The Barbell Press. An old and forgotten exercise and an old and forgotten benchmark need be resurrected.
In 1955 Marvin Eder destroyed the world record in the barbell press (308) with this 330-pound effort. He eventually clean & pressed 355 weighing 195. His barbell press style was super strict with just a hint of layback. Note his wide grip.
For five decades the world’s most popular progressive resistance exercise was the overhead barbell press. More accurately, the world’s most favored lift was the overhead press preceded by a power clean. The press and power clean were inseparable. Every set of presses was preceded by a power clean because without a power clean there would be no overhead pressing. The barbell clean and press was the undisputed manhood benchmark for fifty years. How is it that an exercise once venerated above all others is no longer practiced? It was outlawed and supplanted.
When was the last time you saw someone clean and press a barbell overhead at a commercial fitness facility? Ever? In a hardcore gym you might see some grizzled old pro doing the standing overhead barbell press, the barbell taken out of the squat racks, thereby avoiding the clean. In the modern commercial training facility shoulder training is done sitting down, lying down, using dumbbells or, more likely, using a progressive resistance shoulder press machine.
Overhead pressing using a shoulder press machine or mechanical device is physiologically inferior to doing the same exercise using free weights. Exercise machines are akin to lite beer; free weights akin to 12-year old scotch whiskey. Exercise machines eliminate the need to control side-to-side movement, the 3rd dimension of tension. Machines have a frozen motor-pathway that cannot dig near as deep a muscular inroad as free weight equipment. Resistance training machines are decidedly and undeniably less effective than the free weight exercises they mimic.
The barbell press became extinct, seemingly overnight. Like the Jefferson lift, Bent Press, Zottman Curl or the Roman Chair sit-up, the clean and press was relegated to the scrap heap of abandoned exercises. The clean and press was (literally) legislated out of existence in 1972 when the press was kicked out of Olympic weightlifting. Olympic weightlifting consisted of the press, snatch, and clean & jerk. To shorten the competitions, the press was tossed. The banning of the press helped give rise to the bench press. Not coincidentally, the popularity of the overhead press plummeted.
Young men wanted the massive pecs, delts and triceps that big benching built. Young men wanted and preferred the muscled-up physiques of the champion powerlifters to the leaner physiques of the cat-like Olympic weightlifters. Weightlifters never trained arms or chest and it showed. You could handle a lot more poundage in the flat bench than in the overhead press and you did not have to clean a bench press. All of which contributed to the rise of the bench press.
The hardcore guys smartly kept on doing their overhead barbell presses – but they divorced the press from the clean. To avoid the technically complex and energy sapping power clean, the pros would place the power bar in the squat racks. Facing the barbell loaded with weight plates, they would take it out of the racks as if setting up to do a front squat. Instead of breaking the knees to commence a front squat, the lifter would press the barbell overhead. When the rep or set was done, replace the barbell into the squat racks. The overhead press without the power clean is made far easier. Now 100% of available strength could be dedicated to pressing.
A legal barbell press is a pushed overhead with no help from the legs: the knees are locked throughout the lift, no jerking, jolting, knee-dipping, or leg drive can be used to assist the overhead push. This clean and press are two exercises combined: a power clean precedes the press(s). In the old days if the lifter was unable to power clean the weight to the shoulders, they missed the opportunity to press it. If the power clean was an awkward struggle, pressing strength was reduced. A crisp power clean made for easier pressing. Here is a photographic example of the press technique we teach…
Hungarian superheavyweight Karoli Ecoli shows how pros press: this is the most elemental and fundamental of overhead press techniques…
- Every muscle is flexed and tensed. His pushes his hips forward. Shoulders over ankles, he is a taunt bow
- He straightens violently, simultaneously firing shoulder, upper pec, and triceps, the bar flies to the eyes
- As he encounters the sticking point, he backbends, pushing hips forward, keeping shoulders over ankles
- He backbends until his arms lock out; he now comes erect
An excellent benchmark (for all athletes) is to be able to overhead press bodyweight. Here are the classification standards we use when working with elite military…
|Level||Overhead Press||Bench Press||Squat||Deadlift||Power Clean|
|1||.75% of bwt.||1.25 x bwt.||1.75 x bwt.||2 x bwt.||bodyweight|
|2||bodyweight||1.5 x bwt.||2 x bwt.||2.25 x bwt.||1.15 x bwt.|
|3||1.12 x bwt.||1.65 x bwt.||2.25 x bwt.||2.5 x bwt.||1.25 x bwt.|
|4||1.25 x bwt.||1.9 x bwt.||2.5 x bwt.||2.75 x bwt.||1.35 x bwt.|
|5||1.4 x bwt.||2 x bwt.||2.75 x bwt.||3 x bwt.||1.45 x bwt.|
For a 200-pound man to attain Level II requires an overhead press of 200-pounds (bodyweight,) a 300-pound bench press (raw, strict, 1.5 x bodyweight,) a squat of 400-pounds (no gear, below parallel, double bodyweight) a deadlift of 450-pounds (2.25 x bodyweight) and a power clean of 230-pounds (1.15 x bodyweight.)
