by Greg Zulak (1992)
The press is a very natural compound movement efficiently involving the major muscles of the shoulder girdle, the triceps, the traps, the deltoids and the pectoralis minor. In his Nautilus Training Principles Bulletin No. I Arthur Jones pointed out that the average untrained man can actually press much more than he can bench press, and the only reason powerlifters and bodybuilders bench more than they can press is that they practice benching more than pressing, and emphasize it more in their programs. Although the bench press record is generally favored over the standing press record by a ration of four to three as Jones explained, it actually takes more power to do a proper standing press because the range of motion is far greater and the speed of movement is faster.
In the "old" days people pressed as much for strength as for development - probably even more. By the "old" days I mean the late 1800's and early 1900's. The amount of weight you could lift was a matter of pride. Physique development was definitely secondary. Strongmen of the times - many who claimed to be the strongest man in the world - were capable of lifting amazing amounts of weight in the press. Early lifting was as much connected with vaudeville and entertainment as it was with sport and competition. Strongmen like Louis Cyr, Louis Uni (Apollon), Eugen Sandow, Arthur Saxon, August Johnson, Karl Swoboda and Hermann Goerner were capable of incredible lifts, done with pure brute strength, at a time when little was known about nutrition and scientific training, let alone substances like steroids and human growth hormone. Various one-arm presses, two-arm presses and bent presses were done with heavy barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells and anvils. Even human beings attached to bars were lifted!
To give you an idea how strong these old-timers were, French-Canadian Louis Cyr, who was at his best in the 1890's, was capable of a two-hand press of 347 pounds, a one-arm press with either arm of 273-1/4 pounds, and he pressed 162-1/2 pounds with one arm 36 times in succession. All of these lifts were done in what was called "the Louis Cyr style," with very little knee bending, back bending or cheating of any kind.
To show you how difficult the Cyr style was, Doug Hepburn, the Canadian world champion, who was capable of a 400-lb. Olympic-style press and who was considered one of the strongest men of all time, could lift only 220 in the Cyr-style press. What makes Cyr's lifts all the more amazing is that, according to IFBB President Ben Weider, who wrote a book on Cry, The Strongest M:an in History, he never lifted more than 75% of his maximum for fear of scaring off opponents and eliminating potential strength matches with other strongmen of the time, which were his source of income.
By the 1930"s people were starting to become as much concerned with physique development as with strength, but at the time it still was not all that possible to separate the two. You had to be as strong as you looked. For example, John Grimek, Mr. America 1941-42, was a champion Olympic lifter as well as the best bodybuilder of his time. By the 1950's Reg Park, who would go on to win four Mr. Universe titles, was capable of using over 300 pounds in the behind the neck press for six reps. Most of the champions of that time were able to use very heavy weights in their pressing movements.
By the 1960's major breakthroughs were being made almost daily in both strength and development (some of this no doubt due to the use of steroids). World records were being set regularly. Nobody ever imagined that men could get so strong or so big and muscular. A whole new breed of super-champions came out of Southern California. Men like Steve Marjanian, Pat Casey and Chuck Ahrens worked out with dumbbells around 300 pounds - and pressed them for reps. Pat Casey set a bench press record of 617 and could do a behind-the-neck press with 450 pounds. Steve Marjanian did a seated press of 460, could behind-the-neck press 390 for one rep and do 335 for seven. He could also press two 190-lb. dumbbells for two reps. These supermen paved the way for strength champions of the future, men like Ken Patera, who could push-press 550 pounds off the racks and do over 400 in the behind-the-neck press, Bill Kazmaier, who benched 661 pounds and pressed two 120-pound dumbbells together 21 times, and Ted Arcidi, who benched 720 and did behind-the-neck presses of 365x3 and 315x10.
Men off those times took as much pride in how much they could behind-the-neck press as they did in their bench press or how large their arms measured. Ricky Wayne once wrote in the old Weider Muscle Builder/Power magazine that he was sure he could have behind-the-neck pressed as much as he bench pressed if he had ever specialized on the movement. Dave Draper, Chuck Sipes, Harold Poole and Wayne were just some of the men who had worked up to 300 pounds or more in their presses for reps.
At the time, too, the reps were done slower and fuller. The bar went from shoulder height overhead to full lockout. But times changed. As people became less concerned with strength and more with deltoid isolation and development, the reps became shorter and faster. One-half and three-quarter constant-tension reps became the norm and, as bodybuilders came to rely more and more on various dumbbell and cable laterals and assorted deltoid machines, pure pressing became less and less common. It's almost a lost art form.
