military press

Progress towards the Military Press


The Military or Overhead Press is one of those forgotten or underutilized exercises in our physical movement culture. I am not exactly sure why this is, maybe it’s because many of life’s general tasks are performed right in front of our eyes and do not require us to move weight over our head. Why should you train a movement if you are not going to need it?

Many problems arise while neglecting this movement. First, if you need to use the overhead movement and you can’t perform it properly you can get hurt. For example, say you are all set for that vacation from your stressful desk job; you have packed up, hit the road towards the airport and as you board and take your seat you start to put your carry-ons into the overhead bins. Yours goes up with a little struggle then your wife hands you her slightly overweight bag, and as you go to perform the task again you tweak your shoulder. Now your dream vacation is off to a bad start.

Second, by not performing overhead movements we begin to potentially limit our ability to flex our shoulders and get our arms directly overhead which can therefore dramatically change our posture giving us that rounded-back desk-jockey physique many Americans have, but do not desire.

It’s time to take a look and get familiar with overhead pressing again and make it part of your programming. I am not going to throw you off the deep end and have you grab a bar, load it up and go. In this article we are going through the progressions to get your range of motion (ROM) back where it needs to be, we will progress utilizing different strength exercises and finally we will be back to pressing overhead soon.

Roll the Lats

Many think of the overhead press as a shoulder movement. In fact, it is often called a Shoulder Press. The shoulders are heavily involved with the mobility and stability of the weight overhead, however the Lats often get overlooked as they play a vital roll in your overhead press success.

The Lats attach into the upper arm which allows them to assist and stabilize the arm and shoulder complex into virtually limitless ROMS. The Lats, can get very tight with our daily forward posture and can severely limit the movement of your arm overhead when doing so.

Rolling the Lats provides nearly an instantaneous release and increase in ROM for the arm and shoulder. If your Lats are tight get a foam roller place it between a hard surface and the muscles in the armpit area and roll it out.

I recommend the standing version if your Lats are very tight as opposed to the more aggressive floor version.

Mobilize the Shoulder Joint

Rolling out primes the muscles for movement and there are times you need a little assistance to mobilize a certain joint that has not been a specific position for a while.

Take a PVC pipe or a large wooden dowel and use it to gently coax your shoulder to move into different ROMs. The leverage generated along with the stability of the stick makes this type of mobility training very effective into gaining ROM within the shoulder.

Pec Stick

I also like to implement the use of the bands to help stabilize and assist with new ROM. You can take your shoulder into tight directions and then pull the band apart to get a little more assisted movement through a tight range. The more you practice you will not need to pull the band apart as much due to your increased ROM.

Band Shoulder Rotations

Practice Strength

Now that you have some new mobility and unlocked your forward posture a bit, it’s time to add some strength back into the programming. Chances are you will not be able to jump right back into a barbell Overhead Press, rather you need to start with some progressive strength training movement first.

The landmine single arm press is great for adding shoulder stability and strength because you can start at a comfortable angle (~45 degrees) and slowly increase the angle until you are close to overhead (90 degrees) while you incrementally add weight to the bar in the process.

Landmine Press

Kettlebells are a great way to add strength training back into the overhead pressing movement. The weight sits directly in-line with your forearm which allows for greater stability and safety of the weight while pressing overhead by negating the need to excessively externally rotating the shoulder to press the weight overhead.

Single K.Bell Press

Whether you use one or two kettlebells, the independent weight allows for a little bit of wiggle room unlike overhead pressing with a fixed barbell weight. One arm might have to rotate a bit more to get the weight overhead versus the other. Overtime when your movement becomes more refined and you movement pattern becomes more linear you will be able to head back to the barbell and progress to your full barbell Military Press.

For further explanation of the progressions above check out the video below.


A Little Tension Goes a Long Way: Part I

My gym has somewhat of an “open-door policy;” I encourage trainees to bring people to train with us for a day. Some call this policy cruel because they usually leave feeling muscles they didn’t know existed. I get excited when people come in to try our training methods because I get to do the two things I enjoy most; learn and teach. Inflicting pain is just a pleasurable bonus to the experience.

