Want big shoulders, an iron core, better mobility, and more upper-body mass? Master the bent press. Here’s exactly how to do it.
When we think of moving heavy weights overhead, we often think of Olympic lifts, military press, and push press. But another overhead lift lurks in the shadows of weight training history. The bent press, a favorite of old-time strongmen like Eugene Sandow and Arthur Saxon, allows you to lift enormous weights overhead in a unique fashion. Saxon’s best was an incredible 370 pounds… with one arm. Let that sink in.
The bent press is like a one-arm overhead press, but your arm straightens out overhead while you’re bending at the hips. Once your arm is locked out, you stand upright. We’ll get into the technique details below.
It’s unfortunate that the bent press has been forgotten. A well-executed bent press can improve mobility, build an iron midsection, and create a strong, muscular upper body.
Admittedly, it looks odd. You have to do it to truly “get it.” Let’s get into it.
I asked the same thing. I wasn’t sold on it until getting injured. When I developed a nerve injury in my elbow, it prevented me from doing traditional chest and shoulder presses, so I decided to give it an honest try as a temporary substitute. It was surprisingly a good fit, but even more surprising were the weights I was able to use. This led to broader shoulders and filled-out sleeves. Nice side effects, right?
The bent press allows you to move more weight than you currently can in a regular single-arm overhead press. Like the windmill and Turkish get-up, it challenges you with atypical angles you likely won’t use with any other exercises. This combination is a powerful training stimulus.
When you can use one arm to move half your body weight (or more) overhead, how do you think you’re going to look? You can be damned sure of having an upper body that gets noticed. It’s also a great confidence booster. Once you get comfortable in the locked-out position, you’ll bust through any perceived plateaus in your regular pressing movements.
The bent press isn’t technically a press. Basically, the weight should stay stationary as you contort your body away from and underneath it. As you do this, your arm should straighten.
It takes practice. It’s helpful to try this when you’re a bit fatigued in the triceps already, so you’re less likely to try to blatantly press out of it. Let’s break down the steps:
- Start with the weight at shoulder height. Rotate your hand out so that your elbow sits on the side of the ribs or same-side hip. This position should form a bit of a shelf. If using your right hand, your feet should be pointed diagonally away to the left-hand side and vice versa.
- Push your hip back so that your upper torso tilts to the side slightly. Think of this as a hip hinge at a 45-degree angle. When viewed from the side, your forearm must be vertical, and your shoulder, elbow, and wrist should all sit on the same imaginary line. If you can’t attain this position, work on developing that first.
- Grip the weight tightly and focus on keeping your triceps braced against your lat. Maintain this engaged position as you push your hips away and side-bend towards the floor. Contract your lats. The bent press is a solid upper-back builder because of the intense contraction. As you lower, keep your eyes on the weight.Focus on the rotation coming from your upper back as you lower your upper torso and minimize twisting in the low back. Imagine pushing yourself away from the weight and sinking back into the hip hinge. Keep lowering until your arm is locked out. Your free arm can reach for the floor or brace against your thigh for additional support.You may need to soften your knees a bit more or semi-squat to get fully under the weight to allow for full extension of the arm.
- From here, reverse the hip hinge. Come to a fully standing position with your arm now vertically lined up with your ear.
As good as the bent press is, it may not be well-suited for everyone based on leverages and structural limitations. It’ll take practice, and you’ll need to be judicious with technique. Use the “less is more” approach with weight as you learn and refine the movement. This can’t be overstated.
Here are some lifts that’ll help you see if the bent press is even right for you and, if so, help you master it.
A simple floor slide can be a good gauge to see if you can get your arm in enough of an external rotation to create the shelf with the wrist, elbow, and shoulder aligned. It can also help you judge your shoulder flexion or the ability to get your arm overhead without compensating in the low back.
- Lie with your back pressed into the ground, legs bent, and feet flat on floor. Place the backs of your hands on the ground with the elbows bent at 90 degrees.
- Exhale and slide your hands up so they form a Y.
- Slide your arms back down so that your hands, elbow, and shoulders still maintain contact with the ground.
If your arms come off the ground or your low back arches to accomplish either portion of the slide, you need to address mobility or avoid bent pressing until this improves.
Arm bars can develop shoulder stability and thoracic rotation while getting you used to the arm supporting the load in a position like the bottom of a bent press.
- Grab a weight with two hands and roll onto your back as you would for a Turkish get-up. If using your right hand, your right knee should be bent and your left leg should be straight.
- Place your left arm on the ground above your head. Press through your right foot and roll onto your left side so your chest faces the wall. Your left arm should support your head; your right hip and knee should be flexed at 90 degrees. In this position, your arm should remain vertical with your shoulder packed. Get your grip engaged and keep your eyes on the weight.
- Add some light rotations to engage your shoulder. After 10 to 20 seconds, reverse the pattern and lower with control. Remember, this is just a prep drill so don’t go too heavy.
The windmill replicates the lower-body hip hinge in the bent press and adds a dose of shoulder preparation as well.
- Press a weight with your right arm overhead. Point your feet away at a 45-degree angle to the left side.
- Push your hips back with soft knees as you would for the bent press. Some people may need more knee bend, which is fine, but don’t turn this into a squat.
- As you initiate the movement, maintain eye contact with the weight. Again, your upper body should rotate to the ceiling as you lower your torso. Your right arm should remain locked out and vertical.
- Maintain a stable, neutral spine as you reach your hips back. Your free arm will slide down close to the front leg and will ideally touch the ground. Difficulty here may be another indicator to groove this pattern before addressing the bent press.
- Raise up by gripping your feet into the floor, extending your hips, and straightening your legs as you come back to the standing position with the arm overhead.
Once you’ve got the technique down, start adding it to upper body or full-body workouts. Schedule it early in a workout. Bent presses respond well to ramped warm-up sets, which help you really groove the pattern before getting into your working sets.
Experiment with various implements, like barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and even sandbags. The bent press takes focus and skill, so stick to low reps in the 1-5 range.