Saturday, January 14, 2012

the press part 2 by bill starr

The Press, Part Two

by Bill Starr
the press part 2 by bill starr

In my last article, I listed many reasons why I believe all strength athletes should include the military, or overhead, press in their routines. I presented some basic instruction on performing the lift and also pointed out that even though the military press is easy to learn, the form becomes more complicated once the weights get heavy. Few have any difficulty pressing light and moderate poundages, but it’s an entirely different story when a max double or single is being attempted. At that point the technique must be perfect. the smallest form flaw will result in failure – not just sometimes but always.

If people are doing military presses as part of their overall fitness program and are not at all interested in going after a heavy single, then the guidelines I mentioned previously will suffice.

Should your goal be to press big numbers, however, then you must invest ample time in practicing this lift. When the press was part of Olympic weightlifting, athletes would spend at least one-third of their training time on it, not just to strengthen the muscles responsible for pressing the weight but also to hone the finer form points. In the end, the athlete who had better technique would move ahead in competition, since the press was done first, before the snatch and clean and jerk.

The military press has evolved over the years. Way, way back, weightlifting contest consisted of as many as a dozen tests of strength. The press was one of them, and it was done in ultra-strict fashion. Athletes had to start the press with their heels touching, and they had to stay absolutely erect throughout the lift. Leaning back was not permitted. If that wasn’t enough, they had to elevate the bar at the same speed at which the head judge raised his hand. That was indeed a pure form of the press.

Over the year the rules got more lax, especially in regard to back bend. Some lifters were capable of leaning back so far that they ended up finishing the lift with their backs horizontal to the platform. They were the exceptions, of course, since it’s not easy to lie that far back and maintain balance when handling a heavy weight. Plus, an excessive back bend can be harmful to the lumbars.

Then, in the early 1960s, the press changed from being a test of upper-body strength to an explosive quick lift. Those who adopted the new style of press could drive a bar from the shoulders to lockout in the blinking of an eye. A perfectly executed press moved as fast as a jerk. It was a revolution in Olympic weightlifting and resulted in world records being broken almost faster than they could be recorded. Somewhat ironically, it was the radical alteration of the press that ultimately resulted in its being dropped from the Olympic agenda.

The new form of press was called European style, but, in fact, it wasn’t a European who devised the more dynamic technique. It was an American: Tony Garcy, the middleweight champion from El Paso, Texas, who moved to York to teach and train. Tony had developed the new style and polished his technique to a fine degree by the time he lifted on an international stage. That’s where the European coaches and lifters saw the potential of the high-skill movement and instantly adopted it. By the mid-60s, 100 percent of the European lifters were using the new style so it became known as the European-style press.

The European lifters trained under tightly controlled conditions. If the coach said to use the new style of press, there weren’t any objections. In the United States things were quite different. For the most part lifters coached themselves, and only a few had the opportunity to see this style of pressing. An athlete either had to watch Tony train at the York Barbell Gym or attend a meet in which he competed – and Tony didn’t lift in a lot of meets. The quick press did spread across the country, but nowhere near as fast as it did in the rest of the world.

Eventually, it became known as the Olympic press, but I’ve always thought that it would have been fitting and proper to label it the Garcy-style press. In gymnastics they will name a certain innovative move after the athlete who did it first. Why not in weightlifting?

As you’ll understand when I spell out the technical points for the Olympic press, it takes a great deal of mental and physical effort to perform the movement correctly. That will help you appreciate just how much time and energy Tony spent developing it.

I should mention that if you can’t deal with frustration, you’ll be better off staying with the military press. On the other hand, if you like being challenged and enjoy testing your athleticism in the weight room, you’ll have fun learning the finer points of this lift. Those of us who had been doing press in the conventional way for a number of years had difficulty switching to the more dynamic style because it’s a totally different movement. With lots and lots of practice, though, most of us were able to become at least proficient on the Olympic press.

Here’s a review of the basic form points for the military press. Again, you can take the bar off the rack and press it, but you’ll find that you can use more weight if you clean it and then do your presses. I think that’s because the clean helps you get your body tighter than when you just take the bar from the rack.

A belt is a good idea. It keeps your back warm, and it gives you feedback during the lift, particularly in terms of how far you are laying back. Don’t be fooled into thinking the belt will protect you from injuries when using sloppy form. It won’t.

Your grip is right if your forearms remain vertical during the execution of the press. Be sure to wrap your thumbs around the bar. Don’t use a thumbless or false grip. Gripping the bar tightly gives you much better control, especially when the bar tries to run forward, which usually happens when the weights get really heavy. Set your feet at shoulder width, with the toes pointed straight ahead. Clean the bar and fix it across your front deltoids. Don’t let it rest on your collarbones. Elevate your entire shoulder girdle to provide a muscular ledge (think: chest up) and the bar should be ser right where your breastbone meets your collarbones.