No matter who strolls in through the door, I initially see it as an opportunity to learn. Who is this person? How do they train? How is their technique? What are their goals? What do they share with other trainees I have seen? How are their training methods different? After I have done my brief survey through casual conversations and some light training observations; I begin to think, “Is there anything I can do to help this person get more out of their training and achieve their goals in a more efficient way?”

I recently had an opportunity to do this with Stephen, a great guy with a passion for training. He came down for one of our Friday sessions which is generally a free-for-all structure consisting of circuits, strongman type training and odd object lifting.
I talked to him about his current training routine, reasons for training and his goals. Like many males I have talked to over the years, he was lifting to increase his strength and to create a desirable physique. His current plan consisted of doing a mix of free weights and machines while following guidelines others have told him and what he had read in popular magazines. I concluded that his overall strength training execution could use a little work in order for him to reach his goals.
Before I started to chime in about what I think he should do, I wanted to do two things;

  • Watch how he lifted
  • See if he even wanted my help

I had my assumptions that his current leg work would most likely render his hips useless and unable to produce power for full body movements, and my assumption was correct. He was able to flip the tire but had trouble getting it started which showed signs of not being able to fire the hip muscles properly. In technical terms, Stephen’s technique produced a low rate of force development. The inability to get the 70lb keg overhead showed me his lack of muscular coordination as well as the absences of some technical lifting skills.

This is Stephen performing tire flips

We know that there are several factors for strength, some of which include:

  • Muscle Size – Stephen has plenty
  • Muscle Activation – He has some but not enough
  • Muscle Coordination – Again, he has some but not enough

Both of his problems, most likely, stem from frequent use of machine exercises because they don’t allow him to stimulate the nervous system sufficiently for proper muscle activation and rate of force development. The machine’s fixed movement patterns and isolating nature do not allow maximal coordination the muscles need to complete full body lifts.

I could tell he was frustrated and eager to solve the problem so instead of overwhelming him with a ton of information and program design I decided to teach him only one principle to apply to two specific exercises.

The principle is simple; you have to create Tension. By simply activating, squeezing, tensing, firing (whatever you want to call it) every muscle, you can help your performance during any lift. I then showed him how to apply the tension principle towards two exercises I wanted him to add into his routine; the deadlift and military press. He learned how to tighten up his back and arms and drive with his hips.  Stephen’s deadlift became much stronger, especially at the beginning of the movement after using these techniques.  By tensing his abdominals, lats and glutes he was able to press weight overhead much easier.

I had the chance to catch up with Stephen and get answers to a few questions to see if his new way of training has helped him progress in his strength training; here is what he had to say:

Rise Above: How were you lifting before?

Stephen: I was too concerned about gaining mass by isolating the muscle I was working on and not using any others with the use of machines.

RA: Why were you doing it that way? (i.e. a friend told you, own instinct, an article…)

St: I just picked the machines that worked the muscles I wanted and I watched others at the gym and tried to copy the ones I thought would be beneficial. I noticed I wasn’t progressing as rapidly as I had before which made me think about my technique and wondered if I was doing it correctly.

RA: How did the training session we had change your mind?

St: I realized for the first time that I should use my legs and engage my entire body when doing any exercise. By knowing this I could probably press the keg but couldn’t because I didn’t have enough leg strength to help me get it over my head; it was an real eye opener. Plus, not being able to flip the tire [effectively] etc…

RA: When you tried this new tension technique did you feel different, did it take time to learn, did you notice immediate results?

St: I noticed immediate results. I’ve applied this technique to all my exercises and I definitely have more power. I never realized how much power comes from your legs. I’m now more focused on form and keeping my body tight and my legs grounded and engaged. I have applied this technique to other exercises as well and especially noticed big improvements in my ability to bench, overhead press and deadlift.

In the next part of this post I will go into greater explanation of tension and how to apply it successfully towards other strength training exercises.

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Saturday, February 20th, 2010 Sports Performance Training 2 Comments


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