The Military Press is without a doubt one of weightlifting\’s most elusive challenges. Done properly, and with strict form, the Press can humble even the greatest ego. Done incorrectly, the Press becomes a vertebrae and gravity defying lean with little compensation for one\’s back. Regardless of the form used, most lifters will have used the Press sooner or later during their lifting careers.

Aside from the squat, the bench press and deadlift, few lifts unite the lifting community such as the Military Press. Powerlifters utilize it to build their bench strength, bodybuilders to build their delts and weightlifters to enhance their neat and jerk. Functional fitness athletes often blend it with a push to increase their fitness as well as those training with little pink dumbbells press them overhead every so often.

Where did this lift originate from and is there a correct way to do it? More to the point, what goes on when lifters push the lift to its absolute limits? These are merely some of the questions we cover in the current post.

Pressing and Performing: The Early Origins

As detailed previously on BarBend, the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century is generally credited using the birth of \’physical culture\’, an exciting encompassing health movement that bodybuilding, powerlifting and pretty much anything to use a barbell has its own origins. Our story today in fact precurses physical culture, that is, In my opinion, an extremely impressive feat. While we could begin our story with Ancient Greece and their rudimentary dumbbells, which Morais has previously noted were often pressed overhead, we\’ll content ourselves instead with the nineteenth century. [1]

Now the reasons for this are twofold. First and foremost, Greek athletics are a notoriously difficult aspect to study because of deficiencies in sources.[2]Secondly, the nineteenth century is generally seen as an more immediate precursor for the modern curiosity about health and fitness. It was during this time that dumbbells, Indian clubs, kettlebells and finally barbells would come to become formed.[3]?Importantly for us, the dumbbells, albeit light dumbbells, has been around since in the early decades from the nineteenth-century. [4]

With the advent of dumbbells came the advent of overhead pressing in two variations, institutional and recreational. In the mid-nineteenth-century pioneering educators, like the US-based health enthusiast, Dio Lewis, were encouraging students to press dumbbells overhead in a bid to enhance their health, strength and concentration. [5]Outside the classroom, the introduction of dumbbells in to the British army in the 1860s resulted in incoming soldiers could be soon become familiar with the overhead press. [6] Though a pivotal part of a brief history from the Military Press, it had been only area of the story. A much more important strand was the birth of strongman shows at the same time.

Source Title: Strongwoman Athleta Van Huffelen with a novel Military Press

Historians thinking about the birth of strongmen and women performances often begin their stories by having an Italian strongman named Felice Napoli. ] Napoli toured Europe within the mid-century, amazing audiences and training devotees wherever he went. By means of introduction, Napoli was mentor to Professor Atilla, who consequently mentored Eugen Sandow, long cited as father of bodybuilding.[8] Now, my genealogy is poor however i suspect which makes Napoli the great-grandfather of bodybuilding. Unfortunately for our post, there is no direct proof of Napoli using an overhead press in the shows but, which is an important but, both Atilla and Sandow maintained for pressing household names overhead.[9]

So chances are that Napoli was fond of overhead pressing. Intuitively, it would also seem very strange for any strongman, known for his innovative lifts, to not engage in overhead pressing. Whether or not or not Napoli began the trend, those following in his wake, especially those operating within the 1880s and 1890s, proved very keen on the overhead press.

These names is going to be familiar to students from the Iron Game. Think Louis Cyr, George Hackenschmidt, Arthur Saxon and of course, Eugen Sandow. Though many of these men pressed weights overhead utilizing a single dumbbell, the introduction from the barbell in the closing decades from the nineteenth century caused rudimentary types of Military Pressing. In the early 1900s, Katie Sandwina supposedly pressed more weight overhead than Eugen Sandow utilizing a barbell, thereby creating her surname. [10]

In examining the early origins of the Military Press, lightweight dumbbells utilized in classrooms and heavy dumbbells used in strongman shows are a pivotal stepping-stone for the modern lift. The development of the barbell, with it weightlifting competitions in the early 1900s, capitalized on these existing trends to create us the Military Press.

A Pressing Concern: The Competition Press

Bonini\’s excellent study on weightlifting has traced the origins of competitive weightlifting to London in 1891. [11] This was not to say that weightlifting contests hadn\’t begun earlier than this point but rather that the first recognisable contest, using standardised rules and equipment began at this time. Both pre and post the competition, lifters competed against one another in regional and national contests utilizing a number of lifts. Like a true way of measuring one\’s strength, the overhead press was often a staple of those tournaments. There is however, just one problem.

