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Russ Knipp and the Resurrection of the Olympic Press

by Marty Gallagher | June 14, 2013

russ knipp oly press sequence

I had two fortuitous events occur within a few days of one another that put the standing overhead Olympic barbell press front and center in my brain. One event was witnessing a Starting Strength Seminar in Westminster, Maryland. The second event was the arrival of a massive collection of ancient  magazines.

The Starting Strength seminar was revelatory in that I had not seen the standing overhead press taught or explained in over 40 years. I once had been a deep student of the Olympic press. But that was a long time ago, and long ago I gave up doing them. In retrospect that was a huge mistake.  My reasons for dropping the overhead press, done Olympic style, were reasonable and appropriate and fitting for the times – and still wrong!

The clean and overhead press was the premier progressive resistance exercise in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and thru the first half of the 1960s.  Two things happened that caused the Olympic press to go the way of the buggy whip: the first step towards the exercise’s extinction occurred as a result of the rise of the bench press. The second devastating event for the standing overhead press was the banning of the press from Olympic weightlifting in 1972. The latter was the proverbial nail in the coffin of overhead pressing.

It is hard to imagine any time in the history of modern progressive resistance training when the bench press was not preeminent insofar as popularity. No sane observer of the fitness scene over these past decades would dare dispute the contention that amongst free weight progressive resistance exercises, the bench press (and all its grip width and angle variants) is the undisputed King of Lifts, in terms of popularity.  However standardized exercise equipment, and in particular the standardized modern upright support bench that allowed the lifter to bench press unassisted, were not in widespread use until the dawning of the 1960s.

Old time big bench pioneers like Marvin Eder and Doug Hepburn had to have two men them the barbell on each and every set – what a hassle! In contrast, the clean and press was doable by anyone with access to a barbell. By the 1960s and early 1970s the overhead press was at its poundage peak: monster men, hall-of-fame Olympic superheavyweight weightlifters like Ken Patera, Vasily Alekseev, Serge Redding and Rudolph Mang, had all crashed the 500 pound press barrier.

On the downside, press judging at national and international weightlifting championships had mysteriously degraded. In a delicious irony, the men that judged presses at competitions threatened to ban the press if the lifts weren’t done with greater strictness – this is a judging problem, not an athlete problem in that athletes will do what the rules allow and avoid that which is disallowed.  How odd that the judges told the coaches and athletes they better press stricter when all they had to do to make athletes press stricter was start red-lighting extreme lifts instead of passing them.

Before the ban, lifters were using blatant knee kicks to start the lift and severe lay-backs to finish a press. And these lifts were passed. I say “mysterious”, because while officials had zero problem detecting and failing lifts for subtle and imperceptible technical infractions on the quick lifts, i.e. lightning-fast knee touches in the split snatch, elbows touching knees during squat clean, press out on jerks, these same referees were paralyzed, confused, and indulgent when it came to press judging. While red-light happy in the quick lifts, for some reason these same men couldn’t bring themselves to throw the red light switch when men were push-jerking presses or using lay-back so severe their torsos were parallel to the floor.

rigert push press

When the Powers-That-Be banned the press, Olympic lifting in the United States died a quick and painful death. With the establishment of powerlifting as an official AAU sport, complete with national championships and national records, the bench press took off in popularity. 

Let’s not forget that this was also the era of Arnold, Franco, Sergio and Robbie (in bodybuilding) and the bodybuilders of that era were all bench press fanatics. More than a few, Franco, Bertil Fox, and Eddie Robinson were world record-level bench pressers. The clean and overhead press died and was supplanted by the bench press and its immediate cousin, the 45-degree incline press. Seated overhead presses and machine overhead presses replaced the clean and press as the shoulder exercises of choice. The various press machines came into existence in the late 1970s and became extremely popular immediately. 

The Olympic press is an ultra-sophisticated overhead press. Olympic pressing has been abandoned and ignored for the past forty years, and the lift was thought to have gone to the exercise graveyard to join the Jefferson lift, the bent press, the barbell pullover and press and the Zottman curl – the Olympic press had been thrown onto the trash heap of forgotten progressive resistance exercises. Imagine my delight and surprise when I became aware that the old timey Olympic press, in all its sophisticated glory, was being practiced in 2013 – taught on a widespread basis no less – by Mark Rippetoe. 

