Layback: Safe and Effective

by Capt James Rodgers | October 11, 2023

james rodgers pressing

One thing that is guaranteed to draw a lot of attention or admiration from concerned onlookers is to overhead press a heavy weight with a lot of layback. Layback is the tendency for the back angle to become more horizontal during a heavy overhead press and for the back to go into extension to accommodate a more efficient bar path and to recruit more muscle mass into the lift. With layback, the more efficient bar path and the additional muscle mass allows for heavier weights to be handled, and therefore a greater strength training stress can be applied to and adapted to by the lifter.

The conventional wisdom during heavy barbell training is that the spine must be held in a neutral position to avoid an injury due to uncontrolled flexion or extension under a heavy load. This is mostly correct. Layback in the press seems to violate one of the cardinal rules of safe lifting: keeping the spine in a neutral position. This article will explain why layback in the press is both safe and an essential element of heavier pressing. The outcome of reading this article should equip you with the means to explain your injurious-looking execution to a concerned, curious, or otherwise aroused observer.


In the sagittal plane during an overhead press, there are three points which must be kept in vertical alignment for maximum efficiency: the barbell, shoulder joint and the mid-foot. Misalignment of these three points will create moment arms that make the lift more difficult to complete. Read Stance Width and the Press for more detail on moment arms in the press.

The importance of keeping the barbell aligned with the mid-foot is obvious, since misalignment will create a moment arm which acts about the mid-foot and rotates the lifter off balance. A more important moment arm is the one that develops between barbell and the shoulder joint. There is a relatively small amount of muscle mass available to operate the shoulder joint, so an unnecessary moment arm acting about this joint can quickly become unmanageable and cause a failed lift. What layback does is allow the lifter to get his shoulder under the bar and eliminate that inefficient moment arm about the shoulder. Now, that moment arm has not completely disappeared, it has just been transferred to the hips and spinal musculature, which have come forward.

starting strength drawing of one moment arm in the press

 Layback allows for the loading of the hips in the press. This may be the most “Starting Strength” sentence ever written.

There is much more muscle mass operating the hips than the shoulder, so it stands to reason that loading the hips in the press allows for both the training of more muscle mass and for the use of heavier weights. Getting better at layback allows you to get your hips forward and catch a bounce with your shoulder under the bar when the bar is lower. This will let you press heavier and heavier weights to become stronger and cooler than the other lifters.


In barbell training, the role of the musculature which operates the spine is to isometrically hold the spine in a rigid position so that force can be efficiently transferred between the barbell (held in the hands or on the back) and the floor. The arms and legs move through a long range of motion to produce force against external resistance while the spine locks into a rigid body to act as a lever, enabling the transmission of force from one limb to another.

For example, in the deadlift, the legs are driven hard into the ground to produce upwards force extending the knees and hips. The spine attached to the hips through the pelvis and the back musculature contracts to turn the normally flexible spine into a rigid body. The force is transferred through the spine into the shoulders then down into the arms which are holding onto the barbell.

In a well-executed deadlift, the back musculature will hold the spine in a neutral position throughout the lift, which will have two benefits. First, it will make the lift more efficient because rigid bodies transfer force more efficiently than flexible bodies, and secondly it will reduce the risk of injury due to impingement of soft tissue between the bony vertebral segments during uncontrolled spinal flexion under a heavy load. In the case of something like the deadlift, holding back position is an essential element of both safety and efficiency so correcting back position errors are essential.

The context of the press is different, so the same degree of concern over spine extension does not necessarily apply. The press is also usually just a fraction of a lifter’s squat and deadlift weights. It stands to reason that a lifter whose back can stand up to a 500 deadlift will be able to press 200 with layback just fine, because it’s lighter. Now a juiced-up bodybuilder who got his upper body super strong but did sit-ups, avoided heavy squats or deadlifts to preserve his “tapered six pack,” and wrenched his back while trying to max out his press with no preparation will become concerned about your back health if he sees layback. If you have been squatting and deadlifting heavy, you can ignore him.

The press is different from the deadlift in an obvious way; the weight is lifted from the shoulders to over the head whereas in the deadlift the weight is lifted from the floor to just below the hips. This has an important implication for balance. The press is much more sensitive to misalignment of the barbell, shoulder and mid-foot due to the length of the kinetic chain – the floor to the bar overhead, a very long moment arm. The deadlift is less sensitive since the moment arm from the floor stops at the mid-thigh, and has a built-in handrail in the form of the legs. A determined lifter can bludgeon his way to lockout through an inefficient deadlift bar path. A heavy press that drifts out of the correct path will come to a complete dead stop.

To be successful at a maximum rep, a lifter must exercise precise control over the bar path. The musculature operating the spine is implicated in the kinetic chain of the press and its position must be precisely controlled so the barbell is kept in alignment with the shoulders and mid-foot. Specifically, the abs/rectus abdominis controls the anterior spinal position and spinal extension, preventing spinal overextension, and there is no better ab exercise than a heavy press. If the weight is so heavy that the lifter cannot control the position of his spine with his musculature, the bar will come out of alignment with the shoulder and mid-foot and the rep will fail.

Therefore, if a lifter uses layback in the press and he is successful, it means that he successfully controlled his spinal position and was not at risk of injury due to uncontrolled spinal extension under load. We know that the lifter using layback can control the load without injury because it is far lighter than his squat and deadlift and because he is able to effect precise manipulation of the load. He has adapted to the stability requirements of the lift. A positioning error will result in the lifter lowering the bar back to his shoulders and missing the rep instead of a back injury. Layback is perfectly fine because it is well within the performance envelope of the stress that your trunk musculature has adapted to and can manage perfectly well when it gets slapped around by heavy deadlifts and squats.

There you have it. Not only should you not be scared of the layback, you should embrace it to pugnaciously perpetuate preposterously ponderous press poundages.

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