Master Your Overhead Press with
- THE Z Press -
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
When it comes to building a strong, functional, and jacked upper body, mastering the overhead press is a must. Unfortunately dialing the overhead press is easier said than done as it can be quite tricky for many lifters. While there are a number of techniques and training methods I use to enhance the overhead press (particularly eccentric isometrics applied to a number of overhead pressing variations), one of my favorite variations is the Z Press.
Here’s one of my NFL athletes Bryce Jones performing the Z press using dumbbells.
While the exercise resembles more of an L-sit position, the movement gained its name from record holding strong man competitor Zydrunas Savickas, who popularized the lift over a decade ago. Known for having one of the strongest overhead presses ever, Savickas was known for performing the Z press on a consistent basis as a means of improving his overhead pressing mechanics and building massive, functional shoulders. The Z press is a unique but incredibly effective overhead pressing variation for improving strength, stability, mobility, postural alignment, and overhead mechanics. There are 5 reasons why.
5 Benefits of the Z Press
Many lifters have a tendency to over-arch their lumbar spine when performing overhead presses simply because they lack the proper t-spine mobility and core activation. The Z press literally forces the lifter to do both of these (achieve t-spine extension and anterior core activation) as anything less will result in the inability to control the movement.
The Z press is one of the best variations for teaching proper lockout mechanics and overhead slot position. Many lifters finish the lockout position with the weight too far in front of their torso. At the finishing position of the overhead press also known as the slot position in Olympic weightlifting, the arms need to be locked out slightly behind the lifter approximately in-line with the ears yet not too far behind them. The Z-press quickly corrects this as anything but a proper lockout position will also result in loss of balance and motor control.
Another very common problem on overhead presses is cervical hyperextension where the lifter essentially tilts their head up (i.e. eyes towards the ceiling) as means of completing the lift. While this can temporarily cause the overhead press to feel somewhat easier this common compensation pattern places undue strain on the neck as well as the traps and glenohumeral joint. Although the head should be tall and elongated during the overhead press there shouldn’t be excessive extension and certainly not hyperextension of the cervical spine. The Z press helps correct this as any degree of excessive cervical extension will cause the lifter to lose their balance and control.
Excessive momentum and sloppy mechanics are commonplace for many lifters particularly during compound movements. This is even more prevalent on the overhead press as it tends to be one of the more challenging movements to overload with heavy weights. As a result, lifters with large egos tend to employ heavier loads than they can properly handle thereby degrading overhead pressing mechanics even further. The Z press is one of the most humbling lifts not only because you’ll be forced to use lighter than normal loads but it also requires the lifter to slow the movement down and use crisp controlled mechanics in order to avoid losing their balance. In fact, most lifters will inevitably need to perform them using an eccentric isometric protocol in order to successfully complete the lift.
The Z press is incredibly versatile and can be modified and regressed through a number of methods. Here are some of my personal favorites.
Seven z Press Variations
- Bottoms Up Z Press -
The bottoms-up kettlebell variation of the Z press magnifies each of the previously mentioned attributes. That’s because the lifter can’t pull laterally on the bar to lock the arms into position and instead must rely more on full body stability and motor control.
In addition, a common problem with the Z press is that lifters will fail to create natural semi-tucked elbow position as it’s quite easy to simply let the bar collapse down to the upper chest and shoulders with little muscle activation around the glenohumeral joint. The bottoms-up variations eliminates this issue as the lifter is forced to tuck the elbows by firing the lats thereby ingraining ideal shoulder mechanics as well as postural alignment. It also makes it difficult to collapse at the bottom of the lift. If you have low back tightness, poor shoulder health, weak core, or faulty mechanics on the overhead press give this variation a try as it’s sure to help greatly.
- Trap Bar Z Press -
Similar to a traditional bottoms up kettlebell press, the bottoms up trap bar press can also be applied to the Z press as I show here.
These are deceptively challenging as they require significantly greater levels of shoulder stability, postural alignment, grip strength, motor control, mobility, and precise overhead pressing mechanics to successfully complete. Notice how I employ a controlled eccentric isometric protocol not only to place greater tension on the targeted musculature but also as a means of dialing in my overhead pressing technique and positioning. That’s because eccentric isometrics provide greater proprioceptive feedback and kinesthetic awareness thereby allowing the lifter to hone in their form and fine-tune their mechanics. Read more about eccentric isometrics in my new book MOVEMENT REDEFINED.
- Pizza Plate Z Press -
Here I have NFL and GSP sponsored athletes Marcellis Branch and Brandyn Bartlett performing an overhead pizza plate Z press.
Most lifters lack the ability to properly centrate and pack their glenohumeral joint during high force activities. This deficiency is even more pronounced during overhead movements. The pizza plate press will give you immediate feedback as to whether or not your shoulder mechanics and overhead pressing technique are dialed in. This is even further magnified when using the Z press protocol due to the more biomechanically challenging position that requires greater levels of motor control, stability, mobility, and technique.
If you fail to properly depress and retract your shoulders particularly during the eccentric phase of the exercise you’ll likely dump the weight plate. Simply, hold an old-school iron weight plate flat in your hand and perform a press while slightly tucking your elbow to the front of your body. Even if you’re able to avoid dumping the load, record yourself and observe the weight plate. If the plate stays completely parallel to the floor while keeping your elbows semi-tucked then you know that your shoulder function and overhead pressing mechanics are most likely spot on. If the plate fails to stay parallel to the floor then you’ll want to address your specific areas of weakness and dysfunction.