Several factors contributed to the decline in the use and popularity of the press and its demise as an Olympic lift. First of all, until the late 1950's, Olympic lifting was more popular than bodybuilding. Powerlifting was still in its infancy and not yet widespread. As bodybuilding and powerlifting became more and more popular - by the late 1960's and early 1970's - the military press and Olympic press were mostly forgotten. People in the iron game were for the most part more concerned with how big they could get their arms and how much they could bench press, not how much they could press overhead.
The final nail in the coffin came when the Olympic press was eliminated from official competition as a result excess cheating by nearly all competitors and judges who looked the other way. The strict military press - heels touching, legs locked, no back bending or jerking allowed - had been replaced over time by the "slump" press. When doing the slump press competitors would clean the weight to their shoulders, then bend their knees several inches while slumping their upper bodies. Then, to start the press upward the legs would be snapped straight to drive the bar past the sticking point. Huge back bends and lots of knee kicking of driving were common. Some lifters would bend so far back that their upper bodies were almost parallel to the floor.
Lifters who tried to lift strictly were handicapped because they couldn't handle the amount of weight the slump pressers could. It was either cheat too, or lose. The lift really deteriorated, and so much emphasis was placed on winning that coaches even started to teach their lifters how to cheat more effectively.
Norbert Schemansky, one of the greatest-ever USA Olympic weightlifting champions of the 1950
s had this to say about the press in 1969, before the lift was banned:
"Teaching someone to press is like teaching boxing. You have to have him learn a jab, hook, uppercut and all the other fundamentals of boxing, and when the kid gets in the ring he finds he can do better by butting, backhanding, elbowing, clinching, and so on. If you have the kid military pressing or strict bench pressing, all you will do is hold him back. You might as well teach him to bend, kick and cheat right away and give him a good start. There's no use kidding ourselves. The press just isn't a press anymore." (IronMan, Volume 29, Number 3, February/March 1969, p. 42.)
It eventually became so difficult to judge the press that it had to be banned altogether, leaving the Olympic lifter with only the Snatch and Clean & Jerk to complete. It seemed that before the mid-1960's people took great pride in not cheating their lifts, but with the 60's came a new mentality - get the weight up any way you can and hope the judges pass it. In fact, Olympic lifters were cheating so much before the lift was banned that many of them were pressing more than they could clean & jerk. At a competition in 1972, for example, the great Soviet lifter Vasily Alexeev "pressed" 518.1 pounds but only clean & jerked 507.1.
A true military press, or a strictly performed overhead press is a thing of beauty and an example of great strength. I'll never forget a photograph I saw of Bill March pressing 390 pounds in perfect style. The weight was just over his head but still not near lockout. His back was perfectly straight and his legs were locked. You could tell he was lifting this heavy weight with pure triceps and deltoid strength. What an impressive lift!Even after 22 years it still sticks out in my mind.
Over the years the standard press has evolved to where there are many variations, developed for specific purposes, with the emphasis on developing certain aspects of the deltoids. The standard military, and the strict overhead press develop primarily the anterior or front portion of deltoids.
Vince Gironda understood this. He argued that regular pressing did not widen the shoulders much but only thickened the front delt area. To quote Vince: "It is my observation that pressing never produces fast deltoid growth. I have observed bodybuilders work for years on standing presses and change but little." Vince felt that the only way to properly stimulate the deltoids with pressing was to press the bar or dumbbells to full lockout and hold for a count of six. The other pressing exercise that Vince feels works the deltoids properly is the alternate dumbbell press. The key is to hold the arm extended to full lockout for a count of six while holding the other dumbbell at shoulder height. Also, it is important not to alternately press the dumbbells up and down simultaneously as is normally done. Instead, what you must do is to press the bell up with your right arm to full lockout and hold. Keep your right arm extended, and then you press the left arm up to full lockout and hold for six seconds. Only when both arms are up do you lower the right bell back to shoulder height. Alternated back and forth this way. Vince says that this form of dumbbell pressing ensures peak contraction and better, faster development. It also lessens the cheating action of body English that happens with regular alternate dumbbell pressing and teaches the lifter how to feel the deltoids contract.
Unlike other experts, Vince sees pressing as a finishing-off movement, not as a basic mass and power exercise. He much prefers various lateral movements for full deltoid development.
Personally I disagree with this. I've achieved some great results from heavy behind-the-neck and dumbbell pressing movements, and I feel that all beginners should train hard on basic pressing movements for at least a year before using lateral movements.
Here is a short summary of other specialized forms of pressing you can try:
The Arnold Press - Supposedly developed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, this form of pressing was believed to develop more side deltoid head than regular dumbbell pressing. Start with two medium-heavy dumbbells at shoulder height just below the front head. Hold the bells with a curl grip - i.e. palms toward your face, knuckles forward. About halfway up, the elbows begin to go to the sides and the wrists twist so the palms face the ears. At the top of the movement the hands should have rotated completely so the palms now face forward (as they would in regular dumbbell pressing). Reverse your movements as you lower.
