In this episode, I speak with the grandfather of barbell training, Mark Rippetoe, who has given us many a great things, including books that everyone should read, Starting Strength and Practical Programming.
I’m a fan of Mark and his work, of course, because nobody has done more to promote, teach, and defend barbell training than Rip, and also because of his peppery personality, which always makes for a fun conversation.
This time around, we talk about pressing, specifically the bench and overhead press and all of their variations and subtleties.
These are two of the most effective upper body exercises you can do for gaining strength and size. It’s not a stretch to say that the stronger you get on these two exercises, the happier you’re going to be with how you look above the waist.
There are a number of factors beyond your control that influence how well you can bench and overhead press—your limb lengths, bone structure, height, and so forth—but there are also many things that you can control, like your technique and training methods, and these are what you’re going to learn about in this podcast with Mark.
Whether you’re new to the bench and overhead press or trying to add a few more pounds to your powerlifting totals, I think you’re going to find today’s talk helpful, because we discuss a number of common questions like . . .
- Should you do incline bench press if you’re already doing bench press?
- Should you do wide- or close-grip bench press?
- Should you arch your back a lot, a little, or none at all while benching?
- Should you do seated or standing overhead press?
- Should you do overhead or military press?
The bottom line is by the end of this interview, you’re going to know more about bench and overhead pressing than 90% of the people in your gym, including the trainers.
8:54 – What’s your take on flat bench pressing versus incline versus decline?
11:17 – What are your thoughts on incline pressing to emphasize the upper chest?
24:47 – What are your thoughts on grip width?
34:42 – How much arch should you have in your back?
40:54 – What about elbow position?
43:42 – Do you prefer seated or standing pressing?
44:43 – What about seated allowing you to lift more weight?
48:37 – Let’s talk about hip drive.
53:55 – How does a military press and strict press differ?
1:03:17 – Where can people find you online?
Mike : [00:06:13] Mr. Rippetoe, thank you.
Mark : [00:06:14] Hi, Mike. How are you, man?
Mike : [00:06:16] You know…
Mark : [00:06:17] Been a while.
Mike : [00:06:18] Yep. Yep. Things are – things are going though. Things are – the country’s still here, so that’s good.
Mark : [00:06:23] That’s … well for now…
Mike : [00:06:24] Yep. Yep. You know, I thought we would mix it up and maybe talk about some popular culture like who’s your favorite degenerate on The Bachelor.
Mark : [00:06:36] What’s The Bachelor?
Mike : [00:06:38] It’s a show where …
Mark : [00:06:39] We can’t talk about popular culture with me, I don’t watch television.
Mike : [00:06:42] [Laughing] I actually don’t either, I know it’s a thing. It’s a show where there’s a guy. And, I think they also have …
Mark : [00:06:50] Not married?
Mike : [00:06:50] The female version … Yeah, so it’s a guy and a bunch of girls chasing after him. But then, they have the female version where it’s a girl. It’s a bunch of degenerates being degenerates, basically.
Mark : [00:06:58] Is it like reality TV or is it like a …
Mike : [00:07:01] Yeah, but it’s fake.
Mark : [00:07:01] Situation comedy?
Mike : [00:07:02] No, it’s all scripted. I had this discussion. Yeah, I had this discussion with a buddy of mine’s girlfriend, she’s into one of them. I don’t remember The Bachelor, The Bachelorette is the female version of it, where it’s the girl and all the guys are chasing after the girl.
And she was trying to – I was like, “you do realize all of this is fake, right? Like every single aspect of this is scripted.” And then she was trying to argue, “no, no, this is…”
Mark : [00:07:26] “Oh, no, they wouldn’t do that to me.”
Mike : [00:07:28] That’s the appeal, that’s what makes it so great. It’s real, it’s spontaneous…
Mark : [00:07:33] It’s real man, this is the way people actually behave. Yeah.
Mike : [00:07:37] You actually think that. Wow. Okay. Same thing with, like Kardashians, of course, it’s all scripted. It’s all fake, of course, it is. You gotta make it interesting. You can’t just wing it and hope you get stuff. You need to script everything and, you know, be very deliberate.
Mark : [00:07:58] Does this girl also go to WWE? I wonder if she thinks that’s real, too.
Mike : [00:08:05] [Laughing] Well, I mean, that’s probably actually more real. At least you have to …
Mark : [00:08:09] The guy does fly through the air.
Mike : [00:08:11] [Laughing] Exactly, the acrobatics and the athletics are real.
Mark : [00:08:14] It’s just – it’s an athletic male soap opera, is all it shit is. So. There’s some girls too, I guess. Haven’t watched that in a long time either.
Mike : [00:08:25] Alright so fine. We’re not going to talk about that. Let’s talk about bench pressing and overhead pressing then instead.
Mark : [00:08:29] Okay. That sounds like fun.
Mike : [00:08:31] Alright. So let’s start bench pressing and I want to follow the same format as the previous two with squatting, deadlifting, where I’m just gonna kind of throw some questions your way that I’m often asked on how to bench in a red press properly and then you can rant and rave.
Mark : [00:08:47] All right, cool.
Mike : [00:08:48] All right. So let’s start …
Mark : [00:08:48] I know how to do that.
Mike : [00:08:51] Let’s start with bench press. And let’s start with flat pressing versus incline pressing, versus decline pressing.
Mark : [00:08:59] All right. Well, I think that if you’re gonna bench press, that you ought to do the version of the bench press that uses the most muscle mass. Incline leaves stuff out. Decline leave stuff out.
Plus, the fact that declines got an extremely – a shortened range of motion. And there’s not really any way to do it without the profound risk of being guillotined by a double bar. And so, I don’t see a reason for any human to do a decline bench press. And as far as the …
Mike : [00:09:44] Like putting up more weight than you can actually handle and trying to look strong.
