by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC
Try this simple cue to optimize the setup and the bar path of the overhead press.
We’ve talked before about the lethal consequences of dropping your elbows in the press. In this very common form error, the hip thrust forward is accompanied by a vicious drop of the elbows that causes the bar to increase its distance from the shoulder joint. I believe this results from a misinterpretation of the idea that we “bounce” the press out of the bottom. And indeed we do—but not by dropping it first. It is not, after all, a basketball. In the linked article, I attempted what some people would call an “appeal to authority:” "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." That was about a year ago, but some folks didn’t get the memo. Dropping the elbows in the press continues to be a global problem of enormous consequence. We are near a tipping point in which our failure to control unchecked elbow-dropping will result in droughts, flooding, crop failures, bankruptcies, massive unemployment, civil unrest, cancellation of our favorite shows, missed PRs, and Great Sadness. Cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria. And it’s so sad, because it’s so easy to fix. Actually, I have to take that back, because if it were easy to fix I guess we would have fixed it by now. So I continue to do my best to Save The World, dreaming up new and increasingly outlandish cues to pull us all back from the brink of catastrophe. Today, as you’ve probably already surmised, I will tell you my latest. Again, to quote my earlier article: "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 1. 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.
Now, that didn’t quite do the trick, hence the impending Armageddon. But it does illustrate one of the objectives of thrusting the hips forward--minimizing the distance between the shoulder and the load. Let’s build on that by modifying a frequently used squat cue: Keep it in the slot. In other words, keep the bar in a vertical path over the middle of the foot. At the top of the squat, the bar is already in the slot (or you'd fall over). You just have to keep it there all the way down and all the way up.
In the press, however, the bar always starts a bit out front--it's not in the slot. So we’re going to think about putting it in the slot.
Imagine that you have a little J-hook or bar-shaped slot welded to your shoulder joint, at the end of your collarbone. Your objective, when you thrust your hips forward, is to put the bar in that slot. If you do so, the bar will be directly over the shoulder joint (duh), and you will be primed to drive it up, not out, minimizing or eliminating the moment around that joint.
FIGURE 2. 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. The conceptual "shoulder slot" is shown in red, and has been manifested as an Actual Thing in Our Universe by the vibrant imagination of the lifter and the vociferous encouragement of her coach. In the right image, the athlete has executed the proper hip thrust, maintaning the relationship between her arm and elbow to the torso, thereby easily depositing the bar into the shoulder slot, minimizing the moment around the shoulder, setting up an efficient and successful launch. Note also that this position passively increases the acuity of the angle at the elbow, setting up the tricep for a wholesome stretch reflex off the bottom. So think about this: if you drop the elbows when you thrust your hips forward, there is no way you can put the bar in the slot. The only way to slip the bar into the slot is to project your hips, get your face out of the way, and keep your elbows up. And the best way to do that is to keep your shoulder joint immobile, your armpits shut, and you humeri (upper arm bones) glued to your chest wall. Again, as Rippetoe notes, the hip thrust involves only the hip joint—not the knees, not the neck, not the spine, not the shoulders. If you only move your hips, you cannot drop your elbows. You can, however, drive your (immobile) shoulders forward under the bar, which will allow you to slip that sucker onto its launch pad directly over the shoulder joint. That, of course, is not the end of the story. Even perched perfectly in the shoulder slot, there are a lot of things that can go wrong after launch. You can still fire the bar forward instead of up (bad), or come forward before the bar clears your head, driving the bar away from the shoulder (bad), tilt your head forward in an attempt to “limbo” the press (bad), or simply miss because the bar is just Too Damn Heavy Today (not necessarily bad, but not great. Try again next week.). But at least you’ve given yourself a correct launch position, greatly improving your chances of an optimal bar path. That is terribly important. Because, let’s face it: When it comes to the press, we all need all the help we can get.
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.