By Chris Dellasega, MS, CSCS, PICP 2, BioSig 1
Posted: October 28, 2012 - 8:03 AM
There is a trend in football strength training programs to “do what’s always been done”. Since few high school football programs have a coach who’s sole responsibility is strength and conditioning, the task of designing strength programs usually falls to an assistant coach who is in no way, shape or form qualified for the task: just because I can balance my checkbook doesn’t mean I’d be a good financial advisor. The result is typically an outdated program that is reminiscent of what that coach did when he played or is what the winning division 1 program is currently doing.
Mark Rippetoe, an elite-level strength coach and author, has a quote that sums up this approach, “People (strength coaches) at the Division 1 and pro level rarely know what the hell they are doing – their athletes are pre-sorted.” Athletes who are recruited to play in the top programs in the nation often have such superior genetics and natural athletic ability that those traits alone enable them to get stronger on a terribly written program.
As mentioned in a couple of previous articles, the primary role of a strength training program is to “injury proof” athletes by strengthening areas of the body that are vulnerable to injury. Choosing the right upper-body exercises can increase strength levels by properly developing muscles through their different planes of motion.
In order for a muscle to be fully developed it has to be as strong as possible through all of its different planes of motion. Strengthening a muscle through all of its planes of motion disinhibits the body’s various inhibition mechanisms, which are the body’s way of protecting itself, namely the joints. Neglecting to train muscles through different planes will lead to muscle imbalances and dramatically increase the risk of injury. A great example is the overemphasis of the bench press while neglecting the other pressing movements, especially variations of the overhead press.
The Overhead Press
Records in the bench press are being continually broken and the rules of different powerlifting organizations allow assistance gear such as a bench press shirt, which helps handle heavier loads. Due to the popularity of the bench press, rarely do athletes spend enough time training the overhead press. In the early days of strength training the overhead press was a staple in every weightlifter and bodybuilders routine because of its ability to build tremendous size and strength in the upper-body. Today, if you walk into any weight-room in the country chances are very good that every bench press will be occupied and it’s common to see presses of 225 pounds and more. Yet when was the last time you saw someone performing a standing overhead barbell press, handling a considerable amount of weight?
The fact is that there is no other upper-body pressing movement that will develop overall strength and size in the upper-body like the standing overhead press. Legendary Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting, Paul Anderson, completed a clean and press of 408.5 pounds at the 1955 World Championships in Munich and reportedly hit 485 in training. Anderson could also military press 435 pounds. John Davis cleaned and pressed two 142½ pound dumbbells, one in each hand, and legendary weightlifter and strongman Doug Hepburn pressed 341 pounds. The upper-body strength that overhead pressing can build is undeniable.
For a number of years weightlifting in the Olympics included three lifts: the press (overhead), snatch and clean and jerk. The overhead press was the least technical of the lifts and was increasingly difficult to judge. The press was eventually dropped from competition in 1972. Once the overhead press was dropped from Olympic competition it has continued to fall by the way side in many strength-training programs. By the mid-seventies with the growing sport of powerlifting the bench press had all but replaced the overhead press.
Injuries to the rotator cuff also became more frequent when the bench press became overemphasized in strength-training programs because few athletes spend the necessary time developing the muscles of the rotator cuff, scapula, and upper-back. Research suggests that many athletes do not have balanced strength in the scapular muscles (muscles responsible for stabilizing the scapula). This is no surprise because when bench pressing the bench provides stability to the muscles of the upper-back, shoulders and torso.
Overemphasizing the bench press creates an imbalance between the pecs and front deltoids and the rear deltoids and muscles of the upper back. This imbalance is easy to detect. If an athlete’s thumbs are facing forward and his palms are facing the legs, when standing relaxed, the muscles of the chest and back are balanced. If the back of the hand is facing forward, or slightly forward, when standing relaxed, the athlete has spent too much time bench pressing.
Overemphasizing the bench press will shorten the subscapularis muscle (a muscle of the rotator cuff responsible for internal rotation of the humerus, the upper arm bone) and, over time, will eventually cause shoulder pain and increase the risk of injury to the shoulder. A balanced level of strength between the chest, shoulders and the muscles of the upper-back is critical for increasing performance and reducing the risk of injury.
Overhead pressing variations, standing or seated (with no back support) provides greater development of the rear and middle deltoids, rotator cuff, scapular muscles, the lats and the traps. These muscles must provide stability of the shoulder girdle and torso that the bench provides when bench pressing. When the scapular muscles, the lats and the traps are properly developed they can better protect the muscles of the rotator cuff.
Additionally, overhead pressing challenges the strength of the body linkage and stabilizing systems together and develops strength and stability in the abs, lower back, glutes, and upper thighs. Taking the time to improve overhead pressing strength will also increase strength in the bench press because of it’s ability to develop the muscles required for shoulder stability that don’t get properly developed in the bench press.
When beginning an overhead pressing routine always start with dumbbells. Dumbbells require each arm to work independently, which is important for balancing strength between arms. Using dumbbells is much more challenging to the smaller stabilizing muscles of the shoulder and developing these muscles is crucial for shoulder stability and continued strength gains in the overhead press. Using a neutral grip, where the palms are facing each other, instead of a pronated grip, such as with a barbell, is a much safer position for the shoulder to occupy and places less stress on the shoulder joint.
The standing overhead press is also a great diagnostic tool. A weakness in the lower back is frequently exposed when beginning a standing overhead pressing routine. The body will attempt to protect the lower back from injury by decreasing neurological output to the muscles of the upper-body, which will cause a reduction in the loads used in the press. This is a great example of an inhibition mechanism. Simply strengthening the lower back can increase the loads used for overhead pressing movements without training the overhead press directly.
Charles Poliquin, a renowned strength coach who has worked with elite athletes from a variety of sports as well as the secret service, has evaluated the training diaries of some of the most successful and accomplished lifters in the world and himself has trained a number of elite athletes. What he has found is that, on average, an athlete should be able to handle for 8 reps 29% in each hand of their close-grip bench press max. So, an athlete who can bench press 275 pounds should be able to handle 80 pound dumbbells in each hand for eight reps in the seated overhead dumbbell press.
Strength coaches Marke Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore estimate your overhead press should represent 62.8 percent of your bench press for an untrained man, 67 percent of your bench press for a novice lifter, 68.8 percent of your flat bench for an intermediate lifter, 59.8 percent of your bench press for an advanced lifter and 63.5 percent of your bench press for an elite athlete. However, if an athlete has devoted too much time to the bench press they may have some flexibility issues.
If an athlete has problems performing an overhead press due to a flexibility issue they should seek out an Active Release Technique provider (see my article Use Soft-Tissue Therapy to Maximize Recovery In-Season). A qualified A.R.T. provider will be able to release the muscles of the shoulder girdle that are causing the flexibility issue. To find a qualified A.R.T. provider go to www.activerelease.com. The following muscles are a good place to start when working with an A.R.T. provider and attempting to identify the muscle(s) that are restricted.
• Forearm flexors (superficial and deep)
• Latissimus dorsi
• Long head of the triceps
• Pronator Teres
• Subscapularis tie in to serratus
• Teres major
• Teres major tie into latisimus dorsi
• Teres minor
To conclude, neglecting to train muscles through different planes will lead to muscle imbalances and dramatically increase the risk of injury. Spending too much bench pressing will create an imbalance in the muscles surrounding the shoulder. Because overhead pressing builds undeniable upper-body strength, improves shoulder stability and strengthens the muscles of the trunk and legs it belongs in every strength-training program.
For more information on overhead pressing or program design contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.