“How much do you lift?”, “What do you bench, bro?” In modern gyms “the lift” is bench. Heck, most gyms have two zillion different angles and machine variations for bench all while having one curl rack (also known as a squat or power rack). The lift you rarely see, as most commercial gyms ban it, is overhead!
Overhead is exactly how it sounds, any lift that takes the implement overhead. This movement can be all shoulders and triceps or incorporate legs and more technique and speed. The most basic overhead lift is the push press (as it yields more weight while not needing tremendous technique). My own experience comes from my competitions in strongman. Most strongmen use a variation of the push press (when the knees bend and then forcefully extend and stay locked) or the push/power jerk (where the knees rebend or dip after the forceful extension). These techniques are effective on most implements and save time on moving feet together like the split jerk. They are also easier to train in a commercial gym, or home gym with limited space.
So what does bench have to do with it? From my experience in strongman I find a lot of guys (and girls, strongwomen!) use bench as a primary assistance exercise, and sometimes as a primary lift all too often. Mostly, this stems from a background in powerlifting, though not always. So what’s so bad about the bench? Nothing! Bench press, for an average person, is a great lift to rotate in for horizontal pressing strength that can also work the whole body (if properly instructed). But for strongman athletes it may be a silent killer. Here are the top three reasons I have found why more pounds on bench does not equal more pounds on overhead (push press).
1. You are on your back, braced, and have terrible form
Now you’re probably thinking, “What do you know about bench?” But is that the question to ask? Bench press, like any lift, has a unique form for each lifter to lift maximum weights. More often than not the back is in thoracic and lumbar extension with the goal of providing a good solid base with the traps. Most of this is to create an arch to limit range of motion and lift the most weight possible. Okay, that’s great. But does lumbar extension help me on overhead? Lumbar extension may be justified in increasing the arch and weight in the bench, but it can also increase herniated discs when abdominals do not fire properly to compensate. But just as bench specialists will get mad at some noob talking about their lift, I get mad seeing overhead pressing going down the drain. So here’s why I don’t like it.
Overhead you have no bench. Simple as that. To create tension and transfer power you cannot just drive your traps into a bench or try to pin the heels to the floor. And you definitely cannot tuck your lats like you do in bench on overhead (though flaring the lats to create a good rack position is a different story). So where do you get the power and tension? Flexing every muscle up from your feet to your head allows you to stand erect with the tension needed to transfer energy from lower body to upper body. If you are constantly relying on an external support (i.e. bench or big belt) you will find ways to cheat yourself, one being lumbar extension like I talked about above.
Lumbar extension is not your friend in the overhead. In fact, the more lumbar extension the less leg drive you can get. Less efficient equals lower press. It is as simple as “you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe”. When a lifter has to rely on leaning back in the overhead they usually have anterior pelvic tilt which means that the abdominals and glutes might be weak or under recruited. (Most athletes, however, have anterior pelvic tilt with no devastating effects on performance.) Without the abdominals how can the force from the legs be transferred? Sure, leaning back puts the bar in almost an incline bench angle, and I can hear people now saying that incline bench will help overhead and it will, more so if you have less than optimal form. But we want optimal! So while benching is about an arch we want to be a straight line in the torso with a neutral lumbar spine (if possible), and then an extended thoracic spine to create a good rack position for the bar. The best way to reinforce this is go beltless and go to a form maximum at best when starting this overhaul of your press. Do not throw the belt on and incline bench it! Learn to have a stiff torso and get extension from the hips via the glutes, rather than rely on lumbar extension to compensate.
2. Prime movers and recruitment are all wrong
“But that guy missed his push press because he didn’t have the last few inches of lockout. He needs more tricep work…” NO, MORE LEGS! Let’s play a game, its simple really; which number is bigger 3 or 4? 4. So why do we think that the triceps (3) can do more work than the quadriceps (4)? By no means am I saying to cut your triceps off and feed them to the dogs (or Hannibal) but I feel the priorities are off.
