The press is the most ego-crushing of the basic barbell lifts. The combination of the long kinetic chain and the fact that the relatively small muscles of the shoulders and arms are doing the job of locking the bar out, while nearly every other muscle in the body stabilizes the position and the load, makes for a lift that’s technically challenging and difficult to progress long term.
The press also presents some unique challenges to the coach as well. There are lots of “moving parts” that require a sharp eye and the ability to cue effectively in order to get the most efficient movement out of the lifter. The coach must watch the knees, the angle of the forearms, wrist position and how these things and the bar path are affected by the hip movement that starts the press. Cues must be given at the appropriate time to produce the best result in a lift that is very tempting to give up on if things don’t go well right from the beginning.
Presses that aren’t missed due to just being too heavy are typically missed because the bar has gone forward from a straight vertical bar path, or because the lifter has failed to get forward under the bar to complete the lockout. A common cue given by coaches is to tell the lifter to “press back” toward the lockout. This is perhaps a good piece of instruction, but is rarely an effective cue during the lift. At every strengthlifting meet and in gyms everywhere, there are coaches yelling “BACK!” as the lifter starts to press – they know that the lifter has a tendency to not get under the bar soon enough, resulting in a grinding rep that ends in a miss. “BACK!” is a cue that everyone uses but rarely works, because they are using a bar cue when they should be using a body cue.
The lifter can only do one thing at a time to the bar: once the lifter has started pushing up on a heavy rep, he is unable to distinguish between pushing up, forward, or back. If he were able to make the distinction, letting the bar go forward would be a far less common issue since most people would be able to correct it easily. The lifter just wants to get the bar up to lockout, and he will push as hard as he can to get that done. The slower and harder the rep, the more he loses the ability to adjust the horizontal position of the bar.
So, given that the lifter will push – something that’s done with the arms – as hard as he can to get the bar to go up, let’s give the rest of him something to do rather than attempting to manipulate the bar path mid-lift. Give a body cue, not a bar cue.
If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that you don’t really want any horizontal movement of the bar at all, and that’s what you’re asking the lifter to do by cueing “BACK!” at the bar path. A press that has started forward will not go up, can’t be saved, and fails too quickly to cue anyway. The “BACK!” cue is typically given when the lifter has pushed the bar to about eyebrow or forehead height and the bar has stuck in that position.
What you really want is for the lifter to keep the bar over the shoulder joint. The bar may be going up in a perfectly straight line, but if the shoulder moves further back from the bar, the bar will stick and the lift will miss. By instructing the lifter to keep the shoulders under the bar, and maybe poking the front of the AC joint so that they know exactly what you mean before the lift starts, you give the lifter a task to complete under the bar that is separate from the job of pushing the bar straight up. You are helping the lifter manage his body position under the bar as he pushes rather than trying to affect the push against the bar that is only going to happen in one direction anyway. Instead of yelling “BACK!”, after appropriately instructing the lifter and yelling “SHOULDERS!” or some other appropriate body cue will keep the lifter close to the bar and help his upward drive with the hands result in bringing the shoulders under the bar.
If you’re a lifter whose presses get stuck in the same spot when they’re heavy, before you get under the bar, visualize maintaining a bar path directly over the shoulder joint the whole way up. You already know how to push, and using this method will put the rest of your body in the right position to lock the bar out at the top. Try this the next time you press or coach the press.