“How do I increase my press?”- The Internet
Fresh on the heels of the 2017 USSF Fall Classic, a strengthlifting meet that contests the press instead of the bench press seen in powerlifting meets, there has been a big uptick in folks asking how to increase their press. After seeing some of the big presses this past weekend and the increased interest in USSF meets, I thought it would be timely to discuss some of the things I’ve learned about the press and how to improve it.
For perspective, I took my press from 118kg (260lbs) to 125kg (275lbs) at a 1kg lighter bodyweight in 6 months. Both of these were done in competition, after squats, and to the USSF standard. Since then, I’ve changed my pressing technique, my programming, and assistance exercises, which I’ll discuss individually below.
As a side note (and disclaimer), the pressing technique I am describing can be applied to all levels of training advancement, whereas the programming and assistance exercises are likely best suited for intermediate and advanced lifters. If you have not completed your novice linear progression yet, you should do that first and then come back to this article.
Technique- Discussing press technique requires a few tangents, definitions, corrections, and a history lesson. Let’s start with definitions. First, all “press” exercises discussed in this article are done standing, e.g. the standing press is just “the press”. We also don’t call the press the overhead press in this article, as we’re not sure where else you’d press the bar whilst in a standing position.
There are specific forms of the press, which are listed here:
- Dynamic Start: Using hip extension and the resultant tension (force) through the anterior musculature of the lifter transferred to the shoulder girdle and subsequently, the barbell, to initiate the movement of the barbell upwards.
- Floating Rack: In this position the barbell does not touch the lifter’s shoulders or chest, but rather “floats” in the air underneath the chin somewhere. Typically seen in lifter’s with long forearms or light-weight warm ups.
- Military Press: Press done with feet together with straight knees and no dynamic start, e.g. as strict as possible.
- Press 1.0: Press done with stance wider than Military Press and minimal dynamic start. This is pretty strict, but I would argue any heavy (relative to the lifter’s ability) strict press has some movement of the hips and/or shoulder girdle prior to the bar moving upwards from the start position. Press 1.0 can be done from either a floating rack or standard rack. Each rep after the first one is done “touch and go” style, e.g. with a slight rebound of the chest/shoulders.
- Press 2.0: Press done with maximal dynamic start, as taught at Starting Strength Seminars and in Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training. This can be done from either a floating rack or standard rack. Each rep is done in absence of a stretch reflex from the bottom.
- Press 3.0/Olympic Press: I’m not actually sure how legit or widespread the Press 3.0 nomenclature is as compared to the Olympic Press and I may just be the only one using it within my little echo chamber of strength curmudgeons, but I digress. Press 3.0/Olympic Press is basically the same as press 2.0 but there is an intentional double layback. Tommy Suggs did a nice video tutorial on this over on the Starting Strength website (link) and Carl Raghavan, a London-based Starting Strength Coach, demonstrates below:
Okay, now that I’ve bored you with definitions it’s time for a tangent. After the April USSF meet where I pressed 118kg (260lbs) and missed 123kg/270lbs, I was pretty frustrated with myself and my press. I did what any self-loathing person would do at this point- I got on the Internet to find examples of people better than me. I ended up coming across an old-school article over on The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban that was talking about some assistance exercises and press technique. I should’ve bookmarked that article, but I didn’t so I can’t link it here. Nonetheless, the article advocated for a slightly wider grip to get the bar down lower on the chest rather than floating. It also recommended doing a Neck/Guillotine Press as an assistance lift for the press, so I wasn’t necessarily sure the article was legit.
Still, when I considered the position that nearly all the lifters who competed when the clean and press was contested, e.g. bar on the upper chest with a grip slightly narrower than their jerk grip, I thought there may something to this.
So, I called Rip up and talked to him about it. I thought that the further down on the chest one could get the barbell, the more of the chest musculature the could recruit to drive the bar overhead and that this may be more advantageous than a narrower, floating grip. We ultimately agreed this might be useful for some of the more advanced lifters, particularly those who may be competing. He also told me I needed to gain some weight before snorting and hanging up….
By this time I was convinced that I needed to give this style of pressing a try and so I consciously started bringing the bar down onto my chest before starting the press. Previously, I would usually Feigenbounce* my first rep and press from my deltoids on subsequent reps. For posterity, some documentation of the Feigenbounce*:
*Feigenbounce was coined on the Starting Strength forum after my Fall Classic 2016 press video went up on Instagram. I didn’t come up with it, nor am I the first one to use this technique. Hell, it’s probably not even a real eponym, but this is my blog so I do what I want. Additionally, you can’t name your own eponym. It’s like a nickname.
