Secret Weapon for muscle, and power: the Push Press

The following article is a guest post from my brother from another mother, David Wu, PTS, FMS

how to build muscleIf you push press, you’ll be half the jerk
The average person training to look good naked doesn’t include any explosive movement whatsoever. BIG mistake. Let the push-press be the one “power/explosive” move that you do with BIG weight.
Muscle, Power and Performance, it does it all – with half the learning time of any other move.

Every program should consider using the push press because it offers value that is hard to mimic with any other exercises. Even using different weight modalities (Axle bar, dumbbell etc.) switches up the gains.

The goal of this article is NOT to show you how to do the push press – there are a billion resources for that. Here’s why adding the push press to your routine is a sure way to rack up huge points.

Building Muscle

“When weightlifters start doing a ton of extra workouts that are concentric-only, they have a problem: they grow out of their weight class. And that’s with lean muscle, not fat.”

-Glen Pendlay, Weightlifting Coach

You can handle 10-20% MORE weight with the push press than with the regular overhead press because you’re using a greater number of stronger muscle groups. Rather than slowly grinding it up, the push press is a whole body, quick concentric lift. It’s bad ass.

The quickness of the push press targets the Type II or fast-twitch fibers, which have a greater potential for growth. In general, a faster movement will recruit more motor units.

Everyone knows that big compound exercises are the key to stimulating systemic muscle growth. The push press uses the leg muscles as well as the rest of the body, and therefore has greater hormonal response.

Olympic weightlifting coach Glen Pendlay wants people to push press every week. Especially for upper body development, people should focus more on push presses.

The weight overload at lock out and the partial press at the top lets the muscles carry more than they’re used to. As a result, connective tissue and tendons adapt to higher than normal stress, preparing your body for heavier loads in future workouts.

how to build muscle

Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

When faced with a noobie lifter who needs to gain power FAST, the push press is my go-to. I like the push press because it’s a very self-limiting way to learn synchronized muscle recruitment. Having the weight right over your center of gravity gives you instant feedback on if you’re pushing straight up or off in another direction.

You simply won’t be able to lift the weight overhead if you don’t do it right. This means incorporating more muscle groups than the upper body and doing it fast enough. The learning curve is drastically cut down.

To teach an athlete the push press, get a weight that is fairly heavy, perhaps around the maximum they can strict press. This ensures that the only way they can lift it for multiple reps is use more muscle groups than just the shoulders to create power. Instruct the athlete is “cheat” the weight up with their legs.

Lowering the Weight – Eccentric vs Concentric

You have a choice to either lower the weight down by either “dropping” and catching it with your body or to use muscle contraction to lower it. There are advantages to both.

Slow eccentric lowering is known to build strength effectively. You are allowing your muscles to contract against a weight higher than it can push up. By actively pulling down the weight with your Lat muscles rather than yielding to the weight, you’re secretly charging up for the next rep through a phenomenon called “successive induction”.  Most importantly, learn to lower the weight under control with good posture avoiding excessive back arching and you’ve got awesome ability to control force.

When performing the push press, you have the option of making it exclusively a concentric exercise. “Dropping” the weight and catching it removes the lowering or eccentric portion of the lift has tremendous carry-over to athletics, especially collision sports. This is because it teaches you how to absorb force.

In order to do this, not only do you have to time bracing all your muscles upon impact, but also “follow” the weight down with your body to lessen the force.

A push press basically has a similar premise as using the prowler sled, doing just the “up” or concentric portion of the movement. You don’t have to suffer the debilitating effects of heavy eccentrics like squatting that make you sore and cut into your recovery time. A big plus with concentric-only training is that you can train very frequently with high intensity. Power is on the way.

Power & Performance

You’re forced to develop the ability to recruit those muscle fibers very quickly because you’re pushing the bar off your shoulders with your legs and then your arms have to come into play, fast, so it doesn’t stall. The ability to do that is very, very valuable.” – Glen Pendlay

Really, it’s as close as you can get to an Olympic lift, without actually doing an Olympic lift. While a clean may take hours to just “learn”, successfully teaching a push press may be in a matter of seconds. It basically uses the same quick leg action and energy transfer, without taking its toll on your elbows and wrists. Uber noob friendly.

For performance, the idea is not really to work the shoulders, but to get them to jump onto the wave of power. The essential action in sports and athletics consists of lower body power transfer to the arms through stiff core. The push press is such a simple exercise to teach this kinetic linking, and summation of force.

how to build muscle

While it’s very easy to do a bad clean where you end up “pulling” the weight instead of using your legs, it’s hard to fake a push press without some kind of leg action.

If you get better at explosive movements, you’re going to get more out of your training in general. Explosive movements “ramp up” your nervous system, allowing you to recruit more motor units. This lets you pump out more power and reps in your other pressing exercises and reap greater benefits. Sorta like using box jumps to super-charge your squats.

Unlike the bench press and any other upper body press, the push press has extreme carry over to other pushing exercises, and more importantly, to the field. Here’s an excerpt from Pendlay’s interview:

Show me a guy who can push press a big weight and he’s going to be able to excel at any other pressing movement, even if he’s never done it before.
A big bench presser doesn’t get that same carryover. I don’t want to have 400-pound bench pressers who can’t do anything else. The guy who can do heavy push presses doesn’t have that problem. He’s strong at everything.

And that can’t be done with the strict military press either. It’s too hard to get it moving. You have such a weak point at the start that it limits the amount of weight you can use.”

Check out this sweet video of Gray Cook, MsPT, breaking down the push press:

Here’s a couple of weight modalities and tweeks that can be used for the push press that have unique benefits:

A Single Dumbbell is my FAVOURITE by far. The asymmetrical load is like candy for your core. Not only does this allow you to spot movement imbalances but the carry over to the field or ring is greater.

Axel bar, Log press: Very fun! It mimics situations where you’d actually use a push press: to lift bulky, awkward objects overhead. Like a couch. Or your dog.

These implements require quick speed to get “under” the weight. Consider yourself a “strong” man if you’re able to push press body weight with a log.

The kettlebell allows to greater surface area for absorbing the weight when dropping it down. This makes it very easy to do higher rep push presses such as the Viking Push Press.

You are essentially using your body as a spring at the bottom to immediately launch the kettlebell up for the next rep. People can literally do these for minutes on end. Be sure to try out this variation if you’re looking for some mean conditioning.

The split stance push press is something I’ve been experimenting with lately. It offers some single leg benefits in a very functional stance often used in athletics. Progress slowly to narrowing your stance by bringing your feet closer and closer together until they’re in line.

While it’s possible to do single leg push presses, the load will be greatly reduced and it becomes a circus trick at this point. Stick with doing it on two legs to get the maximum muscle power, and performance benefits.

how to build muscleResources

About the Author

how to build muscleDavid Wu, PTS, FMS is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach out of Waterloo & Toronto. He’s got a relentless passion for solving the performance/health puzzle. Check out his blog, Student of Movement, for more articles and info about him.

He’d love for you to add him on facebook if you have any questions.