I have to be honest, I have somewhat of a love affair with pressing weight overhead. In my early years of lifting I loved to bench press. I was pretty good at the bench press in even in high school, but it wasn’t till much later than I would find my passion for the overhead press. Part of my delay in developing my relationship with the overhead press was the fact I came into the fitness industry in the late 90’s where pressing overhead was suppose to be TERRIBLE for your shoulders. The philosophy slowly changed where it was alright to press overhead, but as long as you didn’t go below 90 degrees in the motion. Now we have come full circle where everyone wants to press everything overhead!
My own personal attachment to the overhead press began when I started to Olympic lift. Although I was quite good with the bench press, I felt darn weak in putting any weight overhead. I learned quickly that the overhead press wasn’t just a fancy name for the shoulder press, but really requires integration of the entire body. My weakness didn’t stem from a problematic upper body, but I didn’t understand how to properly utilize my body as a singular unit—really the basis of what functional training is suppose to teach us.
The fact that overhead pressing was one of the three classic ways old time strongmen measured strength (lifting from the ground and carrying weight were the other two), I felt like I was gaining a better form of strength. Not only focusing on the Olympic lifts, I began to compete in Strongman where lifting all sorts of different implements overhead required even more awareness on how the whole body is responsible for developing strength, not just a single muscle or group of muscles.
I recall having a colleague of mine who had an extensive background in Olympic lifting try to press a steel log overhead, he was greatly humbled by the great differences in just changing the implement. For some time I focused my efforts in raising my overhead press by changing the standard training variables such as load, speed, volume, and implements. Then my whole philosophy changed quite quickly.
At one point I was able to press a 40 kg kettlebell for 15 repetitions, not too shabby. However, about two years ago I noticed I could no longer even come close to pressing this weight even for 1 repetition. I was down to struggling to press a 24 kg kettlebell. Doctors found that my spinal cord was being heavily compressed by a disc in my neck. Surgery was necessary, but I was left to wondering if I would ever be able to train in the manner that was so important to me (yes, standard lifters mentality).
Right after my spinal fusion I was told that I couldn’t lift more than 20 pounds for a period of a few weeks. This would be followed by no more than 40 pounds for additional time. How does someone who is so use to lifting heavy come to terms with this limitation? I began to rethink how to train and how to get strong.
Not being able to focus on weight really threw me for a loop. How do you stress the body if you can’t just keep adding weight? The answer was in how we train the body during body weight drills. Sure, weight vests and other implements are used to stress the body, but more commonly, changing leverage in the body is used to increase the intensity of body weight training. How come we don’t do this in weight training?
That is why I started to form a series of kettlebell pressing progressions based around changing our body position that alters leverage of the weight. A lot of people actually have a leaky press. What’s a “leaky press”? They rotate and laterally bend when they press overhead. While some may argue that this is an old school method, it does reduce the carryover to other forms of overhead pressing because you can’t lean when you use most other implements in pressing overhead.
In my mind, the overhead press is just as much a great trunk stability exercise as it is an upper body exercise. The overhead press has a lot of similarities to the push-up, by learning to resist the pull of the weight to one side or the other, we actually build integrity and strength through the hips and trunk (similar to altering body position during a push-up). We can then stress the body in a two different ways with leverage and focus on trunk stability.
-Change Body Position
-Alter Pressing Motion
The attached video series breaks down these ideas so you can easily integrate the right progression for your goals. You will quickly find which variation is the toughest for you and you might have to make this version your priority! Understanding these principles allows you to press almost every training session and self periodizes your training.
Try a cycle like this one:
Military Press 5 sets of 3
Kneeling Double Press 3 sets of 5
Half Kneeling Alternating Press 3 sets of 6 (per side)
Josh Henkin, Senior RKC, CSCS has been a RKC instructor since 2003 and has implemented kettlebell programs for major Division I programs, SWAT teams, and many different general fitness programs. Josh is also the creator of the DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training system where he is a highly sought after presenter worldwide. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://DVRTFitness.com