The bent press was practiced by many old-time strongmen who did not have access to the equipment we have today. It is seldom seen in modern settings, but it is an incredible tool to lift heavy weight overhead, as well as build mobility patterns useful in many other lifts. In fact, increasing mobility in the thoracic spinal area might be one of the best “secret” features of this lift.
This article will cover three benefits to performing this lift based on Dave “Iron Tamer” Whitley’s new book Taming the Bent Press.
Benefit #1: It Creates Happiness
Dave Whitley is fond of quoting his colleague Jon Engum, who once told him, “The secret to happiness in life is to put heavy stuff over your head.” The clean and jerk holds the modern day record when it comes to getting heavy weights overhead with two arms. But old-time strongman Sig Klein called the bent press the “King of Lifts” as it was the most effective way of putting heavy weight overhead with one arm.
Strongman Arthur Saxon was known for pressing 371lbs overhead using the bent press (at other times, he lifted over 300lbs with the bent press and with his “free” arm lifted a 100lb kettlebell overhead). The secret is that you can use the body’s leverage to assist with the weight. In the video below, Dave Whitley bent presses 150lbs with relative ease:
Benefit #2: Mobility
Being able to twist (and stabilize) in the thoracic area of the spine is important for this lift. In most lifts, we focus on up/down and front/back mobility, but pay little attention to rotational mobility. If we think about exercise selection for a CrossFit athlete, there is little that uses rotation. But to be a fully functional athlete, we need to rotate our bodies, as many sports require this motion (e.g., throwing, punching, kicking).
“Whitley’s book will walk you through the movement in different ways so you can find the variation that feels comfortable to your body type.”
I was fortunate to be a beta tester of Dave Whitley’s book. I had played around with the bent press watching YouTube videos, but I could never perform it. I thought I did not have the requisite mobility. Dave brought up a great point in his writing – that maybe a person does not need to have the mobility first, but that the movement itself could build that mobility.
By following the protocol described in the book, I was able to tackle the movement effectively. The biggest benefit for me was the improved thoracic rotational mobility that affected my other lifts in positive ways. If you have any overhead mobility issues, this lift will help you.
Benefit #3: Strength in Stabilizers
The Turkish get up is treated with great reverence by medical professionals (e.g., Brett Jones, Gray Cook, Mark Cheng) as it helps build stabilizers and fixes movement patterns. The bent press has many of the same features. As Dave Whitley says, “It begins where the Turkish get up leaves off.”
“[T]o be a fully functional athlete, we need to rotate our bodies, as many sports require this motion.”
In the bent press, the shoulder stabilizers are forced into action as you move into position. In the month or so of practicing this movement, I did no strict presses. After my time with the bent press, I found my strict press felt even stronger.
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A Bunch of Reasons to Buy the Book
Dave Whitley studied many of the pictures and the small sample of videos from old-time strongman to write his book. He noticed Arthur Saxon and Sig Klein had different bent presses because their bodies were built differently. So, the movement might look a bit different for each of you, as well. For example, some people might have to squat a bit more at the end of the movement to get under the weight. Whitley’s book will walk you through the movement in different ways so you can find the variation that feels comfortable to your body type.
But the biggest benefit to the book is that it takes you through the progressions of how to do the movement. The progressions that are more difficult are probably the ones you should spend a bit more time to master. I found the arm bar and bent arm bar to be extremely beneficial in my progression.
Benefits of the Book
As a disclaimer, Dave Whitley has always been one of my favorite teachers of strength. He often takes a complicated topic and boils it down to simple terms (all while playing up his Tennessee accent). I came into this book thinking it would be great. After seeing the final version, I was even more impressed. The book takes you through all the steps of how to do a good bent press.
“[O]ld-time strongman Sig Klein called the bent press the ‘King of Lifts’ as it was the most effective way of putting heavy weight overhead with one arm.”
Although the bent press is not be as glamorous of a lift as it used to be, there are many benefits that make it worthwhile for me to keep it in my repertoire. The movement and mobility effects alone make it worth the price.