Training Articles

A Brief Introduction to the History of the Two-Hand Military Press

The history of the clean and press during the “Olympic and World Championship Competition” was brief and storied, from judging inconsistencies to prestige, the press had it all. The lift was “standardized at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 [and] was adopted as one of the so-called ‘Olympic Lifts’ for international competition, along with the snatch and clean and jerk,” 28 years after the “inaugural Olympiad held in Athens, Greece in 1896.”

The incorporation of the press and the rules were subject to the global politics of the time, world powers were still reeling over the First World War, and the winners were defining the name of the game. The reigning world powers also played an integral part in the development of different pressing styles, from the “strict” or “military” style to the “continental or loose” style. The press was seen as a different type of lift from the other lifts, it was seen as one used to measure strength as opposed to skill.

What remains strikingly similar between pressing variations, the bench press; today, and the press; of years past is the fundamental belief that the lifts are and were the definitive measure of upper body strength. According to John Fray, “people believed that pressing was the standard of measuring strength” and “people were heard asking: how much can you press?” in gyms across America.

The intention was to test the ‘strict version’ of the lift or what was traditionally called the two-hand military press.

The rules for the lift were clear:

press rules were divided into first (clean) and second (press) motions. In executing the latter, a lifter was required to pause two seconds, “then lift up the bar vertically until the arms [were] completely extended, without any jerk nor sudden start.”

Throughout the press “the athlete’s body must constantly stand in a vertical position.” Any departure from it, “any foot work (heel lift, etc.) and any bending, however little, of the legs” were grounds for disqualification. These procedures were followed at the Paris Olympics in 1924, but nations were still far from unanimous on what lifts and styles should be allowed.”

Each nation had a particular style when they pressed, the clean and [military] press was viewed differently from the other two contested lifts, which were considered “quick lifts,” according to Fray.

It was said that overall upper body strength was best tested through the use of the press, personally I would say clean and press is a greater test than coming out of a rack. Fray in his article quotes Alan Calvert, the “founder of [the] Milo Barbell Company” with regard to the press, where he stated:

The press is ‘always slow and steady,’ insists Calvert in an early issue of Strength magazine. You cannot find a better test of pure strength than a Two-Arm Press with a barbell. Whenever a man starts to talk to me about “knack” in lifting, I give him a fairly heavy bar-bell and ask him to make a Two-Arm Press…. If the legs are held straight, nothing will send that bell up except strength, and you need the strength in the triceps of the arm, the small of the back, and particularly in the deltoid muscles on the points of the shoulders. No skill is required to press a bell aloft after you once have it at the chest, and that is why I consider the Two Arm Press as the best strength test.

The lift was included in the Olympic test with the intention of using a strict military style overhead press. Much to my chagrin at learning there is a difference between a press and a military press, which I will delve into later in the article. Along with Calvert, I would also argue that a strict style Press is the best test for pressing strength in a world devoid of other options (no bench press racks), much like I would argue the deadlift is the best test of lower body, total body strength given the same conditions (no rack). Which is why these two movements are a favorite strongmen the world over and why at the inaugural push/pull on December 12, they will be the two lifts contested. So what is the difference between pressing variations?

From here forward I will differentiate between a press – loose style and a Military style – strict. The military press today does not have the same meaning as it did originally. When people refer to military press they can mean (refer to?) a standing or seated variation without using the lower body.

Historically the military style meant an upright posture with feet firmly planted on the ground heels together and the back straight, basically standing at attention, a military posture.

According to Dresden in his article the military style was taken from the;

British Army [where it was] one of [their] required strength tests. In doing so they had to keep the ‘MILITARY’ position of ‘ATTENTION’ – hence the term Two Hands MILITARY PRESS. When this lift was incorporated into British Amateur Competition weightlifting, not only were the above positions retained, but the lifter had to keep the hand spacing not more and not less than shoulder width and during the lift it was required to raise the barbell at an even speed ALL THE WAY – usually the lifter kept time to the referee’s rising hand of finger.

The press commenced from the chest to overhead without utilizing the legs or the back to complete the movement. Unfortunately the athletes found ways to “cheat” the movement. I guess where there are rules you will find someone trying to bend them, as the old maxim goes; if you aren’t cheating you aren’t trying hard enough. The lift evolved or devolved depending on whose view you want to take it from. The lift no longer a test of pure strength but a test of skill, much more like the snatch and clean and jerk.

While searching for information on this article I came across many articles and videos of athletes demonstrating the lift; here is a world record attempt:

As you can see there is nothing strict about this lift, it looks similar to a push press. Due to the difficulty in judging the lift and its similarity to the “quick lifts” it was removed from the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and henceforward all other Olympic Games.

Featured image Credit: Rennett Stowe