Forgotten Exercises: The Bradford Press


One of the most maligned exercises of recent decades has been the military press done behind the neck. Owing it is said to the undue stress this exercise places on the shoulder joints, lifters have been advised to avoid this technique at all costs. I, for many years, was one of those lifters. Not only did the exercise feel uncomfortable, I couldn’t go as heavy on it, thereby hurting my fragile ego.

Some months ago I stumbled across another trainee performing Bradford Presses in the gym. This same trainee, an advocate of old school training, had previously alerted me to the Butt Punch and Swingbell exercises previously covered on this site. When pressed (no pun intended) about why he was performing said lift, I was curtly informed that he had performed this exercise for two decades without shoulder pain. I, was curious to put it mildly.

Fast forward to the present day and my shoulder health has improved dramatically, as has my conventional military press. I owe a large part of this to the Bradford Press, hence the topic of today’s post.

What is the Bradford Press?

Simply put the Bradford Press is a shoulder exercise whereby the barbell is first pressed in front of the head, then lowered behind the neck and finally pressed behind the neck before bringing the bar down to the chest and resuming the process all over again.

Omar Lsuf’s Youtube channel provides a nice video representation

From the above, it’s clearly not an exercise to be done heavily…at least not at first. Given the demonisation of behind the neck presses, you may be wondering what man or woman was responsible for bringing this particular exercise into the world?

The Inventor

The man responsible for this exercise was, as you may have guessed, a Bradford. Jim Bradford to be exact. Born in the first half of the twentieth-century, Jim was one of the leading US weightlifters of his day. His athletic career spanned three decades and saw Jim achieve two US National Championships, a silver medal at four world championships and a silver medal at two Olympic Games (in 1952 and 1960). Speaking at a celebration of Jim’s career in 1999, Artie Drechsler labelled Bradford as among the greatest pressers of the bar the US had ever produced.

The below video of Bradford in action reinforces Drechsler’s point.

For obvious reason’s Jim was well regarded within US weightlifting circles. Writing in 1958 (my thanks once more to the excellent Tight Slacks of Dezso Ban for this article), Bob Hoffman wrote of Jim’s seemingly incredulous strength

It’s too bad that Jim Bradford of Washington, D.C. is not sufficiently interested to go all out in his training. I have believed for a long time that he could score well over 1100 total and could have given Paul Anderson some stiff competition. The last time I saw Jim in training I formed the opinion that no one in the world has deltoids as large as his. Less than a year ago Bradford weighed 280 and his deltoids looked like large coconuts. At that bodyweight he had no appreciable waistline, yet he had a tremendously powerful body. At the world championships in Milan (1951), Jim won second place. He was second at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952. In Vienna (1954), when John Davis had an injured leg, we sent for Jim and he came over just a few hours before the lifting and totaled 1045 for a second place medal. Schemansky won that year with 1074. The following year Jim went to Munich with the U.S. team and finished second to Paul Anderson. Then came Olympic year and though Jim was in top form, he did not try out for a berth on the team….

From the inception of Jim’s lifting career, iron game enthusiasts all over the world have been impressed with his superlative pressing power. His slow, wide grip, power pressing, while maintaining perfect body position, brings oohs and ahs and much worthy applause from lifting fans everywhere. Jim doesn’t follow the norms when it comes to pressing style, yet he still lifts incredible poundages. If the jovial Goliath had the time and desire to train seriously he could become the world’s heavyweight champion.

Continuing in this vein, Hoffman then gives one of the earliest accounts of the Bradford Press

A good share of his time is spent practicing a form of push-pressing that has brought him good results in pressing and has helped all other members of the 12th St. Y team which is known as the Bradford Weightlifting Club. Jim and his training mates press “without sin”. They hold their positions erectly, press smoothly and seldom are disqualified. There are comparatively few pressers in this country who press in the same strict style as do members of the Bradford Club.

How to do this Bradford specialty exercise? A weight of about 90% of your regular press is brought to the shoulders. With very little help from the legs it is pushed up to the top of the head and slowly lowered to the shoulders behind the neck. Then with very little help from the legs it is pushed to the top of the head, brought front and lowered to the upper chest. The movement is continuous and is practiced from 5 to 7 repetitions. This exercise is a terrific deltoid developer and since this muscle is more important than any other in overhead pressing, the ambitious lifter will be wise to spend part of his training time on the Bradford Press.

Incorporating the Press

Jim’s use and other’s promotion of the Bradford Press explains its credentials well enough. For those of you interested in using the press, the natural question is how? From my own experience and my own shoulder troubles, detailed in part elsewhere, incorporating the Bradford Press into my warm up, using only a barbell, was an effective way of easing my way into the Press and increasing my shoulder mobility.

After several months I began to incorporate the Press en lieu of the standard military press. The results in my own case, in terms of strength and shoulder health have made it a worthwhile addition.

Have you used the Bradford Press in the past? Let us know in the comments below.

As always… Happy Lifting!

6 thoughts on “Forgotten Exercises: The Bradford Press

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  1. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen this move. I had shoulder impingements and mobility issues that I finally worked out with shoulder dislocates. I may use this for a mobility exercise. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi JB617, thanks for stopping by. Do let us know how you find it. I found it a good progression after shoulder dislocates. I began with a 10kg bar and worked up from there. If that causes trouble, a broom stick handle can be a good starting point too

  2. I read online that this press dates from the 60s; it was known before then. It is described in the May 1951 issue of ‘Muscle Power’ magazine, in an article entitled ‘Secrets of Strength’ by Charles A. Smith. He called them Circle Presses, and says they build complete deltoid development, on page 43 of this issue he describes it. ‘This is perhaps the greatest all round development exercise ever to be used. It featured in my exercise schedules many years ago and once again is gaining prominence in England. It is unknown here, but I feel certain it will be immensely popular once body builders start to use it. Take a barbel loaded up to a weight you will be able to use for 8 comfortable reps. Start off with the weight across the back of the shoulders. From here press to just over the head onto the front of the chest and immediately press it back and over the head to the upper back again and at once return it over to the chest. The weight is not pressed to arms length, but merely describes a semi circle over the head from the back to the chest. Use three sets to start with working up to three sets of fifteen reps before increasing the weight’.

    1. Hey Robert, thanks so much for stopping by and especially with such fascinating information. I’d never heard of Circle Presses – what a find. Shows there’s nothing new under the sun eh?

  3. I did this press a lot when I Wrestled in College. It was 1 of 3 essential presses that we did during training. The other 2 being the millitary and behind the neck press with a wide grip. We were never allowed to perform the other 2 presses before the Bradford press and even with light weight, it kicks your ass. I remember my coach would put a 5 minute timer and had all of us do Bradford presses until failure with 10 seconds of rest between each set until the timer ran out. It made the other 2 presses much easier including behind the neck press. I had no idea until now that it came from power lifting. This press alone built made my shoulders and traps in College and is the only press that I still perform regularly today.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Matias. That’s awesome your coach had you do these. I’m still a convert to the Bradford Press myself. I doubt they can be beat although I don’t know if I could handle that workout!

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