The one thing that brings most people, especially strongman, to bench is the overload of the triceps. I mean the most ever put overhead is less than 600 pounds (585 to be exact!) but the most raw benched is 722. All form aside it is safe to say most people will bench more than they push press, assuming they are not an Olympic lifter or just terrible at bench. But is this overload a good thing? Let’s look at it from a prime movers perspective. The strongman’s bench of choice is usually close grip (at least compared to competition powerlifter’s). In this bench press the triceps, anterior deltoids, and the lats provide most of the power behind the press. The chest is less recruited, especially if the bar is pressed in a straight line and not a J stroke (or whatever fancy name bench specialists say). It is true that the legs and glutes come into bench, as bench specialists say it’s a full body lift, but how much? I mean I just saw a video of a crazy lifter at 220 do 574 pounds…without his legs touching the ground (look up Adrian Larsen, future 600 bencher at 220). So do you really use the legs as much as shoulders and triceps? But in push press the prime movers are all different. The quadriceps and glutes give a powerful leg drive and thrust while the triceps and a little bit of the shoulders just coast the bar the rest of the way to lockout (if done properly) with the back hanging in there for support. A good push press is rarely a grinder like a max bench might be. No one fails a push press on the chest. At worse they get it up a few inches from the leg drive alone. And once the bar gets past 90 degrees at the elbows the shoulder’s job is basically done anyways. Sometimes you see people have to rely on lockout strength to “save” a push press, but more often than not the bar didn’t get high enough from the leg drive to put the triceps in their usually and optimal pressing position. Even with large reserve strength from a world class bench, not having the motor pattern to recruit legs then triceps in harmony will make an easy overhead press a nightmare.
3. Low velocity and stretch reflex
In high school I attempted to do track and field. I quit after the first meet because of the lack of coaching and it took away from my real love, just lifting weights and being strong. But in the short time I tried to educate myself on the training of throwers to attempt to be good. One thing I noticed was every bench press or overhead press was fast from throwers. I never really saw a grinder, even if that required elbows wrapped or butt coming off some on bench. Now by no means am I an expert thrower (or of anything for that matter) but there has to be some relation. Indeed, there was. The velocity of a throw needs to be fast, so fast that a perfect throw feels effortless to the legs and upper body. This is very similar to Olympic movements. You cannot grind out a split jerk and have it pass in a meet. You either commit or you don’t. Get it or not. The same should be true to the redheaded stepchild, the push press. The bar should move at a very fast velocity as if you could punch the ceiling on lighter sets. Heck, sometimes you use so much legs and arms that you have to pull the bar back down when you return to your heels! Heavy benching, however, just does not have the same velocity. While “speed is king” (Benni Magnusson) on every lift, in general, bench will be slower than a push press. You could invest in a tendo unit or do speed work on bench, but at that point you are wasting money and the body’s resources. If you can justify getting a two grand tendo unit you better already have an Olympic weightlifting or strength coach. If you can justify wasting energy from your “cup” of the body’s responses you better be a powerlifter in the off-season choosing to use the less taxing work to maintain ability. If neither of those applies, then it looks like bench is not really your friend. Pick a movement with the same velocity (and preferably using legs). Medicine ball throws to warm up, box jumps, speed squats, and the like are good, but for goodness sake do the movement and do it fast! You get better at what you practice! Practice makes perfect!
As we know, bench press has an eccentric and concentric portion. In the eccentric portion the lifter can build tremendous tension, especially if they know how to use the lats. The push press is not as lucky, and very unique. While the dip portion of the push press is eccentric the upper body doesn’t really have an eccentric phase. The stretch reflex of the push press is created by pushing the knees out, and using the glutes and hamstrings to break the downward moving body. If the lifter only relies on the quadriceps and there stretch reflex, it is likely they will end up on their toes or with their toes caving in potentially causing jumper’s knee (patella tendonitis) or an MCL sprain (medial collateral ligament on the inside of the knee), respectively. If a lifter is only used to the stretch reflex of bench they will be lost when no tension can be built for them on push press. In strongman there are times in press away events (pressing for max reps in given time) that the lifter can continuously dip and drive in the push press, and therefore get some eccentric in the upper body, but if they can’t get stretch reflex built up in the lower half they are as good as done. Again, you could do pause or pin bench to train without the stretch reflex but that is just avoiding the problem. Use pause push press initially to teach the concentric portion of the leg drive, then take away the pause to get the lifter used to stopping and starting back up on a dime (without going too low in the dip). A good lifter should always be faster and able to lift more weight with stretch reflex, so the standard push press numbers should be higher than that of a paused push press. If not, keep working on their dip.
