A History of the Overhead Press vs. the Bench Press and How the Overhead Press Benefits You
The bench press has been a long-time favorite for lifters in the Western world.
According to some, your chest hair ain’t worth squat if you can’t bench more than your bodyweight for reps. Hell, this attitude is even pervasive in non-lifters. I was lifting the other day when some scrawny punk with straightened boy-band hair walked in the gym and asked some other kids “how much ya bench?”
This little squirt would have been knocked over by a sudden draft of air, yet was walking around all tough because he probably benches thrice a week and does curls and calf raises for good measure. Meanwhile, I wanted to invite him to deadlift with me just to humble his rear-end, but I never allowed myself the indulgence.
However, I did wish I went up to him and told him he’d be better off overhead pressing than bench pressing. In fact, the overhead press may be superior to the bench press in almost every aspect, so why not compare and contrast the two? But first, let’s review their history.
History of the Overhead Press vs. the Bench Press
The history of the two lifts is intertwined and directly related to each other, surprisingly, and is somewhat controversial.
The overhead press had been a staple for many in the early 20th century and prior. Old-time strongmen would regularly practice and perform/compete in the overhead press. In addition, modern Olympic weightlifting, which began in 1896, originally included the overhead press as a tested lift (Team USA).
The bench press had never been popular, at least not until the middle of the 20th century. Reason being, is that it had always been performed as the floor press. Such an exercise requires the lifter to lay down and somehow roll the barbell over the chest. This lift is ever as easy to set-up for as the overhead press, which can easily be power cleaned into position. As such, the historical-equivalent of the bench press was never really favored.
However, about halfway through the 20th century and onward there was a shift in popularity for the two lifts.
Folks figured out ways to make floor press more feasible. Eventually, it was performed off of the bench with the barbell being handed off by a spotter from stands, finally making it the bench press. George Hackenschmidt set the floor press record in 1898 at 361 lbs. Joe Nordquest broke the record 18 years later by only 2 lbs. Then, in 1953, Doug Hepburn set a standard by pressing 500 lbs off of a bench (Katterle). From the 1970s onward, bench press records have been broken numerous times each decade, with the most recent raw record being over 700 lbs (Wikipedia)
In 1972, due to errors in judging, potential health issues, political mishaps, and a whole slew of crap, the overhead press was removed from Olympic weightlifting as a judged lift (Starr). This left behind only the snatch and clean & jerk. Meanwhile, the first unofficial American powerlifting tournament was held in 1968, and the International Powerlifting Federation was founded in 1972 (Unitt). These events cemented the influence of powerlifting, and subsequently the bench press, in Western history.
Thus, we see how the overhead press went wayside and the bench press surged in popularity. Today, the only recognition the overhead press receives is as a training tool and a significant portion of strongman competitions.
Speaking of it being a training tool… It’s fortunate that the overhead press is still being used as such, because it offers numerous benefits to the trainee that the bench press does not. This qualifies the lift to be trained at the same frequency, if not more-so, than that of the bench press.
Benefit #1: The Overhead Press Keeps Your Shoulders Healthy
This benefit has got to be the most important aspect of the overhead press, period. Meanwhile, not much can be said about the bench press promoting shoulder health.
The problem with the bench press lies in the fact that it is performed with the back against a surface. This requires that the shoulder blades be pinched back so that the torso remains relatively stable against the bench. However, in any other “real life” instance of a human pressing horizontally, the shoulder blades typically move freely.
When the shoulder blades are stuck in a retracted position during a horizontal press, the serratus anterior is inhibited. This is because the serratus anterior is responsible for protraction – as well as upward rotation and elevation – which is the opposite of pinching your shoulder blades back. Not surprisingly, serratus anterior activation is greatest when the shoulder blades move freely during horizontal-push movements (Decker MJ, et. al).
With the overhead press, correct technique involves free-moving scapulae. This allows for complete activation of the serratus anterior coupled with activation of the middle trapezius. This “co-activation” is unique in which it protracts, upwardly rotates, and elevates the shoulder blades. Interestingly enough, weakness in the serratus anterior and middle trapezius, as well as a lack of co-activation between the two, has been associated with shoulder impingement syndrome (de Morais Faria CD, et. al) (Celik D, et. al).
On top of that, the act of pinching the shoulder blades together anecdotally causes rhomboid dominance, further worsening the inhibition of the serratus/trapezius co-activation, because the rhomboids then “take over” for the trapezius in other movements.
So, the bench press forces you to stretch certain muscles and work on activating other muscles if you want to remain uninjured. Meanwhile, the overhead press by itself maintains the health of your shoulder, given that it is performed correctly. Between the overhead press vs. the bench press, the former is the clear winner in terms of shoulder health.
