Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Bar Path in the Press

by Mark Rippetoe | September 29, 2020

midpoint of a barbell press

The press bears more in common with the clean & jerk and the snatch than it does the squat, bench press, or deadlift. The three “slow lifts” have relatively little potential for major bar path deviation: the squat because your hands don't move the bar, the bench because the bar path is shorter (although you can make spectacular errors if you're not careful), and the deadlift because your shins and thighs are a handy guide for efficient mechanics.

The press has two balance-related moment arms to control, while the previous three lifts just have one. Squat and deadlift must control the bar in relation to the mid-foot balance point, and the bench controls the bar relative to the shoulder joint. The press, in contrast, must control the bar's distance from both the mid-foot balance point and the shoulder.

The snatch and the clean both have a much longer range of motion, they involve acceleration as an inherent part of the lift, and the centers of mass of the body and the bar change position much more significantly than in the other lifts. The upper body's mass swings back relative to the bar in both lifts as an artifact of changing from the pull to the rack position, and this displacement has an action/reaction effect on the bar path that makes it swing forward a little. If this “loop” is not managed, the bar ends up too forward of the mid-foot, or even behind it in the snatch if the loop is big, and complicated corrections are required to get the system back in balance – jumping forward or back to save the lift is more delicate a task than just keeping it close on the way up.

The press is also very technique-dependent, since it can get out of balance relative to both the mid-foot and the shoulder. “Out of balance” means that an unmanageable moment arm has been created that need not be there, one that takes more force to operate than may be available. In a snatch or clean, that may mean a bar that has moved forward too much to rack. In a press, it usually means a bar that is too forward of the shoulder to press – a longer moment arm between bar and shoulder that can be operated with the available force production capacity. It can also mean a bar that has moved forward enough that the whole system, from bar to feet, is out of balance.

The upshot is that the press is a very technical lift that requires both great strength and very effective control of the bar path. For a press, Forward is Death. You have to learn from the beginning to aim for your face off the shoulders, because aiming for the face is also aiming the bar vertically upward as close as possible to the shoulder joint. As the weight goes up, the mechanical system becomes ever-more sensitive to the shoulder moment mechanics, to the extent that the window between a completed rep and a miss is quite narrow.

With this in mind, the advanced lifter's press is very sensitive to practice. It requires 3-4 workouts a week for the press specialist, again similar to the Olympic lifts it was once one of. Bar path deviations of a centimeter are the difference between a miss and a make at heavy weights. The press is also very susceptible to fatigue, since the failure to control the bar path forward (the default direction) will make a tired rep stop dead, while a fresh rep at the same weight shoots right up in the proper groove. Frequent pressing teaches bar path, which must be perfect at limit weights, even if you're tired.

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