the most important lift you aren't doing
by Alec Enkiri | 1/10/20
The push press gets no love. The bench press is still everybody's favorite upper body exercise (for whatever reason), and the incline press, and weighted dip, and seated overhead press, and strict standing press all seem to take priority over the lowly push press in most people's training. This is a shame because in one fell swoop the push press accomplishes more than pretty much all of these exercises could ever hope to accomplish. Not only does it make you look like a badass, but it actually turns you into one as well. Today I'm going to explain to you exactly how it does this and why the exercise is so damn awesome and should be utilized as an integral part of your training. But first let's go over exactly what a push press is so that we're all on the same page.
What Is A Push Press
There are 3 primary ways to get a barbell over your head. Each method presents it's own set of idiosyncrasies and technical details that must be mastered and these details shift the muscular emphases of the 3 different methods and therefore also the overall training effect that each method ultimately confers as well.
First up is the standard strict overhead press. This method relies solely on the muscular strength of the deltoids, upper chest, and triceps to get the bar from your shoulders to a position fully locked out overhead. If you go to a commercial gym this is the method you're most likely to encounter if you happen to see anyone putting a bar over their head (news flash: seated OHP don't count). The knees stay locked and rigid; the hips stay locked and may be extended forward slightly with an accompanying slight lay back in the torso. The elbows should be pointed down and perpendicular to the floor and situated in a position directly underneath of the barbell to allow for maximum leverage against the resistance. The bar should be situated as close to the center of mass (the hips) as possible and prior to the initiation of the press may either be grazing the collarbones or left in a floating position underneath of the chin. In either case the entirety of the load is supported by the arms and the upper body alone powers the barbell overhead.
Strict overhead press off of pins. This is purely upper body muscular strength moving the bar, primarily the deltoids, upper chest, and triceps.
Next up is the jerk. The jerk, basically as a polar opposite of the strict standing press, uses almost entirely lower body power to get the bar locked out overhead. The bar is locked into the front delts by creating a stable shelf position with the elbows pointed up at about 45 degrees or so relative to the floor. This ensures that the weight is being supported by the torso and not by the arms which, during the dip and drive phase, allows the legs to impart the greatest amount of power into the barbell and therefore give it the greatest potential for upward trajectory while still leaving the arms in a position to be able to quickly and efficiently receive the weight overhead.
All leg power to get the bar overhead here. The role of the upper body is merely to stabilize and support.
At this point, as the bar floats upward due to momentum imparted by the lower body musculature, rather than engage the upper body musculature at all, the lifter instead uses the brief moment where the barbell hangs weightlessly in the air as an opportunity to push themselves underneath of it. They are then able to subsequently receive the bar overhead on fully locked arms with the legs in either a split position or symmetrical squat position, and therefore once again engage the stronger muscles of the legs and hips to bring their body back to a fully erect position, rather than ever relying on the comparably weaker muscles of the upper body to assist in getting the bar overhead. Employing this method allows you to get the most weight overhead in an absolute sense and is therefore the most logical method to employ during competitive circumstances (it is also required by the rules of Olympic weightlifting during weightlifting competition).
And last but not least is the push press. The push press is in many ways essentially a combination of these two preceding methods of getting the bar overhead. It is part jerk, part press; it is part lower body, part upper body. And this hybrid nature is precisely what makes the this lift so beneficial overall. To execute a proper push press you must rack the bar on the front delts similar to how you would during a jerk, and, similarly, execute an aggressive dip and drive in order to make use of the powerful leg muscles to heave the bar up off of the shoulders. This where the primary difference between the push press and the jerk emerges as, rather than shift your body underneath of the barbell in order to catch it at arms length, at this point you instead make use of the upward momentum imparted onto the barbell by the lower body in order to gradually yet rapidly transition the load onto the muscles of the upper body as said momentum dwindles, and subsequently use these muscles to finish pressing the bar overhead into a fully locked out position. This dual nature situates the push press firmly in between the strict press and the jerk in terms of absolute loading capabilities.
The lower body gets the bar going but the upper body finishes things off. A very important distinction that brings about a whole host of awesome benefits.
Now that we've covered exactly what a push press is let's discuss the primary benefits of the exercise! There are 3 main components that I want to discuss here: the effect the exercise has on the lower body, the effect the exercise has on the upper body, and, perhaps most importantly, the effect the exercise has in terms of tying those two ends together. Let's start with the lower body.
