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Exploring the Standing Barbell Overhead Press


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The purpose of this column is to explore the standing barbell overhead press (sbohp) in terms of its execution, musculature involved, potential benefits, practical applications, and its evolution. the sbohp is among the most elementary tests of upper body and overhead strength. because of its removal as a contested barbell lift, general emphasis on the movement has declined slightly, but it is still widely implemented in a plethora of settings from recreational and professional sports performance to utility in rehabilitation.
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Exploring the Standing
Barbell Overhead Press
Jordan Kroell, BS, CSCS, USAW
and Jonathan Mike, PhD, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D, USAW
Human Performance, Lindenwood University, St. Charles, Missouri; and
School of Kinesiology, University of
Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
The standing barbell overhead
press (SBOHP) traditionally
held a place in history as one
of the basic tests of upper-body
strength (6). The 1928 Olympics
marked the inception of contesting 3
standardized lifts, including the press,
the snatch, and the clean and jerk in
international weightlifting events (6).
Because of the pressing movement’s
removal from competition preceding
the 1972 Munich Olympics, overhead
pressing movements, including the
SBOHP can be viewed as relatively
underemphasized compared with
other competitive lifts in weightlifting
and powerlifting. This lack of empha-
sis can be interpreted in USA weight-
lifting’s 2014 Advanced Training
Course manual recommending ath-
letes commit only 10% of their total
training volume for assistance exer-
cises to overhead pressing move-
ments. Of 1,250 total repetitions
used monthly, only 125 were dedi-
cated to pressing, whereas squatting
movements alone comprised 600 rep-
etitions, or approximately 50% of the
monthly training volume for assis-
tance exercises (18).
Considering the number of scholarly
articles written about the snatch, clean,
squat, bench press, or deadlift, articles
covering the subject of overhead press-
ing of any kind remain relatively rare
in comparison with the overwhelming
amount of studies examining the
movements contested in both weight-
lifting and powerlifting (3,9,16,21).
Kraemer and Fleck’s 2007 book Opti-
mizing Strength Training cites 4 studies
validating the efficacy of nonlinear
strength training protocol. Of the 4
studies, only 1 incorporated the “shoul-
der press,” whereas all studies used the
bench press (8).
Although it has fallen into relative
obscurity over the past few decades,
the overhead pressing movements
have been a staple in many successful
recreational and professional strength
training and rehabilitative programs
(10). This complex, multi-joint move-
ment has potential for heavy loading,
along with the incorporation of mul-
planes of movement. These aspects
help make the SBOHP an effective
means to improve overhead and trunk
stability, strength and power for a wide
variety of athletic populations (21).
Therefore, the purpose of this article
is to discuss the technique intricacies
of the overhead press and its applica-
tion use to a wide range of populations
including general populations, clinical,
athletic, and tactical performance.
It is necessary at this point to address
the common misconception of using
the term “military press” interchange-
ably with almost any version of press-
ing a barbell overhead. Multiple
authorities on the execution of barbell
lifts, such as USA Weightlifting and the
National Strength and Conditioning
Association, have released instruc-
tional information on the “military
press” with conflicting definitions
regarding foot position and stance,
even though both organizations specif-
ically define different movements as
the “military press” (5,7). Because of
the confusion caused by this absence
of unanimous agreement in terms of
definition, it should be explicitly stated
that this article describes a standing
press using a barbell, executed with
a vertical trunk and the feet positioned
parallel on a hard surface at approxi-
mately shoulder width on the same
line. Further information on position-
ing is provided in the proceeding Exe-
cution section. These details separate
the SBOHP from what could specifi-
cally be labeled a “military press” or
any alternative form of pressing.
