The Untold History of the Overhead Press

The Military Press is undoubtedly one of weightlifting’s most elusive challenges. Done correctly, and with strict form, the Press can humble even the greatest ego. Done incorrectly, the Press turns into a vertebrae and gravity defying lean with little compensation for one’s back. Regardless of the form used, most lifters will have used the Press at some point during their lifting careers.

Aside from the squat, bench press and deadlift, few lifts unite the lifting community like the Military Press. Powerlifters use it to build their bench strength, bodybuilders to build their delts and weightlifters to improve their clean and jerk. Functional fitness athletes often combine it with a push to increase their fitness and even those training with little pink dumbbells press them overhead from time to time.

Where did this lift come from and is there a correct way to do it? More importantly, what happens when lifters push the lift to its absolute limits? These are just some of the questions we cover in today’s post.

Pressing and Performing: The Early Origins

As detailed previously on BarBend, the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century is usually credited with the birth of ‘physical culture’, an all encompassing health movement from which bodybuilding, powerlifting and pretty much anything to do with a barbell has its origins. Our story today in fact precurses physical culture, which is, I believe, a rather impressive feat. While we could begin our story with Ancient Greece and their rudimentary dumbbells, which Morais has previously noted were often pressed overhead, we’ll content ourselves instead with the nineteenth century. [1]

Now the reasons for this are twofold. In the first instance, Greek athletics are a notoriously difficult thing to study owing to a lack of sources.[2]Secondly, the nineteenth century is generally seen as a more immediate precursor for our modern interest in health and fitness. It was during this time that dumbbells, Indian clubs, kettlebells and eventually barbells would come to be formed.[3] Importantly for us, the dumbbells, albeit light dumbbells, came into existence in the early decades of the nineteenth-century. [4]

With the advent of dumbbells came the advent of overhead pressing in two different forms, institutional and recreational. From the mid-nineteenth-century pioneering educators, such as the US-based health enthusiast, Dio Lewis, were encouraging students to press dumbbells overhead in a bid to improve their health, strength and concentration. [5]Outside the classroom, the introduction of dumbbells into the British army in the 1860s meant that incoming soldiers would be soon become familiar with the overhead press. [6] Though a pivotal step in the history of the Military Press, it was only part of the story. A far more important strand was the birth of strongman shows at the same time.

[Read more from the author: The Untold History of the Back Squat.]

Source Title: Strongwoman Athleta Van Huffelen with a novel Military Press

Historians interested in the birth of strongmen and women performances often begin their stories with an Italian strongman named Felice Napoli. [7] Napoli toured Europe in the mid-century, amazing audiences and training devotees wherever he went. By means of introduction, Napoli was mentor to Professor Atilla, who in turn mentored Eugen Sandow, long cited as father of bodybuilding.[8] Now, my genealogy is poor but I suspect that makes Napoli the great-grandfather of bodybuilding. Unfortunately for our post, there is no direct evidence of Napoli using an overhead press in his shows but, and it is an important but, both Atilla and Sandow were known for pressing heavy weights overhead.[9]

So it is likely that Napoli was fond of overhead pressing. Intuitively, it would also seem very strange for a strongman, known for his innovative lifts, not to engage in overhead pressing. Regardless of whether or not Napoli began the trend, those following in his wake, especially those operating in the 1880s and 1890s, proved very fond of the overhead press.

These names will be familiar to students of the Iron Game. Think Louis Cyr, George Hackenschmidt, Arthur Saxon and of course, Eugen Sandow. Though many of these men pressed weights overhead using a single dumbbell, the introduction of the barbell in the closing decades of the nineteenth century brought about rudimentary forms of Military Pressing. In the early 1900s, Katie Sandwina supposedly pressed more weight overhead than Eugen Sandow using a barbell, thereby creating her surname. [10]

In examining the early origins of the Military Press, lightweight dumbbells used in classrooms and heavy dumbbells used in strongman shows are a pivotal stepping stone towards the modern lift. The introduction of the barbell, and with it weightlifting competitions in the early 1900s, capitalized on these existing trends to bring us the Military Press.

A Pressing Concern: The Competition Press

Bonini’s excellent study on weightlifting has traced the origins of competitive weightlifting to London in 1891. [11] This was not to say that weightlifting contests had not begun earlier than this point but rather that the first recognisable contest, using standardised rules and equipment began at this time. Both before and after the competition, lifters competed against one another in regional and national contests using a variety of lifts. As a true measure of one’s strength, the overhead press was often a staple of these tournaments. There was however, just one problem.