Mark : [00:09:48] Yes. Certainly. It’s just a partial bench, is what it is. It’s just a partial bench. You want to do partial benches, just two partial benches. Make up some excuse, like call them floor presses or whatever you want to do. Just reduce the range of motion and use an artificially high amount of weight. Fine.
If that makes you happy, go ahead and do that. Incline, I was gonna say, is unnecessary, because if you’re doing the flat bench and you’re doing the press, then everything’s covered. Now, there are some shoulder injuries – mine is not one of them – that mitigate in favor of an incline press. I know some people that can incline press without a great deal of pain.
Whereas a regular bench press bothers their shoulder. For persons like that, then yeah, go ahead and incline. But for the general training public, for beginners, for novices, as we call them, I think that if you’re doing both press and the bench press, that you’ve got all your bases covered.
And I see no reason to, you know, doll this up any more than that. I’m a big believer in simplicity and I see no argument for anything, for the vast majority of trainees, other than the bench press and the press.
Mike : [00:11:14] And what are your thoughts on incline pressing for putting a little bit more emphasis on the clavicular part of the pec major? Which, the reason why I bring that up is …
Mark : [00:11:27] That’s bodybuilding. I don’t really give a shit about that. That’s bodybuilding. If you’re trying to fill in the subclavicular pec belly, hey, go ahead. And incline, it probably works because it takes so much of the inferior aspect of the pec out of the movement pec.
Mike : [00:11:48] Yep.
Mark : [00:11:49] And, you know, this is all dependent on angle, but by the same token, you know, a heavy press does the same thing.
Mike : [00:11:56] Yeah. So yeah, the reason why I bring that up is because – I mean, when I was younger, I did a lot of benching, of course. I never trained legs, because why would train legs? [Laughing]
But I did a lot of benching and the way that my chest developed was a bit bottom-heavy because the upper portion of the muscle was a little bit underdeveloped. And what helped balance that …
Mark : [00:12:21] It’s probably genetic.
Mike : [00:12:22] Yeah. But doing a lot of incline pressing, which I was – I mean I did a lot over the course of, I would say six to eight months, I think most of that time and in a slight surplus, if I remember correctly. Like doing it right, it made a noticeable difference.
Like, you know, I have pictures and I look before and after, so from an aesthetic side, I find that in working with a lot of guys that care, yeah, they want to be strong, but they also want to be pretty. They want to have pretty pecs. It seems that the pecs just seem to be kind of a stubborn muscle group, in terms of at least visual development. And some incline pressing can help with that.
Mark : [00:13:06] Well, I don’t doubt that it can. But first, you know, I’m not a bodybuilding coach and I’m really not entitled to an opinion about that. But more important than that, I personally prefer the look of older bodybuilders like John Grimek, over more modern bodybuilders like Ferrigno, who had great big, fluffy pec bellies.
I don’t think aesthetically that big pecs on a male, or – I don’t think they’re aesthetically pleasing. You know, I think it’s real easy to train the pecs with a whole bunch of high rep bench pressing. And I think a lot of people overdo the pecs. I prefer a more balanced physique. If I’ve got a preference for a male physique, I prefer the pre-bench press emphasis bodybuilder physique, as opposed to the post-bench press emphasis. So the guys back in the, you know, Reg Park on back, that looks better to me, than a guy with big fluffy pecs.
Mike : [00:14:24] I agree. That’s actually one of the reasons …
Mark : [00:14:26] And A: you know, I have never been able to comfortably perform an incline press. Those things have always hurt my shoulders. For 35 years, the damn things have hurt my shoulders and I just haven’t done them in a very long time. This is before I had shoulder surgery, the damn things would bother my shoulders.
And, you know, and those of you listening, you know, look, if inclines bother your shoulders, don’t do them. If they don’t bother your shoulders, and you want to do them, and flat benches, there are occasionally guys like I mentioned, that flat benches bother their shoulders. Just incline. See how strong you can get on the incline.
The primary difference between the two exercises, as far as I’m concerned, is the kinetic chain of the exercise. If you are standing on the ground, holding a barbell in your hands and pressing it upward, you’re not leaning on a bench. The kinetic chain is your hands all the way down to the floor, which means that your abs and your low back are actually involved in the exercise where that’s, you know.
Those things are basically asleep in the bench press. And I think that one of the primary contributions that starting strength has made to physical culture, over the past ten years, is that we basically single-handedly reintroduced the press, the standing overhead press – I just call it ‘the press’, because that’s what it is, it’s the press – back into the gym.
And, you know, a nice layback Olympic press is a beautiful athletic movement, it involves way more muscle mass than a bench press does. The fact that it’s being done with a lot of lighter weights than the bench press, in my mind, is not a particular drawback. I mean, the days of human males pressing 400 are pretty much gone.
Although I’ll have to tell you that our young Chase Lindley, here in the gym that works for us, is a pretty good presser. He’s pressed 330. Standing press 330 at a bodyweight of 240. Which is a pretty damn good press.
Mike : [00:16:56] Yeah, that’s impressive.
Mark : [00:16:57] And the other day he did a set of pin presses from right at the forehead with 350, for a set of five. The boy is going to fuck around and press 400 before it’s over with and he’s 19.
Mike : [00:17:20] Wow.
Mark : [00:17:21] So, you know, it can’t be done, you just have to train it. He’s been training with us since he was 12 and, you know, he just thinks what we do up here is normal. So, you know, he’s expected to press over 300, and so he does. It’s a lost art. The standing press is a lost art.
Mike : [00:17:46] I mean, Starting Strength is what got me pressing years ago. I’d never done it before.