Further, the O-Press as taught by Rippetoe was no bland, homogenized, lame, watered-down modern version of the once mighty Olympic press. Rippetoe was teaching the no-compromise old and tricky Olympic overhead press, compete with laybacks, second laybacks and bow-and-arrow wedging used during this lift to push the most possible poundage overhead. 

I had actually held a national record in the Olympic press as a teenager: a 270 pound effort in the 198 pound class in 1967. I was a student of the Olympic press for ten years; so for me, watching Rippetoe demo and teach the press caused déjà vu all over again. I was on an unexpected trip down exercise memory lane – and I knew this lane quite well. It caused me to rethink why I had stopped practicing the Olympic press.  

I suppose I too was lured in by the “bench revolution” and I, like the rest of the humanity, stopped doing standing overhead presses (particularly if there was a clean involved) because it was so much more comfortable to sit or lie down on a padded bench. Better yet (since results  all the same) let’s use one of these new-fangled press machines. We were told by the makers of these machines that the results derived from comfortable machine pressing were equal to if not better than results derived from those nasty, gruesome standing overhead Olympic presses using dangerous free-weights.  So, all things being equal, who wouldn’t prefer to sit on a plush leather padded seat pushing overhead a bar or a pair of handles on a payload that rolled on a well-oiled, smooth-as-silk track.

We all so desperately  that, yes, the results from machines would be equal to or better than results gotten from free weights –  so, what the hell: if the results are equal, let’s all sit or lie down and press in supreme comfort, pushing payloads on ball-bearing smooth-as-glass pathways. The inconvenient truth was (and is) that the lure of machines was predicated on this Big Lie that results would be as good as, if not better than, results gleaned from barbells and dumbbells.  Results were not equal, are not equal, and will never be equal – not even close. Free weights trump machines every single time.

Here is how the pecking order lays out when it comes to maximum muscle stimulation: seated barbell pressing trumps machine pressing; seated dumbbell pressing trumps seated barbell pressing; standing military pressing with barbell trumps seated dumbbell pressing; standing dumbbell pressing trumps standing barbell pressing; Olympic-style barbell overhead pressing trumps everything.

For the past four decades I have alternated between seated dumbbells, seated barbell front press or seated press-behind-the-neck – and my pressing power declined faster than Olympic weightlifting’s popularity in the USA after the banning of the press. I attributed this precipitous decline to age and injury, the natural order of things; funny thing was my squat, deadlift, and bench press over the same period did not decline to near the degree of my loss of shoulder strength. On further examination, perhaps that was attributable to the fact that, unlike my shoulder exercises, I didn’t radically change how I squatted, benched or deadlifted. However I radically changed how I overhead pressed. And that radical change was disastrous.

Unfortunately, these profound realizations occurred very recently and I regret the decades of lost opportunity, but, as Lady Macbeth famously said after her husband had murdered the King, “Things with out reform should be without regret – what’s done is done.” Any shoulder, upper pec or triceps development I have in 2013 is traceable to the ten years that I religiously practiced the Olympic press.  

The second event that caused me to reconsider the standing overhead press was my acquiring a massive stack of old  magazines. These proved to be a treasure trove of information on and about the overhead press. Every issue was jam-packed with fabulous Olympic press photos; one  genius-level repeating column was called, “Learn the Lift by Looking.” The column consisted of a sequence of 3-8 freeze frame photographs showing a lift at different critical points in the movement; these sequential photos, taken with a camera equipped with a speed-winder, really got across proper technique. A picture – or better yet a series of pictures – truly is worth a thousand words.

The Olympic press is subtle, sophisticated and practiced properly, extremely athletic.  Perfect Olympic press technique is as complex and challenging as learning to properly swing a baseball bat, learning a tennis serve or a proper golf club swing. One of the very best Olympic pressers of all time was a Pittsburg native named Russell Knipp. This man set a half dozen world records including an incredible 350 pound effort weighing 165 pounds, this done in 1966.  Knipp outlined his press technique and training philosophy in the October 1967 issue of  magazine. Rippetoe mentor Bill Starr created a tight little article on Knipp and his pressing strategy that passed along both technical tips and training tactics.

