The Double Layback: A Lifter’s Approach

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | August 21, 2019

carl raghavan in the middle of a heavy press


 “One way ticket to Snap City.”

 “These are the fugliest things I've ever seen.”

 “RIP spine.” 

The infamous double-layback press video for Starting Strength has gotten more unlikes than likes on YouTube. Everybody in the comments section is either generously explaining to me that my spinal discs are exploding or loudly telling me I must be trolling. Well, I’m not. And my spine is doing great – still haven’t punched that ticket to Snap City. I could never be bothered to reply to the comments on YouTube, but now I’d like to tell you what it is I’m doing, and how it’s an excellent way to get strong. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a physiotherapist, I’m not a chiropractor. I’m a lifter, a coach, and a practitioner of the much-maligned double layback – and I can offer you some insight into what I know about this incredible lift. 

First, a little background on my history with the press. I didn’t start with the double layback. Originally my press was more like the 1.0, which is essentially a strict press on the first rep with a quick breath in the active shrug, then a slight bounce using the stretch reflex at the bottom of all the remaining reps. In 2012, after the publication of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd edition, I attended a Starting Strength Seminar in Wichita Falls, and I remember thinking the 2.0 looked pretty ropey up on the platform. I knew my technique wasn’t great either, so after the seminar I practiced the 2.0 relentlessly. It was frustrating, but I persevered and eventually made it work. It took me the better part of a year to become more technically sound.

Then, as my press started to get really heavy (in those days, heavy meant 80 kg for doubles), something strange happened. I found I was getting immense power and drive from the first kick of the hips, but then I’d get stuck a few inches before lockout, and it would take me a few seconds of pushing really hard to manhandle the bar all the way up to the top. Once I hit 95 kg or so, a second layback naturally started occurring at this sticking point: by bringing my hips back under the bar and leaning back a touch more, I found I could push through more easily. Interesting, I thought. Wonder what I can do with this? So next time, instead of waiting for the bar to grind to a halt and then initiating a second, slow layback, I decided to slam my hips aggressively into the second one, allowing me to blast through the sticking point. This technique evolved into the double layback you can see in the YouTube video, and it’s the style I still use today. It’s given me great results. 

As a number of people in the comments section pointed out, the movement is very similar to the old-style Olympic press. Bill Starr has a fantastic article on this great lift that goes into more detail, if you’d like to read the best currently available description of the movement. But what I’m doing – dubbed the “Press 3.0” on the Starting Strength forums – is not quite the same. It’s certainly a close cousin to the Olympic press, but there are some differences:

Grip and lower-arm alignment, a.k.a. rack position: The grip is the same as for a 2.0, which means that the barbell is loading the heel of the palm, and that the wrists, forearms and elbows are arranged in a straight vertical line. We’re not pressing from a clean position, as with an Olympic press, because we’re using a nifty little thing called a squat rack: we no longer have to clean every press we attempt.

Floating rack position: For most lifters, including myself, the 2.0 rack position creates a space between the bar and the body. It’s not touching or resting on the deltoids, the way it would in a clean or a front squat.

Stretch reflex: Because of the floating rack position, the first kick of the hips in the 3.0 creates a much more visually obvious dip and bounce than in the Olympic press. This stretch reflex can be used to great advantage, helping the lifter get out of the bottom of the press. It’s almost like a push press from the hips: the bounce, with braced abdominals and locked knees, creates momentum that transfers into the barbell.

Double layback: This is where the 3.0 is most similar to the Olympic press: the lifter initiates with the hips to start and performs another hip drive halfway through, enabling the correctly executed lift even when dealing with huge weights.

Active shrug: The active shrug, as taught in Starting Strength, is the correct way to lock out a barbell overhead. This is an essential part of the 3.0, but may also be performed as part of the Olympic press.

A tip about rack position: I see a lot of people starting off from an unstable position, and it’s usually because the lifter is not fully utilizing the lats. My cue to fix this? The start of the press should feel like the top of a chin-up. Imagine your chin is way above the bar and squeeze your elbows down towards the floor. This will correct the bar position, bringing it tighter to the body and giving the first layback more spring.

A tip about the double layback: The first layback is similar to the 2.0 (with abs tight and knees locked, creating more tension here than at any other point except in the rack position). When you hit the second layback – depending on your flexibility and strength – you will also want to tighten your glutes, as this lean can get much more pronounced, and using this tension in the hips will help protect the back.

Not that this is actually a “dangerous” movement for the back, despite what the concerned citizens of YouTube might think. I’ve recently pressed 130 kg using the 3.0, and have never experienced any back pain from this lift. In fact, it’s helped me improve all my other press variations, including strict, dumbbell, Olympic and the 2.0. Somewhat predictably, I’ve found that the stronger I am, the fewer negative comments I receive.

It’s true that my layback is unusually marked, but this isn’t an issue for me. I’ve always had great flexibility in my lower back. It’s also worth noting that I use a LOT of hip extension, as you can clearly see in the notorious video. I’m not just leaning back; my hips travel away from mid-foot too. This helps balance out the press. If all I did was lean back, I’d fall over. My spine might look hyperextended, but it’s actually not: when the hips are forward, the ass is closer to the spine, that’s all. The heavy barbell acts as ballast, allowing me to stay balanced in the back and hips. Another upside of the lean? It lets me incorporate a little more chest into the lift, turning the press into a “standing incline”, as it’s occasionally referred to.

Some people also like to call the 3.0 the “sumo press,” and they don’t mean that as a compliment. Now, the sumo deadlift trains a much shorter range of motion than the conventional. It also trains far less muscle mass. Neither of these statements is true of the double layback. I’m moving the bar through exactly the same range of motion as I would in a strict press, and the technique actually recruits more muscles. If anything, the double-layback press is more like a hitching deadlift, where the knees unlock for a second or even a third bend, allowing more involvement of the quads (you see these a lot in strongman competitions, where they’re a perfectly legitimate variation). It’s certainly nothing like a sumo.

So why do I keep hearing this analogy? Because when people compare the 3.0 to the sumo deadlift, they’re trying to invalidate the technique. They want to imply that I’m “cheating” somehow, or that this isn’t a “real press.” It’s a reference to the origins of the sumo deadlift, which was first performed by a lifter trying to bamboozle the referees at a competition. It didn’t quite break the rules, so they allowed it, and from then on it was considered legit.

Interestingly, the sumo has a similar origin story to the butterfly stroke in swimming, a version of which was first performed at the 1936 Olympic Games during a breaststroke race. Technically it didn’t break the rules, but it did enable athletes to swim much faster than those doing the conventional breaststroke. Eventually the organisers gave up and decided to make the two strokes separate events. The butterfly, like the sumo, emerged as a way of getting around the rules. In sport, as in life, there will always be people trying to find shortcuts, but this is not the case with the 3.0. The analogy doesn’t work.

Contrary to what the YouTube Brain Trust seems to imagine, I use many different variants of the press in my training. If I’m participating in a strict-press meet, I’ll happily follow those rules. Mostly, however, I lift in strengthlifting meets, where the 3.0 is allowed. It has added a ton of new muscle mass to my shoulders and arms, and I continue to make yearly progress towards my 300 lb press goal. 

So I appreciate everyone’s concern for my lumbar health, but I’m going to stick with my “fugly” presses. If I ever get to Snap City, I’ll send a postcard.

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