Address correspondence to Dr. Jonathan
overhead press; strength;
stability; power
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The muscles involved in overhead
pressing movements comprise a signif-
icant portion of the trunk and upper
extremities, with contributions pro-
vided from the lower body during
the standing variations (14). Instruc-
tional content from Waller et al. state
that as load increases in the standing
barbell press, isometric activity from
the lower extremities must increase
as well (19). The anterior and medial
deltoids and the triceps brachii are
the movement, but the musculature of
posterior trunk are incorporated as
well (19). The execution of the lift
not only includes shoulder flexion
from the deltoid and elbow extension
through the triceps brachii (1) but
varying degrees of shoulder abduction
and scapular stabilization (17). Shoul-
der abduction is brought about by
contributions from the rotator cuff
(supraspinatus) and the trapezius and
deltoids (15). Scapular stabilization
plays a crucial role during articulation
at the glenohumeral joint, and stabili-
zation of the scapula is contingent on
efforts from the serratus anterior, tra-
pezius, levator scapulae, and rhom-
boids (13). Contributions from the
serratus anterior and specifically mid-
dle trapezius allow for a “co-activa-
tion” force helping to stabilize the
scapula and can potentially help mit-
igate forces associated with shoulder
impingement (4).
Cervical and thoracic portions of the
spine go through periods of both flex-
ion and extension, as the barbell as-
cends through a full range of motion,
making the spinal erectors significant
in their role in maintaining sound po-
sitions during the execution of the lift
(10). Trunk stabilization is also critical
for proper execution and bar place-
ment during exercise which loads the
spine vertically (1). Keeping the spine
stable requires athletes to brace the
trunk using deep abdominal muscles
including the transverse abdominis,
rectus abdominis, the external and
internal oblique and the diaphragm,
to generate large amounts of intra-
Figure 1. Ideal front rack position (front). Front view of an appropriate rack position
before the press. The entire body is rigid, with the balance located toward
the middle of the foot, the shoulders elevated to make contact with the
barbell and the wrists are in extension.
Figure 2. Ideal front rack (side). Side view of an appropriate rack position before the
press. The entire body is rigid, with the balance located toward the middle
of the foot, the shoulders elevated to make contact with the barbell and
the wrists are in extension.
Barbell Overhead Press
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abdominal pressure (IAP). IAP is criti-
cal for execution of the SBOHP at
heavy intensities (1).
Including the SBOHP in a workout
regimen provides athletes with a litany
of positive outcomes. Versatility makes
the movement a wonderful addition for
beginner to advanced trainees. SBOHP
requires limited skill when compared
with more complex overhead lifts like
the snatch, jerk, or even the relatively
simplistic push press (12).
Because of this relatively low skill
requirement, the press can be used
within most any conventional repeti-
tion range, from testing maximum
strength with 1 repetition maximums
to challenging the upper-body’s
metabolic pathways with sets of 20
or more repetitions (1). This aspect
alone makes the SBOHP a great choice
for the vast majority of athletes includ-
ing but not limited to sports with varied
skill sets such as volleyball, basketball,
wrestling, swimming, American foot-
ball, water polo, and golf.
Female athletic populations would be
well served to incorporate elements of
the SBOHP into their strength training
because research from McKean and Bur-
kett show significantly more movement
in the trunk and spine during the seated
shoulder press at high intensities (3 rep-
etition maximum) when compared with
their male counterparts (10). This sug-
gests, on average, females encounter
more instability in the spine and torso
when lifting heavy loads overhead not
only leading to compromised perfor-
mance but potential injury as well. Incor-
poration of specific trunk and scapular
stability exercises can also aid in prevent-
ing injury to the glenohumeral joint
when used in conjunction with pressing
movements (2,13,14,17).
Nearly all groups of populations
would benefit from some improve-
ment in upper-body strength and
stabilization from the use of a multi-
plane, multi-joint exercise that can be
loaded to coincide with any strength,
power, or hypertrophic goal an athlete
may have. The versatility of the
SBOHP also allows its use in almost
any stage of an athlete’s annual peri-
odization cycle (1,8). Examples include
using the press for high-speed reps,
using the dynamic effort in a conjugate
training protocol (20), incorporating
higher volumes in an off-season hyper-
trophy program for a basketball player,
or manipulation of the training tempos
to increase time under tension,
improve stability, and challenge eccen-
tric upper-body strength for an
American football offensive lineman (8).
