Overhead presses are thought to be a necessary component in the training of elite level throwers. A better understanding of some of the fundamental aspects in lifting mechanics, however, seems to suggest important differences between strength training movements that are important in the training of track and field athletes – sport-specific strength training movements or paraphrasing Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky special strength training movements for thrower – and movements that are not.
Overhead movements are quite complex. The glenohumeral joint – the ball-and-socket articulation between the humeral head and the glenoid cavity – represents the very last link connecting the musculature of the lower body with the upper extremity. For different reasons, the strict overhead press has long been advocated as one of the best exercises to develop upper body strength, to the point of considering it the modern paradigm of “functional training “.
Is it really that functional? If we look at the biomechanics of overhead sports, in general, we realize how minor the contribution of the upper body is in affecting performance. For instance, less than 10% of the distance covered by a javelin depends on the thrower’s relative upper body strength, whereas over 60% depends on lower body relative strength. Transfer of force “from the ground up”, therefore, seems to be the key factor in improving overhead mechanics. Pressing a weight overhead by creating momentum extending ankles, knees and hips in an explosive manner (push press) rather than pressing it by using exclusively the upper body musculature (strict overhead press) represents, in my opinion, a much better alternative to develop upper body strength in such a way that can be beneficial on the field and/or on the court of play.
So, could someone argue that the strict press is useless? There is no such a thing as a useless exercise. The strict overhead press is an excellent tool to develop muscle balance around the glenohumeral joint. If the correct amount of pushing and pulling movements are implemented in both the frontal and the sagittal planes, overuse injuries can be prevented by creating the proper balance between agonist and antagonist muscles.Moving weights overhead while standing up on both feet is also an excellent example of “functional” core training, as long as proper upper mechanics throughout the movement is reinforced. In order for the musculature of the abdominal wall to work correctly, the diaphragm should preserve a neutral orientation preventing the rib cage from flaring out and the thoracic spine from hyperextending.The strict overhead press should mostly be considered as a “complementary exercise” and therefore executed with relatively lighter weight: when strength becomes a priority, exercises such as the push press, heavy overhead toss and throws and the split jerks should be considered in order to create the optimal transfer of training.
Interestingly enough, not many studies have investigated the impact of explosive overhead pressing movements – push pressing, push jerking and split jerking, for example – on performance in sports. More than 20 years have gone since Garhammer’s last publication in merit on propulsion forces as a function of intensity for weightlifting and vertical jumping in the Journal of Applied Sports Research. Dr. Garhammer found reasons to consider the hang power clean and the split jerk as different exercises, with different applications in the strength and conditioning field. The weightlifting jerk “happens” to be part of a more complex event, the clean & jerk: these movements, however, display different biomechanical features which, in turn, suggest different applications for athletic development.
Ideally snatch, clean and jerk could be aligned in this particular order along a continuum that goes from high-velocity/low-force movements to low-velocity/high force movements as indicated by the different kinetic and kinematic profile of these exercises: the jerk, on the left-hand side of the Hill’s curve, displays what Dr. Garhammer called a U-shape profile whereas the snatch, the clean and any other athletic-like movement (such as the vertical jump) display what appears to be a V-shape profile and they heavily spread across the middle/right-hand side of the hyperbole.
The overhead pressing mechanics involved in the weightlifting jerk allows for peak power output to be achieved with a much higher load than any other Olympic weightlifting movement although the rate of force development (RFD) displays a less “sharp” peak resulting in a smooth, U-shape slope.These basic considerations suggest how the jerk and its variations – the overhead press, the push press and the split jerk – should be considered more like a strength-oriented movement rather than like a power-oriented movement: they provide excellent axial load, developing lower and upper body maximal strength while challenging coordination, balance and active range of motion. Paraphrasing Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky, the weightlifting jerk develops “strength in presence of speed”, the stereotypical definition of “functional strength” as it applies across the board in every sporting event that requires a different combination of strength, speed, and power.
Graphic: Lake, Jason, Mike Lauder, and Rosemary Dyson. “Exploring the biomechanical characteristics of the weightlifting jerk.” ISBS – Conference Proceedings Archive 1, no. 1 (November 2, 2007).