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How To Do The Standing Press

The standing press is one of the "big four" exercises - the others being the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

And while these may sound really old school, they're the foundation of every decent strength-building program in existence.

Throw in a few chin-ups, and you've got a handful of brutally effective exercises that give the biggest possible bang for your training buck.

Take it from someone that thought he knew better, and stubbornly resisted doing these exercises for the longest time.

Nothing else comes close for building incredible whole-body strength, fast.

Not dumbells, not kettlebells, not the TRX suspension trainer.

Now, as Super Fit Dads we know that strength is the best weapon we have to fight off age-related decline.

Plus we can work better, rest better, play better and be just plain more awesome than we were in our 20s.

Oh, and don't forget looking good naked - only let's just think of that as a nice little bonus, OK?

So, here's what makes the standing press earn its position in the "big four".

Why Do the Standing Press?

First off, according to our favorite definition, the standing press is a functional exercise because it's:

...a normal human movement pattern that can be performed under a scalable and incrementally increasable load

That covers mundane tasks like taking something out of a cupboard, and more exotic stuff like throwing your snowboard into the Thule roof box, or hoisting your 5-year old onto your shoulders while hiking a 6000 ft volcano.

Building a stronger press makes all those things easy.

Plus, lifting something heavy above your head is totally natural (come on, we're guys!) and, let's be honest, pretty damn cool.

In addition to that, the standing press helps us have better posture, stronger bones, and more balanced shoulder strength than if we just bench pressed.

So, it really deserves its place in the "big four".

Now, at this point it may seem tempting to opt for a pair of dumbells instead of a barbell.

Sounds reasonable enough, right?

But keep in mind that dumbells are nowhere near as incrementally adjustable as a barbell is.

A 45-lb barbell can be increased in weight by as little as ½ pound, making it just 1% heavier this time compared with last.

On the other hand, dumbells typically go up in 5-lb increments - which means increases of anything from 5 to 100%!

That's way too big a jump to allow continued progress - it's like trading in your pedal car for a Porsche 918.

Once again, I thought I knew better, so ignored this fact for years.

Until someone gave me a reality check in the gym one day.

"You see that rack of dumbbells?" the guy asked.

"You know how many people start out with the lightest ones and make it even halfway to the heaviest ones? NOBODY."

"The guys using the heaviest dumbells got strong enough to do that by squatting, bench pressing, deadlifting, and the standing press."

The take-home point?

Dumbells are a great way to display strength once you've gotten strong, but they're not a great way to build strength.

So let's figure out how to do the standing press.

How To Do the Standing Press

1. Set a barbell in a rack at mid-sternum height

2. Grasp the bar with a shoulder-width grip

3. Step under the bar so that your elbows are slightly in front of the bar, with upper arms tight to the rib cage 

4. Squat the bar up out of the rack, and take a step back

5. Look straight ahead, take a big giant breath, squeeze the chest up, and tighten the abs, quads and butt

6. Push the hips forward, then drive the bar vertically upwards to a position directly over the shoulder joint

7. Once the elbows are fully extended, shrug the shoulders up to your ears

8. Push the hips forward to allow the bar a vertical ride down to the bottom position

9. Keeping the chest up and everything squeezed tight (quads, abs, butt), breathe out, then another big breath held

Here's what that looks like in practice.

Key Points

  • Keep the chest squeezed up hard throughout the set, as if you're trying to touch your sternum to your chin
  • Quads, abs and butt should be squeezed uncomfortably tight
  • Keep the upper arms in tight to the ribs - think "tight armpits" in the bottom position
  • Keep the bar close to the face - think "brush the nose" both on the way up and down
  • Drive your body under the bar as soon as it clears your head
  • Keep your head still (focus on a spot at eye level)
  • Hips move horizontally to allow an efficient vertical bar path
  • Don't bend your knees at any point - keep the quads squeezed tight
  • Down is the opposite of up

Standing Press Safety

Folks that have never seen a standing press may assume that it's bad for the lower back, but it isn't.

That's because we're hinging around the hip joint, not overextending the lower back.

Tight, braced abs keep the lower back in its normal anatomical position - so it's important to squeeze them hard for the entirety of the set.

Shrugging your shoulders at lockout with the bar over your head is another detail that's easily overlooked.

The shrug helps to protect the shoulder joint from impingement (trapping soft tissues between bony structures), so it shouldn't be regarded as optional.

Finally, always use a firm thumbs-around grip when you do any kind of press as this is way more safe and secure than a thumbless grip.

How Much Weight is Enough?

First warm up using the empty bar for two sets of 8 repetitions, making sure you use perfect form and get everything squeezed tight.

If an empty-bar set makes you breathless, that's a great sign that you're getting tight.

Then add 10-15 lbs and perform another set of 8 repetitions.

Keep adding 10-15 lbs for a set of 8 until the final rep of the set is noticeably slower than the preceding repetitions.

Then perform one or two more sets of 8 with this same weight, resting 2-3 minutes between sets.

Here's how that may look.

Empty bar (45lbs) x 8 x 2 (8 reps x 2 sets)

55 lbs x 8

65 lbs x 8

75 lbs x 8 (last repetition slowed noticeably)

75 lbs x 8 x 2 (two more sets of 8 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes between sets)

Then, the next time you perform the standing press (which could be part of your quick and awesome whole-body workout), add 5 lbs to the bar.

Being able to handle this small increase in weight confirms that we're now definitely stronger.

Plus it sets another strength increase in motion.

Personal Equipment

As far as personal equipment goes, a decent pair of lifting shoes is the only thing worth spending money on.

Many folks (yes, me included) have tried to get away with using running shoes for weight training.

The first set or two in a pair of proper lifting shoes will be a revelation - it's as different as standing on a concrete floor and standing on a mattress.

Nike's Romaleos 2 is my favorite shoe, and I bought mine from Rogue Fitness in the US.

And if black isn't your thing, don't worry - they do a whole range of different colors.

I decided to go for the so-not-subtle Volt 2 model.

Now if buying lifting shoes isn't an option at this stage, use whatever shoes you can get hold of with:

• A low effective heel height (0.5-0.75" difference between the heel and forefoot)

• An incompressible sole

But do yourself a favor and get hold of some proper lifting shoes - after all, you wouldn't play baseball wearing a pair of golf shoes.

As always, a secure grip on the bar is essential, so use chalk (or liquid chalk if the gym complains) to keep your hands dry.

Finally, a lifting belt will probably be necessary some time down the track but isn't required when you're starting out.

Pressing Matters

The standing press is the go-to exercise for building a strong pair of shoulders that will help you deal with all life can throw at you.

When it comes to functional upper-body exercises, the standing press is second to none.

So add it to your workout program and start reaping the rewards.

– Tim

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