Since the elimination of the press
from weightlifting competition after the 1972 Olympics, its place in the training of weightlifters has become somewhat unclear and certainly a point of contention. The questions are pretty obvious: Is the press still a valuable training exercise for weightlifting in its modern biathlon format? If so, how should it be performed and programmed, and who should be using it (or should avoid it)?
There is a not insignificant portion of the world population who is convinced that the press is a vital exercise for improving the jerk
, and who erupt into fits of red ears and flying spittle at the suggestion that for many (even most) lifters, it may not be that important.
To understand the role the press has in weightlifting training, we need to first be very clear on what exactly the jerk requires for success. The overwhelming majority of the upward acceleration and elevation of the bar in the jerk is achieved through a drive of the legs, bolstered by an elastic rebound in the preceding dip. The upper body contributes very little to this upward movement of the bar, although it will help to a very small degree. However, any way you look at it, the legs are the driving force of the jerk, not the arms.
The upper body has two basic functions in the jerk: First, to help guide the bar and body into their respective positions when receiving the lift, and second, to support the bar securely overhead in that receiving position. These are significant tasks not to be underestimated.
The press is essentially the same movement of the upper body during the push under the jerk. This means that as an exercise to teach and practice this particular skill, it has value. It’s a very simple, easy to teach, easy to perform exercise, and is a perfect platform to teach details of execution for this particular part of the jerk.
Where the press diverges to a significant degree from the jerk is in speed, the movement of the rest of the body (or lack thereof), the timing of resistance, and the possible loading. In the jerk, this pressing action of the arms is extremely quick—when watching a well-executed jerk in real time, it appears nearly instantaneous. In the press, the speed varies considerably with the loading, but even with light weights, it’s far slower when compared to the jerk.
In the jerk, this action of the arms is occurring as the rest of the body is moving down under the bar—in fact, it’s responsible for that downward movement—and the bar is moving up very little. In the press, the body is instead locked into a static position and the bar moving up.
In the jerk, the legs create the upward momentum and the arms have relatively little resistance; what resistance they do have occurs near the end of elbow extension where mechanics are best. In the press, the most difficult portion of the lift is the lower portion of the movement, the exact opposite from the jerk.
Finally, the possible loading in the press is a fraction of what’s possible in the jerk for a reasonably technically proficient lifter, particularly the average female lifter who is generally possessed of even less upper body strength relative to lower body strength than the average male lifter. Interestingly, this last point has the obvious effect of increasing the strength needed to support the weight in a static locked-out position overhead, but due to the mechanics of the jerk, there is actually less resistance to the movement of the arms with any given weight in a jerk than in a press.
The speed of the movement is arguably the biggest issue. I feel pretty confident saying that’s it’s common knowledge that in order to develop speed, you need to train with speed, and that training slow movements will limit your development of speed to some degree. Training what is essentially the exact same movement of the drive under the bar with slow speeds and potentially poor lockout overhead at a significant volume and frequency is negatively influencing the speed of the drive under the jerk.
The limits on loading also mean that the amount of static overhead lockout work is limited. If a lifter can jerk 150kg, but can only press 85kg, for example, how much help for the ability to secure and stabilize 150kg overhead will holding 85kg overhead be? This is not to say it won’t help at all, but it will be fairly inconsequential.
The opposite timing of resistance means that the press is also limited most by a factor that isn’t really even present in the jerk—the difficulty of the first several inches of movement off the shoulders. In other words, much of the adaptation stimulated by the press is in an element that has essentially no relevance to the jerk.
Finally, simply associating conceptually a slow strength exercise like the press with the jerk can create problems with jerk execution with some lifters. Even unconsciously, it can encourage these lifters to muscle their way through the lift rather than to focus on optimizing the characteristics of jerk technique that allow maximal weights at any given level of strength.
The unfortunate fact is that every athlete has a very real limit to his or her work capacity and ability to productively respond to training. As much as I and many of you would love to train eight hours every day and do every exercise we know, it isn’t possible. This means prioritizing elements of training is a critical part of creating effective programming.
Where exactly the press falls on the priority list will vary among athletes, but I can’t conceive of a single scenario, even with my enviable imagination, in which it would be genuinely near the top.
The press, in my opinion, is most useful as a teaching exercise and as an exercise for use early in a weightlifter’s development due to its simplicity and accessibility. In other words, the more advanced a lifter, the less value it will possess relative to the other exercises available to that lifter.
So if I’m telling you the press isn’t that important, how do we develop the necessary qualities aside from just doing jerks?
First of all, doing jerks IS the first priority. You can improve their effectiveness in a number of ways in general and to address specific needs and weaknesses. For example, lowering jerks back to the shoulders rather than dropping them or using jerk blocks will develop a great deal of upper body strength, but also will develop the leg’s ability to absorb downward force, which will contribute to being capable of a more productive dip and drive in the jerk (think of it as being similar to performing depth drops). As another example, holding all jerks in training overhead for 3-5 seconds before dropping them—this provides both static lockout strength training and total body stability training, all without adding more than a few seconds to your workout.
For upper body strength specific to the jerk, the push press
is my number one choice for more reasons than I’ll probably remember to include here. First, we’re more closely mimicking the movement of the jerk in very important ways just with regard to the upper body—the timing of resistance is similar because by including the drive of the legs, we’re avoiding the limit of the initial press off the shoulders that was a problem in the press. Additionally, the speed of the movement and the possible loading is much more similar to the jerk. And of course, we get the benefit of also training the dip and drive timing, position, balance, elasticity and explosiveness. When it comes to benefit for the jerk, there is no competition between the press and push press.
To develop overhead lockout strength and stability specifically, the jerk support
and jerk recovery
are the obvious choices. These can be loaded even more heavily than the jerk, which means orders of magnitude heavier than the press or even the push press. These exercises not only train the upper body, but the strength and stability of the entire body.
When to Use The Press
My simple recommendations for when using the press makes sense:
- As part of the jerk learning progression and an early technique developer to teach and practice the upper body mechanics of the jerk.
- A GPP exercise for young and new lifters building a base as part of a wide selection of movements.
- An accessory exercise for lifters in need of a lot of upper body strength who are also doing more effective exercises as higher priorities such as the push press.
- An upper body strength exercise for a lifter who for whatever reason can't add any more heavy loading to their training programs.
- A hypertrophy exercise for a lifter needing to gain weight or specifically increase shoulder girdle mass.
- As some occasional variety or an easier lift alternative for recovery or deloading periods.
Generally I would suggest sticking to weights that allow a relatively quick lift and avoiding weights that result in slow, grinding lifts, using reps in the 3-10 range.
In short, I have no intention of vilifying or belittling the press. I like the exercise, actually. But its use should be appropriate and rational. Evaluate your or your athlete’s training and needs accurately and use the right tools for the job.