5 Lessons Learned From Overhead Pressing 200 lbs

Kramer - teaching the Pimp Walk since 1996.

Kramer - teaching the Pimp Walk since 1996.

Did you have a good weekend?  Well, I had a great one.

Why?  Well, besides hitting a new deadlift PR, and winning my March Madness bracket, I was fortunate to  reach one of my 2014 goals: overhead pressing 200 pounds.

Granted, it was probably the lowest hanging fruit of my four 2014 goals, but it feels great to get it off my chest (both figuratively and literally).  And, having done it at a bodyweight of 193 pounds, it can safely be said that I pimp walked my way out of the gym.

Yeah buddy!  I'm going to admit....that one felt good.  Tiring, but oh so good.

Anyway, as I'm able to cross a pretty notable goal of mine off the list, I wanted to post a few lessons I learned along the way.  While not everyone is built for this exercise, these are lessons I wish I would have known before moving on to more pressing matters (pun intended).

1. Your back is going to arch.

Overhead pressing is one exercise that's really not suitable for much of the population.  Whether it's someone's bad shoulder, poor t-spine mobility, or an unfriendly bone structure, not everyone is made to overhead press. Sorta simple, right?

But, another component of deciding on whether this lift is appropriate for someone, is their ability (or inability) to control their core. What we DON'T want to see is a huge inward arch (lordotic curve) as they go to press.  Allowing this curve to be present, especially when you're just learning, will simply crank on someone's bony facet joints in their spine.  Most of my clients are told not to even dream about overhead pressing until they have a rock solid core.

Ok, I'm not THAT mean.  But, it's a pretty big deal.

That said, you can easily see in the video above that my middle/lower back goes into the type of arch I just spoke about avoiding.  I'm not a hypocrite, but we also have to be realistic.  When it comes time to pressing heavy weight (and I'm talking at least 3/4 of your bodyweight), having at least some arch in your back is unavoidable.

What you can't see from the video above is how often I train my core to avoid this type of extension, and how those heavy lifts are limited to 1-3 reps every week or less.

2. Great shoulder mobility can ALSO lead to problems

When I was first starting out as a trainer, I thought that scoring high on a mobility test meant I could throw the kitchen sink at someone, and they'd be fine.

Well, that's not exactly how it goes in the real world.

Namaste?  If you can do this and want to overhead press,  I'm going to say "No Mas Today!"

Namaste?  If you can do this and want to overhead press,  I'm going to say "No Mas Today!"

In fact, now when I see great shoulder mobility, it sometimes scares me more than someone with terrible mobility.  Why?  Usually there's a reason why someone is loose, and in most cases, they actually need more stability, and to be less mobile.

Using myself as an example, I'd clear all the normal requirements to press overhead....but, along my way to pressing 200, I developed some weird neck pain when I'd overhead press.  The cause? I was actually too mobile, and needed more scapular stability in order to move heavy weight with no injuries.

3. The importance of getting TIGHT!

If there's one quality that's hardest to teach someone, it's the importance and ability to get as tight as possible.  What do I mean?  You gots to be squeezing. Everything.

Whenever I press heavy overhead, my arms are never the most tired part on my body....it's actually my legs. In fact, after the video above, I needed to sit down for a few minutes as my legs and feet were simply exhausted from getting so tight.

A few months ago, StrongFirst published a great article on the military/overhead press that can be found here.  They had a great quote about what it means to get tight:

Ringing in my ears. Humming of taut muscles. Like rumbling of bass strings.  

If those three sentences sound completely new to you, then you're simply not getting tight enough.

4. If you want to press, you must press.

Originally, my goal to press 200 pounds was a 2013 goal....but after a few unsuccessful attempts I decided to shelve it for the year.  Was 200 pounds simply an unreachable goal?  It seemed I had plateaued at 185 for a few months, and was now getting mocked by barbells in my gym.

But, I thought back to one of my favorite quotes from the late Dr. Randy Paush: "Experience is what you get, when you didn't get what you wanted."

Thus, I went back to the drawing board.  I pressed.  And pressed again.  Then I pressed some more.

As with anything, you get to hone in on your technique the more you practice.  And, by refining your skill you get more and more accustomed to a particular motor pattern.  Pretty soon, there gets to be a point where you can  probably roll out of bed in the morning and use pretty great technique.  Suffice to say, there's no substitute for overhead pressing. 

5. Listening to Country music will add 5-10 pounds to any lift

So, maybe I haven't tested this theory in a randomized, control trial but you just gotta take it from me: it works.  Now, you can say that one probably has to LIKE country music in order for it to actually have an effect....but I'll agree to disagree.

Seriously, how can you not get jacked up by this?

So, there you have it.  It feels pretty great to have this goal behind me, but now it's on to the next one!