The Scott Press - Because he specialized on broadening the muscle-width of his shoulders, Larry Scott was always looking for ways to build mass on the side head of the deltoid, and this exercise does just that. Although he became an expert at isolating the side head with various laterals, Scott felt he couldn't use enough weight on these movements. Through experimentation he came up with this press. Here's how to perform it:
Stand in front of a dumbbell rack, leaning slightly into the rack so that your body is well anchored. This is crucial. Next, clean a pair of dumbbells to shoulder height, holding the bells with the palms forward. Three things are important in order to make this press isolate the side head.
1) Pull your arms as far behind your head as possible, with your elbows pointing directly out to the sides.
2) Tilt the dumbbells so the outside plates are higher than the inside plates, making the little finger of each hand higher than the thumb. The little finger should be pointing up and the thumb down.
3) Start to press the bells, but do only the middle portion of the press. Do not press up to full lockout and do not let the bells come down to shoulder height or rest on the shoulders. The range of motion is about a foot at most.
Remember as you press the bells that you must ensure that your arms are pulled back, the elbows point out to the sides and the dumbbells are tilted so the outside plates are higher than the inside plates and the little finger is higher than the thumb. If you do all these things together, the side head does most of the work of pressing. Start light until you get the movement down.
The "W" Press - Hold two medium-heavy dumbbells at shoulder height, the elbows pulled back and in line with the shoulders and the palms facing the ears. Your arms must be bent, as they would be when doing dumbbell flyes for the chest, to form a W. Rather than pressing the bells up in a vertical line, as you would do with regular dumbbell presses, move the bells in a wide, smooth arc until they meet overhead. The action is similar to that of a lying dumbbell flye for chest. When the dumbbells meet, the palms should be facing each other. Hold at the top for a count of two or three to contract the side head hard; then lower to the starting position. The palms always face each other throughout the movement and the arms are always bent. They never fully straighten. Bear in mind that the W press is not a power movement, so keep the weights on the light side, about what you use for laterals or no more than five or ten pounds over that.
The Twisting Dumbbell Press - This is best done seated with your back braced. The twisting dumbbell press is really just a modified Arnold press. Start as you would in a "W" press, with the elbows pulled back in line with the shoulders and the palms facing each other. As the bells are pressed up about halfway, twist your hands so the palms face forward. Reverse the action as the bells are lowered. This version puts more work on the side head than regular dumbbell pressing, but it is a power movement so use as heavy a weight as you can with good form.
The Parallel-Grip Press - This form of dumbbell pressing was favored by Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones. Start with the bells at shoulder height, the elbows pulled back in line with the shoulders, palms toward the ears. Maintain this position throughout the press. Never let the wrists twist of the elbows come forward. Press to full lockout and return. Use all the weight you can while keeping good form.
Regular Dumbbell Press - Can be done seated or standing. The palms face forward throughout the movement, the elbows pointing out to the sides and pulled back in line with the shoulders. Go heavy.
The Push Press - This is definitely a power movement. You might call this a cheating press because some heaving and knee-driving is used to force the bar past the sticking point. It is not a jerk, there is a press-out once the bar is past the sticking point. Be sure to warm up adequately before your push-presses.
Either clean a heavy barbell to your shoulders or take it off a rack. Dip your knees about three to six inches. Quickly straighten your legs, using as much explosive arm, leg and shoulder power as you can muster to thrust the bar to about head height. Press out the weight. You can also utilize the push press to carry on a set of stricter presses. Once you approach failure with the strict presses, bend your knees only as much as you need to to drive the weight past the sticking point, very much like doing forced reps.
The Behind the Neck Press - If this exercise gives your shoulders grief avoid it. You may find front pressing and dumbbell pressing less stressful to the joints. The main thing with the behind the neck press is to lower the bar slowly and to press smoothly.
Many bodybuilders favor pressing up only two-thirds of the way to keep tension on the shoulders, even though Vince Gironda felt that pressing to full lockout was the only way to fully contract the deltoids. John Parillo feels that by not locking out the lifter is not stimulating the muscle fibers he could by doing a complete movement. I suggest you do both types of pressing, including partial pressing movements at times.
Parillo also has his trainees "drop the shoulders and flex the lats as you press the weight upwards." As you lock out you are instructed to "press your hips forward while tightening your abs." Then push the weight back slightly, but without arching the back. Parillo believes all these actions isolate the deltoids.
He also feels the behind the neck press is superior to the front press because it widens the shoulder and pectoral carriage and affects the trapezius more strongly.