Improve Your Press
by John Grimek (1946)
More controversy is attached to the press of the Olympic lifts than any other lifts on record, perhaps because this lift is used more frequently than many of the other lifts now “obsolete” which are occasionally resurrected. However, if you have ever attended a national championship you must have observed the differences of opinion in this particular lift. When a lifter is turned down for his press because of some disqualifying factor, sympathetic remarks can be heard from the audience. Moreover, when one of the lifters gets away with what might be termed a “bad press,” again comments can be heard. The judges at such meets are not entirely at fault as most of them are seated in such a position they are unable to observe the fast start, sometimes coming from the action of the legs, or they may not see the sharp bend of the back from their position. The audience, on the other hand, may be so suited as to see the “bad features” of the lift highly magnified which causes them to express their feelings after the judges nodded their approval. But try as we might, as long as there will be a press, opinions on this lift will continue to differ.
Several years ago some of the European countries were in favor of eliminating the press from competition, but after some debate the press was voted to remain and probably will continue to be in competition as long as lifting contests continue. One of the best ways to eliminate this controversy over the press is to perform the lift in flawless style, and when one feels a strong inclination to bend, cease the lift at once. I admit, once you get into the habit of bending, especially if you favor the continental press, it’s more difficult to maintain an erect position thereafter regardless. It seems only natural to succumb to the tendency of leaning back when the weight appears to “stick” and, by allowing the body to arch with continued pressure against the bar, the weight continues its uninterrupted travel to arm’s length. That, however, is not conducive to military pressing and many officials take delight in shaking their heads negatively long before the lifter completes the lift. Oh, yes, lifts such as these have been passed, either by error or by favoritism, but while this may mean a victory in this country for a national title, it will spell utter defeat when our lifters take part in competition on foreign soil. After all, the idea is to lead the world in this sport and not simply build up our own ego! Therefore we must train our lifters, especially the new and younger ones, in the correct form of military pressing if we want to lead the world in this field. American lifters, taking them as a whole, are far better pressers than any of the other countries. The reason for this is because many of our lifters spend a year or more developing their bodies and, since the press is one of the basic movements of all bodybuilding courses, many of these lifters already have a grand start when they do begin training exclusively on the three lifts.
The lifter who has a poor press to his credit, regardless of how unique his ability remains on the other two lifts, experiences much difficulty in winning championships. There is too much of a handicap to overcome by a poor press. It’s imperative, therefore, that lifters should develop great pressing ability in accordance with their other lifts. Psychologically, a good presser has the advantage over his competitor and is oftentimes the winner because of it. A good press may unnerve his competitor as to force him to change his plans and thus lose a victory which otherwise might be his.
Any lifter knows when he attempts near-limit poundage in the press he is apt to bend to complete the lift and this is often started with a sharp heave off the chest to give momentum, a drive which sends the weight approximately to the crown of the head. There it seems to “hang” momentarily and a back bend is necessary to complete the lift – thus finishing what some consider a military press! Lifts like this have been passed on several occasions, in important events, too! In practice such lifting provides wonderful exercise, but at the same time promotes poor form which is difficult to overcome when rules demand our position to be as closely allied to military fashion as possible. The habit of bending becomes so natural we cannot even feel ourselves “leaning” while performing this lift. Many of us swear we stand in the utmost strict military position, but others aggressively deny this.
Some claim the military press is only proper when the heels of the feet are kept together with toes pointing slightly out. On this detail I disagree, since keeping the heels together in performance of this lift will in no way restrict back bending and maintain the body in an upright position, which is chiefly the bone of contention regarding this lift anyway, not the position of the feet. Furthermore, those unfamiliar with this stance (heels together) were hindered in no way when forced to do the lift in this manner, and after a few days practice were able to equal their best press while keeping the heels of the feet together. One can bend just as readily in this position we when the feet are placed apart, but more contraction to the hips and legs could be imparted so that the body was easier to keep rigid and straight. So this factor is not a big deciding point since it does not eliminate the disqualifying feature of body leaning.
The question then is: how can we improve our press? A logical and concise answer is – by strengthening the arms and shoulders. But how, many will ask. The idea is to eliminate as many of the supporting muscles as possible. In the standing press the arms, shoulders and other muscles in the upper body do the work of getting the weight overhead, but all the muscles in the body aid in keeping the body erect; the abdomen, lower back, hips and legs are the great supporting factors. The idea then is to eliminate or make inactive these supporting groups. How, you are apt to inquire again. Either by doing your presses in a sitting position or by getting into a full squat on toes is the answer. In this manner the exercise is directed to the arms, shoulders and other muscles which aid directly in pressing. This movement is a true test of arm and shoulder strength, providing it is executed in precisely the manner explained. In this form of pressing there will be less controversy and remarks such as “too much back bend, too much heave, etc.” will be eliminated. All that is needed is a sturdy bench or box about 13 to 15 inches in height without any back support. Get the weight to your shoulders in any manner you like, either by cleaning the weight in the regular style and then sitting down, taking it from supports or cleaning it while seated. Of course, this latter style is more difficult. The legs may be placed beside the box or bench or may be extended in front, a much more trying position. BUT UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES MUST THE FEET BE HOOKED, PROPPED OR STAGGERED IN ALIGNMENT TO GIVE THE BODY ANY SUPPORT. They must remain free. Once you get the weight to the shoulders you are ready to press. You may feel wobbly at first, you may even lose your balance by falling backwards, so have a couple of spotters nearby at first, just in case. Once you become adapted to this style you will find the challenge a lot of fun. Some find it easier to handle dumbells than a barbell in this exercise, but use the apparatus you like best. The benefits are equally good.
In this style the strict military presser will be on equal basis with the back-bending or continental presser. Here one will be forced to employ the pressing muscles only, without getting aid from the supporting ones. The flexibility of the continental presser will in no way prove an asset and he will be forced to press “right from the shoulders.”
Again, some may find it more suitable to press while seated in the squatting position on toes, but here again balance is required to maintain this position while pressing. It’s all great fun, however, and as an arm and shoulder builder it’s rated tops! 6 to 10 repetitions are best for arm and shoulder development and may be repeated in two or three sets. For practice and competition, 1 to 3 repetitions can be included until your limit is reached.
Naturally some of you may be confused as to why other pressing movements are not equally as efficient in developing better military pressing. The simple reason is this – in such presses as the incline press, press on back, one-arm presses, etc. the muscles are involved in a somewhat different manner and while it affords wonderful triceps exercise, they do not react the same as in military pressing. The serratus magnus, trapezius, outer head of the triceps and the entire shoulder assembly are more vigorously pushed into action in overhead presses than any other form. By eliminating the body supporting muscles, more direct action is placed on this important group, thus resulting in better and greater poundages in military pressing.
Try it and see for yourself.