Lacking Midline Stability During Overhead Pressing is a Myth

Hey all,

One thing I hear quite a bit from coaches and also from reading in the blog-o-sphere is the idea of a lack of mid-line stability causing lower back (lumbar) hyper-extension during overhead press.  We all know what I’m talking about:

Poor Midline Stability?

Here’s the thought. Let’s say you:

  1. Lack mid-line stability (Basically have a weak core)
  2. Perform heavy overhead press

Based on this theory, you’d hyper extend at the lower back (lumbar spine) due to lacking mid-line stability.  Simple right?

I think this is bogus.

The core is going to be most stable when you have adequate alignment of all of the vertebrae in a stacked position.  Why would your spine adopt a position that looks like the leaning tower of pisa when the weight gets heavy in a press?  If anything, leaning backwards makes the core have to work harder.  Go ahead and try it.  Put your arms overhead and do an aggressive back bend.  I’m betting you’ll feel your core working harder to make sure you won’t fall backwards.  Why would a person with a weak mid-line try to adopt a position that’s even harder to maintain???

source: wikipedia.com

Well, for one I do think that the spine can gather a bit of stability from compressing the posterior elements of the spine.  Take a look at the spine model below.  As I extend the spine you’ll notice the boney ridges on the back of the spine (spinous processes) get closer and can potentially touch each other.

This boney approximation (compression) can create some stability and serve as a way to gain support in the spine when overhead pressing.  I can see that if you lack enough mid-line stability you might do this to create stability in the spine.  I really still don’t think this is the major reason why we lose a neutral spine position during overhead press…

Here’s the thing.  Most people can bench press more then they can strict overhead press right?  Ryan Kennelly is the current world record holder in the bench press and can bench 1,075lbs.  Pretty sure that no one can strict overhead press anywhere near that (or even half of that weight).  Even when allowed to drive with the legs in a jerk Hossein Rezazadeh holds the world record at 580lbs.

I think most people will agree that if both lifts are regularly performed, bench press will generally be stronger.  You’ve simply got more muscle mass and potential to build strength when pressing in a horizontal plane.

Now here’s the key.  Our bodies are smart.  If we ask our bodies to press a lot of weight overhead we’ll figure out a way.  If the load is too much for the smaller vertical pressing muscles, we’ll adopt more of a lean back (low back extended posture) to kick in some of the larger and stronger muscles involved in pressing.

Simply put, the more lean back you can get, the more you can engage stronger musculature to complete the lift.

Standing bench press? This dude seriously needs some crunches.

So what ends up happening with heavy loads is that our body adopts the strongest pressing position to get that heavy weight overhead.  Not necessarily a weak core.

So what’s the fix?

I honestly think this one is pretty easy.  Barring major overhead mobility limitations the solution is simple.

Decrease the load.

Once the load is light enough to press the weight overhead while maintaining a neutral spinal position, you train there.  In time you’ll be able to get stronger pressing in a more lower back friendly position.

So that’s it, sorry for the rant and blunt explanation.  I just think this is a myth that needs to be squashed.  Build strength in the positions you want to get stronger in and don’t blame the core for poor technique.

Overhead pressing with your body shaped like a banana,

Dan Pope DPT, OCS, CSCS

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