Keep your elbows down and close to your lats. Your wrists must be straight, not cocked. Should you find that you have trouble keeping them locked while pressing, tape them or secure them with wraps. You’ll never press any amount of weight if your wrists move around during the lift. Your body should be vertical from feet to head, and your eyes should be forward. A common mistake many beginners make is to follow the bar’s upward movement with their eyes. Don’t do that because it carries your upper body out of a strong pressing position.

Before commencing the press, take a moment to tighten all the muscles of your body, starting with your feet and moving on up to your traps, shoulders and arms. Squeeze the bar until you feel your forearms, deltoids and upper arms almost cramping. Take a deep breath, and drive the bar straight up so that it almost touches your nose. As soon as the weight passes the top of your head, extend your head through that gap you’ve created, and at that same instant turn your elbows outward and guide the bar slightly backward. Not much though – just enough to keep your power base under the bar.
Here’s where the bar should be when you lock it out: Imagine a line being drawn from the back of your head directly upward. That’s where the bar should end up at the completion of the press, right over your spine and hips.

As soon as you lock out the bar, breathe. And don’t merely hold the bar overhead. Rather, push up against it forcefully and try to extend it even higher. That activates many more muscles in the upper back than when you just casually hold the bar at lockout. Hold that dynamic lockout for three to four seconds, take another breath, and then, in a controlled manner, lower the bar back to your shoulders. It’s important not to allow the bar to crash downward. It’s painful to your collarbones, and it carries the bar out of the ideal starting position. You can cushion the descending weights by bending your knees, but be sure to lock them before the nest rep. In this style of pressing, your knees will always be locked.

Make sure everything is right: feet, placement of the bar on your shoulders, body extremely tight, eyes straight ahead. Then take a breath and do the next rep. After you’ve completed all your reps on a set and have lowered the bar to your shoulders, don’t dump the weights to the floor even if you’re using rubber plates. Lower the bar from your shoulders to your waist, pause, and set it on the floor with a flat back. Always stay in control of the bar. The only time you’re allowed to drop a weight is when you miss an attempt.

There are many similarities between military and Olympic presses, as both lifts involve moving the bar from the shoulders to overhead. Yet there are several differences as well, and those are what changes pressing from a pure-strength feat to a high-skill lift.

Your grip, where the bar is placed on your shoulders, and head position are the same in both styles of pressing. Other than those points, the two are as different as day from night. The feet, for example, need to be set closer in the Olympic press and must be pointed forward. That’s necessary in order for you to shift your weight from the balls of your feet to your heels and back again to the balls instantaneously. The success of the lift depends completely on your ability to make that transition smoothly and quickly – actually, faster than quickly.

On the military press your elbows are positioned close to your body, but on the Olympic style they need to be squeezed against your lats. That forces the elbows to stay low and directly under your wrists. Keeping your wrists straight is even more critical on the Olympic press than it is on the military version, so much so that I think it’s a good idea always to tape them.

Set your eyes directly ahead, and never allow them to look up at the bar as it travels overhead. Tuck your chin down toward your chest, and keep it in that position until the bar reaches lockout. You’ll understand why that helps after you’ve done a few sets of Olympic presses.

The biggest change from the way you perform the Olympic press in contrast to the military press is your starting position. On the military press you’re basically erect at the start. On the Olympic press you need to get into position like this: Lock your legs, tighten your glutes and abs, and extend your midsection forward until it’s over your toes. You want to create a muscular bow that starts at your heels, runs up through your legs, hips, midsection, back and shoulders and ends at the base of your head (see illustration).

You are, in effect, a coiled spring, with your weight on the balls of your feet. They form the base from which the lift is executed, and if that base is not solid, pressing a heavy weight will not happen. At York we used the analogy of trying to grip the platform with out toes much like a bird grips a limb of a tree. That helped us lock into the platform.

A powerful start is critical for success once the weights approach your best. The power for the start is generated out of the hips and legs, and transferred up through the midsection, back, shoulders and arms into the bar. Much of the explosive thrust comes from your lats and traps, although few think of those muscle groups in connection with pressing a weight overhead.

When utilized, the lats, along with the deltoids, propel the bar off the shoulders. Then the traps help elevate it even higher. In order for the start to be effective, it must be explosive. I liken it to a short jab in boxing, where all the energy is concentrated in a dynamic move. And, of course, the bar must be driven into a precise line. That only comes with lots of practice.

Once you put a jolt into the bar, transfer your weight back to your heels as you shrug your traps and extend your body vertically. At the conclusion of the start portion of the lift, your body should be perfectly erect.

