Overhead is Rising

By Bill Starr

In Exercises, Olympic Lifts, Powerlifting

November 07, 2008

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Coach Bill Starr is a legend in the strength and conditioning world. He was Mark Rippetoe's coach in the 70s, who has this to say about him.

Bill Starr is the author of the books The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football, Defying Gravity, and thousands of magazine articles. He was the editor of Bob Hoffman's Strength and Health, Joe Weider's Muscle Builder, and a nationally-ranked Olympic weightlifter and powerlifter back in the day. Bill was one of the first professional strength coaches in the country, has forgotten more about training than most coaches will ever have the opportunity to learn, and makes a very convincing crab cake if you can talk him into it.

This article is both an instructional piece on overhead lifting, as well as a history of the unfortunate demise of overhead lifting in most strength and conditioning programs for fear of injury. Ironically, the press, push press and jerks are ideal exercises for building strong, healthy shoulders that are resistant to injury.

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21 Comments on “Overhead is Rising”

1

James Fitzgerald wrote …

just a few thoughts:
- agree that OH work is a missing point of a lot of training programs
- i have noticed that since i started the press 3 years ago (i press my bodyweight...this did not move for 1 year...i then started doing more volume of OHS and hspu's, the press and bench press then finally moved...hmmm)
- its arguable that the press OH is carried over to events you suggested, there is no load on the girdle the same way a press does or catching a jerk as was given as examples in volleyball, swimming, basketball,tennis etc...this does not mean it does not have to be trained, i.e. OH work...just i question application as examples given are loadings that enter a different plane, most times internal rotators of the shoulder - like in throwing/swimming...these sports require an intricate balance of deceleration work on the shoulder depending on time of season, flexibilty in joint, etc...
- there a lot of sports that require pressing in the front, so bench is necesary for this, maybe not as much as used but is arguably as effective as overhead
- the OH press has not reuslted in high poundages b/c of physics, NOT practice, there are 7-10 joints to stabilize in pressing OH and only 2-3 for bench press - which has less nervous system demand, therefore higher weights used...sidenote, training more overhead work has improved my athletes bench pressing though without training it...so it stays on par with the % - something like 65% of what the bench is in relation to press
- as far as developing more appropriate strength is arguable - i'd argue that muscle snatch (as an example) where ext rot of girdle and then pressing overhead (elevation) of girdle is more appropriate - we call it a cuban press...isolated (yes i said isolated) ext rot work of varying resistances has also been more important for prevention of impingement than pressing
- to rebuild rot cuff (an injury that usually occurs b/c of lack of control in deceleration of arm) should invlove retraining these muscles...and you can do this in functional movements outside of pressing, pressing OH does not do this, it makes the larger guys (accelerators) work overtime...single arm ext rot to the point where the R and L arm are in balance in % with what you can do for push ups and bench press is a better indicator of strength for rebuilding...after this, then pressing should occur
- bench press has highest injury ratio b/c of its usage and the fact that when alone, its tough to fail on bench, not b/c of the movement itself
- the split stance is arguably a better choice for sport application (with varying stances), others may not agree but i like it, for mass and pure starting strength, maybe not, as far as less safe or more injurious - arguable - especially for split jerk prep
- one can also stay warm without belts by modulating clothing, not just a belt, for points and scores - belts are fine, for life, not so much
- great points on technique, and interestng to know about its history

2

wrote …

I'm largely in agreement with James about the use of belts. Usually what happens is the belt becomes a crutch and a way to NOT engage the proper muscles of the trunk in order to stabilize the weight overhead. If you've properly warmed up (i.e. whole body dynamic movements) your back should also be warm and not require an external device to maintain that warmth. Additionally, while wearing a belt may feel reassuring, it does create an artificial restriction on spinal extension that should be reinforced with practice not equipment.

3

Damon Stewart wrote …

We're fortunate to have a lifting coach of Starr's caliber writing for the CFJ. Thanks!