Mark : [00:17:52] I know, man. It’s you know, until we started writing about it, till we published it in all three editions of the book and incorporated it as the other major upper body exercise, it just wasn’t being done very much.
And, you know, you see some strong men. There’s some strong man competitors who are doing the silly-ass log press thing. And there’s some of those boys who’ve gotten real, real strong. But as far as 330 at a bodyweight of 240, there aren’t many of them doing that.
Mike : [00:18:27] Yeah, that’s some serious strength. I’ve never seen more than 275 in the gym for somebody who put that up for sets of three or four, which – that impressed me.
Mark : [00:18:38] Yeah, that’s an impressive press in 2018. Now back a long time ago, back in the day, as it were, back in the 50’s, early 60’s, before the invention of powerlifting and the emphasis on the bench press, bodyweight press for a male was – that was just baseline. Everybody could do that. You know, you can’t press body weight, well you – so then you better get caught up.
Mike : [00:19:10] That took me a fair amount of work to get up to. I was surprised at how difficult it was. And it’s probably partially because I have crazy long monkey arms, that doesn’t help. But it was hard to get up to 190’s even for sets of two.
Mark : [00:19:26] Yeah. Really it’s quite an achievement because back then those guys started doing that when they were kids. And just press on overhead. And I’ll tell you the key to pressing heavy weights overhead, is you’ve got to train the lift rather frequently. If you’re gonna be a good presser, you’re going to have to do some pressing four days a week.
Mike : [00:19:48] Because of the skill acquisition, the technical component of it?
Mark : [00:19:52] It’s extremely technical. One centimeter out of line on the bar path and it’s a miss.
Mike : [00:19:58] Yep. Yep.
Mark : [00:19:59] The thing is controlled. It’s an extremely difficult mechanical problem. If you increase the length of the moment arm between the barbell and your shoulder by the slightest little bit more than you can tolerate, you miss the lift. And so, the bar path has got to really, really be firmly established and it’s got to be worked on, it’s got to be practiced, and it’s got to be trained real heavy.
You got to do some heavy partials. You’ve got to go, you know, get used to locking heavier weights out overhead than you actually can start off the shoulders. You’ve got to get comfortable with the idea that your low back and your abs are going to be under one hell of a bunch of stress. They have to get strong. Your abs get a gigantic workout during the heavy press workout.
You’ve got to learn to control your knee position or you’re going to be doing a push press and that’s red lights. You’ve got to – the thing involves the whole body all the way down to the floor and it’s an extremely skill dependent movement pattern. A lot of people don’t appreciate this until you’ve been training it quite a while.
The press is also extremely dependent on psych. You can’t just wander under the bar, take it out of the rack, casually press the damn thing. It won’t go. If it doesn’t come out of the rack and it doesn’t feel good as it comes out of the rack, if doesn’t feel light coming out of the rack, in other words, if you’re not revved up a little bit, you haven’t got the right breath as you take it out of the rack, you haven’t got a little bit of central nervous system excitation going on – you’re going to miss.
Mike : [00:21:55] I’ve experienced that. It’s funny you say that. I’ve experienced that, where exactly that worth. It’s heavy, it feels off, like I know it’s not heavy because I just did this last week. And maybe I’m not even trying to progress in weight. I’m just trying to get in an extra rep, and I’m like, “it just doesn’t feel right,” and then I’ll miss my reps by two or something, be like, “what the hell is that?”
Mark : [00:22:13] Right. You’re just not all the way awake. You’ve got to get into the movement. You’ve got to make a little noise. You’ve got to get under it. You’ve got to stamp your feet. You’ve got to rev up a little bit to press.
Mike : [00:22:27] Yeah.
Mark : [00:22:27] You can’t just casually press.
Mike : [00:22:29] Whereas with squatting, I’ve had it where I’m walking the weight off the bar and it feels heavy, but then …
Mark : [00:22:34] It feels like shit and you say, “okay, well,” and you take a big breath and you go down and you get to sit anyway. But a press just won’t – you can’t bullshit your way through a press like that, you know.
Mike : [00:22:47] Interesting.
Mark : [00:22:48] You just can’t do it, you know. If everything is not tight, if everything is not in exactly the right position, the bar path is gonna go out of line. If the bar runs out in front of you, you’re done. If you can’t hold that thing close to your face all the way up, then you’re not going to make the rep. You’re certainly as hell not gonna get the last two reps of a set of five.
If you’re loose, you’re not absolutely in the moment, you know, everything else out of your mind concentrating on making this thing feel light, the first three reps of a set of five are going to use you up, and you will not get the last two. It’s strange of all of the lifts, including the Olympic lifts, the psych component of the press stands out to me.
None of the rest of them are nearly as dependent on that. It’s a mind game, certainly is, you have to be. You have to learn to focus on it. You have to learn to reproduce these conditions every time you take a heavy press out of the rack or it’s just going to lay there.
Mike : [00:24:02] I’ve experienced it.
Mike : [00:25:39] Let’s go back to benchpress and then let’s flip over to OHP. That was actually gonna be – bar path was going to be one of my questions, so we actually talked about it. But back to the bench press for a few more questions. Grip width. What are your thoughts?
Mark : [00:25:56] Well, my thoughts on grip width are derived from: what are we trying to do with the exercise? If we’re trying to bench press as much weight is we can, then what we want to do, like if we’re at a meet, now what you want to do, is probably going to be a little bit wider grip width, than what you would do as if you’re trying to use the bench press as a strength exercise. And the reason I say that is as follows:
Mike : [00:26:31] How come, just to clarify?
Mark : [00:26:32] To clarify that, the IPF rules state that the maximum permissible legal competition bench press grip width is 32 inches. And whatever that is in centimeters, all right. Now, if you’re a 104-pound female, and you’re, you know, 4’11”, the rule does not stipulate that your grip width is any narrower than the super heavyweight guy weighing, you know, 330.
