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I've read different opinions about which is the proper bar path for the overhead press.

According to here (and most of the sources), the best bar path is perfectly vertical. If it is, I'd say the barbell must be under our chin, and approximately above our chest (without lying on it) to be above the midfoot.

However, I've never seen people performing the Overhead press with a vertical bar path. They always followed a curved bar path, with the bar a little back at the top. And such a motion is suggested by the following picture (taken from here):

enter image description here

So, who is right? The last picture shows that a curved bar path (up and back) is good because it is balanced with respect to the midfoot. But I think that also a vertical bar path may be fine because:

  • with a curved bar path, the athlete weight + the barbell weight is balanced with respect to the midfoot because the athlete leans slightly forward (with a sort of hip flexion?)
  • with a straight bar path, the athlete does not lean forward. So I think the athlete weight and the barbell weight may also be balanced above the midfoot.
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The overhead press can be performed either with a curved bar path and little body movement, or a more vertical bar path and more body movement. These can be considered two different lifts.

In the overhead press, the bar starts in front of the shoulders, and ends directly above the shoulders. This means that if the lifter is standing upright, the bar must move backwards during the lift. However, the lifter does not necessarily need to be standing upright. An alternative is to push the hips forwards and shoulders back by hyperextending the hips or spine, such that the bar starts over mid-foot and the shoulders start behind the mid-foot. The lifter then presses the bar straight up and, near the top of the lift, moves the shoulders forward so they are under the bar.

Pressing with a curved bar path and minimal change in body position is often called a "strict" or "military" press, and pressing with a vertical bar path and more sagittal shoulder movement is often called a "classic", "Olympic", or "layback" press. But really these are just the ends of a spectrum, and one's pressing style can be any combination of these two.

The strict press is easier to visualise, so here's a diagram explaining the forward hip movement, layback and vertical bar path seen in a classic press, from Starting Strength 3rd Ed:

Bar path in the press, Starting Strength 3ed, pg 86

Neither of these two distinct styles is correct or incorrect, they're just different variations on the lift, and they serve slightly different purposes. The strict press is more of a pure deltoids and triceps exercise, so is probably better for hypertrophy of those muscles, whereas the classic press is more of a whole body movement, also utilising the pectorals and abs to a significant degree, and allowing you to lift more weight, which is important if you're performing this lift for competitive purposes, such as in strongman or strengthlifting.

Finally, the StrongLifts example is probably adding to the confusion, because the author states that the bar path should be vertical, but then in his video demonstration performs more of a strict press, where the bar path can be seen moving forwards as it passes his face, and then backwards at the top of the lift.

enter image description here

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  • Can I ask you a couple of questions about this topic? 1. Both the styles assume that the best idea is to start with the bar in front of the shoulders and end with the bar above the shoulders. Why? Is it a more efficient movement? Why not ending with the bar still in front of the shoulders?
    – Kinka-Byo
    Sep 12 at 9:39
  • 2. In the military press, how can we be balanced at the beginning? The back/hips are not extended, hence the bar is in front of the shoulders and in fron of the midfoot
    – Kinka-Byo
    Sep 12 at 9:40
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    1. If you finished the lift with the bar in front of the shoulders, there'd be a moment arm between the bar and shoulder joint, requiring the shoulders to continually work to hold the bar from falling forwards. It wouldn't be a stable position. This is the same reason why the bench press is finished over the shoulders, rather than over the point on the chest where the bar touches. Sep 12 at 11:25
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    2. If the bar is heavy enough to affect your balance, you can lean back slightly from the ankles in order to shift your body's centre of mass backwards, and also bring the bar slightly closer to the midfoot. Or if the bar is not that heavy, you can just accept that if you stand upright, it might shift your balance towards your toes. Sep 12 at 11:27
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    I think the degree of movement necessary to stay in balance would be near imperceivable. Practically, the rigid posture of the military press is more of an ideal than an absolute requirement, and there's a clear, visible difference between the big movements of an Olympic press and the subtle movements of a military press. Sep 12 at 13:58
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The short answer is: the bar should follow a straight, vertical path and the final, locked out position will look (more) like the left image than the right--in fact, the image on the right does not appear to be locked out and is in an unstable position (torquing forward). In practice, the bar may not move perfectly vertically, but that should always be the goal (see reasoning below).

If the bar path is not directly vertical it is likely that one of the following problems is occurring.

  1. It is common for people to (mistakenly) start a strict press with bar in the front rack position (resting atop shoulders and under the chin). In this position, your grip is (likely) loose and your forearms are not perpendicular to the floor (vertical). There are a number of problems starting from this position, but it mostly boils down to not being in a strong position (your body is not prepared to push) and, because the bar is so close to your neck a perfectly vertical push is not possible (so you have to move the bar around your head). Instead, the bar should be on the front of your shoulders (edge) with your forearms vertical. When you push, you still have to move your head out of the way (only a little, it'll have to move back maybe an inch)--I think about this as creating a "double chin". Note, don't move your head back by looking up because that puts your spine in a bad position.

  2. Sometimes people will lean back and arch their back (to get their head out of the way) and push up (and a bit forward). This position at least has the advantage of being able to make a straight push, however it leaves your back in a compromised position.

Why is a vertical path right? From a physics (and to some degree biomechanics) perspective a straight, vertical path is simply more efficient--so you can push more weight safely. If you start your press by pushing the bar up and away from your body (to move it around your head) you give the bar some vertical momentum (perpendicular to the floor--which is desired) and some horizontal momentum (in-plane with the floor--which is undesired). Some of your strength--force--is being used to push up, and some of your force is being (wasted) to push the bar away. Then, after clearing your head, you have to redirect that in-plane momentum towards you otherwise the bar will end up out in front of your body and this requires additional force. As you near your fully locked out position overhead you have to stop the in-plane momentum that is now carrying the bar behind your head. All of the force used to create, redirect, then stop the in-plane momentum of the bar is wasted energy. On the other hand, if you only push vertically, all your force goes into moving the bar up, you do not generate any momentum in the plane of the floor (only perpendicular to the floor).

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