4

tony young wrote …

James, Dave, et al,

No disrespect intended but I don't think you realize who you're critiquing here. Bill Starr is a Giant in the lifting world. Truly a Legend. Rip is not just being polite when he says Coach Starr "has forgotten more about training than most coaches will ever have the opportunity to learn". If Coach Starr says it, go with it, it's true and 100% accurate. Let's not nit pick kinesiology details. If there's a misunderstanding of terms or training specific situations, you have made it. I'm not suggesting opposition to free thought and the exchange of ideas but consider phrasing your comments as questions to a Master lifter, coach and teacher rather than, frankly, rather insulting opposing views.

CrossFit and all CF'ers are and should feel honored to have Coach Starr write for the Journal and allow us to be associated with him.

5

wrote …

i find that most people don't have the flexibility to do an overhead press (shoulder angle 180 degrees). people usually lean back either by extending their spine or their hip (shoulder angle

6

wrote …

7

wrote …

Great article! I would like more insight on the comment that "it is actually easier to press a weight after it has been cleaned than it is pressing it after it has been taken off a rack". Why is this the case?

8

replied to comment from Daniel Gam

i don't know why my comment was cut off in the middle -

but i wanted to recommend some exercises to improve shoulder flexibility thus improving pressing ability:

sotts press
overhead squats (i agree with OPT)
turkish get ups
windmills

9

wrote …

bill starr is the real deal!!!! i was fortunate enough to lift with him back in the 60's and 70's!!! i know of no-one who i respect more in the field of oly lifting and knowledge in general in the weightlifting arena! when starr writes--i listen up and pay attention.

the man is a legend.

coach b

10

wrote …

I meant no disrespect at all to Coach Starr, and I very much appreciate the CF journals and all the basically free information they provide. My hope was to open up for discussion the use of belts and other methods mentioned in the article. There's a TON of great info in that article, much of which I'll put to use for my own training and that of my clientele. That doesn't mean I'm just going to accept everything he says because of who he is. I don't think any of the coaching legends we have the honor or hearing from here (Coach Glassman, Burgener, Rip, etc) want us to accept uncritically everything they say. The CrossFit community I know prides itself in critically examining every bit of methodology and training modality in an effort to find the best, most efficacious way of accomplishing the task of forging elite fitness. To that end, while it's true that you may be able to push more weight using a belt, that doesn't make for more functional training necessarily. Also notice that while wearing a belt the tendency is to put it on tight enough that your abdomen often actually pushes out against the belt rather than being pulled in tight through muscular contraction. The belt provides the midline stability that we so fervently seek rather than the musculature of the core as would be preferred.

Again, this is meant as no disrespect at all to Coach Starr, and his contributions to lifting are indeed more numerous to mention here, but that doesn't mean we can't have a discussion about some of the methodology described does it?

11

wrote …

We are all lucky to have read the words and wisdom of Bill Starr. I hope he continues to write articles for the CFJ. The Press is often overlooked, and should be a part of all fitness programs.

12

Joey W wrote …

I think there are some really good comments and points to be made here. I didn't read James/Daves comments as anything but a slightly different point of view. I didn't sense any negative vibe, just someone with some obvious experience/knowledge saying he sees things a little differently. No right or wrong, per se, just different and certainly not "insulting".

What I fear more than anything with CF is this underlying air of (And not by any of the founders or "Coaches" that I can see, btw) it's participants to absolutely refuse and seemingly immediately get defensive when ANY challenges are made to the teachings of it's founders or coaches or anyone they endorse.

It reminds me of why I don't go to church anymore... anytime someone asked a legitimate question or makes a differing view, or would comment on something the preacher said, they're immediately attacked as "not knowing who they're critiquing".

13

replied to comment from Joey W

I agree with Joey W. Didn't Tony Budding say the whole point of having the journal online was so that their could be productive discussion. It's great to have someone give tribute to the author, but having 10 of those "so and so is so undeniably awesome" comments isn't really going to unlock the potential of the web-based journal.

Perhaps the best way to show gratitude to our fellows at crossfit HQ is to see and contribute to their vision for the journal/fitness library, in addition to to giving credit where credit is due, instead of simply lavishing praise all the time.

14

The high points:
"No disrespect intended..."
"I'm not suggesting opposition to free thought and the exchange of ideas..."
"Let's not nit pick..."

