Strict Press 101: CORRECT FORM, MUSCLES WORKED, & ALTERNATIVES

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The strict press goes by many names; the “shoulder press”, the “military press”, or strictly “the press”. Whatever name is used doesn’t affect the pure rawness that this lift represents. It’s an exercise that demonstrates pure brute strength yet there is one sad fact; the strict press is not performed near enough. This is most likely because it’s generally agreed upon as being the one of the most challenging barbell movements, or at least the hardest to put up good numbers. Well, that’s actually pretty accurate but just because it’s tough doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it. This article is going to break down everything you need to know about the “strict press”.

  • What is the strict press?
  • History of the strict press (did you know it was once an Olympic movement?).
  • Muscles used during the strict press.
  • How to perform the strict press.
  • Tips and tricks for pressing heavyweight.
  • How to program the strict press.
  • Best accessory movements for the strict press.
  • Best strict press alternatives.

strict presses

WHAT IS THE STRICT PRESS?

So what is the strict press? The strict press is a shoulder press done while standing and with a barbell. However, the defining feature of this movement is that it’s done with strict form. By this, we mean you use zero leg movement AND zero eccentric body movement. For example, after unracking the bar, many guys will give a little lift so that they can drop the bar to take advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). SSC is basically the phenomenon when the muscle and tendon is stretched, they will literally store energy, much like a pulled rubber band. Then, once the trainees begin to push, that energy is released, resulting in a more powerful push. This is why you automatically draw back before throwing a punch or throwing a ball.

However, none of that even matters because you can’t use it with the strict press!

This lack of body motion and minimal SSC is what makes the strict press so hard. However, what doesn’t break you only makes you stronger! Or something like that…

But seriously, the strict press is a fantastic exercise to increase your upper body pressing strength. Unfortunately, many people opt out because it is so hard. Again, DO NOT do that because the strict press will make you seriously strong. Trust us. When your buddy is bench pressing, and you can lift that weight above your head, you’ll thank us. It feels awesome.

That’s why it used to be in the Olympics…

HISTORY OF THE STRICT PRESS

Yes, if you have ever done a strict press, you have done an Olympic movement. In fact, the overhead press is one of the oldest movements in the history of weightlifting. While difficult to identify exactly what movement was used and with what form, there is clear evidence that overhead pressing goes back as early as ancient Greece and the early Olympics. 

In the early 19th century, overhead pressing became very popular during the rise of physical culture. During this time, society began to see the health benefits of lifting. To be clear, at the time, most of the individuals lifting weren’t so concerned with building massive delts. The prevailing thought was merely to increase muscle strength for health and longevity. Nothing wrong there. Then, in the 1860s, military personnel began to use dumbbells for overhead pressing to increase the strength of their troops.

However, overhead pressing really took off in the late 19th century with the rise of Strongman and strength shows. These performers loved pressing things overhead…and we mean anything. Dumbbells, Cyr dumbbell, stones, women…anything. These athletes were stars back in the day and included many greats, including Eugene Sandow, the father of bodybuilding. Still today, overhead pressing is one of the main movements of Strongman shows today. However, pressing is usually done with a log or a single dumbbell, not a barbell.

Weightlifting as a sport originated somewhere in the 1890s. One of the first ways of pressing was the Continental press. This was performed by starting with the barbell on the ground. It was then brought to the chest with a hitching motion, then yanked to the shoulders, and then pressed.

Next, we have what resembles the strict press. This movement was done with the strict form that we see today: straight legs, straight back, and nobody motion…strictly upper body strength. However, the Olympics adopted the military press to be one of three movements, the other two being the snatch and clean and jerk. However, what happened is that the “strict” ness of the strict press began to be brushed aside. Athletes would routinely use some leg drive, and worse, they began to lean back so far that they were essentially doing a standing bent over chest press. Still, even when regulations on these were attempted, it required human judgment, which we all know is never excellent; or honest. Therefore, due to safety concerns and lack of strict regulations, the military press was taken out of the Olympics in 1972.

how to do a strict press

But none of that matters now (but it is fantastic to know) as you can still to the strict press.