Improvement in athletes’ upper-body
mobility can be added to the list of
benefits the SBOHP provides. Practi-
tioners must possess requisite mobility
in the hands, wrists, elbows, and
shoulders to achieve a sound front rack
position during the initial stages of the
lift, in addition to the cervical, thoracic,
and scapular mobility and stability
required to maintain ideal positions
throughout the entire range of motion
and well after the barbell has been fixed
in the overhead position (5). Alterna-
tive positioning of the barbell (in the
front rack versus behind the head) and
hand spacing, (a standard or “medium”
grip versus a wide or “snatch” grip) can
significantly affect the mobility and sta-
bility requirements during the execu-
tion of the lift (10,19).
Although few studies have been con-
ducted on pressing movements com-
pared with other resistance training
movements, some research has ex-
plored the correlation between per-
forming resistance training on an
Figure 3. Poor front rack position (side). Poor front rack position. Shoulders are
depressed rather than elevated. A kyphotic posture assumed with the
barbell resting across the fingertips rather than evenly distributed across
the palms and shoulders. The wrists are in hyperextension and the hips are
forward shifting the balance toward the toes rather than the midfoot.
Strength and Conditioning Journal | 3
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unstable surface and with enhanced
muscle activity. Saeterbakken and Fim-
land concluded that an overhead press
performed with a barbell on a stable
surface showed significantly higher
electromyography data when com-
pared with an overhead barbell press
performed on an unstable surface (14).
This suggests athletes and coaches can
be encouraged in the efficacy and effec-
tiveness of the SBOHP in traditional
training environments when compared
with training methods that may be
more complex, esoteric, and expensive
(i.e., the use of unstable lifting surfaces).
Furthermore, space and relatively inex-
pensive equipment is all that is neces-
sary for performing the SBOHP.
The starting position of the SBOHP
begins with the bar in the front rack
position using a prone grip of medium
width with the elbows oriented down-
ward and outward but slightly forward
of the wrists. The bar is located across
the palm of the hand (rather than the
fingertips), using a closed grip, with the
wrists in slight extension (11) (Figures
1 and 2). A common error is to com-
mence the press with the elbows far
too low in the rack position with the
wrist directly over the elbows, the
upper back in a kyphotic (rounded
position) and the barbell’s weight rest-
ing exclusively in the fingertips rather
than evenly distributed across the
deltoids and palms, behind the clav-
icle (18) (Figure 3). A slightly lordotic
posture should be assumed, as
kyphotic postures have been shown
to decrease overhead force, although
excessive lordosis should be
avoided (10).
The feet should be situated approxi-
mately parallel, shoulder to hip width
apart with the entire body rigid from
bottom to top, providing active
involvement of the posterior and ante-
rior musculature throughout the body.
The lifter’s balance should be main-
tained throughout the duration of the
movement by applying pressure to the
middle of the foot (18). The athlete
should raise the shoulders through
scapular elevation and slight external
rotation at the glenohumeral joint in
an effort to maximize upper-body con-
tact with the surface area of the barbell
(5) (Figures 1 and 2). A deep breath
should be taken in an effort to expand
the diaphragm as much as possible and
increase IAP, creating a rigid conduit to
transmit a ground reactive force
through the entire skeletal frame (1).
After the trunk is placed in an ideal
position in relationship to the bar and
optimum IAP is achieved, the athlete
initiates movement of the barbell away
from the body using the prime movers
associated with vertical pressing (19).
Stability in the scapula, spine, and gle-
nohumeral joint is maintained using
contributions from the musculature of
the trunk using both the anterior and
posterior musculature. Scapular stabil-
ity calls for specific emphasis on the
serratus anterior and middle trapezius
to create a “co-contraction” force, al-
lowing the scapula to freely slide
throughout the range of motion (4).