Echoing the truth that an international set of weightlifting guidelines was still several decades off, lifters were divided on the best method for testing one\’s press. Some preferred the \’continental\’ method, a sluggish methodical press which began on the ground, required the lifter to drag the bar as much as his chest and then press overhead. This lift was similar to a clear and Jerk, with the exception that instead of explosively pulling the bar in the ground, you slowly clawed it up your body. The only real advantage, as far as I will tell, with this type of lifting was that lifters were allowed to use some momentum in pushing the bar overhead. As is perhaps suggested by the name, the \’continental press\’ was mainly found amongst lifters in mainland Europe.

Now another method of lifting, the real heir towards the throne, was the military press. Within this lift, heels could be kept together, the back would be kept rigid and the bar would be pressed overhead in the chest. This was the military press as many of us would comprehend it, albeit having a much stricter form than is commonly found in gym\’s today.

How strict were they? Arthur Saxon, a guy commonly viewed as one of the strongest men alive in early 1900s, was credited with pushing \’only\’ 225 lbs. using this strict method. [12]According to Saxon, the lift was performed thusly,

Raise the bell to the chest, stand with heels together, legs straight, and the body erect. Now push steadily overhead, but don\’t bend backwards. Watch the bell using the eyes as the story goes up, and avoid any type of a jerk from the chest. Most lifters believe this really is purely a test of triceps power, but they\’re wrong: the deltoid perhaps makes more prominent play compared to triceps in this position, which is generally recognized as a sure test of strength. [13]

This type of lifting was the real test of strength for a lot of physical culturists in the early twentieth-century. According to Alan Calvert, the man behind Milo Barbell, America\’s first nationwide barbell producer,

You cannot find a better test of pure strength than a Two-Arm Press having a barbell. Each time a man starts to speak with me about \”knack\” in lifting, I give him a reasonably heavy bar-bell and get him to create a Two-Arm Press… [14]

Despite claims concerning the supremacy of the military press, continental pressing and several other varieties of overhead pressing existed. Though they shared using the barbell, there was little else to check them. This failure to standardize the overhead press would plague the weightlifting community for the following several decades, using the ramifications most clearly seen upon the Olympic Stage.

Lean On Me? The Olympic Press

From previous articles on BarBend we all know the early days of Olympic lifting were creative and confused times. Unlike the current iterations featuring two highly technical lifts, the clean & jerk and snatch respectively, lifters of yore were given freestyle rounds, one armed lifts and dumbbells pushes. It wasn\’t before the 1920s that the games began to standardize lifts inside a recognizable way. Though still experimenting, the organizers liked the thought of having a core group of lifts to select from. By 1928, a trio of lifts was chosen that would last until 1972 [15]. These were the Military Press, the Clean and Jerk and the Snatch [16].

So the Military Press, the best test of strength based on Calvert, had went to the Olympics and it is inclusion was from the utmost significance. According to Roach, many of the early bodybuilders and powerlifters trained and built their physiques using the Olympic lifts [17]. The Military Press\’s inclusion being an Olympic lift thus solidified its importance amongst the lifting community for the next several decades. Going back to the pivotal 1928 games themselves, competitors across five weight classes from featherweight to heavyweight competitive Olympic gold. Probably the most impressive lift? Undoubtedly those of eventual heavyweight gold medal winner Josef Stra?berger who pressed 122 kilos overhead with ease.

Optimism surrounding weightlifting\’s future and attractiveness would wane in subsequent decades, most famously because of the press. As detailed by Fair, in perhaps one of the most enjoyable history articles I\’ve read, the Press quickly became an item of ridicule within the lifting community [18]. The reason for this was simple. In the neat and jerk and snatch, it is difficult to cheat in any meaningful way. Anyone who has attempted a heavy snatch can verify the truth that technique and experience can trump brute strength. The Press however, is a different beast. Unlike another lifts, the Press is open to cheating. Without delving too deeply into the dark arts of lifting, two of the most common types of cheating involve while using legs to drive the bar up, as one would do in a push press, or to lean so far back that the lift turns into a bastardised incline press. Of these two options, the second quickly started to rear its ugly head.

Returning to Fair\’s research, it\’s clear that inside a decade, several national coaches were angered by the sloppy form being used in the Military Press. In 1933, American coach Mark Berry was so exasperated he began coaching US lifters to make use of the rear bend technique in order to keep pace using their European opponents [19]. Though matters improved in the late 1930s and also the entirety of the 1940s because of a stamping down on poor form, they did not disappear. Within the 1952 games an Iranian lifter, Mohamad Rahnavardi, was awarded a 265 pound press through the judging committee having a backbend so exaggerated that certain of the referees, George Kirkley, flung his official arm band in the judges in disgust [20]. Any suggestion that the Military Press required strict form along with a straight back had become laughable.