An additional layer of Nuance™ came serendipitously over the summer when I was on the road nonstop for a little over a month. When I made my way back to St. Louis I trained at The Lab Gym, a favorite of mine when I’m home. During a training session I got to talking to another gym member, Derrick Crass, founder of DC Blocks and Olympian for the USA in ’84 and ’88. He was giving me a few handoffs during bench training that day and so I got to asking him about the press, as he got to train with a lot of guys who formerly competed in the era where the press was contested.
He laughed and said:
“I was always the bad presser. I was so glad I wasn’t part of that era, but all of the old-school guys told me I would’ve been fine. They said the trick was you’d catch the bar (from the clean) low on your chest like this (he demonstrated catching the bar on the pecs while leaning back slightly) and with slightly bent knees. Then when you quickly stood up straight you’d get a lot of drive from your legs, hips, and chest.”
I confirmed he meant that the lifters of that time would purposefully catch the bar on their chests while slightly leaning back and with slightly bent knees and he said, “Yeah. That way they couldn’t give you red lights for bending your knees or too much layback because your knees where already bent and you were already laying back.” We both laughed and I thanked him for his advice.
The next day I pressed I added another step to my press technique, as I’d take the bar out of the rack and place it on my chest, but then push my hips forward to imitate “starting in a layback”. Then, I’d quickly stand up straight and drive the bar overhead. For demonstration purposes, here’s how this looks:
About a week goes by with me training my press with this technique and I really like it, but I haven’t PR’d anything yet. I just figured I’d keep rolling with it until the next meet and see what happens. However, a few of the other Starting Strength Coaches came to The Lab to train and I had to press and noticed the different technique. I told them what I wrote above and have posted about this numerous times on Instagram, the Starting Strength forum, and other places I’m probably forgetting.
At no point did I suggest that I invented this technique or that what I was doing was revolutionary. Rather, I just wanted to see if it worked for me and share my experience. That said, it would be difficult to accurately call this Press 2.0, the Feigenpress, or other eponym, so…..let’s call it the Classic Press. My rationale for this nomenclature is that it was definitely used by those competing in the clean and press and thus, its origins are non specific/non attributable to a specific person.
The main issue with this pressing technique is that it’s possible to get off balance pretty easily because you can throw the bar up and back quickly. I am pretty sure this was previously countered by lifters who competed in the clean and press by having bent knees, where the straightening of the knees helped keep the lifter from shifting their balance too far back during the pressing portion of the lift. This obviously isn’t possible at a USSF meet since you’re taking the bar out of the rack instead of cleaning it and if you’re going to slowly push your hips forward (winding up the muscles prior to a violent explosion) you can’t get away with also bending your knees. As a lifter, you have to be conscious of your balance and really make sure you don’t throw the bar back too far. I tend to cue myself to throw the bar straight up instead of “back”, even though the bar is really going up and back.
To summarize, my technique now is as follows:
- Grab bar about 1 finger width wider than previous press grip, which was right at the start of the knurling.
- Unrack bar and place on chest (not shoulders). Elbows should be slightly in front of the barbell when viewed from the side.
- Take big breath.
- Squeeze glutes, low back, and abs hard. Push hips forward deliberately to get into layback position.
- Quickly stand up straight and press straight up.
- Keep pushing straight up overhead to the ceiling. Shrug.
- Marvel at your accomplishments. Wait for applause.
And that wraps up my technique changes to my press over these past 6 months.
Programming- For the past three years or so I have been doing some sort of press, which includes bench press, press and all variations, six times per week. In other words, I had six “slots” for press related training per week. For this last training cycle, I was pressing four times per week and doing an incline bench press variation twice per week for the first part of the cycle. In order to increase the specificity of training and in accordance with the Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demand (SAID) Principle, I was actually pressing six times per week in the second part of the cycle.
