Overhead Pressing: From Top to Bottom to Top

Arthur Saxon Overhead Dumbell Press

Arthur Saxon Overhead Dumbell Press

Once upon a time when men were men and Strongmen were legends, few people even thought of lying on their backs to press a weight. Putting weight over your head was the only acceptable way to demonstrate super human strength and impress the onlookers. Since the days of Saxon and after the introduction of nautilus machines and bench pressing, the art of pressing overhead has been all but lost. But there's hope yet and you can still learn to press weights and people overhead with a blatant disregard for gravity.


When performing the overhead press you will begin by taking the implement (barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell) from the floor to a clean position. In the case of the barbell make sure the elbows are forward and directly under the barbell. Taking the bar out of the rack is also acceptable, but the start position remains the same. In the case of the kettlebell the forearm will lie across the ribs squeezing the handle of the bell just outside and below the chin. Dumbbells are racked similarly to a kettlebell or barbell, this is typically the difference between a regular dumbbell military press and Arnold Press.

Tension, Breathing, and Irradiation

Pavel's Power to the People and Russian Kettlebell Challenge introduce many important techniques to develop the strength of your press through the development of tension, breathing, and irradiation.

When setting up for the press one must be sure to grip the ground with the feet and develop tension throughout the body from the ground up. Paying special attention to squeeze the legs, glutes, and abs as tight as possible. These techniques will help you develop a far greater press by releasing the parking break on your nervous system's ability to recruit motor units and develop force through the movement. Crushing the bar with your grip and the bracing of all the muscles will also improve muscle recruitment through a phenomenon called irradiation.

One additional component to setting up for a strong overhead press is breathing. Forget what you heard at planet fitness about breathing in quietly as you lower the weight slowly and exhaling slowly as you lift the weight. These techniques are all well and good for those with cardiovascular issues, but for the super strong one must learn to increase thoracic pressure with the vasalva maneuver and forcefully (noisily) exhaling as the weight moves up past the eyes and into lockout. Before the first press you should take a sharp inhale to fill the abdomen and brace the abs tightly as if taking a punch and holding your breath. Begin the press and as the weight passes about eye level begin to forcefully exhale with pursed lips making a tea kettle noise, and a sharp exhale as you press into lockout. The forced exhale will help you to maximally contract your abdominal muscles for bracing as well as the shoulders and arms.

Pressing From the Top

Pavel explains that one should take in a new breath every time you return the implement to your rack position. I have been dissuaded from this method by experimenting with methods from powerlifting discussed by Jim Wendler at www.elitefts.com. Just as one would not take in a new breath at the bottom of the bench press, you should not do so in the bottom rack of the overhead press. It constricts your ability to breath well between repetitions. Pausing in the rack position also robs you of potential strength by reducing your ability to take advantage of your stretch reflex. Instead of pausing at the bottom of your press to breath, keep the impliment in lockout, take your breath, brace, pull the elbow(s) down with your lats and from the bottom position repress the weight back up with out stopping. As the weight passes your gaze lean into your press and begin forceful exahalation again. Repeat this process for each rep and enjoy the pains and gains of getting a few extra reps.


Lets go back over the points of pressing from top to bottom to top.

  • Set up with in the rack position with your body tight
  • Keep your elbows under the impliment and forearms vertical
  • Take a breath and brace for the first press
  • Exhale into lockout
  • Take another breath
  • Pull the weight down with the lat and immediately press again without stopping

Take these points and try to impliment these techniques into your overhead press the next time you train. It doesn’t take long to realize the benefits of pressing from the top down. If you put real effort into it you too may find yourself feel more Saxon-like, and your people will want you to press them over your head at parties.