Off Season Weight Training: Shoulder Press & Arm Specialization
Inflicting our will on others for their own betterment - Overhead Press and Arm Training
Six-time world powerlifting champion Kirk Karwoski and I train a bunch of local guys every Sunday at 9 am at Don Berry’s country gym. Our weightlifting workouts are studies in no-frills minimalism: we take barbell squats, bench presses and deadlifts to high art. Kirk and I teach these lifts as they were taught to us; all lifts are done with our signature techniques. We do little else, maybe some arm training like dumbbell extensions or bicep curls. Our strength tribe is always expanding and contracting, on any given Sunday we might get as many as 20 trainees or as few as 5, depending on time of year and nearness of any competitions.
For me, training locals for free is not entirely altruistic. I use this fabulous assortment of regular dudes as mice in my own ongoing control study. I test out our Old School strength training strategies and tactics on this new generation of fit, eager men. To a man, these mice have all obtained stratospheric gains in lean muscle mass and pure power. And all using the sparse tactics, extreme infrequency and the intricate techniques Kirk and I insist on. Many of our locals have morphed and are now gleefully misshapen, with outsized muscles protruding in every direction.
The group, as is its habit, competes in local powerlifting competitions. They are self-motivated in this regard. Kirk and I never push or prod them insofar as when to compete, how often or where. We certainly do push and prod them in our Sunday training sessions. After the most recent competition, Kirk and I stepped back and tried to look at the group as a collective whole: what were the groups strengths and weaknesses? Kirk and I had several observations. Everyone’s squats and deadlifts pretty much kicked ass. And everyone’s bench presses pretty much sucked.
These are lifetime drug free guys. Everyone works serious jobs and most have families and kids. Few have time to train during the week. As a group they are (with one exception) in shape and tall for their weight classes. People tall in relation to their bodyweight suffer in the bench press. The bench favors the short, stout and thick. Rarely do any of our boys get out squatted or out deadlifted in drug-free local meets. Conversely, everyone’s bench press lags badly in relation to their squats and deadlifts.
Kirk suggested auxiliary bench work: he was a big fan of the 45-degree seated incline bench press and back in the day had pushed 445 x 5 in the 45-degree incline weighing 265. We did not have an incline bench with fixed uprights, so for our country lifters this was not a practical option. I noted that none of these guys (with one exception) had ever done an overhead press – except on weight machines at commercial gyms. Weight machines are the lite beer of progressive resistance training. We drink whiskey. I wanted to show these press virgins how to do the overhead press, using a highly specific technique.
Why bother doing heavy overhead barbell presses at all? Elite powerlifters, elite bench pressers, starting with Marvin Eder and Pat Casey, discovered that improvements in the heavy overhead barbell press automatically improved the flat bench press. The overhead press stresses muscles critical in bench pressing: the triceps, front and side deltoids and the upper pecs. The overhead barbell press stresses these key bench press muscles in a different, yet similar fashion and because of the extreme similarity there is transference.
Immortal powerlifters, men like Joe Ladiner and Ed Coan favored the seated press-behind-the-neck. Both men were capable of a 400-pound behind the neck barbell press (as was Pat Casey) both men weighing around 225. Optimally, the press-behind-the-neck is done seated using a special bench with a high set rack that optimally requires a training partner to lift off, spot and help rerack the weight. We didn’t have the special bench however we still did the PBN, standing, light and precise, emphasizing the extreme lockout.
The front barbell overhead press does not require a special piece of equipment nor a training partner. When done right, the barbell overhead press is as inarguably superior, to all other shoulder exercises. The front press done right packs on muscle in all the right places and this additional muscular firepower converts into bigger benching.
We put a half-dozen of our better lifters through an elemental pressing regimen: 5-6 sets of front presses followed up by 3-4 sets of standing behind-the-neck press. Since they were all overhead press virgins, they were weak as kittens. This was good news: with some concentrated focus and effort, their weak-ass overhead presses could be bought up quickly and easily – and these quick and easy increases in overhead pressing would jack up their flat benches. It also jacked up their musculature.
