The lost gold standard from a bygone era

Phil Grippaldi digs in with a 370 overhead barbell press back in 1967. Note the rock-solid push-base: his legs and glutes are maximally flexed. He is bending away from the Olympic bar as it passes thru the sticking point. Phil stood 5-5, weighed 195 and had 20-inch arms.

Up until the late 1960s, the gold standard upper body lift was not the bench press, it was the overhead barbell press, or, more precisely, the clean and overhead press. You first had to pull the barbell from the floor to your shoulders before pressing it overhead. For a sizeable number of men, the clean, pulling the weight from the floor and racking it on the shoulders, was harder than the press. The clean is extremely complex whereas the actual press is relatively easy to perform, from a bio-mechanical perspective.

The bench press required what was in the mid-sixties, an exotic piece of equipment: a weight bench with two upright supports. Unlike today where you can buy a bench with uprights at IRON COMPANY, back then most local’s intent on bench pressing scrounged up a bench (my teen group bench off a reinforced redwood picnic table bench) and had a couple of training partners hand them the barbell. What an awkward pain in the ass. More and more weight benches with uprights built specifically for benching appeared nationwide. The lift’s popularity took off. Bench pressing is a great lift, the King of upper body exercises – assuming it is done properly – and it rarely is.

As bench pressing started gaining widespread traction, the clean and press fell more and more out of favor. The bench press had a lot going for it. First off, it is an incredibly comfortable lift to do. The bench press with the barbell allows for differing grip widths; each grip width has a radically different physiological impact. Dumbbell flat benches are extremely effective; each arm is forced to carry its fair share and with dumbbells, the bencher can use a deep and beneficial pre-stretch at the beginning of each rep.

The bencher can easily switch from grind speed to normal speed to explosive speed – this type of rep-speed variation and precision is not really possible with overhead pressing. Flat benching will give you a hellacious set of pecs, front delts and a bulging pair of triceps. The bench press supplanted the overhead press as the gold standard strength lift. No one nowadays asks, ‘how much can you clean and press?’ they ask, ‘what can you bench?’

The awkward, technically complex clean and overhead barbell press, the gold standard lift for “the Greatest Generation” was supplanted by the lift of choice of their children, the Baby Boomers, who discarded their father’s complex test of upper body strength, the clean and overhead press in favor of the new gold standard benchmark: the easy-to-perform bench press. In a perfect world, both lifts would have been retained and pursued – simultaneously – back in the day – it was an either/or proposition: either you were an old school retro overhead presser or a modernist bench presser.

The bottom fell out for the overhead barbell press when, in 1972, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) dropped the press, it would no longer be contested. That stuck a knife through the heart of conventional overhead pressing. No one needed to link the clean with the press. No longer was it necessary to master the overly complex Olympic style of pressing, with excessive layback and technical trickery. Now there was no real reason to clean a poundage before pressing it.

Most elite powerlifters included some form of overhead pressing in their training template, the widespread feeling being that driving up the seated press-behind-the-neck or seated or standing dumbbell press or barbell front press helped their competitive bench press. The powerlifters felt the overhead press helped bench pressing, improvement in the overhead presses improved bench pressing. Most elite lifters believed in this interrelationship and made room in their training for seated or standing barbell or dumbbell overhead pressing.

The barbell overhead press went from a widely practiced gold standard lift to seldom ever practiced lift, now completely supplanted by the bench press. Many ask, what about the overhead press machine I use at the local Y or the health club? Machine overhead pressing is the lite beer of progressive resistance pressing. Machines make pressing easier and by making pressing easier the results are reduced to a dramatic degree. Overhead pressing on exercise machines is like a carnival ride: you sit on a comfortable pad with an equally comfortable back pad. Pushing 100-pounds on a press machine is so much easier than pushing 100-pounds using a barbell or pair of dumbbells (two 50s).

The machine motor pathway is frozen, the payload travels along on ball-bearings. No need to control side to side movement, just push or pull. All of which makes overhead pressing on a machine way easier and easier is detrimental in progressive resistance training. Struggling through sticking points is where the gains lie.

There are classical strength standards: for a 200-pound lifter, a double-bodyweight 400-pound squat, a 2.5 times bodyweight 500-pound deadlift. A 1.5 x bodyweight 300-pound bench press and a 200-pound overhead press with a barbell.  There is great symmetry in these ratios: the balance is perfect. The next strength step upward would be a 2.5 x bodyweight squat (500) a triple bodyweight deadlift (600) a double bodyweight bench press (400) and a 1.25 x bodyweight overhead barbell press (250).

How close can you come to a bodyweight overhead barbell press, with no knee kick and each rep completely locked out? Try the classical overhead barbell press taken out of the power rack. To perform this exercise, you will need to set an empty bar in a squat rack. Face the rack, rack the bar in front squat position, step back, open your stance, flex your thighs, lock your glutes and lean back slightly, now fire the barbell overhead. Regardless if you use purposeful grind rep speed, normal rep speed or explosive rep speed, make sure every single rep is locked out fully and completely. Power bodybuilders favor 5-rep sets, with a heavy dose of triples, doubles and singles. Singles are used as periodic report cards. How close are you to the gold standard bodyweight overhead barbell press?

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.