Benefit #2: The Overhead Press is Better for Athletic Preparation
Because the overhead press is performed standing, it requires activation of muscles from-head-to-toe. As the force of the barbell is transferred through the arms, down the torso and legs, into the ground, the muscles must contract the stabilize the body. This is so that the other joints of the body remain stiff, so that the entire body can do its job to transfer the force as the arms/shoulder move dynamically.
On the other hand, the bench press is performed lying down, with the force of the barbell transferring through the arms, across the upper back, into the bench. While lifters utilize a strong contraction of the muscles in the torso and legs, this contributes more-so to maintaining the technique favorable to reducing the range-of-motion of the bench press. It doesn’t really work so much in transferring load throughout the body, because most of the load from the bar is transferred into the bench through the upper back.
Basically, the bench press is not a “whole-body” exercise.
If you look at any sport, whether it be baseball, football, MMA, or javelin throwing, a majority of the actions performed in these events require a transfer of force from the ground, up the body, to the arms. Sports are “whole-body” endeavors.
Being that the overhead press uses the entire body to transfer force in a similar fashion, it can be theorized that the overhead press is better for athletes. Hell, even lay people who have to move around all day and move stuff around may benefit from this lift. So, the overhead press wins again vs. the bench press for athletic preparation (and even real life preparation).
Benefit #3: The Overhead Press Teaches Discipline
This benefit, although abstract and not palpable like the other benefits, is important for young and arrogant lifters.
The bench press involves A LOT of upper-body muscle mass, thus is one of the easiest upper-body exercises to progress on. Combine that with the fact that it develops the “man muscles”, AKA the chest, and you’ve got an exercise that attracts brash, immature kids.
Compare that to the overhead press, which involves a great deal less muscle mass. Unlike the bench press, it isn’t easy to put up a lot of weight with this lift, is quite easy to stall on, and doesn’t develop nearly as many “show-off” muscles.
Superficially, this may give the bench press a leg up on its vertical brother, but it is actually negative on a deeper level. With quick progress, it trains a young lifter’s mind to seek instant gratification, as if technology and other parts of life haven’t done so already. As for big chesticles, it emphasizes “form over function”. While there’s no issue with wanting an awesome physique, solely going for what’s visible not only worsens the need for instant gratification, but puts the body at risk for injury when a superficial mind-set dictates a training program.
The overhead press, when worked on fervently, teaches the lifter discipline simply because progress will be slow. To make steady gains with this lift, one must appreciate the process it takes to make those small, incremental jumps in strength. And because it’s not as great of a muscle-builder than bench pressing, the overhead press will allow the lifter to appreciate what can’t be seen. Despite that fact it doesn’t blow up your chest, it is a superior training tool for maintaining shoulder health and increasing total body strength.
So, when it comes to the overhead press vs. the bench press, the overhead press wins for developing discipline.
Bonus: Appealing to Authority (Strong Guys Who Press Heavy Weight)
This necessarily isn’t another comparison of the overhead press vs. the bench press. This is just an illustration of overhead pressing being associated with badassery.
- Dmitry Klokov overhead pressed 341 lbs.
- Derek Poundstone log pressed 400 lbs.
- Josh Bryant push-pressed 445 lbs.
- Zydrunas Savickas log pressed 500 lbs.
- Dan Green overhead pressed 315.
Strong mofos pressing heavy weight. Need I say more.
Conclusion: The Overhead Press is Better than the Bench Press in Many Ways
The overhead press was once a mainstay for anyone interested in strength, but has fallen out of favor for the bench press. Before others jump on this overcrowded bandwagon, it should be noted the overhead press offers many benefits over the bench press. It maintains shoulder health, develops athletic ability, and teaches patience and discipline. Plus, many strong folks out there have amazing overhead pressing strength, so why not emulate them?
So, when it comes to doing the overhead press vs. the bench press, consider doing more of the former.
1. History of Weightlifting. Team USA. USA Weightlifting. Web.
2. Katterle, S. Power Surge: The Bench Press – History, Records and Raw Lifts. Ironman Magazine February 2009: 237. Print.
3. Mcdonald, Jim. Ricky Burns 722 lb World Record Raw Bench Press – Official Video”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 19 May 2013. Web.
4. Starr, B. The Quest for a Stronger Overhead Press. Aasgard Co. Starting Strength, 2010. Web.
5. Unitt, DJ. The History of the International Powerlifting Association. International Powerlifting Assocation. Powerlifting-IPF. Web.
6. Decker MJ, et. al. Serratus Anterior Muscle Activity During Selected Rehabilitation Exercises. the American Journal of Sports Medicine. 27.8 (1999). Web.
7. de Morias Faria CD, et. al. Scapular muscular activity with shoulder impingement syndrome during lowering of the arms. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 18.2 (2008): 130-136. Web.
8. Celik D, et. al. The relationship of muscle strength and pain in subacromial impingement syndrome. Acta Orthopaedica et Traumatologica Turcica. 45.2 (2011): 79-84. Web.
9. “Progression of the bench press world record.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia, n.d. Web.