My purpose in writing this article is twofold: to explain how to do the type of press known as the
Olympic-style press and to defend all forms of pressing. The exercise has been maligned in the past and
is once again under fire. In both instances, the criticism is ungrounded.
The overhead press has always been a primary exercise for those who were involved in any form
of weight training. Bodybuilders did lots of overhead presses to build more muscular shoulders and
arms. Strength athletes included heavy presses in their routines in order to gain more power in their
upper bodies, and Olympic weightlifters spent a third of their training time working on the press
since it was part of the sport’s agenda. Even those who just trained for overall fitness did presses. It was
the standard of upper body strength and, to most, also the gauge of how strong a person was. When
someone wanted to know how strong you were, he asked, “How much can you press?”
There were many different ways people pressed. Some did them in a very strict manner, with upper
bodies erect and the bar traveling in a straight line from shoulders to lockout. Others would drive
the bar upward and immediately lay back to finish the lift. Yet others would wait until the bar hit the
mid-point of the movement before laying back just a bit. The New Orleans lifters Louis Riecke, Dr.
John Gourgott, and Walter Imahara, used a unique style of pressing that no one else could emulate.
They would stand perfectly upright, punch the bar off their shoulders, then grind it home without any
noticeable back bend. No trickery, simply raw deltoid and triceps strength.
There wasn’t much new going on with the press for several decades, since they changed the rules
from having the lifters follow the hand of the head judge as he designated the speed of the bar as it
climbed upward. And the lifter had to remain ramrod-straight the entire time. With more lenient
rules, the numbers for the press rose rapidly. It was a lift that everyone could understand. When we
gave exhibitions for the York Barbell in the sixties, the crowds were always the most impressed with the
heavy presses. Snatches and clean and jerks were considered tricks rather than pure strength, but the
press, well, it was easy to see that that movement required great power in the upper body.
Then, in the early sixties Tony Garcy, America’s premier 165-pounder, devised a new and different
way to press. It required more than raw strength. It required a high degree of timing, coordination,
balance, and quickness. He invented a highly technical form of pressing, and it paid off for him. When
the foreign athletes and coaches saw him press at the ’64 Olympics and ’65 Worlds, they studied the
films and began copying Tony’s style. Within a very short span of time, nearly every foreign Olympic
lifter was using the high-skill movement and it began to be called the “European” or “Olympic” press.
Somehow, the person who had come up with the idea and put it into practice got lost in the shuffle.
Not that Tony really cared. To him, it was no big deal what the movement was called. He was content
to be able to utilize it to his benefit. If others wanted to join in, well and good.
And others most certainly did want to join the club and, as a result, records in the press began to fall
as the younger lifters coming onto the national scene had learned this style from the very beginning.
For those who had been in the sport for some time, the transition from power pressing to adopting
the more dynamic style was more difficult. Old keys and habits had to be discarded and replaced with
This new version of the press sent records soaring in all weight classes, but ironically, it became
the death knell for the lift. Why? It was extremely hard to judge because the bar moved so fast, as fast
as a jerk in some instances. Those who had mastered the lift would clean the weight, fix it across their
frontal deltoids, and wait for the head judge’s signal to start the press. This was usually a clap, but I
lifted in a contest where the head judge used a whistle.
Once the start signal was given, the lifter would explode the bar upward and in less than a
heartbeat, it would be locked out overhead. There was seldom any pressing at all. It was one fast blur
from start to finish. The rules allowed for some backbend, but not too much and the knees had to
stay locked through the execution of the press. The problem was that the movement was done so
fast it was nearly impossible for the judges to see if the knees had bent at all or just how far the lifter
leaned back. Judging became erratic, especially on the international stages. At the Olympics and World
Championships, judges would use the press for political purposes. Some contestants would get away
with blatant knee kicks and others would lay back until their upper bodies were parallel with the
platform. Some, who the judges did not want to place high, had to use ridiculously strict technique
or they would be disqualified. Their favorite was to say the bar stopped on the way up, a stupid rule
since it is certainly no advantage to have the bar stop during a heavy press. If anything, it makes the
lift a great deal more difficult.
