By Jim Schmitz
U.S. Olympic Weightlifting Team Coach 1980, 1988 & 1992
Author of Olympic-style Weightlifting for Beginner & Intermediate Weightlifters Manual and DVD
The Manly Military Press
Before there was the bench press, there was the military press!
Probably the second most well-known lift after the bench press is the military press. It seems when people find out you lift weights, regardless of the discipline or method, if they don’t ask you how much you bench press, they will ask you how much you press and then raise their arms overhead. There are many variations of pressing, but I want to discuss the classic military press in this article.
The military press is done by pushing a barbell from your deltoids and clavicles (around your face) directly upward and over your ears to a fully-extended and locked-arm position. Your feet are hip to shoulder-width apart and your grip is shoulder-width or slightly wider. There is no help from your legs, no back bending, and no swinging or swaying of the hips. Your feet stay planted on the floor and your legs, hips and torso stay rigid. Your body position is at military attention throughout the lift—only the head can move backward a little to let the barbell pass.
The military press was once one of the lifts in the Olympics, along with the snatch and the clean and jerk. It was dropped from the program in 1972 because it had degenerated to a modified push/heave press. With the bar on the shoulders the body would arch or bow backward with the hips forward; then by thrusting the hips backward and extending the body upward, the barbell would be heaved upward and then the body would go back into the bowed position as the arms locked out before the body would finally straighten up again with the barbell directly over the head. It was like the body would whip the barbell overhead—the hip movement and back bend was quite incredible.
Originally, you weren’t allowed to bend your knees or let your heels to come off the platform; but that, too, changed and was permitted in the final years of the press, which became known just as the clean and press. It was a very athletic movement but extremely stressful to the low back. It was also very difficult to officiate, so the leaders of world weightlifting decided to drop it from the Olympic program after the 1972 Olympics.
The military press is an excellent exercise and lift for developing strength and muscle throughout your entire body, especially the upper body. I prefer the clean and military press, but you can do it off a rack as long as you perform it strictly. Here are a few tips that will help you: after you’ve cleaned the barbell or taken it from a rack, you get set by tightening your quads, glutes, and torso; push the barbell straight up (it does have to go forward slightly to go around your head); once it passes your head it moves back and proceeds straight upward directly over your ears. I tell beginners, this is where you learn which way is up, because beginners have the tendency to push the barbell out in front of them. When pushing upward, you really concentrate on using your deltoids and triceps, while tightening your thighs and glutes.
For beginners—or if this is a new exercise for you—I recommend sets of 10 reps with a weight of about 25% of your bodyweight. If you weigh 150 lb., then start with about 35 to 40 lb. for 2 sets of 10 reps. If you are an experienced lifter, I recommend sets of 5 reps with a weight that you can do for only 5 reps. However, it would be a good idea to take a very light weight for 10 reps as a warm up. To make the military press more of a complete and effective exercise, you can power clean and press each rep. Two important things to remember are to get set before you press and to hold the weight overhead for at least 1 second for each rep, and 3 seconds on the last rep of each set. Also, when you lower the barbell back to your clavicles and deltoids, you want to catch the bar with a little give in the legs so as not to beat up and bruise yourself or jar your spine. It’s sort of like catching a baseball: you give with the barbell, and then get set for the next rep.
I read somewhere, probably in Strength & Health magazine, that men 18 to 30 years of age should be able to strict military press their bodyweight. Therefore, women 18 to 30 years of age should be able to strict military press 75% of their bodyweight. I think a lot of Olympic-style weightlifters don’t do enough overhead presses and I really believe they should to strengthen the shoulders and elbows. This would help with holding the jerk and snatches as well.
One of the best military pressers that I ever saw (in film) was U.S. Olympian Jim Bradford, third in the 1960 Olympics super heavyweight class. While everyone else was doing a little heave and layback, Bradford just stood straight and pressed 180 kg with his arms and shoulders, using pure raw strength. A great press that I witnessed was Ken Patera’s 229 kg (505 lb.) in 1972. He actually did it twice: his first attempt he heaved and whipped it up so fast that he couldn’t control it, so he had to step forward to save it, which disqualified the lift. He took it again and did it extremely strict, with very little body movement. I’m sure this was the strictest 500-lb. press ever.
There are many variations—sitting, steep incline, behind-the-head, and with dumbbells—and they are all good, but I think the power clean and military press is one of the all-time best lifts for developing total-body strength. It is kind of a two-for-one exercise—you develop your power doing the clean and then develop your strength doing the military press.
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