A few years ago I asked Vasiliy Polovnikov to help me with my lifting. “Well, to start, your shoulders are too small. You need to press,” he said to me. I told him that I do press, quite frequently. “Clearly, it’s not working. You’re either not actually doing presses, or you’re doing them wrong.”

At the time I was on a program that had me doing presses at least once a week for 4 or 5 sets of 5. So naturally, I thought that Vasiliy was just being an asshole.

Here is where we had the disconnect. The press I was doing was technically a press – but I wasn’t using the pressing technique that builds the muscles needed in the jerk.

With most strength exercises like the squat, pull or press, there are generally 2 different ways of doing them:

1.) The most efficient way, with which we can lift the most.
2.) The less efficient way, but one that develops the specific muscles needed for weightlifting.

Both approaches are useful. Knowing the difference in these techniques allows us to apply exercises and their variations more precisely. I was using the technique with which I could press most efficiently. It wasn’t giving me the specific strength I needed. This was why my shoulders weren’t developed, as Vasiliy pointed out.

The Efficient and Stronger Press

The (clean and) press was a part of weightlifting competitions until 1972. The goal was to press as much as possible, and weightlifters had an effective technique that allowed them to do so. The back bent backwards and the lifter pushed the bar away from the chest/shoulders. Lifters were able to press very effectively using the larger muscle groups. The press I was doing before working with Vasiliy was a less extreme version of this:


By doing this efficient press, or a version of it – we can become great pressers. But the goal of weightlifters is no longer to become the best at pressing. By doing this type of press, we’re putting ourselves in positions that we wouldn’t want to be in during the jerk

weightlifting press

David Berger (Duhaime), Ken Patera (Starting strength), Valery Yakubovsky (Lift Big Eat Big)

When the weights get heavy and we’re tired, our bodies automatically resort to the efficient and stronger pressing technique. If we press this way, or a less extreme version of it, we develop habits of leaning back during the jerk, or pressing the bar forward – both of which would make the catch of the jerk very difficult. 

We’ve seen some of the best weightlifters demonstrate their very heavy presses on Youtube. Understandably, when the goal is to demonstrate pressing strength, they do so in a way that allows them to press the most. However, when they’re training, they press in another way and with another purpose – to increase their competition lifts.

Pressing competition between the Olympic Champion Dmitriy Berestov and Chingiz Mogushkov

Strict Press for Modern Weightlifting

Weightlifters should press with the same trajectory as the jerk in order to build the concrete strength needed in the jerk.

ilya jerk

Ilya Ilyin jerking. These images also show what a proper press should look like. Images from Hookgrip’s Youtube video.

  1. Starting position:
    • Full grip on the bar
    • Bar resting on the deltoids
    • Vertical Torso
    • Elbows pointing about 45° down
    • Weight balanced on the front part of the heel (between mid-foot and heel).
  2. The bar should be pushed up and must remain above the deltoids.
    • Torso may not lean back and must remain vertical.
    • If the chin or the nose get in the way of the bars path – move balance further back on the heels.
  3. As the bar passes the forehead, the bar should be pushed slightly back, and the head slightly forward.
  4. In the final position:
    • The bar should be slightly behind the head
    • Elbows should be locked and pointed slightly back (not extreme)
    • Shoulders blades should be locked together
    • Shoulders should be raised 50%. The traps and upper back muscles should be engaged. (More on this final position in a future post.)

Me, pressing.

Strict presses are typically done one to two time per week, for 4-5 sets of 3 to 6 reps. The weight used shouldn’t force the athlete to ever fall out of jerk positions. At the same time, the athlete should push him or herself to try to increase the reps or weight used every week during the volume phase. Sitting while pressing is a good alternative to the standing press, as it adds variety and forces a more strict press.

Everyone is built different. For those who have naturally strong shoulders, or don’t have any weaknesses in the jerk, presses may not be needed at all. My shoulders weren’t developed the way they should be for jerking. Since then, I’ve invested my energy into a jerk-like press – and added additional bodybuilding exercises. My shoulders grew and my jerk increased.

Yasha Kahn
Weightlifter, coach and now: blogger. I've traveled around the world sharing my weightlifting knowledge and experiences. I look forward to the next adventure.
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