MUSCLES USED DURING THE STRICT PRESS

The strict press is a compound movement that targets the upper body pushing muscles, but it really utilizes the entire body. While the delts and triceps will be used to actually propel the weight overhead, the upper back must stabilize the shoulders and scapula, the core needs to flex to keep a straight body, and the legs must be able to provide a solid foundation.

Deltoid Muscles (Shoulders)

The deltoid muscles are composed of 3 heads (front delt, middle delt, rear delt) which make up the shoulder muscles. As the shoulder is actually a ball-in-socket joint, these muscles move the arm in almost every direction; hence the three different heads. During the strict press, the deltoids are responsible for the flexing of the shoulder (bringing the arm up).

Triceps

The strict press is widely regarded as a shoulder exercise; hence the alternative name sometimes used, the shoulder press. While this isn’t wrong, the triceps (long head, lateral head, medial head) are actually extremely important in this movement. In fact, weak triceps are frequently the primary reason for having a soft overhead press. This is because triceps become the primary pushing muscle at around the halfway point where the upper arm breaks parallel with the ground. At this position of the strict press, the triceps pass 90-degree extension and must extend the elbow all the way up. You can’t do that with weak triceps.

Further, the triceps are solely responsible for the lockout, which is a common sticking point for many lifters (that’s why we listed some special exercises towards the end to help with that).

Upper Back

We say the “upper back” as we are referring to a range of muscles including the rhomboids and trapezius. While there are others, they all have the same job in that they are either adding stability to the actual shoulder joint OR scapula. This is extremely important as the scapula is the base from what we press; actually, it’s the base for most upper body movements. Without these muscles, your press would be awful, and you’d likely end up hurting yourself.

Core

When we say “core”, we mean the entire core musculature. This includes all of the abdominals and the lower back. These muscles are engaged to help stabilize the body and spine to provide a solid foundation to press from without breaking your back.

One of the common mistakes with the strict press is trainees will lean back as they press, even when not trying. DON’T LEAN BACK!!! If you do this, you are asking to hurt yourself at some point. Therefore, you need strong core muscles to keep a strong torso.

Note: The strict press will also hit your serratus anterior, and to a degree, the clavicular head of your pec major (aka your upper chest).

EQUIPMENT FOR THE STRICT PRESS

You will need 3 primary pieces of equipment for the strict press. Nothing crazy, though. All of this can be found in just about any gym. If your gym doesn’t have these, switch gyms.

  1. Some sort of rack
  2. Barbell
  3. Weights

Easy peasy.

Note: Strict pressed can be done with dumbbells or even kettlebells, but the purpose of this post, we are sticking with the traditional barbell strict press.

PROPER FORM FOR THE STRICT PRESS

The strict press with a barbell is a lot more than just lifting weight above your head. Some technical mechanics need to be addressed to properly execute the move. Further, the set-up and prep phase are also necessary. No problem. We’re going to break down how to properly perform the strict press.

strict press form

1) The Set-Up

You’re going to need to first set up your barbell at the correct height. Seems easy but a lot of trainees get this wrong. The bar should be at your upper chest level while sitting in the J-hooks when finding the correct height. Basically, you want the barbell to be high enough so you don’t have to do an entire squat to get it off the bar, but you also don’t want it so high you need to get on your tippy-toes to get off. At upper chest level, you should be able to get the bar off quickly with minimal knee flexion and extension.

2) Unracking The Barbell

Once the bar is at the correct height, you want to grab the bar, so your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. In fact, many trainees actually prefer that their hands overlap their shoulders slightly. There can be some minimal adjustments here based on your preference. 

Use an overhand grip with a full grip which means wrapping the thumb around. Suicide grips can be also be used, but you should be experienced with the lift before attempting. 

Next, approach the bar and get your body under it. The bar should rest on 3 spots; your two hands and your very upper chest/clavicle. You DO NOT hold the weight! Instead, the weight rests across your clavicle while your hands offer stabilization. You will apply some pressure on the barbell, but if you try to just hold the bar as you unrack and prepare to lift, you’re going to exhaust the muscles before even starting the lift.

