by Jim Dart, PTA & ASC 105K Pro
We’ve all been asked the anchor question… the question which unites bro’s, gym rats, meat heads and weight lifting enthusiasts world-wide. The one question that, from the unassuming and ignorant to what the elite use as a measuring stick of burley manliness, dominant prowess, and alpha-male status…
How much ya bench?!
Now the alternatively frustrating follow up rebuttal….which ultimately is thereby followed up by lengthy explanation, no matter how truncated.
(I’m not sure, it’s not a thing I focus on…)
What do you mean… you don’t know?
Truth be told – Excelling at Overhead Pressing of any variety equalizes imaginary lat syndrome carriers, squashes the swaggered walking, shit talking jokers at the gym and makes the one-trick pony’s and substantially strong envious. Some people are built for pressing, the short armed, barrel chest individuals, but mastering the Overhead requires so much more than good structure – and trust me, a little know-how and solid foundation will go a long way when training for the overhead.
Thanks to some of the forward thinking individuals with the inventions of specialty bars like the Swiss bar, along with neutral gripped handles, logs, axles or hell – even straight bars you can overhead press your face off without running into stagnation. But how do you really get good at overheads? I’m talking about sending up to 1.5x’s your bodyweight (and up!) to the roof with authority… you have to start with the basic form, and work your way up. This article will focus more intently of the Olympic variations, push press, power jerks and split jerks- but fear not, strict pressing will be visited as well.
Lets start off with bar position, as time and time again this is one of the first malpoisitions I see individuals assume, and will doom your press from the start and will equate the perceived weight much more than it actually is.
Get a grip…
To me, the type of grip is dependent on the type of bar that you’re pressing with. I’ve always like a thumbless grip regardless if im using a bar or axle, I feel it gives you more wrist flexibility and is easier for the elbows to be rotated under and slightly past the bar**. Those with good shoulder mobility will have little trouble with it. Using a thumbed grip will give you of a controlled feeling, but tends to exhaust the biceps and forearms in my experience – trick here is find what is comfortable for you.
Left: Bar held high above sternum, lack of stable base with bar in front of hips; spine in neutral and primarily using anterior chain for postural support vs. Right: Bar held on sternum, scapulae retracted and bar held in line with the hip, using posterior chain for stability
The target objective is to rest the bar on your sternum, across the collar bone so that it is resting on the deltoids. Often times you will see individuals hold the bar hovering above the chest – while some do this automatically, to reach maximum weight, and overall efficiency of the movement – the bar should be resting on the collar bone. Direct your attention to the scapula now. In the bench and squat and the Olympic variations, you will want to start with a broad chest and retracted scapula ( slight downward rotation will occur as well). This is no different than the set up for an overhead press. If you rack the bar hovering above the chest, you not only use precious amounts of energy stabilizing it there going into the dip or press, but you essentially eliminate all scapular retraction, postural stability and this will put more strain on the erectors and upper to mid thoracic musculature…in other words you will be less stable and use more energy by not letting your skeleton work as the shelf for the bar.
Left: Bar held above sternum vs. Right: Bar held on sternum
Left: Scapular open/loose packed position when holding bar above sternum vs. Right: Scapular closed packed position when bar held on sternum
Elbow Position –
I see the hyper-mobile individual rotate their shoulders so that their elbows are all the way up, almost horizontal to the bar their holding. Unless your drive is 90% of the overhead lift and you literally just drop under the bar then this is not a very efficient way to set up prior to a push press or strict press. The elbows should be up, past the bar; this will allow optimal shelving of the bar, and elbow drive under and through the bar during the press. This will compliment the scapular closed pack position, together it will result in the most stable base for the press.
Elbows in front of the bar, scapular open packed position vs. Elbows in front of the bar, scapular closed pack position.
