus, here is the story of how I got decent weights overhead and built semi-respectable shoulders in the process.
...if the girlies want my tip they gotta pay a fee.

As I stated, my shoulder workouts early on consisted of naught but lateral raises and upright rows.  Why?  Because I listened to Joe Weider, whose advice is really only suited to twinks who have aspirations to gay porn.  Hindsight's a bitch.  Over the years I added more and more pressing movements and reduced my lateral raise work considerably, but I didn't really see true improvement until I quit with the bullshit and began lifting weights over my head in earnest, and with a vengeance.
Take a stand and command to demand what's grand.
The inimitable Maxick was a huge fan of the standing military press, and hit a max of 230 lbs at a bodyweight of 145lbs.  He believed that "an excellent performance in this lift would be one and a half times the lifter's body weight", a fact that has stuck with me since I first read it in 2005.(Maxick 41)  Given that at the time I was hard pressed to even hit my bodyweight (then somewhere in the neighborhood of 175), I rarely even attempted the lift.  As if I were a large, flightless bird native to Africa that closely resembles a dinosaur and is scary as all fucking hell up close, I stuck my head in the ground and ignored it.  At the beginning of 2011, however, I was in the midst of my typical yearly burnout period, and decided that I might as well start working on the lift if, for no other reason, than it would be relatively easy on me.  I soon discovered that I was as bad as I'd expected at it, and couldn't muster more than 5 reps with 155 at the outset.  I kept at it, however, throwing it in at the end of workouts and doing them on my "off" days with fair regularity, and my weights slowly started creeping up.  I focused myself during the lift on maintaining full body rigidity, which is exceptionally hard when you're used to heaving weights around like you're Lattimer in The Program and some broad's been leading you on.
According to Maxick, the military press is done thusly: " the rules provide that the heels must be kept closed, the legs straight, and the body quite erect throughout the lift."(41)  U.S. Olympic Weightlifting coach Mark Berry added the following:
"At present, we recognize two styles of performance, the International and the American, which has been adopted from the British. The two principal points of difference are the position of the feet and the starting position of the bell. In the International style the feet may be kept forty centimeters (about 16 inches) apart; in the American style, the heels are kept together. The American style permits holding the bell at chin level before making the press, where the International calls for the bar to be rested on the chest. Otherwise the actual lift is the same. Keeping the body rigidly erect, the knees locked, and the eyes pointed forward, the bell is pressed slowly overhead to full length of arms."  
Though he's actually describing what we'd now call the strict press and the military press, respectively, that's a hell of a lot different than what you'll usually read about in any physical culture publication when reading about the military press, which typically seems to involve a padded bench, spandex, bronzer, and a whole lotta dude sweat.
Though I've not yet hit Maxick's suggested "elite" bodyweight percentage, I'm headed in the direction.  Quite frankly, even the strongest people I know couldn't hit that weight for a single.  Nevertheless, it's always in the back of my mind as a goal worth achieving.  Like the military press, the strict press is another lift at which I've worked over the last 10 months, and have had reasonable success.  It's performed more or less exactly like the military press, although in later years it became a weird back-bend lift that seems to be more of trick lift version of the bench press than a proper shoulder exercise.  According to Mark Berry,
"the complete lift consists of Cleaning the bell to the starting position, and after a pause of two seconds, pressing it overhead. By flexing the buttocks muscles and locking the hips and thighs, you may assist considerably in the successful completion of a heavy Military Press. Note that instead of encircling the bar with the thumbs as well as the fingers, rest the bar on the thumbs. This grip is especially valuable in the Two Arm Press, as by releasing the thumbs the biceps are kept from exerting a downward pull."  
This thing's ancestors were foxes.  This guy, however, lunged so hard at the cage when the interviewer walked past it that it broke a tooth.  Why?  For the same reason Russians do anything- in the furtherance of evil.