Although the effects are similar to a bottoms up kettlebell press, the pronated grip used here has even better transfer to barbell exercises as well as sports that involve pushing maneuvers (i.e. football lineman). Finally, if you don't have a partner you'll want to perform these in a single arm fashion which places greater strain on the core and spinal stabilizers due to the unilateral offset load.
- Foam Roller Z-Press -
1. The overhead press while seated on a foam roller is actually a more low-back friendly variation of the Z-press. While I’m a huge fan of the Z-press, the compact torso angle and extreme hip flexion position can periodically cause low back and hip discomfort in some populations. Sitting on the foam roller helps to resolve this due to the less extreme hip flexion angle.
2. One of the most common problems on overhead presses is learning how to position your center of gravity while also producing optimal t-spine extension. This often creates issues where the individual is either overly upright (not enough t-spine extension) which places excessive tension on the glenohumeral joint and rotator cuff, or the individual overly extends at their lumbar spine (leaning back too much) thereby placing undue stress on their low back. Performing overhead presses while seated on the foam roller helps to resolve this issue.
Essentially if you’re too upright or are too extended you’ll feel like you’re going to roll off the foam roller and lose control of your body position. Simply put it teaches you to find the perfect balance of torso placement, t-spine extension, and spinal positioning. While sitting on a stability ball can produce a similar effect, the foam roller is even more sensitive to anteroposterior deviations in weight distribution and body shifting which further helps teach proper pressing mechanics. With that said I highly recommend using a spotter when performing these.
3. Learning to brace your core and recruit your abdominal musculature during overhead presses is critical not only for maximizing motor control and overall load but also for minimizing stress to the low back. The overhead Z press while seated on a foam roller helps cue the lifter to recruit their abs even more so than normal as a means of stabilizing the load and their body.
4. This is a surprisingly intense overhead press that requires precise levels of motor control and muscle activation from head to toe. As a result the shoulders, upper back, triceps, and core get pummeled. However the lifter will be able to use substantially lighter loads relative to other presses in order to produce this effect. Simply put this is a very suitable overhead pressing variation for individuals with shoulder injuries due to the intense levels of activation yet reduced loading parameters.
- Landmine Z Press -
The Z Press is one of my favorite overhead presses. Unfortunately the very rigid and upright alignment oftentimes makes the overhead lockout position and mobility requirements even more difficult than traditional overhead presses. For many individuals including those with shoulder issues and mobility restrictions, this can be quite frustrating and uncomfortable. Performing the Z press using a landmine station as demonstrated by MLB pro baseball player Austin Meadows, helps resolve this issue. That’s because the landmine station produces a slight angular and horizontal movement allowing the lifter to press out slightly in front of them rather than directly overhead.
While it’s only a 10-20 degree difference in comparison to a true overhead press, this tends to provide just enough clearance for the glenohumeral joint to function freely while still providing the benefits associate with an overhead press. In other words it’s much easier to move into a more natural overhead position with optimal scapulohumeral rhythm rather than feeling crowded as can oftentimes happen with perfectly vertical pressing movements particular Z presses.
It also tends to be much easier on the low back as the horizontal component reduces vertical compressive forces on the spine. The core must also work overtime to resist rotary instability from the landmine station. Additionally, for individuals with lower body mobility restrictions and tight hamstrings that keeps them from moving into a traditional Z press position, the landmine Z press tends to feel more natural. That’s because the angular pressing position allows the lifter to lean into the landmine station for support.
- Reverse Landmine Z Press -
The Landmine Z press can also be performed in a reverse fashion as demonstrated by my awesome client and national figure competitor Leslie Petch. Also big shoutout to Leslie for coming up with this very unique one.
Notice how Leslie also performs the movement with a leg raise protocol as the reverse landmine position is conducive for applying to a leg raise position due to the unique leverage and angular force vectors with which the athlete can lean slightly back into the attachment. Although this can be performed on a standard landmine station, the PurMotion attachment feels incredibly natural, comfortable, and joint friendly. Read more about PurMotion equipment here.
- Leg Raise Z Press on Bench -
Perhaps the most challenging variation of any Z press you’ll ever attempt, the leg raise z press off a bench, requires even greater levels of stability, core strength, motor control, mobility, and proper overhead mechanics in comparison to other overhead presses.
Simply sit towards the end of a bench with your upper middle hamstrings approximately at the edge of the bench and perform an overhead press while keeping the legs perfectly straight and your ankles dorsiflexed. This is without a doubt one of the trickier overhead pressing variations not only because of the mobility required to complete these but also because of the inordinately high levels of instability involved.
Traditional Z press is already quite challenging to stabilize and control, however these take the intensity several notches further as the lifter has minimal support and must use their core and just about every muscle from head to toe to dial these in. In addition, any degree of excessive momentum, shifting, wiggling, or faulty positioning will cause the lifter to lose their balance. In fact, I highly recommend performing these using a controlled eccentric isometric protocol as I demonstrate in the video. This not only places greater tension on the targeted musculature but also helps the lifter optimize their mechanics and fine-tune their body positioning due to the enhanced proprioceptive feedback associated with eccentric isometrics.
Learn more about mastering your movement and body mechanics with my new 600 page book and eccentric isometric training programs MOVEMENT REDEFINED.