Strict Press –
I try to not get caught up on whether or not my strict presses are static, or with a reversal stretch reflex by allowing the bar drop back by pushing the hips forward (while keeping the knees locked)**. Some people do this to generate some momentum to move the bar through a sticking point – I likened this motion to rolling the bar into your body prior to pulling a deadlift, for the purists – go without rocking the hips forward. The trick to the strict press is having a very strong base, meaning being continually braced and planted throughout the press. During the press, its imperative one squeezes their shoulder blades together, as in the squat or bench and slightly lean back so that your shoulders and just minimally behind the hips – this will create a platform to press off of out of your torso, sitting on your hips. Equally squeezing the glutes, and stiffen their legs, this provides a stable base to translate power through the core and arms into the bar. Initiate the press with your delts, drive the bar until just above the brow, at this point you will want to flare the lats, and roll the triceps out into the press – sticking your head through several inches from lockout. Throwing the head through too soon will negate all upper chest and limit anterior delt involvement making it harder to press. As the press is completed you will want to realign your body, standing up tall in proper alignment as you push your head through.
Dip into Push Jerk…
Now that you were educated on the importance of having a stable base, tight core, and proper chain of recruitment in the strict press, we can look into Push Presses & Push Jerks.
(taking off at the racked position)
It is imperative at this position you remain stable and solid throughout the dip, for if your upper and mid thoracic regions are weak, your elbows will lose position during the dip, dropping the bar lower on the chest (and possibly away from you) throwing off the whole stability and alignment of the press.
The beauty of the dip, is that you don’t need a huge one to get the bar moving. The quicker you are under the bar the more effective this motion will be for you and the more pounds you’ll be able to move. The dip should be controlled – preferably fast to faster, however beginners may have a hard time managing an upright position if their dip is too erratic. Always control the concentric portion (when you bend your knees and dip down) and explode fully through the bar in an eccentric motion (when you extend your legs) make no mistake the dip – and what happens after, is the lion-share of the lift and will determine a successful press.
Initiate the dip like a quarter squat, however I would suggest you play with your foot position to find what is comfortable – I tend to enjoy a slight toe out. You will want to flex the knees and dip while keeping the torso upright, don’t come onto the toes in the dip because this means you’re coming too forward. Also don’t solely try and drive through the heels, sticking your ass far – this will look like an awkward squat descent. Instead find the happy medium – don’t be afraid to complete the drive through the bar and your weight comes over your toes as this is natural. The eccentric portion of the drive is what happens after the dip, the effective lengthening of the legs through the bar. When driving through from the floor through the bar it will be thrown off of your chest.
Good demonstration of the dip, vertically linear with heels flat during the bars descent.
Now after the dip and drive through the bar where exactly do you initiate the press? In any good OVH article they review the common mistake when initiating the press with the arms versus the legs. When the press is initiated with the arms it will look like that 95% of the press will come from the upper body; the drive into the bar will look disjointed and looks more like a full body hiccup rather than a fluid triumphant eighteen wheeler speeding through a police barricade. The secret to unlocking your ultimate OVH ability is initiating the press by using your legs…
So what does it feel like?
Remember when I wrote above that with a proper drive the bar will jump off of your chest? This is paramount to set up a successful press throughout the motion. Use this momentum generated from the dip to your advantage – letting the bar pop off the collar bone and at this point is when your arm speed catches up to the bar with finesse. Motioning the bar up and back matching the bar speed with your arms but pressing through the bar so that you keep the momentum through the movement. It’s so very important that when you catch the bar and finish the press that you remain stable throughout by keeping the core tight and continuing to squeeze the glutes.
Push Jerk –
(taking off from a successful Push Press)
At this point, a quick drop under the bar is all that is needed to perform a Push Jerk. During the continued momentum during the press, dropping the hips will let your body fall under the bar subtracting inches from your ROM. Get under the bar by dropping the hip and flexing at the knees. You will then “catch” the bar, receiving it at the lockout, rather than pressing it out like a push press. Often times during a Push Jerk, after the drive you will come up on the toes – when you drop under the bar you strive for a flat foot at the catch as this will ensure a stable base. Often times the repositioning will result in a wider foot placement than in the initial driving. Some people purposefully do this to help eliminate the ROM and become more stable. A pyramid is harder to knock down than a Sky Scraper, ya dig?
