ELBOWS-UP IN THE OVERHEAD PRESS!
by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Instead of allowing the hip thrust to drive the shoulders forward under the bar, the elbow drop pulls the bar away from the shoulder. This will not end well.
The overhead press is not the heaviest movement, but it is arguably the most technically demanding of the Big Four. It’s worth the effort to master, however, especially for the Athlete of Aging, because strong shoulders are a blessing at any age, and an uncommon blessing after forty or fifty. The overhead press is graceful, balanced, beautiful…and powerful. In many ways, it is more like an Olympic movement than the squat, bench, or deadlift. This is especially true of our approach to the press, which involves a body movement in the so-called “press 2.0.” We begin by unracking the bar with a correct Zeroth Rep, and walk the bar out. The bar is held with straight wrists and vertical forearms, minimizing moments (“lever arms”) against the shoulder and wrist. The points of the elbows (olecrana of the ulna) are held just in front of the bar. We call this “elbows-up,” and although it appears that the forearm is slanted back in this position, in fact the weight-bearing bone, the radius, is vertical this configuration. All is in readiness. With tight knees, tight back, and tight abs, the lifter thrusts her hips forward. As is frequently emphasized, this movement accentuates the tension across the anterior chain, maximizing tightness in the abs and quads that will be harvested as a rebound or “bounce” that helps to drive the bar straight up. Thus, we have an efficient and very elegant transduction of horizontal hip movement into a vertical movement of the bar. This is all very true, but there is another beautiful thing that happens in press 2.0 that I think is too often overlooked. Let’s take a closer look at that starting position. At the beginning of the press, the load, held in the hands, is not over the primary point of rotation at the shoulder joint. In other words, there is an undesirable moment between the bar and the shoulder. One of the objectives of press technique is to minimize and then zero out this moment, and to get the bar directly over the shoulder joint as soon as possible, because then we’ll be dealing with just the weight of the bar, instead of the weight and the turning force around the shoulder produced by that moment. This is the under-emphasized beauty of the hip thrust, and indeed I think it’s even more important than the “bounce.” When we perform the press 2.0 properly, the hip thrust drives us forward under the bar and improves the mechanics around the shoulder joint by decreasing the distance between the bar and the load.
FIGURE. In the left image, the athlete is properly set up for the press. The horizontal distance between the shoulder joint (r1) has been minimized to the extent permitted by the athlete’s anthropometry. In the middle image, the athlete has executed the proper hip thrust, maintaning the relationship between his arm and elbow to the torso, and consequently shortening the moment (r2) further. In the right image, the athlete is actively screwing up by dropping his elbows down and back in a misguided attempt to create some sort of bounce, or rebound, or...magic. The moment (r3) is now even greater than at the preparatory position, and the forearm is beautifully poised to launch the bar on an unfortunate trajectory into the great unknown.
This is in my opinion so important an effect of the body movement in the press that I often admonish my lifters to think about this relative repositioning of the bar and shoulder as they push their hips forward. And it’s one reason why leaning back is not the correct technique. Leaning back is the opposite of driving forward, and it is bad for several easons, not least of which is that it does not do a good job of getting shoulders under the bar. But I digress. The real technical error I want to talk about today is tragically widespread: dropping the bar. There is something about the press 2.0 that invites the terrible misapprehension that the hip thrust is accompanied by an active drop of the bar and the elbows. Now, it is true that if you thrust your hips forward, you become effectively shorter (Figure), and there will be a corresponding slight dip of the bar because of your virtual loss of height. But I believe this is correctly a passive phenomenon, not an active one. The bounce comes from the hips, not the shoulders or elbows. What happens, all too often, is that the lifter aggressively plunges his elbows downward and back as he thrusts his hips forward. This is wickedness and perversion, and it bears all manner of poisonous fruit. For one thing, it changes the angle of the forearm (the radius), making it less vertical, and will almost always result in the elbows being behind the bar. In this unclean configuration, the radius is poised to transmit force to the bar along an outward vector, away from the shoulder. This will not end well. But the truly unholy consequence of actively and aggressively dipping the elbows and bar at the thrust is that it obviates what I believe is the most important benefit of the hip thrust. Instead of allowing the hip thrust to drive the shoulders forward under the bar, the elbow drop pulls the bar away from the shoulder (not to mention that it pulls the bar down, which as you may be aware is the opposite of the direction we want it to go). At lighter weights, this results in an uglier, less efficient, less technically correct, and heavier press. At higher weights, it results in a gross misgroove and a miss. In Starting Strength, Rippetoe makes it explicit that the thrust is to be performed only with the hips (Chapter 3, Learning to Press, Step 2). Most people take this as a proscription against knee participation in the movement—and it is. But the astute reader will note that there is no exception made for the shoulder here, and I think it meet and proper that we should also take this statement to mean that there is no active participation of the shoulder joint in the thrust either. Or, to put it more plainly: don’t drop the bar on the hip thrust. Instead, focus on keeping the upper back and shoulders tight, squeezing the armpits shut, and keeping the forearms vertical. Shove your hips forward and let them drive the shoulders accordingly, under the bar. The bar moves only after the hip thrust, when it launches straight up from its position as close to directly over the shoulder joints as you can make it. If you do this correctly with a heavy press, it will still be hard, of course. It's supposed to be hard. But it's not supposed to be harder than it's supposed to be.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.