The mandible should be retracted, as
the bar ascends from the starting posi-
tion. This retraction is the key in allow-
ing the barbell to closely pass the face
and ascend to roughly the forehead or
midway point. (17) (Figure 4). This
midway position involves varying de-
grees of cervical and thoracic exten-
sion. The degree to which this
extension occurs largely determines
the degree of activity of musculature
Figure 4. Ideal midway position (side). Midway position with the bar at approxi-
mately forehead height. Trunk is tight, with activity from the posterior
and anterior stabilizing musculature. Weight is evenly distributed through
the midfoot. The mandible is retracted, allowing a clear pathway for
the bar’s ascent. Elbows are under the bar or very slightly in front.
Wrists are flexing, allowing for a more neutral position, as the bar travels
upward to the finish position.
Barbell Overhead Press
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associated. (10). It should be noted
excessive lordosis in the thoracic or lum-
bar spine should be avoided to properly
activate the musculature associated with
pressing movements (19).
Continuing through the midway point,
cervical and thoracic flexion occurs
immediately after the barbell passes the
top of the forehead beginning the final
phase of the movement, in which the
elbows are fully extended (10). This
manipulation of head placement through
spinal extension into flexion assists in
maintenance of a straight trajectory
and appropriately balancing the barbell
behind the head located approximately
position of the movement involves the
barbell being centered slightly behind the
head with full extension of the elbows
and shoulders, scapular elevation and
wrist position (5,19) (Figure 5).
Similar to previous statements, the
SBOHP has a myriad of uses and ap-
plications in a wide array of athletic
populations (14). Few other move-
ments possess the potential for
improvement in general strength
and power in the upper body (10).
Because of the low skill requirements
and the fluid properties of the
SBOHP to encompass such a large
portion of the repetition continuum,
the SBOHP can be used to improve
the strength of a wide variety of ath-
letes over a wide number of different
athletic endeavors.
This information provides insight as to
the genesis of the tradition that the
SBOHP and its variations have long
been not only one of the best tests of
overall upper-body strength but one of
the best tools used in the development
of upper-body strength.
Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding:
The authors report no conflicts of interest
and no source of funding.
Jordan Kroell
is an assistant
Olympic weight-
lifting coach at
Jonathan Mike
is a Visiting Pro-
fessor in the
School of Kinesi-
ology at Univer-
sity of Southern
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Figure 5. Ideal finish position (side). Ideal finish position with the elbows fully locked.
Balance is even over the middle foot; the entire body is rigid. The bar is
located over the C2 vertebra, shoulders, hips, and ankles creating a plumb
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Barbell Overhead Press
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... However, this generated certain controversies that have been addressed in the literature, and some authors have suggested a lesser training volume for pressing exercises around 10% [36,43], while others proposed greater emphasis of around 20% [62]. Nonetheless, current literature and weightlifting manuals [47,51,53,54,[63][64][65] still suggest including WOPDs for improving technique, overall motor coordination and power development, not only for weightlifters but also for general preparation in athletes. ...
... Previous literature focused on the technique of the different WOPDs: standing press [53,64,66,67], push press [53,[68][69][70] and jerk [45,53,60,71]. Additionally, much of the weightlifting information focusing on the exercise technique is found in different weightlifting manuals [1,36,41,43,51,54,63]. ...
... The standing press is a complex, multi-joint movement that mainly involves the upper body muscles to lift the load, although the trunk and the lower body provide stability for the development of the lift. The technique of the standing press has been well described elsewhere [64,66,67]. The standing press has been extensively used in strength training and rehabilitation programs [53,89,90]. ...
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This review examines the literature on weightlifting overhead pressing derivatives (WOPDs) and provides information regarding historical, technical, kinetic and kinematic mechanisms as well as potential benefits and guidelines to implement the use of WOPDs as training tools for sports populations. Only 13 articles were found in a search of electronic databases, which was employed to gather empirical evidence to provide an insight into the kinetic and kinematic mechanisms underpinning WOPDs. Practitioners may implement WOPDs such as push press, push jerk or split jerk from the back as well as the front rack position to provide an adequate stimulus to improve not only weightlifting performance but also sports performance as: (1) the use of WOPDs is an additional strategy to improve weightlifting performance; (2) WOPDs require the ability to develop high forces rapidly by an impulsive triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles, which is mechanically similar to many sporting tasks; (3) WOPDs may be beneficial for enhancing power development and maximal strength in the sport population; and, finally, (4) WOPDs may provide a variation in training stimulus for the sports population due to the technical demands, need for balance and coordination. The potential benefits highlighted in the literature provide a justification for the implementation of WOPDs in sports training. However, there is a lack of information regarding the longitudinal training effects that may result from implementing WOPDs.