Echoing the fact that an international set of weightlifting guidelines was still several decades off, lifters were divided on the best method for testing one’s press. Some preferred the ‘continental’ method, a slow methodical press which began on the floor, required the lifter to pull the bar up to his chest and then press overhead. This lift was akin to a Clean and Jerk, except that instead of explosively pulling the bar from the ground, you slowly clawed it up your body. The only advantage, as far as I can tell, with this form of lifting was that lifters were allowed to use some momentum in pushing the bar overhead. As is perhaps suggested by the name, the ‘continental press’ was mainly found amongst lifters in mainland Europe.

Now the other way of lifting, the real heir to the throne, was the military press. In this lift, heels would be kept together, the back would be kept rigid and the bar would be pressed overhead from the chest. This was the military press as many of us would understand it, albeit with a much stricter form than is commonly found in gym’s today.

How strict were they? Arthur Saxon, a man commonly seen as one of the strongest men alive in the early 1900s, was credited with pushing ‘only’ 225 lbs. using this strict method. [12]According to Saxon, the lift was performed thusly,

Raise the bell to the chest, stand with heels together, legs straight, and body erect. Now push steadily overhead, but do not bend backwards. Watch the bell with the eyes as it goes up, and avoid any kind of a jerk from the chest. Most lifters believe this is purely a test of triceps power, but they are wrong: the deltoid perhaps comes into more prominent play than the triceps in this position, and it is generally recognized as a sure test of strength. [13]

This form of lifting was the true test of strength for many physical culturists in the early twentieth-century. According to Alan Calvert, the man behind Milo Barbell, America’s first nationwide barbell producer,

You cannot find a better test of pure strength than a Two-Arm Press with a barbell. Whenever a man starts to talk to me about “knack” in lifting, I give him a fairly heavy bar-bell and ask him to make a Two-Arm Press… [14]

Despite claims about the supremacy of the military press, continental pressing and several other varieties of overhead pressing existed. Though they shared the use of the barbell, there was little else to compare them. This failure to standardize the overhead press would plague the weightlifting community for the next several decades, with the ramifications most clearly seen upon the Olympic Stage.

Lean On Me? The Olympic Press

From previous articles on BarBend we know that the early days of Olympic lifting were creative and confused times. Unlike the modern iterations featuring two highly technical lifts, the clean & jerk and snatch respectively, lifters of yore were presented with freestyle rounds, one armed lifts and dumbbells pushes. It wasn’t until the 1920s that the games began to standardize lifts in a recognizable way. Though still experimenting, the organizers liked the idea of having a core group of lifts to choose from. By 1928, a trio of lifts was chosen that would last until 1972 [15]. They were the Military Press, the Clean and Jerk and the Snatch [16].

So the Military Press, the ultimate test of strength according to Calvert, had made it to the Olympics and its inclusion was of the utmost significance. According to Roach, many of the early bodybuilders and powerlifters trained and built their physiques using the Olympic lifts [17]. The Military Press’s inclusion as an Olympic lift thus solidified its importance amongst the lifting community for the next several decades. Returning to the pivotal 1928 games themselves, competitors across five weight classes from featherweight to heavyweight fought for Olympic gold. The most impressive lift? Undoubtedly that of eventual heavyweight gold medal winner Josef Straßberger who pressed 122 kilos overhead with ease.

Optimism surrounding weightlifting’s future and attractiveness would wane in subsequent decades, not least because of the press. As detailed by Fair, in perhaps one of the most enjoyable history articles I’ve read, the Press quickly became an object of ridicule within the lifting community [18]. The reason for this was simple. In the clean and jerk and snatch, it is difficult to cheat in any meaningful way. Anyone who has attempted a heavy snatch can attest to the fact that technique and experience can trump brute strength. The Press however, is a different beast. Unlike the other lifts, the Press is open to cheating. Without delving too deeply into the dark arts of lifting, the two most common forms of cheating involve using the legs to drive the bar up, as one would do in a push press, or to lean so far back that the lift becomes a bastardised incline press. Of these two options, the latter quickly began to rear its ugly head.

Returning to Fair’s research, it is clear that within a decade, several national coaches were angered by the sloppy form being used in the Military Press. In 1933, American coach Mark Berry was so exasperated that he began coaching US lifters to use the back bend technique so as to keep pace with their European opponents [19]. Though matters improved in the late 1930s and the entirety of the 1940s owing to a stamping down on poor form, they did not disappear. In the 1952 games an Iranian lifter, Mohamad Rahnavardi, was awarded a 265 pound press by the judging committee with a backbend so exaggerated that one of the referees, George Kirkley, flung his official arm band at the judges in disgust [20]. Any suggestion that the Military Press required strict form and a straight back had become laughable.