You’ll then stand up with the barbell, take one step back and STOP! Too often do clients back way too far back from the rack. Not only does this waste energy, it increases the chance of injury as you are walking backward with a load on your chest.

3) Preparing To Press

Once you have stepped back, it’s time to make some last-minute adjustments. Place your feet hip-width apart in what feels like a natural stance. With your hands gripping the bar, have your elbows in line with your elbows and slightly in front. This is very important as you cannot press straight up if your elbows are behind the bar. Remember that proper lifting depends on treating your body like a machine where physics applies. Therefore, you want the force to come from directly under the barbell to push straight up vertically.

Once the bar is situated, you are almost ready to execute the press. Be sure to squeeze your glutes and keep your back solid; now you’re ready.

4) Executing The Strict Press

Once the glutes and core are tight (use these exercises to teach you to fire the glutes), you’re going to simply press the bar up over your head. However, you will notice that your chin is in the way and doesn’t allow you to push the bar directly overhead. As you don’t want to push the bar out and around your head, you have two choices to handle this situation.

  • Option 1: The first option is to tuck your head back. To do this, you keep your torso straight and just pull your head back as far as you can. This should allow enough room to successfully push the bar up.
  • Option 2: The second option takes a bit more time to master as it requires you to rock back a little bit. Therefore, the bar is still going straight up while missing your nose. However, this is honestly easier to do with heavier weight as it helps you maintain balance when you rock back. But to be clear, this is a minimal rock, and you are not producing power with any type of leg drive.

Regardless of what you choose, you’ll need to practice quite a bit with lightweight to get it right.

The other important factor with this is the elbows again. One of the main reasons you don’t want to come out is the weight leaves force direction and begins to build torque. Therefore, ALWAYS keep your elbows below the barbell.

5) Finishing The Strict Press

Once the bar gets overhead, many trainees get lazy and forget to lock out. This means they don’t fully extend their arms and a slight bend remains. Therefore, you need to fully push the bar all the way up so your arms are fully locked. You’ll know if you’re doing this because you’ll start to feel a slight burn in the upper traps.

That being said, this does require a level of shoulder mobility, which may be an issue for some people. Therefore, those with issues will need to implement shoulder mobility-specific training in their program somewhere.

HOW TO PROGRAM THE STRICT PRESS

The strict press can be used on upper body day, pushing day, or shoulder day. Concerning load used, the strict press allows some variability with both heavy and light loads. 

One popular way to program the strict press is to schedule a heavier push press. You could then finish off with one burnout set of light strict pressing. Still, you could also program it as the first movement of the day. In fact, this could be very beneficial when you first start as it is such a challenging movement. Starting your session with the strict press could allow a higher workload rather than waiting until your muscle is fatigued by an exercise or two.

SIMPLE STRICT PRESSING PLAN

Here’s how this could look. First, train the strict press twice a week. We suggest using one heavier day using a drop set and a volume day. Here is an excellent simple strict press plan to increase your pressing strength.

Session A

Session B

Week 1

6X3 @ 90% + 1 AMRAP @50%

    5×10 @ 75%

Week 2

Ladder 5(85%) →1(95%)

    4×8 @ 80%

Week 3

6X3 @ 90% + 1 AMRAP @50%

    5×10 @ 75%

Week 4

Ladder 5(85%) →1(95%)

    4×8 @ 80%

You’re simply adding weight to each set for the ladders as the reps decrease by 1, ending with a 95% lift. Each week, just try to increase the weight using progressive overload. But here’s a tip…add as little weight as possible. If you don’t have smaller weight plates, you can opt to add 1 or 2 more reps before adding weight.

strict press exercise

3 BEST ACCESSORY MOVEMENTS FOR THE STRICT PRESS

The strict press is a fantastic movement, but if you really want to increase your strength, you’ll want to also use some of these movements to improve sticking points or weak spots.

