by Charles A. Smith (1951)
A writer has to very careful these days. There’s lots of people around with educations – Yes Sir! Ten to one, if I call the press on back, “the prone press”, I get letters in the mail telling me that prone means “face down” and what do I mean by it. Of course they are right. “Prone” DOES mean face down, but public usage places the accolade of universal acceptance on the prone press title and I see no reason why I should fly in the face of opinion. Come to think of it, there’s more than a few thousand laboring under the delusion that Columbus discovered America, conveniently forgetting such worthies as Leif Ericson, John and Sebastian Cabot, the latter chancing upon Labrador and subsequently surveying over 1800 miles of the US Coastline. Then we have Magellan and last but not least, the American Indians. Yes, you sure have to watch your step or you find yourself misquoted and misunderstood. Simple words and phrases are best, as the famous author H.G. Wells found out when he gave an interview to a reporter who possessed a sense of humor. Wells opined that the moon was composed of a form of silica and the scribe promptly reported to his paper that Wells said the moon was made up of broken bottles.
Purists insist that the correct title of the lift and exercise we are discussing should be the “supine press”. The average bodybuilder and weight lifter calls it the “prone press” but the actual title of the lift is “The pullover and press on back without bridge”. But no matter what name you know it by, the press on back is a good exercise, builds terrific power and wonderful development.
This lift is one of the “key” exercises associated with, and partly responsible for, the sensational rise in quality and quantity of the marvelous muscular specimens we everywhere these days. The popularity of the lift and its use has risen steadily with the sport of bodybuilding. The weight trainers use it as a basic part of their workouts. To me it has always seemed a pity that we don’t use it more as a competition lift. There are rules which govern the performance of the press on back and I hope that this article, quoting them, will be the means of further popularizing the exercise and increasing its use as a medium of rivalry between bodybuilders.
You can think of any famous oldtimer and be sure that he used the press on back – Joe and Adolph Nordquest, George Hackenschmidt, Arthur Saxon, Owen Carr, Bill Lilly, Sig Klein, George Lurich, Berthold Tandler, Eugene Sandow, Otto Arco and countless others. The strong men of yesteryear were proud of the impressive poundages they could lift by it, proud of the magnificent arm and shoulder development they built in the practice of the lift and naturally jealous of their reputations. They lifted according to a strict set of rules and placed themselves into bodyweight classes, and counted it as something worthwhile when they beat a personal, national or world record.
With the slow but steady growth of weight training a new type of bodybuilder or lifter emerged. He was interested in strength athletics, not merely for the sake of strength, but for physical perfection, for proportionate development and god health. He paid attention not only to the exercises in his schedule, but to his diet, personal hygiene, particular methods of using particular exercises and as many variations of single exercises as he could conjure up out of his mind. Mere limit poundages were not sufficient. Big arms not the final goal to which he strove. He wanted something more – and he got it by improvising with the apparatus and exercising the muscles over many different and wider ranges. In those dawn years of the modern bodybuilding era, he probably had George Hackenschmidt as his hero or Joe Nordquest. He knew that they had practiced the various presses and that both had widely used the press on back as a major part of their schedules. Looking at the mighty arms and shoulders of Joe and George, he rightly figured that the exercise would do as much for him.
His experiments, the setbacks he overcame he overcame and the progress he made are reflected in the truly wonderful strength athletes of today. Reg Park, Clancy Ross, Floyd Page, John Farbotnik, Al Stephan, Marvin Eder, Leo Robert – all these men use the press on back or one of the many muscle movements which have evolved from it. A whole new series of exercises has arisen, as the “prone press” or “supine press” or whatever you call it, gained in popularity. First the exercising bench and then the incline bench developed and we began to see bigger and better arms, shoulders, chests and a most impressive tie-in of deltoids, triceps and pectorals. Physiques which seemed all deltoids and arms suddenly developed chests. Pectorals filled out and rib boxes swelled and stretched the tape to bigger measurements. The Golden Age of weight training had at last arrived and it looks like it is here to stay.
There is hardly any other lift – with the possible exception of the Two Hands Olympic Press and the Two Hands Slow Curl – that is productive of so much argument and misconception. I have asked half-a-hundred men what their idea of a good press on back is, and have obtained half-a-hundred answers. The rules are practically unknown in the States. It is astonishing how many think the weight can be lifted over by assistants, that one can arch the back providing the shoulders and heels remain on the ground, that you can body-toss the weight to pressing position. First, let’s see what the rules are, then we can discuss cause for disqualification and the special problems raised or involved in the lift. In the Rule handbook of the British Amateur Weightlifting Association, the lift is #25 on the list of recognized lifts.
