If you’ve trained any kind of overhead pressing movement, chances are that you’ve heard that standing variations are always better. As a coach, I’ve believed this in the past. However, my mind has changed in recent years, and I want to highlight some of the possible issues with this train of thought.
We know that free weights tend to be better than machines for building strength and muscle. At the same time, that’s a subject of its own and it’s still possible to build size and strength with machines.
One of the reasons for the superiority of free weight exercises is the increased stress that they place on “stabilizer” muscles, which are supportive muscles which aren't directly moving the weight but are activated to stabilize the relevant joints, making it possible for the primary muscles to do their work. When performing lifts through a guided range of motion and with the aid of pads to stabilize the body, you can move a greater amount of weight simply because there’s no stability challenge on these muscles. However, this strength rarely translates into real-world application, where these stabilizer muscles have to stabilize the joints involved so that maximal force can be produced. Free weight movements tend to be superior to machines in training for strength because they require this additional stability and train these muscles appropriately.
There’s a problem here: if we assume that stability challenge alone is the reason for the superiority of free weight movements, this might lead us to falsely assume that a greater stability challenge is always better. By using unstable weights and lifting from unstable surfaces, we should expect to see greater gains in strength and size. This is the premise behind many of the sillier aspects of functional training, which involves a great deal of stability challenge on unstable surfaces including bosu balls and swiss balls.
Research has largely shown that these forms of training are counterproductive. The problem manifests itself here: too much of a stability challenge means that the vast majority of the effort goes into these stabilizing muscles, and there’s not enough left to go into force production in the primary muscles. This reduces the capacity for force production, leading to less overload over time - less muscle, and less strength, the worst of both worlds.
So to recap, let’s imagine a spectrum. On one end of the line is a machine exercise, which is about as stable as it gets. With decreasing stability we see free weight exercises with some degree of support (for example: seated shoulder presses, or preacher curls), unsupported free weight exercises (squat, deadlift, standing overhead press), free weight exercises with unstable weights (bamboo bars, tsunami bars, sandbags), and lastly free weight exercises with unstable bases of support (bosu balls, balance boards, swiss balls). Either extreme is less ideal for building muscle and specific strength.
This is probably because of the principle of specificity, which states that we see the best increases in a skill due to training with methods as close to that skill as possible. By bench pressing we get better at bench pressing, and by doing push ups we get better at doing push ups. As an exercise gets less specific compared to the skill we’re trying to train (say, using push ups to increase our bench press) carryover decreases, so we see smaller results.
If real world application of training generally involves lifting stable weights from stable surfaces (what we normally see when lifting free weights) then it tends to reason that, due to specificity, we’d see the best results when training with similar methods. Too little or too much of a stability challenge would be less specific, and therefore we’d expect to see worse results. So squatting on a bosu ball would be a great idea if we were playing football on a field made of bosu balls, for example, but probably isn’t a great idea when we’re playing on a football field that’s made of mostly stable grass.
Let’s return to the question of standing versus seated presses. In the bench press, for example, we can handle a lot more weight lying down on the bench than performing a standing cable chest press, even though the motions are otherwise similar. In the cable chest press, the limiting factor isn’t our chest - it’s the core and legs, which work together to stabilize the torso so that the chest can do the pressing. When form breaks down in the cable chest press, it’s because we can’t maintain a stable torso, and usually not because your chest is too physically weak to move that amount of weight. You’re forced to use a much lower overall weight in the standing cable chest press than the lying barbell bench press.
Which is generally considered the superior exercise for building strength and size in the chest? Well, the bench press, clearly. Much greater weight with less stability challenge equals more overload and further adaptation.
However, this doesn’t mean that the standing cable press is useless. If the goal of training is to increase strength and size in the chest, then the bench press is used. If the goal is to maximize standing pressing power, however, the standing cable press would be superior. This certainly has applications to contact sports, where the ability to push an opponent is critical. The same ability can also be trained with sled pushes, which similarly stress the stabilization capability of the torso.
To use either exercise alone would be suboptimal. The bench press alone would build muscle and general strength but not strength specific to the task at hand (pushing an opponent). The cable chest press alone would build specific strength (pushing the opponent) but wouldn’t build general strength or muscle over time, leading to a plateau of ability. Instead, a combination of both would be optimal - using the bench press to build the general muscle and strength before then using the cable chest press or sled push as skill training to build specific strength, optimizing and utilizing that muscle to its greatest extent.
Let’s apply the same argument to the overhead press, whether done with barbells or dumbbells and whether done seated or standing. Typically, we are told that the standing overhead press is the only one that matters. However, due to the greater support/stability of the seated press, we are able to handle more weight. More weight equals more overload over time, leading to more muscle and general strength built.
Standing pressing is more specific to real-world pressing, so it develops better specific strength. Similar to the bench press, neither alone would be ideal, but by applying both strategically you’ll see greater overall gains in strength and muscle.
As a result, we can say that seated overhead presses are more “bodybuilding oriented”, and are slightly superior when it comes to building size when compared to standing overhead presses. Likewise, standing presses are slightly more “functional overhead strength oriented”, meaning that they’re superior when the intent is to lift as much weight as possible overhead, including in Olympic lifting, Strongman, and the sport of fitness. This isn’t a perfectly accurate statement, but it should give you an idea of the point of this article.
However, it should be clear from the above that using either alone is a bad idea. Instead, by using both (seated in earlier training phases, and standing in later) we can use the best qualities of both in order to create ideal improvements in both strength and muscle. This seems to go in line with the suggestions of some high-level pressing athletes that I’ve seen in previous years.
Marshall White, for example, recounts how he used partial ranges of motion to preferentially train the weaker part of his overhead press (the lockout) so that he could see improvement after stagnating on full range of motion strict standing pressing for years. While this isn’t an argument for seated pressing, it is an argument against doing nothing but standing strict pressing with a full range of motion.
Zydrunas Savickas, one of the strongest men in the world and definitely one of the most dominant overhead pressers, is also known for his love of the seated smith machine overhead press, a movement a lot of lifters would laugh at. While it seems unlikely that this movement alone would be ideal for building world class overhead pressing strength, I can definitely see how it would be useful in earlier, size-focused periods of training before leading up to more specific training and competition.
Since many people are simply looking to build muscle and grow stronger generally, it seems likely that it’s not too important what exercises you’re using. If you’re not looking to compete in a specific competition that requires standing overhead pressing, chances are you could just use seated pressing forever without having any negative impact on your potential, and I would probably just recommend sticking with seated pressing variations.
The strategic use of different exercises and transitioning to standing presses later only becomes important when you train for a sport involving a great deal of overhead lifting. For these lifters, you’d want to start with less specific seated pressing in your off season and then shift to more specific standing presses later in your training cycle, when it gets closer to competition time.
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