But the difference in anthropometry is going to turn those two lifters into completely different creatures performing that movement pattern. A 330-pound man with a 32-inch maximum width grip, is gonna be very close to vertical forearms at the bottom. A 104 pound female at 4’11”, may be able to get the barbell out of the rack.
Un-shrug her shoulders without even bending her elbows, and then shrug back up into a lockout position, having moved the bar an inch. And obviously those movements are not comparable. One is a different thing than the other, yet both of them are considered bench presses by the IPF. So in my opinion, for training purposes, we want to use the longest range of motion around the shoulder.
Which means that the grip you take yields a vertical forearm when the bar touches your chest. And just play that little piece of geometry in your head. You know, that’s as far down as your elbows can go if your forearm is vertical.
Mike : [00:28:39] Right, just so people can picture that, so your forearm could be – I mean, I guess you could also think of it in terms of – in relation to your upper arm, right? So be it a 90-degree angle as opposed to …
Mark : [00:28:55] No, no, no. The angle probably – the angle at the elbow will be determined by chest height.
Mike : [00:29:01] Well sure, but you get to a point where you could have a 90-degree angle, whereas if you had your forearms in, you would never get there, you’d always have an acute angle. Right?
Mark : [00:29:12 Well, practically speaking a close grip bench, an extremely close grip bench is so hard on the wrists, most people don’t really do those.
Mike : [00:29:25] Yeah.
Mark : [00:29:26] A close grip bench and, you know, most decent benchers are close griping 90, 92 percent of their actual competition bench press anyway.
Mike : [00:29:37] Right.
Mark : [00:29:38] But, now what I’m saying is that when you lower the bar and it touches your chest, the greatest amount of downward travel at the elbow, and therefore the greatest amount of humoral angle expression on the way down, is presented with a vertical forearm. Which means that most people are going to take a grip about a hand width out from the inside the 16.5-inch bare spot on the inside of a power bar.
Mike : [00:30:14] Okay
Mark : [00:30:15] About a hand width out into the …
Mike : [00:30:18] I was just trying to help people visualize when you say vertical forearm, it’s like a straight up and down. If someone or behind you …
Mark : [00:30:23] If someone is just behind you, the head judge sitting behind you would see vertical forearms.
Mike : [00:30:17] Right. Right.
Mark : [00:30:31] From both the top and from the side.
Mike : [00:30:35] Yeah.
Mark : [00:30:36] Okay. And that would yield the greatest range of motion around the shoulders. And this would, therefore, be the grip that we would select to use for a person who is just strength training with the bench press. All right.
There’s nothing to be obtained, in terms of strength-wise, by reducing the range of motion of the movement. So if you want to reduce the range of motion, take a real wide grip. Well, we don’t care how much we’re benching because we’re not competitive lifters.
Mike : [00:31:09] You see people doing that.
Mark : [00:31:10] Sure.
Mike : [00:31:11 You see people do that in just, you know, random main consumer kind of gyms.
Mark : [00:31:15] Sure you do, because, you know, they’re just dumb. You know, they hadn’t really thought about it. And what we’ve run everything through greatest amount of – our criteria for all these lifts are that: you want to involve the greatest amount of muscle mass in the exercise that you can, that allows you to use the greatest amount of weight on the bar, move through the longest effective range of motion, so that – That’s one, two and three – so that you can get four: as strong as you can using that exercise.
So if we’re going to bench press for strength, then we bench press with a grip that produces a vertical forearm at the bottom. Now, in my opinion, if I were running the International Powerlifting Federation, and when you can go on YouTube and find a world record bench press, by tiny little girl, where the bar moved an inch, I’d be concerned with the public perception of exactly what the hell she’s doing.
Because that’s clearly not the same effort put into the bench press by a large male who actually has to move the barbell. Right? So I think that what would benefit powerlifting, more than anything they could do, besides just getting rid of the bench press, which they’re not going to do, I think that a technical rules change that states that the head judge must observe that the forearms are vertical when the barbell touches the chest of the lifter.
Now, that’s easy enough to implement. It’s exactly the same type of a call as a depth call on the squat. And I realize that most federations don’t judge depth anymore, but the ones that do, the judge is responsible for making that judgment call.
What’s wrong with doing the same thing in the bench press, and making the judges observe the lifter use a vertical forearm as the bar touches the chest and just turn on the red lights? That way she’s got to do a movement that looks a whole lot closer to what he’s doing. And then there’s no confusion in the minds of people that are observing this, exactly what the hell is going on.
Mike : [00:33:53] And not only that, but then she has to do the same type of movement that other women that she’d be competing against have to do because if they don’t have, you know, the anatomy that she has, well, they’re just at a disadvantage, “sorry!”
Mark : [00:34:07] You know. From that point on, everybody’s doing the same bench press. Yeah, you’ve got some people with more flexible backs, you can get a big higher arch. Well, that can’t be helped.
Mike : [00:34:21 Right.
Mark : [00:32:45] You know. But at least we take the effect of grip width out of the equation. Because if everybody’s responsible for using a vertical forearm at the bottom, then everybody’s grip width must generate that vertical forearm so you don’t get to cheat the movement by using this ultra-wide grip if you’re a small person.
Mike : [00:34:48] Right.
Mark : [00:34:49] Now, in my opinion, the same thing goes for the sumo deadlift. That should have been dealt with back in 1981 by Technical Rules Committee meeting on Monday morning after the first guy did the sumo in the world, and they should have amended the rule right then to say, “the deadlift shall be performed with the grip on the bar outside the stands.”
