The Push Press: Peculiarities and Pitfalls
The first time I decided to see how much weight I could lift was in 1966. One day I was doing military presses and in a fit of bravado just kept adding 10 lb with each single lift set, then 5 lb until I came to a grinding halt with 180 total. As the weight climbed, unaware to myself I was giving the start more leg drive each time. The 180 was a full push press, although I knew little of these technical niceties at the time. Nevertheless that lift got me started on a real weightlifting career so I have always had a soft spot for this curious cross between a press and a jerk.
Many of the readers have probably seen the YouTube clip of the immortal Paul Anderson that purports to be a 435 lb press. It has drawn a lot of comments on how it is not a legitimate press since he used his legs to drive off the chest. All of this after racking the bar on his wrists and pushing off of a barbell "float." Well, it certainly wasn't a legitimate press since Paul never pressed 435 in a meet. It was a clean and jerk. But even as a clean and jerk the lift is questioned by many.
What passed for Paul's clean and jerk was actually a push press. Referees were more generous with his jerks due to his lack of flexibility. And it's also hard to turn down a record lift made in a style more difficult than the orthodox one. But was it a legitimate jerk?
IWF Technical Rule 2.2.2 states, "The athlete bends the legs and extends them as well as the arms to bring the bar to the full stretch of the arms vertically extended." The rule does not state that the legs must split or re-bend in order to lock out the bar. The following faults must also not occur as the jerk is completed:
- 2.4.3 Uneven or incomplete extension of the arms at the end of the lift.
- 2.4.4 Pause during the extension of the arms.
- 2.4.5 Finishing with a press-out.
- 2.4.6 Bending and extending the elbows during the recovery.
Paul indeed bent his legs and then extended them and drove the bar to full arm extension without any of the above faults. Some claim he pressed out the last couple of inches, but I believe it was only a shoulder shrug that gave that impression. Power jerks utilizing a second dip have been used by a number of athletes over the years, especially lately but this is the only example of a lifter using a push press to "jerk." Why is this?
The main reason is that a split jerk will elevate much more weight than a push press. That is obvious. Anderson could get away with it due to his huge strength advantage. In 1957 as a pro, he had done 545 or 565 according to a now grainy picture (4x45s, 2x35s and not sure if ends contained had 10 lb plates or just shadows). Bob Hise II even claimed to see a 600 lb effort. In any event Paul had lots of reserve power, enough to drive a mere 435 all the way to arms length with no second leg bend necessary. Not many others save Ken Patera (550 lb push press) had any such advantage. Doug Hepburn could push press any of his jerks, but he was limited by his clubfoot handicapped clean.
Now that the trip down memory lane is done I will talk about the push press as a training lift. In recent years CrossFit revived this lift, so it is becoming a common sight in gyms once again. It is a good overload for the stricter overhead press. It puts more effort into the lockout and is great for the ego if one has hit a wall with the regular press.
Most mere mortals cannot hope to push press their maximum cleans. More importantly, even if they are very strong most if not all would still have to finish the lift with a press out. That will bring the red lights. Conversely, anything they could complete with no second drop would not end up with much of a total.
Some Olympic lifters use the push press to help overhead ability, although the movement is controversial. It will build strength but some say it can inadvertently teach the lifter to press out the jerk, as they want to press instead of do a snappy jerk drop. To each their own. It has other drawbacks though.
As with a power jerk, the ‘groove’ of the lift is very narrow and very straight. If the leg drive is not directed straight up the bar will be sent out front where the combination of heavy weight and too-long moment arm will result in a failure. As with most lifts, the heavier the weight is the greater will be the chance of doing this. So the lift requires some technique, a surprising amount. The push press requires a press-like hand position at the start, not a jerk-like one. The hands must fully grip the bar, no finger tip-only contact. This is needed for the drive.
An important part of the lift is the transition from leg drive to press-out. This occurs at about the same place as the sticking point in a strict press. The better the leg drive, the higher that transition point will be, and the easier the lock-out will be due to better triceps leverage. So drive those legs.
This transition point is also crucial from a safety standpoint. One can lose the lift forward in a miss-drive but more important one can also hyperextend the lower back if care is not taken (a trait it also shares with the power jerk). This usually occurs if the drive does not go high enough and the lifter tries to compensate by back-bending under the bar. Injury can result if the back even temporarily relaxes in this position and buckles into hyperextension. The result can be a pinched disc.
As much as I liked this lift I have to go easy on it now. My long forearms and my old man’s lack of flexibility have forced me, like Big Paul, to start my presses from a floating position now. The bar is an inch or two above my clavicles. A dip with a heavy weight is a bit hard on the elbows, so it’s strict presses only for me. I’m not going to be floating 435 lb anytime soon.
The push press is still a great exercise but the lifter must know its pitfalls and peculiarities:
- Start with a proper press grip, holding the bar tightly across the delts.
- Keep the drive close to the face, and keep it in that groove all the way to lockout.
- Try to drive the weight as far through your sticking point as possible.
- Keep the abs and back rigid from dip to lockout. DO NOT back-bend!
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.