And it wasn’t just the Communist countries treating the democratic nations unfairly. I saw a very
good lifter from Cuba get royally screwed at the ’68 Olympics by two judges, one from Puerto Rico
and the other from Jamaica. The athlete pressed in strict fashion but they gave him red lights on his
first two attempts, then passed the third, which was identical to the first two. They didn’t go so far as
to make him bomb out, but they made sure that he’d stay out of the hunt for a medal.
The judging needed to be consistent, yet that wasn’t going to happen. It’s not the same currently,
but in the late sixties, the Cold war was a genuine presence in the world and none of the nations gave
an inch in this matter. What to do? The only solution they could come up with was to drop the press
from Olympic competition. But what would be the reason for such a drastic move? After all, the press
had been a vital part of Olympic lifting since the very beginning. One reason that was suggested was
that by dropping the press, it would shorten a contest considerably. However, that seemed a little weak
since long meets only happened at a few contests, usually in the east, so it wasn’t a major concern. How
about safety? That usually sells and it did in this case.
Suddenly, articles began to appear, not only in fitness magazines, but also in the popular press,
that overhead pressing was potentially harmful to the lower back. In some cases, downright dangerous,
especially for younger athletes. Athletic trainers, team physicians in a wide variety of sports, and sports
medicine specialists came out against doing heavy presses because of the undue stress placed on the
In 1972, the International Olympic Weightlifting Committee voted to eliminate the press from
official competition. At this same point in time, several other facts occurred that altered the overhead press from the status of a primary, essential exercise to that of an auxiliary one. Joe Weider took control
of the sport of bodybuilding. Prior to that, the AAU was in charge of the sport and used athletic points
for the major contests. A bodybuilder could gain as many as five points by participating in some sport.
Since every bodybuilder was doing many of the same exercises as Olympic weightlifters, he would gain
his athletic points by entering a weightlifting contest. That meant he did lots of heavy presses. But
when Joe took over, he dropped the athletic points, so aspiring physique contestants no longer felt the
need to do presses, snatches, or clean and jerks. The bench press replaced the overhead press in nearly
every bodybuilder’s routine.
Meanwhile, powerlifting was taking off and those engaging in that sport soon outnumbered
Olympic lifters. Since the bench press was one of the lifts contested, powerlifters did a lot of them
and ignored the overhead press completely. Simultaneously, strength training for sports, particularly
football, was becoming popular across the country. Tommy Suggs and I helped to jump-start this trend
by writing articles in Strength & Health magazine, holding clinics and demonstrations in high schools
and colleges, and formulating a simple, basic program that could be used with very little equipment.
We called it the “Big Three” and after I came out with The Strongest Shall Survive, weight training in
junior and senior high schools and all divisions of colleges increased exponentially.
I am often asked why we made the bench press our primary upper body exercise when we
both believed that the overhead press was the superior lift to improve shoulder girdle strength. It was
because of all the negative comments in the media about the dangers of the overhead press to the lower
back and we didn’t want to have deal with two exercises that were controversial. We already had the full
squat, which was also under fire due to the false information generated by Dr. K.K. Klein’s so called
“research” on the subject. We quickly discovered that we had our hands full defending that lift which
we knew was the cornerstone of the entire program. We wanted to substitute the incline bench for
the overhead press, but alas, that was not possible. In the late sixties, incline benches were as scarce as
hen’s teeth. We only had one at the York Barbell and after talking with coaches from high schools and
colleges, we found that they had none. Zero. So it didn’t make any sense to include an exercise that
couldn’t be done without purchasing another piece of equipment. We settled for the flat bench because
every school had benches, even if they were only those in the locker room.
As a result of all things happening so close together, the flat bench emerged as the upper body
exercise in the seventies and continues to hold that lofty position currently.
To back up a bit. Was the Olympic Committee justified in banning the overhead press? Were a
lot of lifters getting hurt doing the exercise? No, in both cases. The elimination of the press was about
politics, not about the safety of the athletes. Did some lifters have injured lower backs? Of course.