And that way, little tiny girls can’t set world records by pulling the bar two inches. [Laughter] It’s just, that’s stupid. It just really is stupid. And I don’t see the point in not making these rules change, because it would help the sport. It really would.
Mike : [00:35:38] Yeah, I’m sure. Speaking of arch, what are your thoughts on benchpress? How much arch should you have in your back? And why? Why arch?
Mark : [00:35:47] Well, I think that, you know, most people are limited in their ability to arch. A hyper-flexible female can all show quite a bit more thoracic and lumbar overextension than you and I can. You know, I think most people can get enough lumbar arch and thoracic arch to where you can shove your hand under the small of their back while they’re on the bench.
And I think since everybody can do it that way, that’s probably fine, but I don’t think that they’re – if you’re going to start monkeying around with the rules, you’re going to have to do it one step at a time. I can’t think of a quantitative way to fix a big, huge arch on a hyper-flexible female. The grip width …
Mike : [00:36:37] You could just arbitrarily ban her. [Laughing] “Go away.”
Mark : [00:36:42] Yeah, just turn the red lights on. “Why did I get a red light?” “You know, because, just go away. Because get out of here.”
Mike : [00:36:52] “That’s why.” But no, just for the everyday person, though, should they be trying to achieve as much arch as possible? Or the standard, you know – if you can get a tennis ball under there, you’re good to go?
Mark : [00:37:03] I think that the primary thing that a person ought to be doing when they bench is to adduct shoulder blades and get the chest up. And the reason you want to do that is because, it’s kind of a complicated mechanical thing that we cover in the book, and I can summarize it probably for you here by just saying that if you have your shoulder – shoulder impingement is that issue.
I’m trying to think of the best way to introduce this topic. Shoulder impingement occurs when you have an extreme amount of A/B duction at the humerus with regard to the glenohumeral joint. If you sit up in your chair right now and raise your elbows up straight to the side, then when your elbow approaches when your humerus approaches about …
Mike : [00:38:12] Just for people listening, that is ab, a-b-duction, right? Moving away from the middle. And a-d, you’ve probably heard of adduct, is in.
Mark : [00:38:22] Adduction is in, so when your elbows are down lay it on your latch, you’re a-d-ducted and when they’re out at 90 degrees to the side, they are a-b-ducted. At approximately 90 degrees of a-b-duction, you are going to feel a sensation in your shoulder. And that sensation is produced by the entrapment of the rotator cuff tendons between the head of the humerus and the inferior aspect of the acromioclavicular joint.
Mike : [00:38:57] And I would say if people want to see, if they want to visualize, just Google “ac joint” and you’ll see …
Mark : [00:39:05] And there’s an illustration in the book that perfectly illustrates this point.
Mike : [00:38:39] Okay.
Mark : [00:39:10] So what we recommend, as far as a bench press angle from humerus to the midline of the body, is about 70 degrees, because that removes all the impingement. What that does do, though, is drop the elbow down relative to the shoulder, and this produces a moment arm that has to be dealt with, that exists between the barbell and the shoulder joint.
And the price you pay for reducing that moment arm through elbow position is you’re going to impinge your shoulders and bench presses sometimes are hard on the shoulders because of this, so we recommend 70 degrees of abduction instead of 90. The mechanical price you pay for that, is that there now exists a little moment arm between the barbell on the shoulder joint that you have to overcome when you press.
That’s why the bar path and the bench press is not a straight vertical line. It’s a curve. And it curves from the chest back up to the shoulders because the lockout position is directly over the glenohumeral joint and the bar contact on the chest is down below that. So there’s about a three-inch moment arm there that’s gonna have to be …
Mike : [00:40:32] That’s kind of like a little bit of a J kind of motion.
Mark : [00:40:35] Yes. Not, really, it’s just a straight curve. It’s not a J, it’s a, you know, just kind of slightly …
Mike : [00:40:46] If you take the tip away, yeah, it comes in, and then it comes.
Mark : [00:40:50] Right, everybody can understand this. So one of the things that you can do to mitigate that moment arm is to get your chest up. So you’re going to rotate your chest up, and in doing so, you rotate your shoulders back under the bar, so that a person that knows how to do this can get a pretty vertical bar path back out of the bench press, even with the elbows now at 70 degrees of an a-b-duction.
And again, it’s hard to visualize this verbally without being able to draw it. All I can tell you is that it’s in the bench press chapter of the book and it’s beautifully illustrated, and it shows you exactly the concept you need to know and why, it explains the mechanics of all this.
Mike : [00:41:46] Yes, and …
Mark : [00:41:47] So that’s why you need to arch your chest. Efficient mechanics though your bench press and prevent shoulder impingement.
Mike : [00:41:55] Right, and that ties into the elbow position, which was gonna be my next question, but what you touched on. Because of course, what you see all the time in your everyday gyms are people, mostly guys, putting too much weight on the bar, on the bench, and then flaring their elbows up to, as close to 90 degrees as they can to try to grind out those last couple reps, and that’s how …
Mark : [00:42:19] That’s unproductive. That’s unproductive in the long run. There’s a surgical procedure called the Mumford procedure that will eventually be necessary if you keep doing that. It’s best to hold the elbows down and arch the chest up. If you flare the elbows up into 90 degrees, I understand that that pulls all of the pec into the movement.
It adds the delts. It’s easier to bench heavier weights like that, that’s absolutely true, but it’s not good for your shoulders. And you ‘ought to be taking a narrower grip than that and you need to be very careful about arching the chest up so that you can do that nice vertical bar path with your elbows down a little bit because that’s how you take care of your shoulders.
Mike : [00:43:17] And you have to pay attention, especially if you’re new. You got to pay attention to that. Especially when you get to your, you know, if you’re working at a – if you’re lifting, heavier weights and working close-ish to failure, those last couple reps when, you know, you’re …
Mark : [00:43:33] That’s when you hurt yourself.