Zydrunas Saviakas and Mike Jenkins as devil’s advocates
Two of the best pressers in strongman would probably debunk must of my points. Zydrunas boasts a 600 pound bench and uses a leaning back, incline press type technique on his world record log. So why does it work for him? One, not everyone is equal. One person’s form isn’t for everyone. Just look at squat width and toe angles, or deadlift styles. Big Z has tremendous reserve strength by his bench, and a huge squat. He also is a great strict presser. Two, he gets support from a wide waist and big bodyweight, helping leverages. So while he doesn’t get optimal leg drive from his 900 pound squat, he gets enough to take a 400+ strict press and get 486 pounds out of it. You probably can’t do that! (Disclaimer: You can’t add leg drive in like some formula; it’s the body working as one unit. Getting better on strict means nothing if you can’t control and drive up anymore weight from your dip portion).
Mike Jenkins can press too! When Mike commits to a press he actually gets great leg drive. While some of his more difficult presses show some disconnect between the leg drive and press out, Mike also has great static strength to fall back on. While “hanging the bar up there” isn’t optimal if you can press it out you can lift big weights. Funny thing is, after missing a 460 log at lockout (at the 2012 Arnold Classic which he won!) he came back and nailed it. What did he do? No, not more triceps! More LEGS! While I do not want to take away from Mike’s tremendous upper body strength, he knows how to get a good amount of leg drive in his press to be the premiere competitor to Big Z’s pressing dominance.
Take away points
1. Drop bench for awhile
I am not saying forever! Try 4 weeks without bench, maybe after a powerlifting meet. If you are afraid of losing strength or chest hypertrophy just throw in some light and easy dumbbell bench, suspended pushups or band chest flyes (not all three, that’s a freaking chest workout!)
2. Up push pressing in your program
Overtraining is a real thing and we cannot ignore it, but for goodness sakes if you want to get good at push press you might want to do it more…and with perfect execution! Use the extra energy from dropping bench to do two days a week of push pressing or overhead variations. Play with rep ranges (low rep (1-5) ranges are best), do form work, and try to see which variations give the best carryover and correct weaknesses. Whatever you do keep doing it with the intention of the whole body working to overcome the weight. Program it as a full body day, do not put it right after squats or pulls initially because then you know the rested shoulders and triceps will take over.
3. Always be fast
When I was explaining to an athlete who trained with me I simply said, “It’s a fight”. By that I meant it’s just you, the bar, and gravity. Just like Louie says, “you cannot jump on a box slow you can also not push press effectively slow. And in a fight you never punch slow!”
4. Hire a coach
Hiring a coach will help not only to learn a skill you don’t have, but keep you honest. A good coach won’t let you push to a max on push press unless you are using the form I described in the article, MORE LEGS! Paying someone also makes sure you listen and try to make improvements, or it was all just a waste of money.
(While I have seeked out help from coaches, I believe that the lifter himself/herself is a great asset. If you do not desire to get better then you never will. So start reading, educating, and learning whatever you can to make yourself a better lifter. Ignorance may be bliss, but it doesn’t get you super strong!)
5. Don’t get discouraged in finding your pressing style
While I didn’t speak much to this, this is probably one of the best tips. Before I started strongman I had only really push pressed and strict pressed. A little power jerk here and there, but it wasn’t for me. So when I realized I could potentially lift more weight with a split jerk I had to almost self teach myself how to, and man was it discouraging. Between learning a new form, competing with various implements, and trying to lean out my press went nowhere fast for at least 6 months. But when I finally found a little bit of a groove, things just took off! It may suck now to not lift much on push press when you are beltless and using more legs than upper body, but just imagine doing 100 pounds more in less than 2 years! It is possible; you just have to stick with it.