Critical Technique Elements - Part 2: The Press

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | December 21, 2022

lifter in the middle of her press

There are a few critical elements of each lift that must be correct. The critical elements in the press are the top position and the bar path – both of which are supported by the start position. This may sound obnoxiously simplistic. The start position, the top position, and the path between them are the most important elements? So basically, the entire exercise is the most important part of the exercise? Written down, it seems obvious, but many lifters and coaches do not bring their mental discussion of technique back to these core components. Focusing attention on these core components will ensure the root cause of the issue is being addressed.

Top Position

The traps support the bar at the top of the press – the triceps just keep the arms straight. The shoulders are shrugged up so that the traps are medially and superiorly rotating the scapulas. The bar should be locked out directly over the shoulder joint with fully extended hips at the top.

Finishing the press with the bar behind the shoulder joint or in front of the shoulder joint is incorrect and can be fixed by thinking about pushing the bar into the ceiling. Don’t worry about moving the bar backward or forward – just focus on trying to touch the ceiling with the bar. This also fixes a sub-optimal shrug up or bent elbows which are typically caused by inattentiveness or rushing.

Bar Path

The bar path is where most of the rep-failing mistakes happen. Part of this is because timing is relevant. The top position and start position are somewhat static, and the lifter can take time to focus on getting them right, but the bar path must be correct without taking too long. Fundamentally, the lifter or coach is looking for a vertical bar path that travels directly over the mid-foot to the top position, while staying close to the shoulder and getting vertical to the shoulder joint as early as possible. That is the entire focus of the press, but encapsulates dozens of errors, dozens of potential cues, and takes a lot of practice to get right.

Minimizing the horizontal distance between the shoulder joint and bar is also critical, since the horizontal distance between the bar and the shoulder is a moment arm that must be overcome. Some of this is managed by thinking about the mid-foot position. But most of it must be independently and actively managed. As soon as the bar is above the face, the lifter should think about slamming his shoulders forward to get under the bar. He doesn’t need to worry about his face or head. He just needs to get his shoulders forward after the bar is high enough. Cueing “brush your hair with the bar” or “hit your nose” on the way up can help here.

The most common issues are imbalance and poor use of the hip movement in both timing and amount of hip extension. Any horizontal distance between the bar and mid-foot (and between the shoulder and mid-foot) represents extra effort not contributing to the vertical movement of the bar. Unlike the squat, the press should always have a mid-foot bar position. Focusing on this mid-foot pressure throughout the lift can be helpful to achieve a vertical bar path without micromanaging other errors that cause a non-vertical bar path.

The hip movement can be difficult to learn and is usually done wrong because of poor timing or a lack of hip extension – not reaching forward deep enough with the hips. The purpose of the hip movement is to add muscle mass to the movement and get the face out of the way of the bar to facilitate a vertical bar path. A lifter who does not reach his hips forward enough and lay back will not get his face out of the way of the bar, and therefore, the bar will have to go forward around his face, thus introducing more moment force against the shoulder. Think about pointing the chest up to the ceiling and reaching the hips forward to the wall in front.

The press is a two-part process that smoothly transitions from the hip movement to the upper-body pressing portion. The hip movement uses tight grip, abs, and knees while pushing the hips forward. The shoulder muscles, triceps, and forearms stabilize the bar horizontally as the bar dips down. The elbows stay vertically under the bar throughout the entire hip movement. The horizontal movement of the hips translates to a vertical movement of the bar which bounces up as a result of the hips returning from their forward position. This occurs because of the tight knees and abs – the hips are not consciously pulled back. As the bar travels up, the shoulders and triceps change smoothly from stabilizers to prime movers. The hips now stabilize and prevent movement of the trunk unless a second layback is used.

This timing also presents challenges – new lifters typically press too early. A useful cue after the initial teaching progression to get a correct bar path is “hips, then press.” A lifter who presses early will have his face in the way of the bar and won’t use the momentum generated productively. Patience is required to achieve the correct cadence of the press. The hips have to come back to neutral because of the focus on keeping tight knees and abs. Pressing early will interrupt the rebound forcing the lower body and upper body to compete for stability and cause the bar to deviate from vertical. Think about it as a smooth two-step process: “hips, then press.”

Start Position

Everything else in the press should support the bar path and the top position. The start position is specifically designed to do this. Start position errors manifest as a non-vertical bar path.

The stance is essentially the same as the squat – toes angled out and feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Too narrow a stance with insufficiently-angled toes will make it difficult to keep the knees straight, and therefore, difficult to effectively use the hip movement.

The bar should be gripped with hands internally rotated – pronated – at a width that produces vertical forearms after unracking. Non-vertical forearms with low elbows will make the bar run forward off the shoulders. Too wide or narrow a grip will produce a shorter range of motion – not reaching the correct top position. Too wide or narrow a grip creates a moment arm between the grip and the shoulder that need not be there. A grip without internal rotation will put the bar in the fingers of the hand causing the wrist to bend which can lead to poor force transfer and, potentially, injury. The inability to maintain this elbow and forearm position during the hip movement will cause the bar to be thrown forward instead of vertically up.

The hips should be fully extended, but not over extended. This is a common problem after the first rep, because lifters will leave their hips forward as they bring the bar down. This reduces the effective range of motion of the hip movement. Fixing this problem usually just requires pointing it out to the lifter and reminding him to "stand up tall" or "abs back" at the start position.

Watching and performing the press can be overwhelming because it’s fast, and there can be a lot of different errors. Focus on the bar path and the top position, determine what is causing problems with those two components, and then fix the root cause. Mistakes in the bar path frequently start in the bottom of the press, so make sure the start position is correct – don’t just assume the bar path is poor because of the hip movement. Watch for a vertical bar path with a big reaching hip movement, and a top position where the bar is shrugged up high directly over the shoulders and mid-foot.  

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