The Olympic Press
Bill StarrHow to Put Up Ponderous Poundages
Last month, I listed many reasons why I believe that all strength athletes should include the military, or overhead, press in their routines. I presented some basic instruction on performing the lift and also pointed out that even though the military press is easy to learn, the form becomes more complicated once the weights get heavy. Few have any difficulty pressing light and moderate poundages, but itís an entirely different story when a max double or single is being attempted.†At that point the technique must be perfect. The smallest form flaw will result in failureónot just sometimes but always.
If people are doing military presses as part of their overall fitness program and are not at all interested in going after a heavy single, then the guidelines I mentioned previously will suffice. Iíll review those in the event you missed that issue.
Should your goal be to press big numbers, however, then you must invest ample time in practicing this lift. When the press was part of Olympic weightlifting, athletes would spend at least one-third of their training time on it, not just to strengthen the muscles responsible for pressing the weight but also to hone the finer form points. In the end, the athlete who had better technique would move ahead in competition, since the press was done first, before the snatch and clean and jerk.
The military press has evolved over the years. Way, way back, weightlifting contests consisted of as many as a dozen tests of strength. The press was always one of them, and it was done in ultra-strict fashion. Athletes had to start the press with their heels touching, and they had to stay absolutely erect throughout the lift. Leaning back was not permitted. If that wasnít enough, they had to elevate the bar at the same speed at which the head†judge raised his hand.†That was indeed a pure form of the press.
Over the years the rules got more lax, especially in regard to back bend. Some lifters were capable of leaning back so far that they ended up finishing the lift with their backs horizontal to the platform. They†were the exceptions, of course, since itís not easy to lie that far back and maintain balance when handling a heavy weight. Plus, an excessive back bend can be harmful to the lumbars.
Then in the early 1960s the press changed from being a test of upper-body strength to an explosive quick lift. Those who adopted the new style of pressing could drive a bar from shoulders to lockout in the blinking of an eye. A perfectly executed press moved as fast as a jerk. It was a revolution in Olympic weightlifting and resulted in world records being broken almost faster than they could be recorded. Somewhat ironically, it was the radical alteration in the way the press was done that ultimately resulted in its being dropped from the Olympic agenda.
The new form of press was called European style, but, in fact, it wasnít a European who devised the more dynamic technique, it was an American: Tony Garcy, the middleweight champion from El Paso, Texas, who moved to York to teach and train. Tony had developed the new style and polished his technique to a fine degree by the time he lifted on an international stage. Thatís where the European coaches and lifters saw the potential of the high-skill movement and instantly adopted it. By the mid-í60s, 100 percent of the European lifters were using the new style, so it became known as the European-style press.
The Europeans lifters trained under tightly controlled conditions. If the coach said to use the new style of press, there werenít any objections. In the United States things were quite different. For the most part lifters coached themselves, and only a few had the opportunity to see this style of pressing. An athlete either had to watch Tony train at the York Barbell Gym or attend a meet in which he competedóand Tony didnít lift in a lot of meets. The quick press did spread across the country, but nowhere near as fast as it did in the rest of the world.