As a huge advocate of the Olympic lifts, i appreciate the benefits that overhead pressing has to offer. If executed correctly, the strength and power development gained from military and behind neck pressing and jerks, as well as the aesthetic benefits of capped delts and big traps is too great to ignore.
Not always a good idea
It must be said that overhead lifting is not for everyone. One condraindication to military pressing and its derivatives may be structural. As everyone is an individual, not all scapulae and acromions are the same. In general there are three different types of acromion, each resulting in different available ranges of motion and subsequent injury potential if a lot of pressing movements are included in a training programme.
Type 1 Acromion: Flat, providing a normal subacromial space and as such the potential to perform overhead work without risk of injury.
Type 2 Acromion: Curved, producing a slight decrease in subacromial space and when coupled with poor thoracic position can predispose to injury.
Type 3 Acromion: Beaked, a substantial decrease in subacromial space and far higher predisposition to impingement. Individuals with this structure would be best advised to avoid overhead pressing movements.
Structural issues aside, the next most important factors in successful, pain free O.H lifting, are posture and technique. Good thoracic extension, fluid scapulohumeral rhythm, free humeral flexion, abduction and external rotation and wrist extensibility are a must for successful lifting.
As the majority of working clients are desk bound with poor seated posture for hours at a time, it is important that joint mobility and alignment are assessed and corrected before any external loading is added to the system. Equally, any soft tissue restrictions and deficits should be addressed.
Poor hip extension and increased thoracic kyphosis leave little option for the scapulae, but to adopt an anteriorly tilted (winged) abducted and laterally rotated position. The humeri will follow suit and succumb to gravity by internally rotating and falling forward reducing the precious subacromial space. As the body's no.1 priority is to conserve energy for survival, the surrounding soft tissues will improve at stabilising this energy demanding position by adaptively shortening to the ranges in which they are asked to work. So, it goes without saying that asking someone to jerk their body weight for 5 from this starting point, is asking for trouble.
Lets assume though, that there are individuals who do have adequate mobility and alignment to indulge in O.H pressing. What is the correct technique? I found the answer to this question when i first met Olympic weightlifter and trainer, Mike Causer. weighing 63kg's Mike snatched 120kg's and clean and jerked 145kg's in competition, setting a British commonwealth record that stands to this day. Mike has also been known to military press 80kg's for multiple sets of 10 with strict form weighing under 70kg's. Now you can be sure that he didn't just use the anterior portion of his deltoids to get that barbel moving.
The strongest mechanical position for pressing a barbell overhead comes from the correct set up. All to often, i see people with their elbows behind the bar, hinging into there lumbar spine and forcing the bar up and in front of their heads. It must feel like crap and it doesn't utilise the potential of the scapulothoracic and glenohumeral systems.
The Set Up
Set a barbell up at shoulder height in a squat or power rack. Place the hands facing down on the bar just a little wider than shoulder width. (This width will vary from person to person) Now, step forward and scoop your elbows underneath the bar, so it sits comfortably on top of your shoulders. Step back from the rack. The thoracic spine should be extended and the elbows should be angled out to approximately 30-45* from your torso and up by roughly the same amount. Your lats should be slightly flared and total body tension should be quite high. (Imagine your showing off your lats with the barbell sat across your shoulders.
From this position, begin to press the barbell up, clearing the head and keeping the elbows ahead of the bar. As you clear the top of the head, move your body forward under the bar and smoothly press to the lock out position which should be directly above the crown of the head. It is important that the humeri should be externally rotated in this position.
To lower the barbell, the elbows must regain the same position they pressed from. Elbows ahead of the bar and angled out approximately 45* to the trunk. Now the thoracic spine should go through further extension and the chest should be lifted to meet the barbell with a softening of the knees as the bar touches back down on to the shoulders. When performing this movement for reps it is generally accepted that the bar should be lowered to nose level and not to the resting position.
The key points here are, thoracic extension, elbow position and learning to move the body underneath the bar!
The reason that this is such a strong and stable position to push from is that the stabilising musculature of the shoulder girdle is activated automatically. If we look at the set up, we can see that the thoracic spine is in extension, eccentrically loading the abdominals and concentrically contracting the spinal erectors. The scapulae are upwardly rotated and most importantly
posteriorly tilted, with the inferior angle stuck to the rib cage, allowing the shoulder to work in the scapular plane. This position eccentrically loads the rhomboids, lats and pecs whilst concentrically activating the mid and lower traps and the all important serratus anterior, creating a very strong and stable guy wire system from which to push and control the humeri. The humeri themselves are in an externally rotated abducted and flexed position, which they will travel through further into lock out.
The beauty of this, is that very rarely do you need to do any prehab, activation work for the serratus or low traps as they are forced to engage as a side effect of correct technique. When trainees are first introduced to this movement, it is common to get 'doms' in these target muscles.
Pressing overhead correctly turns a shoulder exercise into a total body exercise that utilises the stability of the back to allow strength to be displayed through a full range of motion.