Now comes the hardest part to master. As soon as you drive the bar as high as possible, you must shift your weight back to the balls of your feet and drop back into your original starting position, bowing from heels to head. At the same time you must continue to keep pressure on the moving bar. Otherwise, it will pause or even drop, and you don’t want that to happen, as it’s often impossible to set it in motion again. Pressing the bar upward as you resume the coiled position also helps you control the line of the bar. If you relax tension on the moving bar, it will invariably run forward, and it moves too far out front, you won’t have enough leverage to finish the lift.

As the weights climb upward, bring your hips back so they stay under the bar. Extend the bar on to lockout, where it is fixed directly over the back of your head. Control it and push up against it while you hold it for several seconds. Lower it to your shoulders in the same manner as I suggested for the military press, reset and proceed with the next rep.

After you have tried a few of these, you will recognize that they are nothing at all like a conventional press. One of the biggest differences is the balance factor. On a military press the bar moves slowly enough that lifters can usually manage to keep their balance, even with heavy weights, but the Olympic press consists of an explosive start, a quick move through the middle and a fast finish, with the bodyweight being shifted from front to back to front in a flash. Plus, the foot stance is narrower, which adds to the problem of maintaining balance through the Olympic press.

Those who used this style in the ‘60s and ‘70s will notice that I haven’t mentioned the key form point of the Olympic press – bending the knees at the start. You may be thinking, wasn’t bending the knees illegal? Yes, it was. The knees had to remain locked from start to finish. So how did the lifters get away with it? This is what Garcy figured out.

As soon as the bar was cleaned, the lifter quickly assumed his set position and waited for the signal to press. But he didn’t lock his knees tightly; he bent them just a bit. Why couldn’t the judges see that? Because it’s impossible to determine whether the knees are fully locked or not quite locked. Keep in mind that most Olympic lifters had massive thigh development, with quads that lapped down over the knees in some cases. If that sounds farfetched, stand in front of a full-length mirror and put yourself in that bowed starting position. Lock your knees. Now relax them just a fraction. They still appear to be locked. The only way you can tell they aren’t completely locked is if you saw them in the locked position before you bent them. And that never happened. Lifters knew how to get into the starting position without ever locking their knees. The only time the knee bend was noticeable was when a lifter dipped lower during the start. Sometimes that move was missed because it happened so fast.

That slight bend helped. When the lifter got the signal to press, he locked his knees as he hurled the bar off his shoulders. It may not seem like much, but the move provided enough extra thrust to drive the bar higher and with more velocity, and if the rest of the lift was done with precision, it helped elevate the numbers appreciably. Some contended it added as much as 40 pounds to their presses.

Of course, the new style drove officials crazy. Since they couldn’t see the slight knee bend, they had to give lifters the benefit of the doubt. And lifters performed the new press so fast, it was also difficult to tell how far they had leaned backward. Those who mastered this technique included Garcy, Tommy Kono, Joe Puleo, Fred Lowe, Bob Hise, Tommy Suggs, Ernie Pickett, Joe Dube, Bob Bednarski and Ken Patera, who blasted the bar from shoulders to lockout so fast that the lift was only a blur.

Because it is difficult to learn, I only teach the Olympic press to athletes who are advanced and are very athletic. Except for rare cases I have them lock their knees at the start. That helps simplify the lift and is still productive.

Before you try learning the Olympic press, with locked or bent knees, make sure your midsection, lumbars and abs are up to the task. Those muscle groups are put under lots of stress with the coiled start and quick return to that position. Be sure to always do warmups for your abs and lower back prior to pressing, and while learning the finer points of the Olympic press, stay with light weights. Remember the weightlifting adage: If you can’t use perfect form with a light weight, you’re not going to have it with heavy poundages. Since this is a high-skill movement, stay with 3 reps so you can concentrate on all the form points. You’ll find that Olympic presses are quite taxing mentally, which I think is a plus. Improving the nervous system while gaining strength sounds good to me.

Finally, a word about breathing on Olympic and military presses. When you use light weights, it doesn’t matter how you breathe, but when you’re attempting to move heavy triples, doubles or singles, it matters a lot. Take a breath just before you start the press and hold it until you have driven the bar past the sticking point or after you lock it out. If you inhale or exhale while pressing, your diaphragm is forced to relax, which creates a negative intrathoracic pressure. In other words, breathing during the lift diminishes your ability to apply force to the bar.

In that regard, be aware of the phenomenon known as the Valsalva maneuver because it occurs most often in the performance of a heavy press. When lifters hold their breath for too long during a maximum exertion, they hinder the return of venous blood from the brain to the heart. That can result in a lifter’s blacking out, which can be dangerous when you’re holding a loaded barbell overhead. Should you start feeling dizzy while trying to grind a press through the sticking point, lower the bar to the floor and go down on one knee. Don’t move around. Most injuries happen when athletes fall into a weight rack or another piece of equipment.


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