The contenders for the “baddest” press title are:
- Kettlebell military press
- Barbell military press
- Handstand push-up (wall supported)
- One-arm push-up
- Parallel bar dips
- Barbell bench press
The Kettlebell Military Press
The kettlebell military press is the healthiest in the line-up, thanks to its shoulder mechanics. Its downside is, it demands a high volume of training to keep moving. There are men and women who have succeeded in pressing a heavy kettlebell or a pair of them on a low volume regime, but they are an exception, rather than the rule. Usually it takes 50-100 weekly reps to keep progressing.
The barbell military press has the same strike against it. As Russian weightlifters used to say when the press was a part of the competition, “To press a lot you must press a lot.”
The Handstand Push-up
The wall supported handstand push-up, although in the same volume-hungry vertical press category, is a strong contender. What makes it different is its pseudo-machine quality. Not having to balance the weight and sliding up and down the wall allows you to handle a relatively heavier weight. (If your 1RM military press is equal to your body weight, you will have no problem knocking off sets and reps of handstand push-ups and not having to lift your forearms is only a small part of the explanation.) This translates into quicker gains.
Because you can do handstand push-ups anywhere, the drill enables you to “grease the groove,” which means the volume is no longer bothersome and you do not get too tired to do other things. Of all the drills on the list, the handstand push-up trashes the glutes the least, which is another asset. A strong contender indeed.
The One-Arm Push-up
The one-arm push-up seems like the logical winner. It provides the opportunity to grease the groove. It addresses a whole lot of symmetry and reflexive stability issues, which is one reason Gray Cook is a fan of The Naked Warrior. It teaches high tension skills. In addition to working the “pressing muscles,” it devastates the midsection.
The last item is an asset and a liability. When your pressing muscles get strong enough for you to knock off multiples sets of five, one-arm push-ups beat up your your abbies, glutes, and QL a lot more than your triceps. Which is why the one-arm push-up does not win this contest.
Note: If your choice of a press has to be body weight, it is a good idea to rotate one-arm push-ups and handstand push-ups every two weeks.
That said, every strength athlete must go through the one-arm push-up school. The tension and linkage lessons the drill teaches are priceless. One of my students, a U.S. military special operator, practiced one-arm push-ups exactly as taught in The Naked Warrior on deployment and did not touch a pull-up bar. When he got back stateside, he was able to do a one-arm pull-up.
The strength skills gained through one-arm push-ups can later be applied to a great number of lifts and athletic skills. When you own it, periodically test your ability to do it. The same applies to the bodyweight-only pistol. Gray Cook has taught me that both make effective assessments. If you are strong, yet cannot do one or both of these drills, you have some dysfunction that needs to be addressed.
The Bar Dip
Parallel bar dips are next on the list. If your shoulders can take them—a big “if”—this exercise is a good choice because it allows you to use very heavy weights. That translates to great strength gains.
Not having to stabilize the spine makes dips easy on the nervous system and quick to recover from. Yuri Vlasov loved dips as an opportunity to unload the spine—every other press loads it. (Properly done dips must be done in a hollow position. I will ask Geoff Neupert, Master SFG, to write a blog on this topic in the future.)
If more shoulders could take the dips, they might have won.
The Bench Press
That leaves us with the bench press (barbell, naturally). The last man standing, it wins.
The bench press has a long record of building unbelievably strong upper bodies. Its invention was a strength game changer. Which is why serious power athletes have been benching, are benching, and will be benching. They are not impressed with the “non-functional” rhetoric. They do what works.
The bench is so effective because it involves a great many muscle groups, enables one to handle very heavy weights, and does not present stabilization or coordination challenges. A great plus is that the bench press can thrive on a very low training volume.
Bench strength carries over very well—provided your hips and shoulders are flexible and your midsection is strong. In other words, a few prying goblet squats, hip flexor stretches, and heavy get-ups will make your bench press strength count.
In the next issue of this blog, in addition to nominating the “best” upper body pull, I will explain why I did not subdivided presses into “horizontal” and “vertical.” Meanwhile, ignore the sissies with their “non-functional” rhetoric and bench away.
Be strong first.