Here is an example of a typical week during the first part of the cycle:
- Day 1
- Press w/ belt 1 @ 8, back off work 4-6 sets 3-4 rep range. Load determined by percentage
- Incline Bench variation for moderate reps (6-8), repeated sets (3-4)
- Day 2
- Press variation, 1 @ 8, back off work 3-4 sets of 3-5 rep range. Load determined by RPE
- Day 3
- Press variation, 1 @ 8, back off work 4-6 sets 3-4 rep range. Load determined by percentage
- Incline Bench variation for moderate reps (6-8), repeated sets (3-4)
- Day 4
- Press variation for moderate reps (6-8), repeated sets (3-4)
- Rowing or Squat variation
Overall, I think that pressing more is likely the best programming change to make in order to improve the press. Of course, this increase in pressing frequency must be matched with appropriate volume, intensity, and rep schemes. It’s been my experience, both professionally and personally, that improving strength that is tested as a 1 rep maximum requires regular exposure to singles. Put a different way, in order to get better at doing single rep efforts one needs to regularly train single rep efforts. I did not take these to a maximum regularly, but rather I would do a single at a weight I could likely grind out a triple at. This served double duty for me, as I was able to use the weight of the single as a barometer to appropriately load my subsequent volume work and also as practice for performing singles with good technique.
A common mistake I see in programming for competitive lifters is a failure to develop the ability to do singles. This typically manifests as someone who has a 5 rep maximum that is far closer to their 1 rep maximum than what we’d typically expect. If one’s 5 rep max has increased through training, I assume their strength development has improved though their ability to display this strength as a 1 rep max may not be (read: usually not) commensurate if they have not trained their singles regularly.
This actually brings up an interesting idea I’ve tested in a handful of lifters, daily maxing. I’ve had a number of lifters work up to a heavy single rep everyday for a short period of time, e.g. 2-3 weeks, leading up to a contest or testing period. They do not go to a bone-on-bone absolute max each day, but rather a heavy single that they could do a double or triple at. Occasionally, we’d use a closely related exercise like a paused variant for a few of the week’s sessions.
The main driver of improvement when I do this are exposures to performing the lift for a technically proficient single at a somewhat challenging load, e.g. this functions as practice doing a heavy single. The results have been pretty good when trying this, as one lifter put 30lbs on their lifetime best squat and another lifter put 15lbs on their lifetime best bench press within 2 weeks. Both were advanced lifters so this is fairly substantial. Still, it’s not a universally useful method and should be reserved for those with a lot of experience, e.g. folks who have a large base of previous training exposures who can tolerate this kind of stuff.
Overall, I think that the main programming variables that drive progress on strength performances (as tested by 1 rep efforts) are volume, frequency of exposures, and doing singles regularly.
Assistance Exercises- I used quite a bit of different assistance exercises during my press training leading up to this meet and I should explicitly state that none of them were life-changing. In fact, I’d go on record and say that I don’t think any of the variations uniquely improved my press due the variant itself. Rather, the improvement seen in my press is more likely secondary to the increased frequency and volume of the press facilitated by doing the variant. In my estimation, the benefits of exercise variations are that they allow for improved fatigue control, training motivation, and in some instances an improvement in technique.
Fatigue control is an interesting topic that is deserving of its own article, but for the purposes of this post I’ll discuss briefly. If we compare the fatigue generated from a press w/ with belt to the fatigue from a pin press (shoulder height) without a belt, we’d assume the net fatigue from the press w/ belt to be higher than the pin press if both are done at the same relative intensity and volume, e.g. if both were done for the following rep and RPE scheme: 1 @ 8, 4 @ 9 x 3 sets where the lifter performs 1 rep @ RPE 8, then performs 3 sets of 4 reps at RPE 9. Okay, but why?
Well, the press w/ belt uses heavier weights and allows for the use of the dynamic start that recruits more muscle mass. This likely imposes more fatigue on the lifter than the pin press. This doesn’t make the pin press less useful than the press w/ belt, but it does allow a coach to finely control the amount of fatigue being generated and accrued from training.
From a motivational standpoint, using variations can be useful in order to decrease anxiety of the lifter relative to a lift and get the lifter fired up about doing something different. Let’s say a lifter has a lot of anxiety about his or her press being stagnant for a long time. It may be that exposing that lifter to just the competition lift 3-4x/wk actually stresses them out because they keep seeing a lift that their not getting better at and they have historical numbers to base that off of, e.g. I’ve pressed 230 x 5 before so every time I don’t press 230×5 (when programmed 5’s on press) I’m doing worse. It’s hard not to let that get to you if it’s happening a lot.
On the other hand, an exercise variation tends to have less (or none) training history behind it and may motivate the lifter. Additionally, after repeated exposures the lifter tends to get better at the lift and this positive injection can be a good morale booster.
There are also some fun variations that increase training motivation and enjoyment and these tend to be the variations that overload the particular movement being trained. For the press, things like press + chains, high pin presses, or push presses where more weight can be moved can really be fun for a lifter. Hell, I remember locking out 295 from high pins and how cool that felt!
