Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Balance in the Press: You Have to Lay Back

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | October 04, 2022

lifter locking out a press

Pressing heavy requires mid-foot balance and a pristine bar path. A person is in balance when the center of mass is inside the base of support. It doesn't need to be centered. He could be on his toes or heels or in the middle, but as long as the center of mass is inside the base of support, he will not fall over. While squatting, for example, it is common to visualize the barbell moving in a straight line over the mid-foot, but the actual point that needs to be over the mid-foot is the combined center of mass (CCOM) of the barbell-lifter system.

The center of mass of an object can be thought of as the point about which all surrounding mass is evenly distributed. During a heavy lift, the combined center of mass is much closer to the COM of the bar than the COM of the lifter. When the weight is light, however, the combined center of mass is much closer to the lifter's center of mass. Therefore, the idea of keeping the unloaded bar mid-foot during a squat is inappropriate. This is clearly explained in the article Understanding the Master Cue.

This concept is still true for the press, but the convenient aspect of the press is that the bar is very nearly over the lifter's center of mass anyway. This means that the lifter can visualize the bar being over the mid-foot at any weight on the bar. Also helpful is visualizing the pressure in the lifter’s feet being mid-foot throughout the entire lift. This works much better at heavy weights than at lighter weights. At lighter weights, it's better to think “Get the bar back over the shoulders early.”

The Lack-of-Layback Problem

A common problem that occurs in the press is when a lifter shoves his hips forward without lying back with his torso on the initial hip movement (Figure 1, middle). The lifter will bend into a bow-like curve. This will move the center of mass of the lifter forward and the center of mass of the barbell-lifter system forward as well. The lifter’s heels will come up, and commonly, his knees will bend. The lifter will throw the bar forward of the mid-foot and then have to wrestle it back to correct the bar path, wasting energy in the process. This will cause a failed rep at heavy enough weights that the lifter otherwise had the strength for and would have been successful with if the technique had been correct.

balance in the press with correct and incorrect positioning

Figure 1. Left, the start position of the press. Middle, hips pushed forward with little layback. Right, hips pushed forward with correct layback.

What needs to happen is for the bow-like curve to come from the hips going forward and the chest leaning back, leading to the same curve but centered over the mid-foot (Figure 1, right).

This is immediately obvious with a personal demonstration: stand with your heels close to a wall and with your back touching the wall. Then, push your hips forward like in the press. You will take a step, every single time, because you shoved your center of mass forward of your base of support. The phenomenon is exaggerated, because the wall prevented you from lying back with your torso. Even a poorly leaned-back press will not typically cause a fall or step because a lifter will always lie back a little even if he isn't aware of it – if only out of self-preservation.

Fixing It

A lifter or coach will watch this center of mass problem and interpret it as a knees or bar path problem without addressing the root cause. This misunderstanding happens because it is common that a lifter will not keep the bar mid-foot during a lift or keep his knees locked out simply as a function of not focusing on doing so. A coach might remind him with a cue like “knees tight” or “bar back” without realizing that the problem is a lack of torso angling - the lifter tries to remain too upright while throwing his hips. A better cue to solve the actual cause would be “Lay back” or “Point your chest at the ceiling” – like the picture of Tommy Suggs pressing – after appropriate instruction without the bar.

The torso should become upright quickly after the initial hip movement along with the hips coming back. The hips coming back drives the bar up, and the layback keeps the face out of the way of the bar until it clears the head. Then the face will come forward again, and the lifter will be upright until the shrugged lockout of the bar. To be clear, this angling of the torso does not come from lumbar overextension – it comes from hip extension. Tight abs, a belt, and control of the knees and spine will prevent any back problems doing this type of press.

Keep this concept in mind if you get on your toes in the press, you unlock your knees, or your bar path is not vertical over the mid-foot. It is easy to see when you know what to look for. Look from a side view (in a video or live if you're a coach), and look to see what the bar does during the hip movement. If it moves down and forward instead of straight down, the lifter isn't lying back enough. Fixing this will allow the lifter to lift weight more efficiently and effectively, be able to finish workouts, and impose the stress he needs on his body in order to adapt and get stronger.

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.