By Ollie Whaley, CSCS
While the bench press has been enthroned as the King of upper body lifts, I would propose that this King is an imposter. Sure the NFL combine uses the bench press as a measure of upper body strength, but does anyone really believe that max reps with 225 lb. is a valid measure of football or any other athletic potential? Is that the lemming express going by? Sorry, I’m not getting on. Why aren’t we doing more heavy over head work? Believe it or not, when I first started lifting, the question I was asked the most was “How much can you press?” (meaning overhead)
In the past 40 years or so, the bench press has become the standard for measuring upper body strength. In a preceding post I mentioned the advent of Powerlifting as a sport and it’s influence on squatting. The Bench press has a similar history. Prior to the popularity of Powerlifting it was considered as an upper body assistance exercise. While it is certainly a great upperbody movement, it also has it’s limitations. Because it is done lying down, supported by a bench, (which makes it an open kinetic chain activity) the movement of the scapula and supporting muscles is restricted. If the bench press becomes the major focus for upperbody work, it can lead to shoulder imbalances as the shear stresses are focused on the anterior muscles. Over head pressing is a closed kinetic chain activity that involves the entire shoulder complex as well as the trapezius and scapula supporting musculature, not to mention the core, legs, and entire body for stabilization and support.
Back in the mid 90’s The University of Utah used to host a Rocky Mountain Regional Strength and Conditioning Conference. Dwight Daub was the head S&C coach at the time, he has since moved on to the Seattle Supersonics. It was always a great time. Dwight and his wife would host a barbeque at their home following the clinic. Coaches from Idaho, Idaho State, Boise State, Colorado State, Utah State, Weber State, Northern Arizona…etc. (never BYU) usually participated while hosting high school coaches and other interested people from around the mountain west.
I usually attended and traveled together with my friend Rich McClure who was S&C coach at NAU. Prior to the clinic sessions we usually had a roundtable discussion with the presenters and I remember the one year the topic being shoulder injuries. One coach lamented that he was seeing more shoulder injuries than usual, asking the question, “What are you all doing for shoulder work?” Besides the Bench press, most of the participants mentioned doing a variety of rotator cuff exercises, you know, the gamut of adduction, abduction, and rotation exercises with light dumbbells and bands. Some were also doing seated presses with dumbbells. I remember Rich McClure asking, “Isn’t anyone doing any heavy overhead work anymore?” “At NAU we are doing heavy jerks and push jerks along with overhead supports and we have no shoulder problems.” Indeed Rich was a great advocate and teacher of the Olympic style lifts. He also sponsored a weightlifting club on campus which won the collegiate nationals several years in a row. His programs for all his athletes included plenty of heavy overhead work including push presses, jerks, overhead squatting,…etc. He had several football players who regularly used over 180 kg. in jerking from the rack and overhead supports.
While that seemed like it was almost too simple, over the years I have seen the wisdom of his response. Heavy overhead work stimulates the complete shoulder complex keeping the musculature in proper balance and stabilizing the joint. It is not the purpose of this article to delve deeply into the anatomy of the shoulder, but it suffices to say it is a relatively fragile ball and socket joint. The ball of the humerus is held in place in a shallow socket formed by the scapula and clavicle by the small muscles known as the rotator cuff. The deltoid, pectoralis, latissimus, teres major, and even the biceps and triceps to a degree, support and make movement possible. It is important that each of these muscles is strengthened in the proper proportions to one another. Most shoulder pain and chronic injuries result from strength imbalances in these muscles which can lead to over use and impingement syndromes .
In setting up a program to strengthen this complex joint one can either attack each of the muscles individually with a variety of exercises involving rotation, adduction, abduction,…etc. with relatively light light weights, or one could stress the entire joint complex as a functional unit by over loading the over head position with heavy weights. Choosing the first option is sometimes necessary if there has already been an injury. However with a healthy joint, trying to work each muscle individually usually promotes an imbalance rather than correcting it. I like to use the chain analogy. If a chain could adapt to stress like the human body, you could strengthen it one link at a time, then put the links together. Or, you could stress the entire chain and allow each link to adapt in it’s place. I see the body in the same way. We can either strengthen muscles by isolating them, then attempting to use them in concert when completing tasks; or we can strengthen them by doing full –body, multi-joint exercises where they develop and adapt in harmony and balance. To me, the latter seems both more effective and efficient. Why not strengthen the shoulder complex with overhead work? Stressing the total complex insures balanced development and a functional result.
Heavy overhead rack supports require a total body adaptation from fingernails to toenails. Ivan Abadjiev, the coach of the Bulgarian weight lifting team was asked (by an American) what they do to strengthen their “core.”(an American buzz word) When he stopped laughing he said, “When you can hold nearly triple body weight over your head, you don’t need any extra work for your middle.” Remember the chain concept? Why not stress it all at once and let it adapt as a coordinated unit? I am really not against all core work or isolation exercises. I do believe they have their place, most particularly in rehab or correcting pre-existing strength imbalances. But I would make the argument that too often “strength coaches” have gotten so involved with these little exercises, that they forget the big ones that build real strength and power. It’s called sitting on a whale, fishing for minnows.
Another advantage of overhead work is that heavy push presses and jerks require an explosive leg extension activating the myotatic or stretch reflex. I believe these are as effective and easier on the joints than depth jumping or other plyometric movements, especially for larger athletes. Military presses, done without the leg thrusting is a great start. Progress to push presses which are initiated with a violent, explosive leg drive and allows greater weight to be used. The next step is Push jerks or Split jerks where the same violent extension initiates the movement. The weight driven over head while the legs are rebent or split fore and aft allowing the lifter to drop under and catch the weight. The final phase is over head supports in the rack, which allows one to support 100lb. or more than their best jerks overhead. This teaches the athlete to maintain a tight, rigid body as the weight is supported overhead.
A future article will describe these great exercises in detail.