How to Improve Overhead Press
Axle Clean and Press for Max Weight
In any strongman competition there is going to be an overhead event of some kind. This event could be in the form of Maximum Log Press, Log Press for Reps, Max Axle, Axle for Reps, or it could involve the Viking Press, or the Circus Dumbbell, etc.
When most strongman contests involve 5 events with one of them being overhead, if you suck at overhead press, can you afford to give away 20% (one out of 5 events) of the points?
If you can afford to give that much of the score away to your competitors, then you’d better be heads and shoulders above the rest of them in all four other events in order to negate all of the points you’re handing over to them in the overhead.
If you have identified the overhead lift (regardless of the implement used or whether for reps or max weight) as an event that you must improve upon, there are a few ways you can go about improving your performance.
Which one you choose will depend on what your weakness is, and one of these points of attack may be something you have not thought of before.
Liability #1 – Weak Clean
If the event involves cleaning the implement to the shoulders before pressing, and you struggle with the clean, then you are going to be in trouble for the press.
When you have to labor in order to make the clean, then you will be burning energy reserves that you need for the press.
If you have to struggle in order to get the log or axle up, and it is a clean-every-rep event, then you will be in even more of a rough spot.
If you knowingly have a hard time with the clean, then you will need to dedicate time to it in your training sessions.
One way you can do this is to over-load the clean beyond the weight you can comfortably press or jerk overhead. I show you how to do this in the video below, from 2006.
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Without a doubt if your difficulty is a technique flaw, then you need to fix that. Getting stronger in order to power through it will only get you so far. It is much better to hone your technique, make it efficient, and then improve your strength levels later on.
If technique is what you need work on, then you should check out our Strongman Training DVD, which is heavily technique based in order to help you solidify your foundation for strongman training. Remember, it all begins with technique.
Liability #2 – Weak Leg Drive
In most of the overhead events in strongman, you are allowed to use your legs to propel the log, axle, or viking press upwards. In some events you are even able to re-bend in order to catch the implement, similar to the Olympic Jerk.
What I suggest here is Front Squats. While many Strongman competitors include Back Squats in their routine on a regular basis, Font Squats should not be forgotten. After all, initiation of the press is done with the legs, and since the log or axle is being held at the front shoulder, the most specific movement to train is Front Squats.
In addition to doing regular Front Squats with an Olympic bar, there is also nothing wrong with including Front Squats using the Log, in order to get used to the shape of the Log, and increase the specificity of the lift (as shown below).
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However, if your legs are weak and you can not drive through the log and propel it towards lockout, that will mean you will have to develop sick strong triceps in order to catch the log once its momentum ceases and then drive the arms straight to lockout.
The problem with this scenario is that after a few reps, if your legs are a weak point in the movement, then they will eventually burn out and you will not even be able to pop the implement high enough off your shoulders to involve the triceps. If that is the case, the only alternative is to try to employ a jerk-style re-bend in order to get your body further under the implement in order to catch it.
Unfortunately, while this may sound like an extraordinary plan, this technique requires more skill and to shift to this style mid-way through the event without having practiced it will probably not result in much of a benefit.
Liability #3 – Weak Triceps
As you can see, when there is a weakness somewhere in the overhead lift movement, the general objective is to build the strength and power on either side of the movement in order to fortify the previous link and next link in the overhead lifting chain.
Unfortunately, in the case of weak triceps, there is no next link in the chain to strengthen. Everything up to this point depends on your triceps and their ability to take over in the transitional phase of the “press,” continue to full lockout, and thus control the log in order to get into the finished position (feet together, head facing forward, etc).
With every other part of the overhead lift depending on your triceps to finish the job, its imperative for them to be rugged enough to get the job done, or else you will end up doing a lot of work for nothing in the form of monster cleans, big powerful attempts to push the log up with the lower body, an exhausted core from attempting stabilize the body with all of this movement going on as well as your oxygen and energy stores becoming depleted with possibly many more events to go.
Many strongman athletes realize that their tricep strength is holding them back and they begin adding extra tricep work into their training. Exercise choice in this regard is extremely important. For instance, if you start throwing in a few extra sets of tricep pushdowns or kick-backs, you are in trouble as these movements do very little to improve overhead press strength. Instead, standing overhead tricep work should be employed, such as rank lockouts, pressing against bands, and half reps.
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In the video above, I show you how to add resistance bands to the log in order to strength your triceps for the lockout.
Liability #4 – Weak Shoulders
If your shoulders are your weak point in the press than you are going to be against the wall in an overhead event. This is a common scenario, especially for strongman competitors who venture into the sport after years of Powerlifting, where overhead work is not routinely done.
If your pressing power is weak due to a lack of shoulder strength, then you need to spend more time pressing, utilizing a variety of overhead lift methods.
First, you will need to build your vertical pressing using stricter movements in military press fashion. Building a foundation of strength in the vertical position will be a huge asset toward your performance in competition.
Next, you will also need to work on your speed, propelling the log upwards with the lower body in order to avoid a hang-up when the shoulders need to take over. By developing speed in the lower half you can blast the log or axle high enough where the triceps can come into play in conjunction with the shoulders and contributing to a stronger lockout.
Liability #5 – Let’s stop right there for now
I’ve already given you 4 big factors in overhead press success and how to improve upon them. Look at your training program and try to plant some of these movements in it to bring up your weaknesses in the overhead press.
Down the line, I will put up another installment in this series on how to improve overhead pressing power. And in this next one, I will show you some thing you have probably never thought of to improve your overhead lifts.
Be sure to sign up for the Strongman Training Newsletter to be sure you know when the next installment in this series comes out.
All the best in your training,
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