One thing that is guaranteed to draw a lot of attention or admiration
from concerned onlookers is to overhead press a heavy weight with a
lot of layback. Layback is the tendency for the back angle to become
more horizontal during a heavy overhead press and for the back to go
into extension to accommodate a more efficient bar path and to
recruit more muscle mass into the lift. With layback, the more
efficient bar path and the additional muscle mass allows for heavier
weights to be handled, and therefore a greater strength training
stress can be applied to and adapted to by the lifter.
The conventional wisdom
during heavy barbell training is that the spine must be held in a
neutral position to avoid an injury due to uncontrolled flexion or
extension under a heavy load. This is mostly correct. Layback in the
press seems to violate one of the cardinal rules of safe lifting:
keeping the spine in a neutral position. This article will explain
why layback in the press is both safe and an essential element of
heavier pressing. The outcome of reading this article should equip
you with the means to explain your injurious-looking execution to a
concerned, curious, or otherwise aroused observer.
In the sagittal plane
during an overhead press, there are three points which must be kept
in vertical alignment for maximum efficiency: the barbell, shoulder
joint and the mid-foot. Misalignment of these three points will
create moment arms that make the lift more difficult to complete.
Read Stance Width and the Press for more detail on moment arms in the press.
The importance of keeping the barbell aligned with the mid-foot is
obvious, since misalignment will create a moment arm which acts about
the mid-foot and rotates the lifter off balance. A more important
moment arm is the one that develops between barbell and the shoulder
joint. There is a relatively small amount of muscle mass available to
operate the shoulder joint, so an unnecessary moment arm acting about
this joint can quickly become unmanageable and cause a failed lift.
What layback does is allow the lifter to get his shoulder under the
bar and eliminate that inefficient moment arm about the shoulder.
Now, that moment arm has not completely disappeared, it has just been
transferred to the hips and spinal musculature, which have come
Layback allows for the loading of the hips in the press. This
may be the most “Starting Strength” sentence ever written.
There is much more muscle mass operating the hips than the shoulder,
so it stands to reason that loading the hips in the press allows for
both the training of more muscle mass and for the use of heavier
weights. Getting better at layback allows you to get your hips
forward and catch a bounce with your shoulder under the bar when the
bar is lower. This will let you press heavier and heavier weights to
become stronger and cooler than the other lifters.
In barbell training,
the role of the musculature which operates the spine is to
isometrically hold the spine in a rigid position so that force can be
efficiently transferred between the barbell (held in the hands or on
the back) and the floor. The arms and legs move through a long range
of motion to produce force against external resistance while the
spine locks into a rigid body to act as a lever, enabling the
transmission of force from one limb to another.
For example, in the
deadlift, the legs are driven hard into the ground to produce upwards
force extending the knees and hips. The spine attached to the hips
through the pelvis and the back musculature contracts to turn the
normally flexible spine into a rigid body. The force is transferred
through the spine into the shoulders then down into the arms which
are holding onto the barbell.
In a well-executed
deadlift, the back musculature will hold the spine in a neutral
position throughout the lift, which will have two benefits. First, it
will make the lift more efficient because rigid bodies transfer force
more efficiently than flexible bodies, and secondly it will reduce
the risk of injury due to impingement of soft tissue between the bony
vertebral segments during uncontrolled spinal flexion under a heavy
load. In the case of something like the deadlift, holding back
position is an essential element of both safety and efficiency so
correcting back position errors are essential.
The context of the
press is different, so the same degree of concern over spine
extension does not necessarily apply. The press is also usually just
a fraction of a lifter’s squat and deadlift weights. It stands to
reason that a lifter whose back can stand up to a 500 deadlift will
be able to press 200 with layback just fine, because it’s lighter.
Now a juiced-up bodybuilder who got his upper body super strong but
did sit-ups, avoided heavy squats or deadlifts to preserve his
“tapered six pack,” and wrenched his back while trying to max out
his press with no preparation will become concerned about your back
health if he sees layback. If you have been squatting and deadlifting
heavy, you can ignore him.
The press is different
from the deadlift in an obvious way; the weight is lifted from the
shoulders to over the head whereas in the deadlift the weight is
lifted from the floor to just below the hips. This has an important
implication for balance. The
press is much more sensitive to misalignment of the barbell, shoulder
and mid-foot due to the length of the kinetic chain – the floor to
the bar overhead, a very long moment arm. The deadlift is less
sensitive since the moment arm from the floor stops at the mid-thigh,
and has a built-in handrail in the form of the legs. A determined
lifter can bludgeon his way to lockout through an inefficient
deadlift bar path. A heavy press that drifts out of the correct path
will come to a complete dead stop.
To be successful at a
maximum rep, a lifter must exercise precise control over the bar
path. The musculature operating the spine is implicated in the
kinetic chain of the press and its position must be precisely
controlled so the barbell is kept in alignment with the shoulders and
mid-foot. Specifically, the abs/rectus abdominis controls the
anterior spinal position and spinal extension, preventing spinal
overextension, and there is no better ab exercise than a heavy
press. If the weight is so heavy that the lifter cannot control the
position of his spine with his musculature, the bar will come out of
alignment with the shoulder and mid-foot and the rep will fail.
Therefore, if a lifter
uses layback in the press and he is successful, it means that he
successfully controlled his spinal position and was not at risk of
injury due to uncontrolled spinal extension under load. We know that
the lifter using layback can control the load without injury because
it is far lighter than his squat and deadlift and because he is able
to effect precise manipulation of the load. He has adapted to the
stability requirements of the lift. A positioning error will result
in the lifter lowering the bar back to his shoulders and missing the
rep instead of a back injury. Layback is perfectly fine because it is
well within the performance envelope of the stress that your trunk
musculature has adapted to and can manage perfectly well when it gets
slapped around by heavy deadlifts and squats.
There you have it. Not
only should you not be scared of the layback, you should embrace it
to pugnaciously perpetuate preposterously ponderous press poundages.
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