“Lying on the ground with the center of the bar IMMEDIATELY BEHIND THE HEAD, the bell shall be brought over the lifter’s face until the upper arms rest on the ground. From this position the bell shall be pressed to arms’ length over head. Once the bell cleans the line of the sternum where the collar bones meet, the discs shall again come into contact with the floor. Throughout the lift, the buttocks and shoulders shall remain on the ground and the legs shall be kept straight.”
Thus you will see that the lifter MUST bring the weight over head himself to pressing position and once there the entire body must be kept on the floor. The back is not allowed to arch and the HEELS MUST NOT SEPARATE. Note particularly that THROUGHOUT the lift the SHOULDERS AND BUTTOCKS MUST REMAIN ON THE GROUND and the LEGS MUST BE KEPT STRAIGHT. The bodybuilder will possibly experience a little difficulty in bringing the bar over to the pressing position. Previously, he has been accustomed to having his training mates lift the bar for him, of else he has used a body toss after having rolled the bar up his thighs. The amount of weight he can press will be considerably less in the orthodox style than in his previous “aided” record, but practice of the special enabling exercises plus application of the accepted bodybuilding principles will soon increase the amount of weight he can handle.
It is best to get used to a regular hand spacing – that is, to choose a width of grip you will ALWAYS use. You are not allowed to change the width of grip once you start the lift and it is important to choose a distance between the hands that will enable you to use the maximum power in pulling the weight over, and then pressing it to arms’ length. The lats and triceps are involved in pulling taking the weight to pressing position and every advantage should be taken of the speed with which the bar can be pulled from above the head. You will find that as the upper arms touch the floor – lie along it – as the barbell travels towards the chest, the momentum will carry the forearms up a little way to vertical. Here is where you must add the power of the triceps to the speed of the bar and get the weight into the commencing position. You will find there is a considerable temptation t help the bar up by pressing on it with your chin. Resist this, for it can only lead to your disqualification as you are almost certain to raise the shoulder.
In training for maximum performance, it is best to choose a weight which is heavy enough to make you “feel” every rep above 5. While it is impossible to set a definite standard for every lifter and bodybuilder, it has been found best to keep down the reps and raise the poundages when training for a record attempt. Experiment a little until you find the combination of poundage, sets and repetitions which produce the best results. Don’t be afraid to discard a schedule when you consider you have drawn everything out of it. Change your routine as often as honestly necessary. Use the various forms of the press on back such as the bench press and the incline press and exercise the various muscles concerned in the lift. Particularly it is essential to concentrate on the triceps and deltoids.
When you press the weight overhead, at the start of the press, incline the forearms SLIGHTLY backwards and allow the weight to travel backwards until it is above the face; at the same time and as the barbell has covered half the distance to arms’ length, find that there will be no difficulty in keeping the weight moving once you have started it and you can be reasonably certain of making a successful lift with poundages close to limit or record performance.
Training for the Press on Back
The problems encountered in this lift are not too much different from those in the two-hands Olympic press. However, one has a firm platform from which to make his press on back, while in the Olympic press the base is limited to the area covered by the feet. Thus the muscles involved are in a more advantageous position than they are in “upright” pressing and as a consequence, the poundages elevated greater, and the degree of development more general. In fact, not only are the deltoids and triceps affected, but the latissimus dorsi, parts of the serratus magnus, the pectorals, the forearms and wrists all come if for a great deal of hard work. Even the muscles of the neck get quite a workout as the back of the head presses the floor with the stress of ramming the bar to arms’ length over the body. Too wide a grip is not advised because of the danger of muscle strain in the upper back. I know several men who have suffered painful strains of the rhomboid muscles because they used a wide grip – out to the collars almost – in the press on back. The best grip is one in which the forearms are straight up and down. The wrists can be dropped slightly back and a “thumbs-around-the-bar” grasp will prove to be more comfortable on the wrists and hands. The wrists can be taped with a strong bandage with care being taken not to bind them too tightly. So much for the minor details. Now for the assistance exercises and the movements which build up power. Getting the muscles of the shoulder girdle used to handling of supporting heavy poundages is fine for developing a “contempt” for limit weights as well as good psychology. Some time ago I gave an exercise which is invaluable. For “coaxing” the triceps and deltoids along, enabling them to build up power, an for strengthening the tendons and ligaments it is one of the best.