The overhead press technique I insisted on was the opposite of the pressing style taught by mainstream instructors. Traditionally the barbell or dumbbells are rested on the shoulders before commencing the upward push. The payload is then heaved upward to ¾ lock-out before the weight is allowed to freefall back down to the shoulders. The lifter will then rest the power bar on his shoulders to gather himself for the next rep. Toss the weight up, never completely lock out, rest on the shoulders between reps.
I don’t allow any of this. The emphasis is shifted: we start with an intense lockout. A proper lockout is where all the muscle-building and strength-increasing benefits occur. At the conclusion of each press rep, the elbows need be completely locked, the deltoids are rotated inward and pushed upward to accentuate the lockout. The triceps and deltoid are flexed to the point of cramping at the conclusion of every rep. This technique makes light weights heavy.
After the extreme lockout, the bar is lowered to a laid-back, inclined torso, touching the clavicles. The weight is not paused - the lifter uses a controlled “touch and go” style. This controlled rebound creates the beginning of the next rep that ends in yet another ultra-hard, ultra-accentuated lockout. For the duration of the set, the payload is never allowed to settle on the shoulders.
A pre-loaded barbell is set on a squat rack. The lifter breaks the bar from the rack, steps back like they were setting up to perform a front squat. Once this front squat ‘start’ position is assumed, follow these overhead press technical points....
Barbell Overhead Press
- Open the stance – shoulder width – too many men ‘pinch’ their stance
- Flex the thighs and glutes – hard! This is your press platform – stabilize!
- Layback enough so the bar clears the chin on the way up
- Push up and back
- When pressing, lean away from the bar at the sticking point
- From ankle to shoulder, the body assumes a slight ‘bow’
- Shoulders always stay over the ankles when bowing
- Straighten the bow as you approach lockout
- Lock out hard and completely; hold the payload for a beat before lowering
- Touch and go at the bottom of the rep
- Don’t let the bar or bells settle on the shoulders
- 5-rep sets, work up to a single top set of 5-reps
- Drop the poundage down considerably and commence standing press-behind-the-neck
- Accentuate the lockout
- Lower only to the hairline
- Make small poundage increases
- 5-rep sets, work up to a single top set of 5-reps
After performing 4-5 sets of barbell front press working to a max 5, followed by 3-4 sets of behind-the-neck press working up to a max 5-rep set, the boys were shock-blasted to a man. The group dynamic took everyone’s game to the next level. Within the Sunday format, we would insert the front press/PBN sequence after squatting and bench pressing.
After blasting the overhead press, front and back, our crew of locals were dragging ass. Muscles they never knew they had in their upper-back were screaming bloody murder. Kirk and I had them swing right into some serious arm training. Steep incline dumbbell curls taken to failure, these were super-setted, alternated, with twin overhead dumbbell tricep extensions, also taken to failure.
We had the boys pick bells they could handle for 8-10 super-strict reps in the incline curl. If a man uses a pair of 40-pound dumbbells, he would rep the bells to failure on steep incline curls – then immediately throw those same 40s overhead and commence the strict dumbbell tricep ‘French’ presses. These were taken to failure also. We had them perform two super-sets with heavier bells on each set, four sets total all to failure.
The boys from the neighborhood, to a man, were left writhing in complete muscular meltdown. To a man they were pleading “No Mas!” Exhausted, swollen, exuberant yet depleted, these boys now understood the sheer degree of sheer physical effort required to favorably alter the composition of the human body. Nothing less than herculean effort will suffice. We were giving the boys a taste of that.
“Go home, eat a rotisserie chicken, drink a half gallon of whole milk. Take a power nap. Grow while you sleep.” Kirk sent them on their way. Their hands shook badly as they went to put the key in the ignition for the drive home.
After six consecutive weeks of this once-a-week pressing protocol, everyone looked swollen in their upper torso; oddly, everyone’s traps really improved. The entire shoulder girdle grew. Everyone agreed, the muscle most stressed by barbell pressing were the triceps. All were shocked at how weak they were. Again, concentrated effort bought everyone’s pressing up quickly. Discovering weak points is a wonderful thing.
Photo Credit: Thank you to Nathaniel Hancock of @persistpowerlifting for providing images of Maryland Strongman Chair, Jon Ward of @colosseum_strongman
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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.