There are press techniques far more technically complex and sophisticated that our core press technique as illustrated by Kaoli. The next level of overhead press technical complexity is the “Olympic Press.”
This is Tommy Sugg’s visual teaching aide: how to perform the “Olympic Press,” this one of the highest and most technical of all overhead presses…
- create the “taunt bow,” maximum tension, hips are pushed forward, shoulders over ankles
- the lifter comes violently erect, firing shoulders, pecs and triceps throwing the bar to eye height
- as the sticking point begins the lifter bends into and under the bar, shoulders over ankles
- the layback ends when arms are fully extended, the lifter comes erect out of the backbend
- full and complete lockout, delts tensed and rotated outward, triceps locked, shoulders over ankles
- I have no idea why Tommy included this 6th figure, identical in every way to the 5th
Want to see how Sugg’s Olympic Press template looks like in real life? Here is a photo sequence of 165-pound Russ Knipp pressing 340-pounds. Russ’ press technique is the flesh-and-blood personification of Sugg’s six drawings.
- Russ has power cleaned the weight and purposefully “bowed up” keeping shoulders over ankles
- Knipp “launches” his taunt bow, his straightens so violently the weight will be thrown to eye-level
- He lays back as the weight travels through the sticking point – a certain amount of layback was legal
- He has “fallen away” and caught the barbell on locked elbows
- He stands erect and awaits the referee’s DOWN! signal
Our lifters perform overhead pressing once a week. Most use this classical periodized template…
Week 1 thru 4 work up to a top set of five reps add 5-pounds per week
Week 5 thru 8 work up to a top set of three reps add 5-pounds per week
Week 9 & 10 work up to a double add 5-pounds per week
Week 11 & 12 work up to a single add 5-pounds per week
- 5-pound weekly jumps compound: at the end of 12-weeks, up 60-pounds over jump-in weight
- Take as many warm-ups sets as needed before attacking the week’s preordained top set weight
- Reduce top set by 20-pounds: one set, rep to failure in the standing press-behind the neck
- Use a slightly wider than shoulder width grip on front press
- Use a wider grip in the press-behind-the-neck
Bench presses are done 2-3 days later. Train overhead press and bench press on different days.
Establish overhead press technique using light weight. Practice creating the “taunt bow” tensed and coiled with the hips pushed forward. The shoulders are always over the ankles. This coiled layback position allows the lifter to fire the barbell off the shoulders to eye height without colliding with the chin. Push the bar up and back once it passes the face. Do not let the bar drift forward as you push to lockout. Hold and exaggerate the lockout before beginning the next rep. A hard lockout on every overhead press maximizes deltoid and triceps stimulation and development.
Once a week start overhead pressing Old School style. This is the fastest and surest way to bring up shoulder muscles and shoulder power. Elite powerlifters feel that pushing up the front press or the press-behind-the-neck press pushes up the flat bench press. Improving overhead pressing power makes benching easier: when triceps, upper pecs and front deltoid are significantly strengthened by overhead pressing, bench pressing cannot help but be improved. How could it not? Work towards the manly and historic goal of being able to overhead press bodyweight. This is a worthy benchmark. Both the lift and benchmark deserve resurrection.
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 multiple 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.