Mike : [00:43:35] Yeah, you’re really focused on trying to get that weight up, and it’s easy for the elbows to float up, just as a natural instinctive way to recruit a little bit more power. That’s just where it takes the presence of mind a little bit of discipline of technique to keep your elbows where they need to be and don’t use that as the crutch for finishing the set.
Mark : [00:43:57] Right, exactly. Those of you that are real interested in this, I can’t recommend this enough, I’m not just trying to sell my book. But we’re the only resource that illustrates this concept and you can see exactly what we’re talking about. Just get the blue book, Starting Strength, Basic Barbell Training, Third Edition, it shows you exactly what we’re talking about. It’s hard to visualize just with me and Mike, you’re talking about it, but look it up.
Mike : [00:44:28] Agreed. I mean, if you’re gonna train with a barbell, Starting Strength is a book that you should have gone through, the first thing you go through, in my opinion.
Mark : [00:44:35] Right.
Mike : [00:44:37] All right, so let’s move on. Those are the main points I had for bench press. I think we can move on to overhead press. And my first question for you on overhead is: seated versus standing?
Mark : [00:44:50] Always standing.
Mike : [00:44:51] And so, do you think there is no reason?
Mark : [00:44:53] I see no reason to do a seated press. Well, if you’re an amputee, I’m not being funny, I mean, if you’ve gotten – if you’ve come back from a military deployment and your legs are gone through no fault of your own, then you’re going to have to do a seated press. But if you’ve got both your legs and you’re doing a seated press, you’re just being a pussy.
Mike : [00:45:21] What if, what if …
Mark : [00:45:22] Stand up and press the barbell overhead. Use your whole body. Be happy you have your legs. Use them. I don’t understand. I really …
Mike : [00:45:33] Honor them.
Mark : [00:45:34] Yes, absolutely. Honor your legs by making them part of your pressing. They want to help you.
Mike : [00:45:40] Okay, so let me – so what are your thoughts on seated? You could obviously put up more weight, which you could argue is …
Mark : [00:45:50] I doubt that at all. No, I don’t agree with that at all. Unless you’ve – if you have learned how to seated press, you basically what you’ve done is learn how to do a very high angle incline bench press. All right?
But using correct pressing technique, like we teach, a dynamic start off your shoulders, you should be able to press more weight that way. And if you can’t, you just haven’t learned. But you should be able to press more weight overhead standing than seated.
Mike : [00:46:29] Okay. And that’s probably a technical thing, because I’ve pressed, I would say, seated about 20 pounds more than standing, but that’s probably a technical point then.
Mark : [00:46:41] That’s a pretty good seated press, Mike. But if you learn how to do a correct standing press, and I’m sitting here looking at a painting I have on the wall of, that is a rendition of a photograph of Tommy Suggs pressing from back in the 60’s, that picture is on the first page of the press chapter in the blue book.
You can see exactly what – when you do a correct press, your chest is actually pointing at the ceiling, and you start it with the motion of your hips. Not your knees, but your hips. You learn to do a little hip kick. And this gets the bar started up off the shoulders without the extreme amount of help that a knee kick push press would have.
And once you learn how to do – and once again, like I mentioned earlier, this is an athletic movement. It’s technique dependent, it has to be practiced. And practice at lightweight does not constitute practice at heavyweight because the mechanics of the motion changes as the weight on the bar goes up. You have to practice doing heavy presses.
Mike : [00:47:05] Yeah, you know, actually looking at it when I was, just my own experience if I look at it, I don’t think I was getting my chest quite where it needed to be. That alone could have explained some of the difference between the seated in the standing.
Mark : [00:48:12] Yeah. You kind of want to think about it like you’re doing an incline, you know. Like your chest is actually pointing.
Mike : [00:48:28] Right.
Mark : [00:48:28] So in other words, you’re going to use quite a bit of thoracic extension in order to get your chest up. Because that is the position that gets the most weight off of your shoulders because you want to use your pecs. All right? And then, as the bar passes the top of your head, you get under the bar. But you launch the barbell up off of your chest with a hip movement and the position is stronger if the chest is facing the ceiling.
Mike : [00:49:00] Right.
Mark : [00:49:02] And you can see that position very, very clearly in the picture of Suggs as he’s pressing this big weight up overhead.
Mike : [00:49:09] Yeah. For people listening, if you just Google “Tommy Suggs” …
Mark : [00:49:12] Embed that picture in your brain, man.
Mike : [00:49:17] “Suggs press” and see you’ll see what Mark’s talking about.
Mark : [00:49:21] Yeah, it’s a great picture. Great picture. That picture alone is worth a lot of coaching.
Mike : [00:49:33] Emulate that and put yourself on camera and see if you can do it.
Mark : [00:49:35] Yes, absolutely.
Mike : [00:49:37] Let’s talk about the hip drive. That’s obviously one of the things on my list because it’s often misunderstood. I find it a little bit tricky to get used to.
Mark : [00:49:46] It is, again, it’s complicated. And the way we teach it at the seminar is: we’ll have the person stand there with their hands on their hips. Just arms akimbo, hands on your hips, and we’ll tell you to tighten up your abs and your quads, so that there is a band of tension from your chin all the way down to the floor.
You’re tightening the anterior front, just the front of your body, the whole – the abs quads, everything is tight. And then you’re going to push your hips forward into that tension. If you stay tight, it is the equivalent of drawing a bow because you’re pushing into the tension and the further you push into that tension, the more resistance you meet.
And what you have to learn how to do is, push into that tension to create a rebound. All right? Now, if the bar is sitting on your shoulders and you go from a straight vertical line, down the abs and the thighs, into a curve, then the position of the barbell will drop a little bit, about an inch. Just because you went from a straight line to a curve line. You see the geometry of that, right?