Background: Muscular strength and endurance are important attributes for structural firefighting. Matching resistance exercises to firefighter job demands is not well-established. Objective: This study compared the electromyographic (EMG) activity of major muscles during the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) and weight lifting exercises in firefighters. Methods: A repeated measures study was conducted in 13 full-duty career firefighters (1 F, 12 M; age 18-44 years). Participants completed seven weight lifting exercises at a university laboratory. They separately completed the CPAT at a firefighting training grounds. During each activity, surface EMG (% maximum voluntary isometric contraction - MVIC) of major muscle groups was recorded and compared between exercises and CPAT. Results: No difference in EMG activity was observed between exercises and CPAT for the deltoid, trapezius, lumbar multifidus, gluteal, and biceps femoris muscles. EMG activity was significantly greater during the CPAT for the abdominal obliques (32.3% ±27.7% vs. 12.1% ±8.3%, p < 0.001) and for the latissimus dorsi (21.8% ±25.1% vs. 11.4% ±7.7%, p < 0.001). Conclusions: Standard weight lifting and abdominal oblique exercises should be incorporated into resistance training programs for firefighters.
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The deadlift exercise is commonly performed to develop strength and power, and to train the lower body and erector spinae muscle groups. However, little is known about the acute training effects of a hexagonal barbell vs. a straight barbell when performing deadlifts. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the hexagonal barbell in comparison to the straight barbell by analyzing electromyography (EMG) from the vastus lateralis, biceps femoris, and erector spinae, as well as peak force, peak power, and peak velocity using a force plate. Twenty men, with deadlifting experience volunteered to participate in the study. All participants completed a one-repetition maximum (1RM) test with each barbell on two separate occasions. Three repetitions at 65% and 85% 1RM were performed with each barbell on a third visit. The results revealed there was no significant difference for 1RM values between the straight and hexagonal barbells (mean ± SD in kg = 181.4 ± 27.3 vs. 181.1 ± 27.6, respectively) (p > 0.05). Significantly greater normalized EMG values were found from the vastus lateralis for both the concentric (1.199 ± 0.22) and eccentric (0.879 ± 0.31) phases of the hexagonal barbell compared to the straight barbell deadlift (0.968 ± 0.22 and 0.559 ± 1.26), while the straight barbell deadlift led to significantly greater EMG values from the bicep femoris during the concentric phase (0.835 ± 0.19) and the erector spinae (0.753 ± 0.28) during the eccentric phase compared to the corresponding values for the hexagonal barbell deadlift (0.723 ± 0.20 and 0.614 ± 0.21) (p ≤ 0.05). In addition, the hexagonal barbell deadlift demonstrated significantly greater peak force (2,553.20 ± 371.52 N), peak power (1,871.15 ± 451.61 W), and peak velocity (0.805 ± 0.165) compared to the straight barbell deadlift values (2,509.90 ± 364.95 N, 1,639.70 ± 361.94 W, and 0.725 ± 0.138 m/s) (p ≤ 0.05). These results suggest that the barbells led to different patterns of muscle activation, and that the hexagonal barbell maybe more effective at developing maximal force, power, and velocity.