Yet the lift retained its Olympic status. In a fantastic showing of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’ the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne changed the rules regarding the Press. From then on, a certain amount of back bend was permissible provided it was not excessive [21]. The ruling’s vagueness did little to help matters and the next decade and a half would see Olympic officials trade barbs over each other’s form. The Americans and Soviets became synonymous with exaggerated back bends and indeed any YouTube search from the 1970s will show vertebrae defying bends being used in competition presses. Tired of protecting the Press, Olympic officials removed the Military Press from official competition ahead of the 1976 Olympic Games [22]. As a last hurrah, the great Soviet lifter Vasiliy Alekseyev pressed 235 kilos at the ‘72 games.

Pressing Past the Controversy

Gone but not forgotten, the Military Press’s popularity amongst the general weight training community continued throughout this period. In bodybuilding circles, the Military Press and in particular the press behind the neck, was used to great effect by mid-century bodybuilders such as Reg Park or Steve Reeves. Likewise strongmen such as Doug Hepburn swore by the Press [22].

Things however, began to change. The advent of American powerlifting in the late 1960s with its emphasis on squatting, benching and deadlifting was echoed by bodybuilders pressing dumbbells rather than barbells overhead in the 1970s. Whereas Park built his delts with the military press, Arnold used dumbbells [23]. Though still used in training, the Military Press’s reputation was severely affected during the 70s, 80s and arguably the 1990s. For our own generation, the Press, and in particular the Behind the Neck Press, came under attack in the past two decades for being dangerous lifts, particularly for those with shoulder mobility issues [24]. It was for this reason that many referred to the Military Lift as ‘the Forgotten Lift’ from 2010 on.[25]

Was it all doom and gloom? Thankfully not. The rising popularity of Starting Strength-esque programmes in which lifters focus on a core group of lifts, including the Military Press, alongside the rise of Crossfit has introduced thousands of lifters to the Military Press.. Similarly weight training’s acceptance in professional sport, most notably the NFL and soccer, has seen the Press gain a renewed importance. It’s popularity pales in comparison to the 1930s or 40s, but at least it hasn’t been forgotten. So next time you’re training shoulders, press the barbell overhead for old time’s sake.

References

[1] Dominic Morais, ‘The History of Dumbbells’, MBPowercenter, Available at:
[2] See Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics. Yale University Press, 2006, on this point.
[3] Shelly McKenzie, Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013, 1-20.
[4]Jan Todd, . “The strength builders: a history of barbells, dumbbells and Indian clubs.” The International Journal of the History of Sport20.1 (2003): 65-90.
[5]Jan Todd, “The Origins of Weight Training for Female Athletes in North America.” Iron Game History2 (1992): 4-14.
[6] Victor L. Katch, Frank I. Katch, and William D. McArdle. Student study guide and workbook for essentials of exercise physiology. Fitness Technologies Press, 1994, 469-473.
[7]Charles Gaines and George Butler. Pumping iron: The art and sport of bodybuilding, Simon and Schuster, 1974, 102-105.
[8]David Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sanodw and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding, University of Illinois, 1994, 8-12.
[9]Ibid., 195-200.
[10] Steve Ward, Beneath the Big Top: A Social History of the Circus in Britain, Casemate Publishers, 2014, 163.
[11]Gherardo Bonini, “London: the cradle of modern weightlifting.” Sports Historian 21.1 (2001): 56-70.
[12] David P. Willoughby, The Super-Athletes. AS Barnes, Incorporated, 1970, 80.
[13]Arthur Saxon, The Development of Physical Power, Gale & Polden, 1906, 32.
[14]John D. Fair, “The tragic history of the military press in Olympic and world championship competition, 1928-1972.” Journal of Sport History28.3 (2001): 345-374.
[15] Dave Randolph, Ultimate Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide to Barbell Lifts—from Beginner to Gold Medal, Ulysses Press, 2015, 09-14.
[16]Fair, “The tragic history of the military press”, 352.
[17]Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors: Volume One, Authorhouse, 2008, 139-142.
[18]Fair, “The tragic history of the military press”, 355-370.
[19]Ibid., 348.
[20]Ibid., 353.
[21]Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, Official Rules Gymnastics and Weight Lifting, Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, 1956, 82.
[22]Reg Park, My Shoulder Training, 1952; Robert Kennedy, Bodybuilding Basics, Sterling Pub. Co., 1991, 28.
[23]Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘Shoulder Training’, c. 1980s.
[24]Louie Simmons Frequently Asked Questions’, 2001.
[25] Chris Colucci, ‘Bodybuilding’s Forgotten Muscle Builder’.

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