Mike : [00:51:17] Right.
Mark : [00:51:19] So what you’re going to do is stand there with the bar in your hands. You’re going to push your hips quickly, you’re going to push your hips forward, the bar is going to come down. And then as the hips come back out of detention, the bar jumps up a little bit. So you’re gonna create a little bounce in the position of the bar. The bounce is caused by the change in the length of the vertical line, caused by the curve as you push into the tension of the hips and abs.
Mike : [00:51:57] Right, as you come up from that context position back toward a …
Mark : [00:52:01] Right, exactly, and then the bar jumps back up. So what you do is, and the way we teach this, it’s easy to learn if you teach it like this: we put the empty bar in the hands, then we make the bar jump up a couple of times, and then we say, “hips and press.”
So you’re going to catch the momentum as the bar comes up off the shoulders and press through it and lock it out. And once you do it once, you do it once like that, you say, “oh, okay.” And then the timing is easy. Now you have to make sure you’re not unlocking your knees. Because you leak power out unlocked knees.
Mike : [00:52:40] Right.
Mark : [00:52:41] And you had to make sure you’re not doing a down and up push press. This movement turns a forward and back, a horizontal hips movement, into vertical bar movement.
Mike : [00:52:55] Makes sense.
Mark : [00:52:57] And then it’s just timing. And it’s practice. It’s timing and practice after that. But once most people see how this works with an empty bar, then you get the timing down, it feels natural to them. It’s a kind of a fun movement to do because it’s athletic and it really helps with the press. A strict military press done without any torso movement at all, doesn’t handle a lot of weight.
Mike : [00:53:27] And that was one of my next questions for you.
Mark : [00:53:30] But this is kind of an Olympic press. This is what we – this is how we informally refer to this – is the Olympic press, or some of the geeks call it ‘press 2.0’. But this is really an Olympic press. It’s a press using a hips movement, not a knees movement, a hips movement to start the bar out of the body.
You can handle more weight like this and unlike a push, press, and good pressers can add 30 percent to the weight they can press because they can get enough leg out of it to drive a whole lot more weight up. This doesn’t add that much to the press and a push presser, an effective push presser doesn’t even really start pressing on the bar ’till it’s about his forehead. This one is not that radical, but it does add a whole bunch of muscle mass, so it satisfies our criteria, by involving more of the body in the movement.
Mike : [00:54:31] Right.
Mark : [00:54:32] While still retaining all of the characteristics of an actual press. You’re pressing the whole range of motion. You’re getting a little help from your hips as it starts off your shoulders. And this isn’t an extremely effective compromise for lifting more weight with more of your body than a strict press would provide.
Mike : [00:54:56] Now, let’s talk about that next, just for people that have heard, so how does this compare to military press or strict press? What do these terms mean?
Mark : [00:55:05] Well, a military press is a press performed without any torso movement. It’s hard to do. I mean, you got to get your chin out of the way.
Mike : [00:55:14] Yep.
Mark : [00:55:15] You know? I haven’t ever actually seen a correct military press perform because the criteria – the way I’ve heard it described is you ought to be able to press leaning against a wall, with your back, against the wall. Your heels and back against the wall.
Mike : [00:55:32] You just go through your face, man.
Mark : [00:55:36] Yeah. So in other words, you’re going to produce a curved bar path that goes out around your chin. That’s not good mechanics because good pressing mechanics is a vertical bar path for all the mechanical reasons we discuss in the book. So I don’t see a point in even clinging like we’re doing the military press. And if your head’s against the wall, you can’t pull it away.
Mike : [00:56:00] Right.
Mark : [00:56:02] You know, so at any practical level you don’t really have what is a strict press, anyway. Now you can move, you can lay your head back and get out of the way and not use any hip movement, and that’s probably the closest you’re gonna get to a strict press.
Mike : [00:56:17 I’ve done that seated.
Mark : [00:56:19] You can do it seated, you know because you don’t have your hips available to you when you’re seated. So we want you to stand there and actively use your abs, and your hips, and your quads, and your calves, and your shoulders, and your traps.
And here’s another important point: would you lock a press out overhead? The load is on your traps. The triceps straighten out the elbow and hold the elbow locked, but at lockout, the load is on your traps. So every correct press finishes with a shrug.
Mike : [00:56:51] Yep.
Mark : [00:57:01] You’ve got to remember to shrug at the top of the press, where it’s not locked out.
Mike : [00:57:07] Yeah. Why is that important?
Mark : [00:57:09] Because you want to keep from impinging the shoulder joint.
Mike : [00:57:15] Right.
Mark : [00:57:16] Because the shrug rotates the scapulas medially and superiorly and pulls the ac joint away from the head of the humerus. See this is the hilarious part about popular culture and the press, what is it that every physical therapist in the northern hemisphere will tell you about the press? It impinges the shoulders.
Mike : [00:57:53] Yeah, it chews up your shoulders.
Mark : [00:57:54] No, no, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s anatomically impossible for a correct press to chew up the shoulders. I’ve had both of my shoulders operated on for various reasons and I press perfectly comfortably.
And in fact, if you go to my website, you can see a video that I have done about shoulder rehab after rotator cuff surgery that uses the press movement as the primary rehab driver – and it works. And a physical therapist that tells you not to press because it impinges your shoulders doesn’t understand either the press or the shoulder.
Mike : [00:58:42] That’s obviously also a common charge leveled at the bench press too, is that it always chews up your shoulders all the time.
Mark : [00:58:50] It doesn’t have to, frequently it does. It’s far harder on the shoulders than the press is, because obviously you are trapped between the bench and the barbell and what’s in the middle? The shoulder.
