Exercise Spotlight: Z Press

Boost your overhead pressing strength by giving it zero chances to cheat.

Of all the major lifts in the gym, there are two truths about the overhead press. 1) They’re severely underrated and underutilized in most training programs, and 2) probably because of #1, they’re pathetically weak compared to lifters’ other major movements.

When I write and speak about shoulders I often make sure to bring up this truth regarding the overhead press: You can’t “cheat” your way to impressive press numbers, the way you can with a bench press. The moment you don’t have a stranglehold on the physics of an efficient movement pattern and vertical bar path from A to B, that weight is going down.  Oddly, to help your cause, there aren’t too many variations that have the most translation to overhead pressing. You kind of just have to do it. In fact, when I speak, I list some of the most odd-sounding movements to be linked to overhead pressing as invaluable to improving its strength (like the ab wheel rollout and hand walkout).

With that said, for more direct translation, adding one movement can really be a saving grace to upper body strength and development, which asks for perfect form and technique, allowing even less room for cheating than a typical standard strict press.

Enter the Z Press

Beyond the reasons above, I like this movement because it’s just plain hard, and it very boldly exploits the mobility levels at many of a lifter’s load bearing joints.  Sitting flat on the floor with the legs out in front of you to do a barbell overhead press gives a lifter no escape but to do it right: Think about the demands one at a time:

  • If you have a hard time sitting with a neutral spine and instead go into flexion, you won’t have a strong press.
  • Poor shoulder flexion (overhead range of motion) will mean the bar finishes in front of you, and not above you. From this position, there’s no compensation for that, and the bar won’t make it up.
  • Since there’s no back support or leg drive, there’s no “lean back” cheat to employ when things get heavy.

As you probably guessed, this is not as simple to execute as it looks, so before I give my standard how – to on the barbell Z press, let’s go over a couple of simple modifications that can make this lift accessible to people who aren’t yet at the level of skill or conditioning to do the conventional version with good, safe technique.

Ditch the barbell. If you have shoulder pain or poor ROM doing barbell presses, use one or two dumbbells or kettlebells. This way you can take advantage of turning your wrists and elbows to get a more shoulder-friendly position.

Elevate your surface. If you can’t sit on your hamstrings and maintain a neutral spine, and instead end up slouching and rounding through the lumbar region no matter how tall you try to stay, then chances are your hip mobility isn’t yet where it needs to be. Opening them up some by sitting on a step platform or some stacked mats is a go-to I use with clients for this exact purpose.

Bend the knees. It’s going to be easier to maintain lumbar neutrality if you make this modification. You’ll be able to sit taller and have a better quality finish position. Enough said.

If you’re game for the barbell Z press done with conventional form, read on for the how-to.

The Z Press – Coaching Cues

  • Set up in a squat cage or power rack, with the bar set on pins near lower thigh level. When you sit on the ground, it should be in line with your upper chest. Not below.
  • Sitting on the ground with the legs out shoulder width apart, make sure most of your weight is on your hamstrings, not your butt. This will help keep you tall and tight, and avoid any rounding of the lumbar region.
  • Position the bar at the collarbone level like you would at the start of a standing press. Drive the heels into the ground and press. Avoid leaning back to compensate. Lock out at the top with the weight over the shoulders. Brace the trunk muscles and return to starting position slowly.
  • Focus on sets of 6-12 reps. This can be used as a strength based movement or a higher rep movement for conditioning.

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