I'm all for open discussion. And James, for one, is a heavyweight in his own right, I know that. (I don't know Dave, I don't get out much.) I was just startled to see the first couple comments to Coach Starr's essay be "yes, but..." responses. I suggested getting clarification or more information not blind allegiance to anyone or any ideas. We should talk, discuss, argue if necessary but I suggest getting everything we can from our best minds, our best coaches, learn what they already know, before we wade in with our own views, no matter how well reasoned. It's a matter of respect.

Defensive? Maybe. A little hero worship on my part? Oh, hell, yeah! Bill Starr was lifting and coaching when the US was still kicking ass at international weightlifting meets. And part of the reason why.

15

wrote …

Joey, Dan thanks for the consideration.

Tony Young - Don't feel bad for not knowing me, I'm nobody special. Just a CF trainer @ CF Sierra in northern Cali. I probably jumped the gun a little in my first response, you're absolutely right to feel that it's important to be respectful to these coaching legends who take the time to add to our community. I hope that I've properly elucidated that disrespect was not my intention.
You absolutely prefaced your comments by ensuring that offense not be taken by them, and you certainly mentioned that you were a proponent of free thought and discussion. I'll keep all of this in mind the next time I have something to say about one of the articles. Again, my apologies if I've offended in any way, my hope was only to add in some small way to a discussion of the article.

Now that we have all these finer points out of the way.....

Does anyone have anything else to add about the substance of the article? Any other agreements/disagreements to be made about the content? I for one think OPT had some interesting things to say about it, and I know that not just in my experience but that through my education regarding exercise science I'd be hard pressed to argue with him. I know also that I'll be doing some pressing in my WOD today and can't wait to put some of the finer points of technique laid out in the article to (hopefully) good use.

16

replied to comment from James Fitzgerald

James,

"- as far as developing more appropriate strength is arguable - i'd argue that muscle snatch (as an example) where ext rot of girdle and then pressing overhead (elevation) of girdle is more appropriate - we call it a cuban press...isolated (yes i said isolated) ext rot work of varying resistances has also been more important for prevention of impingement than pressing"

You make an interesting note that the cuban press is "isolated" action. I would instead argue that the cuban press does NOT isolate anything and utilizes a great number of variables, strength and flexibility being two of them.

I deal with a great number of impingement syndromes. I find it difficult to argue that isolated external rotator strength is "more important" than pressing. I can do isolated external rotator work with a theraband and my elbow in my side til the cows come home and I won't alleviate the impingement when my arm is overhead. Normal joint mechanics requires roll and glide. Excessive tension in the external rotators will deny posteroinferior glide of the humeral head, resulting in strictly a roll in an anterosuperior direction creating an impingement on the arcromion and the coracoacromial ligament. Prevention of this has as much to do with flexibility of the external rotators as strength (the cuban press done properly does both tasks). It has less to do with isolated strength and more to do with the ability of the whole unit (much like Crossfit).

Though to add to that, external rotation is necessary when going overhead as well. If there is a excessive tension of the internal rotators the greater tubercle will bang into the acromion creating an impingement. Proper overhead pressing involves external rotation.

As well, by stating isolated strength as a "more important" problem ignores the elevation and lateral rotation of the scapula, required to move the acromion and coracoacromial ligament out of the way allowing a near vertical humerus. Again, the cuban press does this nicely as a part of the overhead press at the end of the movement. I would instead argue that the cuban press/muscle snatch is an excellent movement requiring both strength and flexibility when done properly, but does not isolate anything.

"- to rebuild rot cuff (an injury that usually occurs b/c of lack of control in deceleration of arm) should invlove retraining these muscles...and you can do this in functional movements outside of pressing, pressing OH does not do this, it makes the larger guys (accelerators) work overtime...single arm ext rot to the point where the R and L arm are in balance in % with what you can do for push ups and bench press is a better indicator of strength for rebuilding...after this, then pressing should occur"

Please clarify what you meant by this point...

17

wrote …

This article was great and leads me to think I should spend more time on presses, then work to the other movements I am trying to learn - jerk, push press, etc. I am basically coaching myself which is very difficult.

The most interesting part for me was the short section on the rotator cuff. Before starting crossfit I had an old skiing injury to my left shoulder, incurred in one of those freak falls that didn't hurt at all at the time. The soreness and stiffness in that shoulder persisted for literally five years, and when I started CrossFit I thought it would severly limit my ability to do pullups and overhead lifts, and occasionally the shoulder would indeed get irritated and sore.