There were also a lot of them with injured upper and middle backs, hips, legs, knees, wrists, elbows,
and shoulders, but none of those misfortunes had anything to do with the press. The lower back took
a huge battering at every session. Heavy squats, snatches, cleans, jerks, high pulls, shrugs all took their
toll on the lumbars. Pressing was stressful, of course, but no more than heavy jerks or drop snatches
or hang cleans.
It needs to be pointed out that lifters did not start out by pressing a heavy weight. Nor did they
lay back very far in the beginning either. As they got stronger in the press, their lower back strength
increased at the same rate – if they were paying attention – and the ability to lay back to urge the
bar through the sticking point was learned slowly, over a rather long period of time. As soon as my
athletes have established a solid strength base on the Big Three, I add in overhead presses and good
mornings. One of the most difficult parts of the press for anyone to learn how to do correctly is to lay back slightly. It’s largely a matter of timing and it takes many hours of practice to get the move down
perfectly. And as they’re learning the skill of laying back, their lumbars are improving in strength, both
from the pressing itself and the good mornings.
Of course, if an athlete fails to strengthen his lumbars and is somehow able to lay way back early
on, then he will have problems with his lower back, but that is not the fault of the exercise. Any
movement, no matter how tame it may seem, can be risky when done with sloppy form.
Although there were a few coaches like myself, who believed in the value of the overhead press and
taught it through the lean years, it never has made a full comeback. Yet, the overhead press has become
more popular lately due directly to two books by Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength and Strong Enough?,
where he once again elevates the press to primary status where it belongs. He has also preached the
doctrine of the press at the many clinics and seminars he gives across the country.
But wouldn’t you know it, just when it appeared that the press was once again going to be a
mainstay in strength routines, along comes someone who does a song and dance with anatomical and
kinesiological terms and concluded that the overhead presss is potentially harmful to the shoulder
joints. Aaargh! Here we go again. Doug Brignole comes from a bodybuilding background and I
seriously doubt if he ever pressed very much and certainly is way off base when it comes to strength
training. He even goes so far as to say overhead presses cause problems with the rotator cuff.
Totally absurd. The very best way to insure that you keep those groups that make up the rotator
cuff strong and healthy is to do overhead lifts: presses, push presses, and jerks. Holding a weighted
barbell overhead for several seconds hits the rotator cuffs directly. Lifting a weight overhead forces
those muscles known as the scapular control groups, lower trapezius, lats, and serratus to work. These
also get worked with heavy pulls, but a double dose of exercise that hits them directly is even better.
Whenever someone tells me he’s feeling a twinge right where his rotator cuffs are located, I have him
do overhead presses to strengthen the weak area. Standing dumbbell or barbell presses done with fairly
high reps, 15s and 20s, and if the injury is not advanced, the presses solve the problem in a matter of
a month or six weeks.
I do not agree with the assertion that the overhead press is an unnatural movement. The shoulder
joints have evolved to move in a vertical position, so it naturally follows that if an athlete wants to
improve strength in his upper body, he should add resistance and do that movement. Hand a child an
object and tell him to lift it overhead and he will do a perfect press.
Now the behind-the-neck press is a horse of another color. I have been lobbying against this
exercise since Nixon was in the White House. That movement does place a huge amount of stress on
the shoulder joints, as does any behind the neck exercise because the shoulder girdle and joints are not
designed to rotate in that manner.
If Doug wanted to be helpful to those who train their upper bodies hard, he might try leaving
the overhead press alone and concentrate on pointing out the many hazards of the flat bench. Unlike
the overhead press, the shoulder girdle does not move naturally during the execution of this exercise.
It is a safe exercise when done correctly, but this is seldom the case. The lure of a big number causes
athletes to use sloppy technique, including excessive rebound of the bar off their chests and bridging
when the bar hits the sticking point. In addition, the bench press is frequently overworked and the
joints involved – shoulders, elbows, and wrists – pay the price. Add to this is the fact that few who are
enamored with the flat bench seldom do anything significant for their upper backs. Eventually, those
muscles supporting the shoulder joints in the front become much stronger than those in the rear, and
when that happens, these athletes begin to experienced pain in the rear portion of their shoulders. Follow @stratfit