Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Why We Don’t Push Press

by Brent J Carter, SSC | June 11, 2019

locking out a barbell press

The press and bench press form the foundation of our upper body strength training exercises at Starting Strength. We do not use the dumbbell press, nor the behind the neck press for the same reason we do not use knee extensions or the leg press for our primary lifts. The criteria for our selection as well as execution of the main lifts has been detailed several times previously. I will simply remind you that the main exercises are exercises that can be trained for many many years. This is because they (the squat, press, bench press, deadlift, and the Olympic lifts) all have several things in common.  They use the most amount of muscle mass, they use this muscle mass through the longest effective range of motion, and they allow us to use the heaviest of loads (relative to other exercises). Machine exercises don't do this, and that's why there aren't any machines in Starting Strength Dallas.

What then about the push press? At first glance it seems like this lift would satisfy our criteria better than our version of the press. The push press uses a large amount of muscle mass. In fact, the push press uses more muscle mass than the press since it incorporates both knee extension as well as hip extension, an a small degree of ankle plantar flexion. However, the range of motion of the lower body joint actions is quite a bit limited when compared to the squat or deadlift, and the Press is one of our two upper-body exercises. The range of motion for the upper body in a push press seems quite long. However, in the push press the upper body does not bear the brunt of the work until the bar has already been driven up by the lower body. This essentially turns the lift into a very short quarter squat combined with a pin press – the range of motion of the upper body is not as complete as the press.

Our press incorporates a forward hip motion that does indeed generate a small amount of momentum into the barbell. However, this hip movement is horizontal, and thus self-limiting. You can only throw your hips so far forward before you begin to bend your knees and turn the lift into a push press. In the push press, however, there is no limit to the amount of hip and knee flexion and extension.

Any basic barbell exercise will have very discrete criteria for its completion. The squat is defined as going from lockout down to the crease of the hips just below the top of the patella and back to lockout. The bench press touches the chest and is returned to lockout. This allows you to effectively compare your current numbers with those previously handled. If you did not have discreet criteria for each lift, how would you assess whether or not progress is being made? This is one of the problems with allowing your squats to creep up above parallel. If you are using the push press as one of your main upper body lifts how do you know if your upper body is in fact stronger or if you are simply using your legs more/squatting deeper into the initial drive of the press?

Let me clarify: we are not opposed to using the push press (or any other accessory lift) as a supplemental tool for strength training provided its use is well warranted (as in not during the novice linear progression and not until well into late intermediate training).  In fact, an Olympic lifter will most certainly need to incorporate push presses into their training for developing the jerk.

Since we are already squatting and deadlifting, the press as described in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training better serves our purposes for developing a strong upper body than the push press, which shares a significant portion of its work with the lower body. While it might not use as much weight, the weight it does use is handled by the upper body through an effective range of motion that is far greater than the push press.

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