According to one source, the reason for the devolution of this lift was that the Russians are evil.  No one, Russians included, will dispute this, I'm sure, as the Russians have even managed to turn foxes into what they describe as "Dragons" and what any rational person would describe as "KILL THAT MOTHERFUCKING THING RIGHT NOW BEFORE IT EATS US ALL."(Kukekova)  J.V. Askem explained in one article that "The rules [in the 1940s] did not allow for any back bend when performing a press.  However, the Soviet lifters were encouraged by their officials and coaches to ignore this rule, and soon a new form of Press was introduced that became to be known as the "Russian style" Olympic press. This double lay back or back bending style soon crept into international competitions, and with uninformed crowds, thinking such lifts were good, many referees got intimidated into passing bad lifts."  Thus, the strict press came to look thusly:

Frankly, I've never tried that form, but it's done this way: "Lay back start with the knees locked. Thrust forward and upward. Then before the bar slows, lay back a second time as the bar passes through the sticking point. Push hard with the arms during the entire pressing movement. The double "lay back" is used to prevent the bar from slowing. A properly executed Olympic press is a fast lift. However, although not a strict military style press, the Olympic press is also NOT a jerk. It is a lift unique unto itself."(Askem)

Yo, I'm the illest. Plus I know more different strokes than Arnold and Willis.
So, you've got those two to tinker with, onto which you can throw the push press, behind the neck push press, the squat to press, Viking Press, and the overhead walk.  I've covered these in the blogs I've linked, in case you need a refresher on them, but I utilized all of these in my efforts to bring up my overhead press.  Insofar as programming goes, I attempted to utilize at least three of these a week on non-consecutive days, and cannot recall a week other than the occasional deload in which I did fewer than two shoulder workouts. Even on days wherein I felt weak or mildly injured, I typically did Viking Presses on the leg press machine for extra overhead work.  The keys, I feel, to increasing your overhead press are as follows:
  • Consistency and Frequency.  As with just about everything I suggest, consistency and frequency are key.  The more you practice the overhead press, the better you'll get at it.
  • Lockouts.  In the past, I spent far more time focusing on the initial drive, and virtually none with the lockout.  After I began doing overhead lockouts in the rack, I discovered that I enjoyed full-body effects that transcended simple overhead pressing movements.  My stability increased, my bench increased, and my tricep strength increased.  As such, the carryover effect for locking any weight overhead seems to be very, very high.
  • Variability.  Ever the chaotic motherfucker, I've found that mixing it up on these lifts really seemed to improve all of them.  Thus, I never did two lifts in a row, and always tried to do at least one strict and one explosive movement a week.  That ensured I'd avoid staleness, not overload my shoulder girdle, and avoid injuring myself with shit form due to exhaustion.  If I had to guess, I'd say that my improved military press had the greatest carryover to the other movements.  As such, I definitely recommend doing it heavily and often.

You may now commence the pressing.

Askem, J.V.  A Pressing Situation.  http://jva.ontariostrongman.ca/PRESS.htm
Berry, Mark.  Physical Training Simplified.   1930.
Kukekova AV, et al.  Measurement of segregating behaviors in experimental silver fox pedigrees.  Behav Genet. 2008 March; 38(2): 185–194.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2374754/
Maxick.  Great Strength Through Muscle Control.  1913.


  1. I realize there actually ended up being 5. I changed the vid at the last sec to fit the song.

  2. Good stuff.

    You imply that your overhead lockout was a problem area. I'm a bit surprised at that as I find that BTN push presses handle mine pretty well.

  3. Love the overhead pressing movements.

    I had a question for you. You had mentioned in one of your old blogs that you used Spud straps and had a good way to break them in. How do you break them in? I just bought a pair and they seem fucking indestructible, but they're almost unwearable they're so stiff. Do I nut up and just use em until they wear in? Or is there a shortcut to softening them up?


  4. I didn't take you for a Hed PE fan. Nice.

  5. I like a little of everything metal. They were fucking great years ago, though they've gone weird and more or less unlistenable on their last couple of discs.

    @Iggy- I'll throw up a quick blog about that this week. Completely forgot to do so. It'll be up tomorrow or the next.

    @animal- I rarely went to full lockout on those.

  6. Thanks a ton. I beat the shit out of them against my squat stands and they actually move a bit now, but they still need some help.

  7. Love the OH press, there is nothing like a shit ton of weight over your head...its the tits...

  8. What sort of reps did you use? I'm assuming that most of it was in the CnP-approved 8-15 sets in the 1-5 range, did you ever go higher?

  9. wow, someone my age or younger who is also not on facebook.

  10. thanks man!
    anything for wrecked, injured shoulders ? is OH going to help in some form to rebuild strength and integrity? maybe some variation/adjustment comes to mind?