Splitting under the jerk requires a good amount of proprioception and coordination. Quick footwork is the cornerstone of this maneuver. Catching the bar with a Push Jerk – while dropping the hips and catching the bar rather than finishing it out with a press will still result in the lifter having a higher center of gravity. The split jerk accomplishes this to a higher degree. It is more stable than the push jerk, and drops the lifters center of gravity more so – inherently creating a more stable base. The drawback is that it potentially requires more time to complete the movement, and if the lifter isn’t quick enough or does not have a complete enough drive through and under the bar then it may prove difficult to complete.
Starting with parallel feet, after the dip and the drive – when the lifter begins to split the feet, the lifters dominant foot lands in front, and non dominant lands in back; the front leg will land at 12 o’clock, or slightly with a toe in at 11 o’clock. The front knee should be as close to 45 degree angle as possible; the weight should be on the front foot. The back knee should land optimally at around 45-65 degree angle depending how big of a front flexion the lifter has, the length of the lunge will also contribute to the amount of knee flexion the back leg will have. The back heel should be slightly up and the ball of the feet planted ( in some weight lifting theories the back foot will also be in a slight toe-in at 1 o’clock identical to the front foot.)
Ilyin demonstrating the back foot slightly turned in at 1 o’clock, front foot facing 12 o’clock.
Form defects results in short comings as the end result. An improper drive will result in an inadequate split, shuffling the feet front and back with an inefficient jerk of the bar. Short changing the drive through the bar prior to the drop will result in not having enough time for the “actual” split, resulting in an extended back leg, landing with a flat foot. Landing with an assymetrical or back foot turned outward is resultant from inadequate extension at the hip on the back leg, and landing with a semi flexed knee, heel raised and loaded ball of foot. Catching the bar too far out in front is resultant from a dip where the lifter either loaded the fore-foot too much, or lost upper/mid thoracic tightness prior to the punch, dropping the bar lower and away from midline.
The OVH movement is a rather complex one, no matter what variation you are performing. But there is bar-none (no pun intended, more badass maneuver than throwing four plates overhead, slamming down the barbell or axle in a triumphant yell. Most people can’t press 405 off their chest, versus performing acrobatic maneuvers and magically appearing the bar dangling from the ceiling. These movements can be applied to anything over, or even requiring a degree of triple extension. They will teach you how to stay tight, while performing stable breathing throughout the set; as well as generate a fuck-ton of horse power along the way, from the floor – through the body – into the implement.
Jimmy Dart practices as a Physical Therapist Assistant, en route towards his DPT, in addition to his BSBA. With over 17 years of competition experience, he’s achieved All-American status in Collegiate T&F and is an ASC 105K Professional Strongman. He is currently ranked 5th best in the 105K’s in America and is looking forward to competing at the Arnold in March. Jimmy is endorsed by Chaos and Pain Supplements. You can check out Chaos and Pain supplements and his athlete profile and competition history at www.Chaosandpain.com – no hype, all results.
Works Cited –
1) Workout of the Day – WOD Archive, Jan. 2015, Michael Burgener/Admin. http://www.mikesgym.org/wod.php?show=wod&wodID=1719. Published 12/20/2009. Accessed 1/18/2015
2) First Pull: A Review of the Split Jerk, JP Millette. http://firstpull.net/2013/09/30/a-review-of-the-split-jerk/. Published 09/30/2013. Accessed 1/18/2015.
3) Fitness Pain Free – Why You Overhead Press Sucks: Joint by Joint, approach for Crossfit, Dan; Author. http://fitnesspainfree.com/the-best-kept-secret-in-injury-prevention-joint-by-joint-approach-for-crossfit-part-3-the-overhead-press/. Published 12/01/2012. Accessed 1/18/2015.