Every push press rep that you execute is initiated by performing a maximal and aggressive dip and drive with the legs, primarily with an emphasis on a knee dominant movement pattern (as opposed to hip dominant) as this keeps the torso more upright, thus maintaining the most efficient leverages and bar path. This quick and shallow eccentric dip makes use of the stretch reflex in order to magnify the power output of the subsequent, violent extension of the knees during the drive phase, which is essentially a weighted jump where instead of using the body as a projectile you use the barbell as a projectile. By repeatedly training and progressively loading this dynamic, explosive action we are able to build great power in the legs that you will find carries over into running, jumping, and a whole host of other athletic endeavors. A simple, yet brutally effective concept.
Culmination of the dip. Notice the vertical torso, high elbows with barbell resting securely on the shoulder shelf, shallow knee bend with accompanying ankle dorsiflexion, and minimal hip flexion.
Culmination of the drive. Hips, knees, and ankles are at full extension after violent and aggressive contraction and the barbell is ready to launch off the shoulders!
The effects here are multi-faceted, ranging from strength, to stability, to mobility.
In terms of mobility, the lats, thoracic spine, and shoulder joints themselves must all be sufficiently mobile in order to properly lock a heavy barbell overhead. The big difference here is that, for example, when you strict press a barbell overhead you don't necessarily have to secure the barbell properly into the overhead slot. The weight is light enough that you can kind of cheat your way out of this position and hold the bar slightly out in front of your head with your torso laid back to maintain balance. You see this tactic often with big powerlifters and other people who lack mobility in the structures of the upper body.
However, you cannot get away with this with a heavy push press because you are literally HEAVING the barbell over your head with the help of your much more powerful leg muscles. Therefore, the weight you will be using is far beyond what the upper body alone will be able to handle once the momentum imparted onto the barbell by the lower body has dwindled away. This means that if you try to support the bar in a sub-optimal overhead position with sub-optimal mechanics you will simply lose it. You won't be able to hold it up there because your upper body won't be able to support that much weight in that inefficient manner. By necessity then, by training the push press you are forced to manipulate the overhead position over time until a proper and efficient overhead slot position can be achieved. This position requires good mobility levels in the lats, shoulders, and thoracic spine in order to allow the shoulders to extend behind the head and properly over the center of mass without undue compensation, e.g. hyperextending the lumbar spine. Diligently training the exercise, monitoring technique through video analysis, and actively striving to make proper adjustments will encourage a more ideal overhead slot position over time, and consequently, more mobility in upper body structures that tend to be get tight and bound up in much of the population.
Proper overhead positioning. The barbell is resting behind the ears and over the center of mass; lats and thoracic spine are fully extended; lower back remains neutral; glutes, abs, and quads are braced. Holding this position will build strength and stability as well as encourage mobility.
Another piece that feeds into this same concept is the next benefit of the exercise and that is the stability improvements that it confers. With adequate stability present in its vulnerable structures, the body is encouraged to allow more mobility as well. The relationship between stability and mobility is symbiotic. They feed each other. Tossing heavy weights overhead and practicing supporting them there is a very beneficial skill in and of itself, and this capacity is, unfortunately, actually somewhat of a lost art. Practicing doing so with increasingly heavier weights or durations (or even adding a movement component, i.e, overhead loaded carries) is actually highly conducive to building both high levels of functional core strength as well as balanced strength and development throughout all 3 heads of the deltoid muscle, including all the tiny little stabilizing structures that are such a vulnerable yet integral part of optimal shoulder health and mechanics (for example, the rotator cuff).
As these typically neglected structures become stronger and less vulnerable, total body stability will increase. As stability increases, the nervous system will naturally feel less need to be overprotective of these structures, and thus mobility will be encouraged. And soon those bound up shoulders will be free as a dog running through a field. Not only that, but they will also be less susceptible to injury, overall stronger, and simply much more resilient. This enhanced mobility/stability throughout the core and upper body also has the secondary effect of indirectly protecting the lower back as well, as a typical compensation for people who lack mobility in the shoulders/upper back/lats or do not possess adequate abdominal strength is to frequently hyperextend the lower back (one of the primary functions of the anterior core muscles is to counteract and prevent excessive extension of the spine), putting undue strain on that region and putting it at risk of cumulative injury where no risk really need be present. Shoring up those weak points can go a long way towards keeping the lower back pain free and healthy.