However, I am happy to report that it has largely healed and now doesn't bother me at all. Doing these overhead lifts, and lots of pullups like we do in crossfit, has helped where everything else I tried (massage, stretching, yoga, rest, etc.) completely failed. That is powerful stuff and I definitely plan to incorporate more of this protocol into my training.

18

replied to comment from tony young

Tony, While I don't consider myself to be in a league w Bill, I completely disagree w your assertion that if he says it, it must be true. There are plenty of untestable opinions stated in his article. If you can't test and measure it, if you don't have research and peer review, it's an opinion and can only be valued as such.

Blind acceptance of opinion isn't what CF is about - on the contrary, refusal to blindly accept 'the truth' of training and fitness led to the experimentation and testing that has provided CF. It takes no great insight to realize that Bill Starr has given much to many students, and I would agree that it's a great honor to our community and a great benefit to the CFJ to get his inputs. That said, opinions are only of value to the extent that they hold up to criticism and/or spur further thought on the matters in question.

And if Bill Starr is the man he is stated to be, he'll relish the chance to engage and answer any critics, clarify any issues with terminology, and therefore make his article all the useful to those learning from him.

He'll probably also be willing to say, on some issues, 'that's my opinion, take it or leave it.'

My own experience was that overhead pressing did not cure my chronic shoulder pain and instability - but CF did. Paul

19

wrote …

As an after thought - high irony that the press is considered by some to be unsafe due to concerns about back injury and impingement (and would say the same about squatting, cleans, dead lift). The same folks all have bench pressing in their gyms despite the fact that, acccording to Rip, about one person per month in the US kills them selves bench pressing via bar crushing their neck/throat. Paul

20

"If you can't test and measure it, if you don't have research and peer review, it's an opinion and can only be valued as such"

Paul,
I thought you were being sarcastic and kept waiting for the punch line. Remember the Black Box? Bill Starr is a Black Box all his own. He's not putting forth book-smart opinion, he's giving the clinical results of years of training and coaching. There is certainly room for discussion, even argument, in CF. I'm all for it. Again, I was just surprised at the tone of the comments.

On a side note: What aspects of CF that weren't pressing helped you shoulder? And what kind of pressing were you doing that didn't help?

21

wrote …

I, for one, am an advocate of the overhead 'strict' press. The movement itself is not overly complex until you consider the muscle grouping enacted to finish the maneuver. The maneuver has a low-torque value, as in it's really considered a slow movement when completed, similar to a squat or deadlift. It's this non-explosive maneuver that adds the value to its strength building qualities.

No one criticizes the deadlift or squat as strength builders, so why opine that when weight hoisted above the head in strict fashion isn't doing the same? The bench press is nice, but it is a poor judge for useful strength. The overhead strict press works so many muscle groups, where the bench, isolated and supported by an external tool, the bench itself, barely works the human body in comparison. I am far more impressed by a young man or woman's strict press versus a bench max.

And by far, I can't think of another way to rebuild your shoulders after injury. The movement works the entire shoulder, aside from muscle groups involved in balance, the trapezius and labrum, triceps, abdominal wall, hips, legs, feet, which all work in harmony to balance load overhead. That includes the inner workings of the shoulder's muscle grouping we take for granted when performing high-torque maneuvers like the clean or snatch or push jerk. They are all worked in slow, controlled fashion, whichs fulfills the slow stress stretch requirement for rebuilding an injured muscle or muscle group.

Oh, and as far as belts are concerned, it's not that they JUST offer support to the spine, they offer support to your torso as a whole. It's an external barrier that allows you, or specifically your core, to hold in air in a compressed fashion; this is the added support for your spine, pressure pushing out, created by your own body and supporting your spine from the inside out. Next time you do a heavy squat or deadlift and you suck in that max-air, pay attention to where the real benefit occurs when you're under load at the bottom of each movement. You feel it in your belly and not your spine; that's where the belt does its magic and strengthens the inside of your abdominal wall, allowing for safe stretching under incredible load while strengthening the abdominal wall and ultimately preventing a hernia.

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