Russ related, “I’ve made a few changes in my style of pressing since last year. I found that while I am in the ‘get set’ position I could get a more direct drive from my shoulders to arms length by placing the barbell 2-inches lower on my chest at the start of the press.” Another tidbit was Knipp’s advice on footing as it relates to balance. “You must learn to keep the bar directly over the balls of the feet at all times during the press. By putting the bar in this position, it increases your efficiency,” Knipp talked about the “bow and arrow” philosophy of the Olympic press. “Instead of bending  the weight, much as an archer bends the bow by pulling back on the string, the lifter doing the press incorrectly bends , away from the weight. This decreases the amount of force available to push upward. You never see a lopsided bow where one side is bent more than the other. Strive for an even ‘bow bend’ from shoulders to ankles.”

Russ felt that Olympic press was a “technique lift” that needed to be mastered using light poundage. The worst thing you could do would be to ingrain bad Olympic press technique by trying to go up too quickly. Ingrain technique thoroughly before moving up to a slightly heavier weight. Solidify technique with every modest poundage increase and keep increases modest. In addition to practicing the Olympic press, Russ had a rotating arsenal of “assistance exercises” – power exercises designed to increase his raw push strength.

First and foremost on his list of Olympic lift assistance exercises was the military press. “It is important to know how to do a proper military press and to understand how it correlates with the Olympic press. In doing militaries, start with a lay-back.  Start from the lay-back position you use on your Olympic press. Keep the abdomen and thighs as tight as possible. Now push the weight upward and hold this lay-back position for all your remaining reps. Use your  to force the weight up. You will need to use relatively heavy poundage to experience the wedge. As a rep slows, wedge or push the hips forward. I usually advocate 5-rep sets to learn the military press – again using weight heavy enough to need to wedge. I break the Olympic press down into four parts:

  1. the starting position: the lay-back you assume at the start of the Olympic press
  2. come forward to the erect upright position: drive the bar to the top of your head
  3. drop back into the lay-back position: the arms lockout at the lay-back low point
  4. recover to the erect finish position: arise, keeping the weight balanced

Knipp (and Starr) were big proponents of ingraining technique with countless reps using nothing heavier than a broomstick or a lightly loaded barbell. The idea was Russian in origin and the logic was that by doing rep after rep with little or no weight the trainee is able to learn perfect technique. Then when the lifter handles heavy weights the perfect technique will be automatic.

“Right before a competition I like to work up to heavy doubles (2 rep sets) as this forces me to press when “the drive” (coming erect fast out of the set position) ends. This is where hard work on the military press pays off. Think speed on the upward push in all you’re pressing.” Knipp then outlines the exact training routine he used prior to setting a world record.


Bench press, lowered to the neck: 135x10, 225x8, 240x5, 255x5, 275x5, 255x5


Military press of racks: 135x10, 175x8, 205x5, 235x5, 220x5, 220x5


Olympic press: 135x5, 175x5, 205x5, 240x5, 275x5, 290x3
Wall presses: kick feet up on a wall and press between two boxes, 6 sets of 15

Knipp reiterated the relationship between the Olympic press and his specific version of the military press, “Remember that the Olympic press and military press are done identical in that they both use the ‘even bow’ from start to finish; maintain the lay-back until the arms are locked. Keep your balance and keep you weight on the balls of your foot throughout. The arms, abdomen and thighs are always tight. The only difference between the military and the Olympic press is the explosive speed you must use on the latter.”

knipp 370 press

Doesn’t Knipp’s approach look doable? Basically this is an overhead pressing specialization program. Take particular note of the poundage spread between Knipp’s military press poundage and his Olympic press poundage – in a week where he pushed 235x5 in the military press he pushed 275x5 in the Olympic press (followed by 290x3) which comes to a forty pound spread. As a percentage difference this comes to a 17% differential.

For those readers adventurous enough to want to try Olympic pressing, go to the website LiftUp – this site has a treasure trove of top Olympic weightlifters doing the Olympic lifts. Let’s learn the lift by looking; start light and work upward slowly, making sure to nail down technique at every stop along the way. Don’t make my stupid mistake and drop the Olympic press. If you are not doing them, start, and be prepared for the best strength, power and muscle gains of your life in your shoulder girdle. Every serious athlete should be able to overhead press bodyweight using good technique – can you? Why not?


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