Lastly, there is the aspect of actually physically locking the bar out overhead. As mentioned, once moderate proficiency has been achieved, the weights used during this exercise will drastically surpass the weights that can be handled during a typical strict overhead press. This means that during a push press the upper body muscles that are responsible for finishing the press and driving the bar overhead will be loaded up with far more weight than they are typically accustomed to handling. This burden falls primarily onto the triceps, but also to a lesser degree on the shoulders, and it provides a potent stimulus for strength gains.
Not to mention that after getting the bar overhead there is also the issue of having to lower it back down to your shoulders so you can perform the next rep. For reasons of safety, this eccentric should be only partially controlled by the upper body, with the remaining momentum from the falling bar safely absorbed by bending the hips and knees as contact is made with the shoulders. Even so, this partially controlled, overloaded negative is not to be overlooked as it is still ultimately quite taxing on the delts and triceps and will greatly contribute to the hypertrophying and strengthening effect of these muscles as well. In fact, as a neophyte lifter I distinctly remember becoming well acquainted with the push press by way of experiencing extreme and damn near crippling DOMS in my triceps for the first time ever. And this came after spending my fair share of time training like a "bro" and doing nothing but bench press, curls, and triceps extensions for my first few months in the gym. Yet still, nothing I had done up to that point could compare to the triceps soreness I experienced from my first ever push press workout.
Receiving the bar after a heavy push press. Knees and ankles, and to a lesser degree the hips, must bend slightly to safely absorb the force of the overloaded barbell.
Taken together, these two components, the supra-maximal lockout as well as the overloaded negative, are going to help you pack a good bit of extra meat onto your shoulders and triceps, while at the same time, due to the dynamic nature of the lift, encouraging more explosive strength development in those muscle groups which is an aspect of development that is often ignored as most gym goers use only the bench press as their sole litmus test for upper body strength development.
Tying The Two Ends Together
Optimal intermuscular coordination between the major muscle groups of the lower and upper body is a skill that must be learned, practiced, and perfected. Perhaps the most important benefit here of all is the manner in which the push press ties the upper body and the lower body together, teaching your body to perform as a powerful, cohesive unit where the whole, when operating efficiently and towards a singular purpose, is far, far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Here we've got lower body explosive power, coupled with upper body strength and stability, tied together by massive core strength and stability to prevent energy leaks, and we are able to progressively train the muscles and the nervous system to fire off everything in perfect synchrony. This sort of monstrous explosive power & strength paired with total body coordination and synchronization makes this exercise the perfect training tool for athletes. In fact, the late, great Glenn Pendlay referred to the sort of strength & power built by this lift as "knock em on their ass" strength and this exercise, along with the power clean, was his number 1 prescription for anyone looking to become a better and more formidable athlete. And I completely agree with this sentiment.
However, taking it a step further, I think that pretty much all recreational lifters should be performing this lift as well. The push press as an exercise is an athletic endeavor, make no mistake, and the intermuscular coordination, stability, strength, power, and mobility that it builds across the entire body are something that can benefit literally every single person on the planet. Obviously, care must be taken to start off very light and build things up very slowly with certain individuals/populations, but anyone who takes the time and effort to become better at this exercise will feel its unique and damn near unparalleled benefits. Pretty much all physically grueling things we do as human beings are efforts that are primarily controlled by our upper bodies in some way, shape, or form, but also rely heavily on the coordinated contribution of the lower body as well as total body kinesthetic awareness to bolster their power, efficiency, repeatability, and safety. Thus, the actual skill of total body coordination is not to be overlooked, and the push press is perhaps the most beneficial means of enhancing and mastering this skill, in the most global sense, in the weight room.
I think I've made my case. The benefits here are unique and myriad and, collectively, are unlikely to be replicated through other means. If your goals are overall health, longevity, and becoming as well rounded and functionally badass as possible, then it's time for you to start push pressing. If you're unsure of your technique with the exercise then feel free to check out my tutorial video on it which gives you all the information you need to master it in short order. Good luck!
How To Do A Perfect Push Press
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