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Background: Using a cross-sectional design comparison was made of two overhead press techniques (in-front of the head or behind the head). The purpose of this study was to determine the impact of behind the head or in-front of the head overhead pressing technique on shoulder range of movement (ROM) and spine posture. The overhead press is commonly prescribed exercise. The two techniques (in-front of the head or behind the head) may influence joint mechanics and therefore require an objective analysis. Methods: Passive shoulder ROM quantified using goniometric measures, dynamic ROM utilised three dimensional (3D) biomechanical measures (120 Hz) of 33 participants performing overhead pressing in a seated position. The timing and synchronisation of the upper limb shoulder and spine segments were quantified and influence of each technique investigated. Results: The in-front technique commenced in lordotic position, whilst behind the head technique commenced in kyphotic position. Behind the head technique started with less thoracic extension than in-front condition. The thoracic spine remained extended and moved between 12� and 15� regardless of gender or technique. The techniques resulted in a significant difference between genders. Males were able to maintain a flat or normal lumbar lordosis, whereas females tended to kyphotic. Conclusion: Shoulder ROM was within passive ROM for all measures except external rotation for males with the behind the head technique. To avoid possible injury passive ROM should be increased prior to behind the head protocol. Females showed greater spine movements, suggesting trunk strengthening may assist overhead pressing techniques. For participants with normal trunk stability and ideal shoulder ROM, overhead pressing is a safe exercise (for the shoulder and spine) when performed either in-front or behind the head.
This study analyzed the top 3 successful snatch attempts by individual lifters in each weight class at a US National Championship weightlifting meet. Two-dimensional body position and characteristics of the lifts were compared via 2-D video analysis in groups of lifters that displaced forward, showed no displacement, or displaced backward to receive the bar. No significant group differences (p>0.05) were noted for body mass, bar mass or hip angle. The rearward displacement group had a significantly greater horizontal distance between the shoulder and heel at the end of the pull (determined as the point where the bar ceases to accelerate vertically). Hip angles for the no displacement group had a small-to-moderate effect size (0.50) in comparison to the forward displacement group, but they only showed a small effect size (0.17) when compared to the rearward displacement group. The forward displacement group showed a small-to-moderate effect size compared to both the no displacement group (0.51) and the rearward displacement group (0.55) concerning the horizontal distance from the shoulder to the heel. These data seem to suggest that rearward displacement in the drop-under phase in the snatch is not detrimental to performance and actually seems to be a preferred technique in US national-level lifters. In addition to evidence that rearward displacement is exhibited in elite lifters and is coached globally, it seems this is the preferred technique in international competitions. This technique may be considered a viable variation of the snatch by coaches and athletes of all levels.
Little is known about the effect of performing upper-body resistance exercises with dumbbells versus barbells and standing versus seated. Therefore, this study sought to compare electromyogram activity (EMG) and one-repetition maximum (1-RM) in barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses performed seated and standing. 15 healthy men volunteered for 1-RM and EMG testing with a load corresponding to 80% of the 1-RM. EMG was measured in the anterior, medial and posterior deltoids, and biceps and triceps brachii. The following EMG differences or trends were observed: For deltoid anterior: ∼11% lower for seated barbell versus dumbbell (P=0.038), ∼15% lower in standing barbell versus dumbbell (P<0.001), ∼8% lower for seated versus standing dumbbells (P=0.070); For medial deltoid, ∼7% lower for standing barbell versus dumbbells (P=0.050), ∼7% lower for seated versus standing barbell (P=0.062), 15% lower for seated versus standing dumbbell (P=0.008); For posterior deltoid: ∼25% lower for seated versus standing barbell (P<0.001), ∼24% lower for seated versus standing dumbbells (P=0.002); For biceps, ∼33% greater for seated barbell versus dumbbells (P=0.002), 16% greater for standing barbell versus dumbbell (P=0.074), ∼23% lower for seated versus standing dumbbells (P<0.001); For triceps, ∼39% greater for standing barbell versus dumbbells (P<0.001), ∼20% lower for seated versus standing barbell (P=0.094). 1-RM strength for standing dumbbells was ∼7% lower than standing barbell (P=0.002) and ∼10% lower than seated dumbbells (P<0.001). In conclusion, the exercise with the greatest stability requirement (standing and dumbbells) demonstrated the highest neuromuscular activity of the deltoid muscles, although this was the exercise with the lowest 1-RM strength.