Pressing Power!

Bill Starr

A Renewed Interest in the Military Press

Page 1

Last February, Dave Draper’s wife, Laree, contacted me regarding an online forum about my book The Strongest Shall Survive. She asked if I’d respond to questions posted by members of the forum. Since I’ve never been one to pass up free publicity, I readily agreed.

Those who have been weight training for a wide variety of reasons for any length of time tend to change their focus as regularly as the seasons, so I wasn’t sure just what aspect of training the online participants would be interested in: rolling around on fat balls, hoisting stones or poles, bands, medicine balls, kettlebells or perhaps some magical routine that would make them huge and strong by working out five minutes a day, twice a week.

So I was surprised that the majority of questions dealt with some aspect of the military, or overhead, press—how to do it correctly, why was it dropped from official competition, is it a safe lift to teach youngsters, is it “less traumatic” to the shoulders than the flat bench, and is it a better exercise for athletes than the flat bench? In addition to the large numbers of inquiries from the online forum, I also received several letters that basically asked the same things. It seems that the military press has once again stepped out of the shadows into the spotlight.

Which is where it belongs. Yet for a long time I was one of the few who encouraged everyone who lifted weights—bodybuilders, athletes, powerlifters, Olympic lifters and those who trained for overall strength fitness—to include the military press in their routines. I fully understood the value of being able to press heavy weights because I’d always pressed. As did everyone else in the gym regardless of why they were lifting. The two primary exercises that absolutely every person who was trying to get bigger and stronger did were full squats and military presses. No exceptions. The exercises selected for the back varied, but not for the upper and lower body.

The military press was the standard by which strength was gauged. “How much can you press?” was always the question asked when someone wanted to know how strong you were. The rite of passage was to be able to press your bodyweight. Once you achieved that feat, you were on your way. By the way, that’s still an excellent measure of upper-body strength. I’d be willing to bet that in a gym where several are benching in the high 300s or even in the 400s, not a single one of them can military-press their bodyweight.

The shift in giving the bench press priority over the military press wasn’t gradual but quite abrupt. Strike one was when the press was eliminated from Olympic weightlifting competition in 1972. Strikes two and three quickly followed: the emergence of the sport of powerlifting, which used the bench press as the test of upper-body strength, and the explosion of weight training for athletes across the country, especially for football. The bench press prevailed because 1) more weight could be used, 2) it was easier to teach, and 3) it was deemed safer. The final reason was the most important of all. Coaches and athletic directors were often wary of students lifting weights and certainly didn’t want to increase the risk of injury by including an exercise that had been banned from the Olympics.

Youngsters and beginners were no longer introduced to the military press for fear it would cause lower-back injuries, a direct result of the International Olympic Weightlifting Committee’s declaration that the press was no longer a part of the sport because so many back injuries were occurring due to the nature of the new style of the lift.

So presses were suddenly harmful, not helpful. No one doubted that if such an austere, knowledgeable body as the International Olympic Weightlifting Committee considered the press dangerous, then it must be. In truth, the committee was made up of a group of self-serving old men who used the sport for personal gain and power, Bob Hoffman being a prime example. There was no medical evidence to support the contention that the military press caused injury to the lower back. That was the smokescreen. Dropping the press was purely a political decision and had nothing whatever to do with the health of the athletes.