Continental and Military Pressing

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What could be simpler than lifting a weight overhead?

Well like everything else in the world of fitness, a simple idea is often needlessly complicated, something exemplified by today’s post on overhead pressing at the turn of the twentieth-century.

Unlike modern weightlifting competitions, which have largely standardised the manner in which lifts can be executed, the competitions of one hundred years ago were notable owing to the sheer variation in how weights were lifted.

Take for example, the often acrimonious debate about continental and military pressing.

What is a continental press?

For competitors, the continental press was commonly understood to involve raising a barbell from the ground to the shoulders without losing contact with the bar (within reason of course!). In essence, this meant deadlifting the bar up to the stomach, before boosting it up to the shoulders, a technique still found in strongmen competitions of the day.

From the shoulders, the bar would be pressed overhead without any regulations regarding leaning backwards, something which distinguished the press from its cousin, the military press. The following video provides a good example

Now the problem with this technique for many strength purists of the age was that sloppy technique, as opposed to pure strength, could result in higher lifting numbers. Nevertheless the method was hugely popular amongst weightlifters in the opening half of the twentieth-century as evidenced by the hoards of lifters utilising the continental at the Olympics.

As alluded to the introduction, another school of thought did exist however, one which was positively more rigid than the continental. This was the military press, which as the name suggests, owed much of its form to military thinking.

Proponents of the military press would begin the lift with the barbell already at the shoulders, or en lieu of equipment shortages, would clean the bar to shoulder height. From there it would be pressed overhead, with the heels together and a straight, rigid back. No hip drive or backwards lean was permitted whatsoever. This technique, was often referred to as the slow and steady approach to lifting the bar overhead, owing to the greater strain it placed on the lifter.

This photograph, taken from Affecting Gravity, shows Arthur Saxon performing the lift

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So in purely technical terms, the military press required greater concentration and greater strength, a point captured upon by many proponents of the exercise in the early twentieth-century.

What makes the story of continental versus military pressing so interesting is the emotive nature that debates about the best pressing methods in the Olympics took for over fifty years.

Pressing Issues

While the differences between continental and military pressing may seem trivial to us nowadays, for many decades such differences lead to fierce and often bitter debates between strength coaches. This was especially the case at the Olympic Games.

From 1928 to 1972, the overhead press was a mandatory lift for Olympic weightlifters alongside the snatch and clean and jerk with some fascinating results. As John D. Fair’s article on the Olympic press explains, this period saw US and European coaches regularly get into wars of words regarding the correct method of pressing.

You see, for several decades US coaches such as Bob Hoffman, held on to the belief that strict military pressing should be maintained at the Olympic Games with the result that the majority of his athletes tended to press in this manner. Such a strict adherence to form limited the weights Hoffman’s athletes could press, especially when compared to the more laissez-faire Europeans who favoured the continental pressing techniques of curved backs and the use of momentum.

Indeed as Fair notes, “strict presses, though admirable as displays of pure strength, rarely won championships.”

This is not to say that the Americans were not adept in their own way, something Fair’s article discusses. You see, by the end of the 1930s, US athletes themselves were utilising more and more dubious methods of pressing. While such techniques hovered on the borderline of competitive acceptability, they were nevertheless effective in their own way.

As the decades passed, judges, fans and coaches became more and more concerned about the efforts lifters were resorting to. Returning to Fair’s article, we see an incredible back bending lift by the Russian heavyweight Valerij Yakubovsky, at a 1971 international meet in Brussels, Belgium. Though the Russian’s lift was incomplete, his technique was commonplace amongst his fellow athletes.

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The rubber finally met the road prior to 1972 Olympics, when in a rare display of East-West unity, several representatives from the US, USSR, Brazil, Germany and many other regions voted to eliminate the press from the games.

The primary motive being the overly excessive strain on the lower back lifters were subjecting themselves to. While the military press had initially been part and parcel of competition, the sheer popularity of the continental style brought the press to greater levels of danger than ever before and while the press itself was banned from competition, its legacy was an enduring one.

In 1976 Vasily Alexeev clean and jerked 507 lbs., a remarkable feat, which nevertheless had something of a continental style about it. Note the lifter’s slight knee bend and arched back prior to the lift

The continental press was gone in an official sense but its legacy most certainly remained. Whether the same could be said for the military press, it seems doubtful.

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