Yet the lift retained its Olympic status. In a fantastic showing of \’if you can\’t beat them, join them,’ the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne changed the guidelines concerning the Press. There after, a certain amount of back bend was permissible provided it was not excessive [21]. The ruling\’s vagueness did little to help matters and subsequently decade . 5 would see Olympic officials trade barbs over one another\’s form. The Americans and Soviets became symbolic of exaggerated back bends and indeed any YouTube search from the 1970s will show vertebrae defying bends being used competing presses. Tired of protecting the Press, Olympic officials removed the Military Press from official competition ahead of the 1976 Olympic Games [22]. As a final hurrah, the truly amazing Soviet lifter Vasiliy Alekseyev?pressed 235 kilos at the \’72 games.

Pressing Past the Controversy

Gone but not forgotten, the Military Press\’s popularity amongst the general weight lifting community continued throughout this era. In bodybuilding circles, the Military Press especially the press behind the neck, was used to great effect by mid-century bodybuilders for example Reg Park or Steve Reeves. Likewise strongmen such as Doug Hepburn swore through the Press [22].

Things however, started to change. The advent of American powerlifting within the late 1960s using its focus on squatting, benching and deadlifting was echoed by bodybuilders pressing dumbbells instead of barbells overhead in the 1970s. Whereas Park built his delts using the military press, Arnold used dumbbells [23]. Though still used in training, the Military Press\’s reputation was severely affected during the 70s, 80s and arguably the 1990s. For our own generation, the Press, and in particular the Behind the Neck Press, received attack previously 2 decades for being dangerous lifts, particularly for those with shoulder mobility issues [24]. It was because of this that lots of referred to the Military Lift as \’the Forgotten Lift\’ from 2010 on.[25]

Was everything doom and gloom? Thankfully not. The rising popularity of Starting Strength-esque programmes by which lifters focus on a core number of lifts, such as the Military Press, alongside the rise of Crossfit has introduced thousands of lifters to the Military Press.. Similarly weight training\’s acceptance in professional sport, especially the NFL and soccer, has witnessed the Press obtain a renewed importance. It\’s popularity pales in comparison to the 1930s or 40s, but a minimum of it was not forgotten. So the next time you\’re training shoulders, press the barbell overhead for old time\’s sake.


[1] Dominic Morais, \’The Good reputation for Dumbbells\’, MBPowercenter, Available at:
[2] See Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics. Yale University Press, 2006, about this point.
[3] Shelly McKenzie, Getting Physical: An upswing of Fitness Culture in America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013, 1-20.
[4]Jan Todd, . “The force builders: a history of barbells, dumbbells and Indian clubs.” The International Journal from the History of Sport20.1 (2003): 65-90.
[5]Jan Todd, “The Origins of Weight lifting for Female Athletes in North America.” Iron Game History2 (1992): 4-14.
[6] Victor L. Katch, Frank I. Katch, and William D. McArdle. Student study guide and workbook for essentials of exercise physiology. Fitness Technologies Press, 1994, 469-473.
[7]Charles Gaines and George Butler. Pumping iron: The skill and sport of bodybuilding, Simon and Schuster, 1974, 102-105.
[8]David Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sanodw and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding, University of Illinois, 1994, 8-12.
[9]Ibid., 195-200.
[10] Steve Ward, Beneath the large Top: A Social History of the Circus in Britain, Casemate Publishers, 2014, 163.
[11]Gherardo Bonini, “London: the cradle of modern weightlifting.” Sports Historian 21.1 (2001): 56-70.
[12] David P. Willoughby, The Super-Athletes. AS Barnes, Incorporated, 1970, 80.
[13]Arthur Saxon, The Development of Physical Power, Gale & Polden, 1906, 32.
[14]John D. Fair, “The tragic history of the military press in Olympic and world championship competition, 1928-1972.” Journal of Sport History28.3 (2001): 345-374.
[15] Dave Randolph, Ultimate Olympic Weightlifting: An entire Help guide to Barbell Lifts-from Beginner to Gold Medal, Ulysses Press, 2015, 09-14.
[16]Fair, “The tragic good reputation for the military press\”, 352.
[17]Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors: Volume One, Authorhouse, 2008, 139-142.
[18]Fair, “The tragic good reputation for the military press\”, 355-370.
[19]Ibid., 348.
[20]Ibid., 353.
[21]Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, Official Rules Gymnastics and Weight Lifting, Amateur Athletic Union of the us, 1956, 82.
[22]Reg Park, My Shoulder Training, 1952; Robert Kennedy, Bodybuilding Basics, Sterling Pub. Co., 1991, 28.
[23]Arnold Schwarzenegger, \’Shoulder Training\’, c. 1980s.
[24]\’Louie Simmons Frequently Asked Questions\’, 2001.
[25] Chris Colucci, \’Bodybuilding\’s Forgotten Muscle Builder\’.

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