So, without further ado, here are the variations I did this past cycle and what I think of them:
- Pin Press (shoulder level)
- Makes you do the press very strictly and pay attention to bar path. One of my favorites. I also think the controlled eccentric may be very useful for upper limb “health”.
- Pin Press (Above forehead)
- Depending where you set these pins, it may function as an overload. If it’s high enough, it may teach the 2nd layback as well. I find this one to be pretty stressful overall, especially on elbows and low back.
- Press + chains
- I didn’t really like this. It was supposed to be an overload, but the chains swung around a bit too much for that even with 2-3 links on the floor. I might be able to load the chains up in a different way next time, but for now….meh.
- Seated Press
- I’ve done these while sitting on a bench (with no back) and on the ground (Z-press). Better for high rep exposures than low rep strength work. I don’t think these are terribly useful for strength development overall.
- 2ct Paused Press
- One of the more awkward things I’ve done, but pausing at forehead level for 2 seconds was tough! I really thing this helped continuing to press through the sticking point and dial in my start position.
I don’t think any of the incline work actually transferred over to my press, but rather they were just developmental pressing “slots”. I think that pressing 6x/wk initially might’ve bothered my elbows if done for too long, so I’ll probably keep the incline work in for developmental, but not sports specific training cycles.
Summary– Overall, my progress on the press resulted from a change in my technique, programming, and assistance exercises. To the degree that any one of these things helped more than the other, my personal feeling is that the increased frequency of exposure to the press or press variations likely helped the most. This is in agreement with the SAID principle discussed above and also my previous musings on specificity.
I also am of the opinion that the technique change worked well for me and combined with the programming change, produced probably 95% of my improved performance. I don’t think this technique is for everyone, but I do think it’s worth a try if you’re struggling with your press and don’t have any glaring issues with your press technique or training in general, i.e. not gaining enough weight, significantly compromised recovery, inconsistent training, poor programming.
Finally, the assistance lifts likely contributed least to my improved press in and of themselves. Rather, it is more probable that the increased frequency of doing the variations of the press were beneficial, but not the unique characteristics of the variants themselves.
For the Lifter– If you’d like to improve your press and are a novice with otherwise good technique (verified by a coach), are not underweight, and are doing the program- then you may try to implement the Classic Press technique detailed above.
If you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter who is not using a floating rack or, alternatively, are an intermediate or advanced lifter with a floating rack who is not pressing more than two times per week, and you haven’t seen good progress in your press- I recommend starting with increased frequency and volume at appropriate intensities (see below).
If you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter who is using a floating rack while pressing more than two times per week and you haven’t seen good progress with your press, I recommend co-changing technique variables documented at the top of this article prior to changing programming variables..
For the Coach- If you are trying to improve your lifter’s press there are three main general variables to consider: programming, technique, and fatigue management.
From a programming perspective, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that increasing volume appropriately produces better outcomes with respect to strength, hypertrophy, etc. This can be done in many different ways, e.g. programming the press into more slots per week, increasing the number of sets and/or reps per pressing slot in an existing program, or replacing supplemental bench press work with presses or variants of the press.
From a technique perspective, it is reasonable to try the Classic Press for a lifter who does not have major form issues with their existing press. There is insufficient data to suggest the Classic Press’ rack position and mechanics increase the likelihood of upper limb or lower back pain or injuries while additionally noting that these are two different things not necessarily related.
From a fatigue management perspective, a lifter’s recovery and programming variables must be accounted for. For example, a lifter who has compromised recovery variables such as currently losing weight, not sleeping, high levels of stress, etc. should not be maintained on a low volume, high intensity program for significant periods of time, as they will tend to detrain quite readily.
The press can likely be trained more frequently, with more volume, and at a slightly higher relative intensity than the squat or deadlift. Additionally, by pressing more often a lifter gets better at recovering from the press, which requires more stress to drive future adaptation. It is not unusual to have an advanced lifter pressing more than 4 times per week, for instance.
Jordan Feigenbaum, the owner of Barbell Medicine, has an extensive academic background including a Bachelors of Science in Biology, Master’s of Science in Anatomy and Physiology, and Doctor of Medicine. Jordan also holds accreditations from many professional training organizations and is a staff member for select Starting Strength Seminars. He’s been coaching folks from all over the world for over a decade through Barbell Medicine. As a competitive powerlifter, Jordan has competition best lifts of a 640lb squat, 430lb bench press, and 725lb deadlift as a 198lb raw lifter. He most recently pressed 275 at the 2017 Fall Classic at a bodyweight of 207lbs. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com