Take two boxes or exercise benches and load up a bar to your BEST press on back poundage. Place the ends of the bar on the benches so that it bridges across them – or if the boxes are low, place the plates on the box. Lie under the bar and position yourself so that the shoulders or deltoids are directly beneath the bar. From here, grasp the barbell and press it the couple of inches to arms’ length. Start off with 5 reps for 3 sets and increase to 3 sets of 10 reps. As soon as you can make 3 sets of 10 reps with this weight, increase it by 10 pounds and start off with 3 sets of 5 reps again.
The second movement is for strengthening the “pulling over” power. In the actual lift the bar will have plates which will take it clear of the face as it travels over to press-commencing position. Your entire upper arm will be flat on the floor as the bar is in the region of the chin and it is here that the pressure of the hands on the bar, motivated by the power of the triceps, brings the weight to the ready. Here is a muscle movement which will increase the “push” and boost the speed and power with which the bar is puller over. Lie flat on your back and have training partners place a dumbbell in each hand. Your position on the floor should be that of commencing to press a weight overhead with the elbows out to the sides. From this position, with the upper arms from shoulder to elbow kept flat and immovable on the floor, lower the dumbbells until they touch the floor and then return them to starting position. Go light at first with this exercise, and take a weight which you can easily handle for 3 sets of 5 reps, working up to 3 sets of 12 reps before adding weight. As you lower the dumbbells to the floor, do so a slowly and steadily as you can manage. Don’t forget, the forearm is the only part of the body which moves. All exercises which are “isolated” triceps movements are excellent as assistance exercises for the press on back. Perhaps the best is the triceps press which follows, a favorite exercise of Reg Park
Lie on a bench and have your training partner hand you a barbell, or dumbbells. Take a shoulder-width grip and, with the bar held at arms’ length over the body, lower it to the chin taking care NOT TO MOVE THE UPPER ARMS. The upper arms are kept as nearly upright as the exercise will allow. ONLY the forearms move, lowering the weight to the chin or forehead and raising it to arms’ length again. The resistance is nearly all on the inner head of the triceps. You can even get a training partner to stand astride you and hold the upper arms so that they do not slant from the vertical when the weight is being lowered or raised. I followed the procedure with Reg and he gained considerable strength and size in the entire triceps. Start off with a weight you can handle for 3 sets of 8 reps, working up to 3 sets of 15 reps before adding weight.
An outstanding assistance movement is dumbbell pressing – and this goes for any overhead movement – snatches, jerks, swings or Olympic pressing. It is even more effective in the press on back. Teaching you control of the weight and evening up the strength and development of the arms until they reach parity, it has added pounds to a press and inches to the arms which perform the press. Take up the press on back position on a box and have your training mates hand you the two dumbbells. From here, simply press them to arms’ length and, lowering them, repeat. Start off with a weight which you can handle for 3 sets of 5 reps and work p to 3 sets o 12 reps. The elbows can be kept close to the sides – hard work for the triceps – or they can be held so that the upper arms are straight out from the shoulders – hard work for the anterior deltoids and pectorals. LOWER the dumbbells as SLOWLY as you can. CONTROL them back to commencing position.
Dipping builds up considerable pressing strength and coordinates the action of the shoulder and chest muscles – muscles which play an all-important part in the press on back. The most effective form of dipping in this case is the “floor dip” because it closely approximates the subject lift. Place the feet on a box and rest the hands on the floor. Press up until the arms are straight and the entire body is in a STRAIGHT LINE. Resistance is provided by barbell plates rested on the upper back. Bend the arms, touching the chest on the floor and then press up again. DON’T allow the trunk or legs to sag, but try and keep the entire trunk and legs in a continuous straight line throughout the exercise. If the barbell plate is placed against the back of the head, the head can be pressed back holding the plate in one position. The angle of the elbows can be altered from a position right against the sides of the body to where they point out and away from the shoulders. In these extreme angles the hand spacing on the floor must, naturally, be a little wider than it is when the elbows are held against the sides. Start off with a weight you can handle for 3 sets of 10 reps, and work up to 3 sets of 15 reps before adding weight. Try and make the repetitions as rapid as possible with little or no pause between each one and don’t forget – DON’T ALLOW the trunk to bend. KEEP IT STRAIGHT.
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