Mike : [00:59:05] Right.
Mark : [00:59:05] Well, you’re never trapped under a press. If you miss a press, the bar comes down. Right? And if you finish the top of the press with a shrug, you will not impinge the shoulder, it’s anatomically impossible. This is also illustrated in the book. All of these considerations have been dealt with in the book.
And if you receive advice to not press because it’s going to tear your shoulders up, I’m sorry guys, you’ve just gotten some bad advice. Bad advice is everywhere. All right? Educate yourself about the anatomy and about how the press should be performed. But I know you don’t remember this, Mike, because you’re just a kid, but 40 years ago, there wasn’t any rotator cuff surgery.
Nobody had a rotator cuff operation 40 years ago when people pressed. Everybody pressed, makes healthy shoulders. It makes healthy shoulders. Yes, that’s exactly the opposite of what most of you people have been told. But I’m telling you, the press makes healthy shoulders.
Don’t believe somebody that tells you not to press because they’re damaging for your shoulders, because they’re not. They’re not damaging for your shoulders, they’re good for your shoulders, they make your shoulders strong, and they prevent shoulder injuries. Isn’t it interesting how people are wrong or something?
Mike : [00:59:32] [Laughing] Similar to the deadlift and what it does for your back.
Mark : [00:60:36] Oh, deadlift. “Hey, you got back, pain? Oh, God, don’t deadlift. Oh God. That’ll tear your back up, it’ll shear your spine in two.”
Mike : [00:60:45] “Shoot vertebrae straight out.”
Mark : [00:60:46] Out against, you know – little bloody spots on the wall from people with vertebrae being launched across – you know, and what’s the actual truth? The actual truth is we take people with chronic back pain and we have ’em deadlift and squat for two weeks and their back pain is gone.
Mike : [01:00:07] Magical mysteries.
Mark : [01:01:09] That’s the truth. That’s the truth. That’s what actually occurs.
Mike : [01:01:13] Right.
Mark : [01:01:15] Just because your back hurts doesn’t mean that using your back is going to make it hurt more. And we probably ought to do a back pain show one of these days too, Mike.
Mike : [01:01:27] We covered the deadlift in detail in the previous, but any sort of …
Mark : [01:01:32] And I think we touched on it, but we really ought to talk just about back pain one day. I that would be really useful for a lot of your listeners to – let’s get into this and talk about the epidemiology of back pain.
Why people’s backs hurt, why they don’t hurt, what makes them hurt, what makes them not hurt, what doesn’t make them hurt, and just kick that around a little bit, I think that’ll be really informative. I bet you’ll have people asking you for that after this comment, I’m sure …
Mike : [01:02:06] Anything related to pain, there’s a lot of, obviously a lot of interest out there, because you have some pain …
Mark : [01:02:10] Sure.
Mike : [01:02:11] That’s where you’re up late at night on the Google’s trying to figure it out because it’s annoying.
Mark : [01:02:17] Well, I think probably fully half of the questions that we get on our forum are about injuries.
Mike : [01:02:23] Yeah, yeah. Elbow stuff …
Mark : [01:02:25] And that’s been the case for ten years.
Mike : [01:02:27] Shoulder stuff, back stuff, knee stuff …
Mark : [01:02:28 Everything, everything. People are concerned about hurting. I understand that, but so often things are not what you think. And so often the people we trust to know this shit – doctors – don’t have the slightest idea about it. Don’t have the slightest idea about it. Any doctor that puts you on opiate analgesics for chronic back pain should lose his license.
And I’m dead serious about that. Deadly serious about that. You’ve got a whole bunch of people running around, you know, the nation’s opioid epidemic. You know where that came from? It came from back pain and from doctors prescribing opiate analgesics for back pain. That is irresponsible and it is caused lots and lots of problems for lots and lots of people.
And the problem is: they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They don’t know what causes back pain. They’ve never thought about it and they don’t understand how to make it go away – and we do. And you and I are going to have fun on that show.
Mike : [01:03:38] I look forward to it.
Mark : [01:03:39] Let’s plant that.
Mike : [01:03:40] Let’s do it. Well, those are the major questions that I had. I think we should just … -.
Mark : [01:03:37] Well, this is about as long as anybody can stand to listen to us talk anyway, so …
Mike : [01:03:53] People are going to complain, they’ll be like, “what the fuck, this was 60 minutes? What??”
Mark : [01:03:56] Yeah, I know. You know, listen to Rogen for two hours and 45 minutes, but you and I – considered talking for 45 minutes, “man you guys droned on and on and on.” I think it’s been good information.
Mike : [01:04:10] Yeah, we’re not as cool as Rogen, unfortunately.
Mark : [01:04:13] No and we never will be.
Mike : [01:04:15] I’m okay with that.
Mark : [01:04:16] Yeah, I can live with it.
Mike : [01:04:18] Well, let’s wrap up, just in case, if anyone listening, I’m sure they’ve come across you, but in case they haven’t …
Mark : [01:04:25] We’re at startingstrength.com.
Mike : [01:04:35] Central hub, startingstrength.com.
Mark : [01:04:37] StartingStrength.com, enormous website, getting bigger every day. New content, seven days a week, goes up about noon every day, brand new or articles that you have not seen before. Every day at noon, brand new content. Stuff to talk about, forums to discuss, all this stuff.
Videos, lectures, articles, instruction, all that stuff. Books available there or at Amazon.com, Starting Strength, Basic Barbell Training, Practical Programming for Strength Training, those are both in third edition. And I appreciate the time, Mike. Thanks for having me on.
Mike : [01:05:08] Absolutely. Thanks for taking the time. It’s a pleasure as always.
Mark : [01:05:12] Anytime, man. We’ll see you next time.
Mike : [01:05:13] Alrighty.