1. OVERHEAD PIN PRESSES

Pin presses merely have you start pressing the bar while they rest on pins rather than unrack the barbell first. What this does is truly eliminate any type of body movement, leaving you with 100% concentric pushing power. Doing so will also teach you how to generate maximal force with 0 eccentric movement.

The other great benefit is you can adjust the pins at a height specific to your sticking points. This is how you conquer your sticking points!!

Place a pin an inch or two below the sticking spot and gradually use progressive overload at that height.

Demo of the overhead pin press

Note: You can also do this with a Smith Machine by setting the safety catchers to the starting point you want.

2. CLOSE GRIP HIGH BLOCK BENCH PRESSES

Block presses are very similar to pin presses, except you’re laying down. The other main difference is that you actually will have an eccentric contraction when performing block presses. 

Block presses are performed by performing a bench press, but you place blocks on your chest to shorten the range of motion. For our purposes, we want to use high block presses as we are trying to increase our triceps’ lockout strength. In fact, this is a prevalent method for powerlifters to improve their pressing strength. 

Use a high block on your chest when you bench press to perform these. The bar should come down to a point where your elbow is at a 90-degree angle. These are commonly done with heavy loads (85-95%1RM) as you want to improve your triceps strength.

Note: If you don’t have the blocks for this, or don’t want to buy, you can also set up a bench in a squat rack and use the safety catchers or pins to shorten the range of motion (set them several inches above your chest). You can also simply do floor presses with large plates (i.e. 45lb plates) as that will put you in a starting position with the bar several inches above your chest. In both cases, you will be working on lockout strength, which is great for your triceps. It’s not exactly the same as a high block press but its intent is similar. 

3. PUSH PRESS

The push press seems a bit odd as it has you do exactly what you’re not supposed to do during the strict press; use leg drive. The push press explicitly uses leg drive, allowing you to thrust more weight above your head. While you can’t use leg drive during the strict press, being able to lift significantly more above your head can benefit you in a few ways.

First, you will be more confident in holding a heavier load above your head. Further, the weight won’t seem so scary as you know you can do it.

Secondly, there’s reason to believe that holding the heavier weight above the head with a pause could be enough to stimulate the neuromuscular system of the entire body, thus making you stronger.

Demo of the Push Press

BEST 3 STRICT PRESS ALTERNATIVES

Variety is vital to constantly progress in the gym. Below are the best strict press alternatives that use a similar movement pattern and concept. However, they’re just a bit different to add a new stimulus.

1. Z-PRESS

strict press variations

The Z-Press is an excellent alternative to strict press but be warned, these are hard. Further, they require a greater deal of mobility which isn’t necessarily a significant issue because it’s something you should improve anyway.

The Z-Press has you perform a press except you sit down with your legs out in front of you to set up and push. Doing so will obviously eliminate any force from body movement but as mentioned also improves your mobility.

Both of those benefits will directly affect your strict press performance. You can use either dumbbells or a barbell for this movement.

2. KNEELING SHOULDER PRESS

strict press alternative

A kneeling shoulder press is generally done with dumbbells, but you could set up a barbell if needed. To perform this movement, you simply press but on your knees; either kneel on both knees or have a single knee on the ground.

Again, this virtually eliminates leg drive, meaning you must use pure muscle strength to get the weight above your head.

3. SITTING SHOULDER PRESS

seated strict press

As the name of this exercise says, you perform the shoulder press while seated. This can be done with dumbbells or a barbell. From there, it’s the same movement pattern as all the others, and again, because you’re sitting, you’re not allowed to use leg drive. 

However, interestingly, studies show that we are strong with overhead pressing when we sit as we are more stable than standing and use less energy by not standing. 

START STRICT PRESSING TODAY!

While the strict press may be challenging, it’s only that much more rewarding when you conquer it. Imagine how it will feel when you put in the right amount of training and can lift your buddy’s bench press weight over your head. It’s going to feel awesome!!

Well, now you know how to do it, go get after it! We showed you why you need to strict press, how to strict press, and how to program strict press in your strength training routine.

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