SPECIAL EXERCISES SERIES – No.9 THE CAMBERED BAR PRESS
Before the early 1970s, the measure of someone’s upper body strength was not the bench press; it was the overhead press. Personally, I prefer it that way. Pressing a big weight overhead while standing up requires greater overall strength than the bench press and more stability, rigidity and coordination. It also has less room for error if you want to handle big weights.
Personally, I have always loved big shoulders. Nothing says “power” more than big rounded deltoids and protruding traps. I often half-jokingly say that “shoulders make the man”. There is something to well-developed deltoids that make you look like a superhero.
Not surprisingly, I’ve always loved overhead pressing in all its versions. Recently I experimented with a different form of overhead pressing that I absolutely love because it gives me a significantly better deltoid contraction than regular military presses or behind the neck presses. It’s the Giant cambered bar press (Giant referring to a bar with a large camber, since there are bars with a small one too).
It could be enthusiasm from using a new movement speaking, but this is the best shoulder pressing exercise I’ve tried. I got a much stronger deltoid contraction and my training partner had zero pain while doing it (he has a slight shoulder issue when doing regular military presses)
What is the Giant Cambered Bar Press good for?
- It gives you a much stronger deltoid contraction. I believe that the fact that the center of mass of the weight changes during the set and the fact that it is below the point of force application instead of over it helps create that effect. But from experience the better you feel a muscle contracting, the more it will grow.
- It dramatically improves shoulder stability. The camber makes the weight shift slightly, creating just enough of an imbalance to increase the need to stabilize the shoulder joint, but not so much that it hurts performance.
This makes it a great exercise to fix unstable shoulders and to prevent injuries. The stronger stabilization might also contribute to the enhanced deltoid contraction: if your body feels safe and stable it will allow you to use the prime movers better.
- The slightly shifting center of mass of the resistance (barbell + weights) during the exercise greatly facilitates the execution of a proper bar path. I found that my press was a lot more precise with the cambered bar and I was able to keep the bar close to me at all points in the range of motion.
With a straight bar, I have the tendency to initiate the press by pushing the bar a bit forward (which decreases performance) and return it slightly in front (which increases shoulder stress). That didn’t happen with the cambered bar.
- It gives the press a totally different feeling. I’ll be honest, I can’t explain it mechanically but even in the set-up the weight feels differently because the load is under the point of force application instead of over it. If your goal is simply to be as strong as possible, changing small elements in a movement while keeping the same pattern is very important. This fits the bill.
- You can vary the type of resistance even more by putting weight both on the bar and on the camber (if you have a rackable cambered bar or attachment like I used). Again, this changes the nature of the movement without altering the pattern. This is a great way to strengthen more muscle fibers without having a negative learning of a movement pattern.
How is it done?
- Grab the bar from the rack. In the starting position the key elements are to have the bar as close to you as possible while having the elbows under the bar. The bar, wrist and elbows would normally be on the same line.
Some people can rest the bar on their collar bone while respecting the alignment, others will have the bar a bit above (not touching their body). If you can rest the bar on your collar bone, good. But if you can only get there by breaking the bar-wrist-elbow alignment, don’t do it. I prefer to have the bar one inch from the collar bone but have everything aligned properly.
- Create spiral tension at the shoulder joint during the set-up. This means trying to externally rotate the shoulder. Practically, imagine bringing your elbows a bit inward while trying to break the bar in two.
Also create spiral tension at the hips by trying to externally rotate them (imagine trying to screw your feet into the floor) and contract your abs as if you were going to get punched in the stomach.
- Initiate the press by keeping the bar as close to your face as possible. Don’t think about lifting the bar, but rather about raising the elbows forward and up.
- When the bar reaches the forehead continue pressing but in a slight backward arc. You must also continue to create tension at the shoulder. To do so imagine trying to turn your arms as if you wanted to show your biceps to someone behind you. Coach Mike Burgener also gives the clue of showing the armpit to the ceiling.
- Pause for a second at the top and lower the weight back down, focusing on maintaining tension at the shoulder.
Are there any different variations?
Every overhead press variation performed with a bar can be done with a cambered bar. Here are a few of them:
Close-grip cambered bar overhead press: You do a regular overhead press but with a slightly narrower grip, about an inch per side narrower than your normal grip. This is a good exercise to work on correcting a weaker finishing in your overhead press.
Wide-grip cambered bar overhead press: Again, it is your regular overhead press but with a slightly wider grip (anywhere from 1” per side wider than normal up to a snatch grip). This is a good variation to improve strength at the start of your press.
Behind the neck cambered bar overhead press: If you do not have any shoulder mobility issues the behind the neck press is actually a better overall deltoid builder than the press from the front. It hits the medial and posterior heads of the deltoid a bit better.
The slightly instability from the camber actually makes this safer than the barbell variation because it leads to an increased recruitment of the rotator cuff muscles to stabilize the shoulder joint.
Cambered bar Bradford press: In the Bradford press you start with the bar from the front (regular starting position), press it just high enough that it clears the head, and you lower it back to the “behind the neck” starting position. You then press it back up just high enough to clear the head and bring it back to the initial position. This is ONE REP.
It’s a great assistance exercise to build muscle mass in the deltoids. It works mostly by keeping them under constant tension. It also greatly improves the start of the press. The camber will also provide quite a challenging as it will try to throw you out of the proper path which will force you to stay tight.
Cambered bar Savickas press: The ultimate exercise to improve both core and shoulder tension/stability when pressing! A Savickas press has you doing a strict shoulder press from a seated position. But you aren’t seated on a bench: you are seated on the floor with extended legs.
The slightest deviation from an optimal bar path will greatly challenge your core, especially with a cambered bar. It’s an exercise I like to use to teach proper overhead pressing mechanics: if you keep the bar in front (like many people do) you won’t be able to hold the position and you will know it right away.
Cambered bar push press: I would only use the cambered bar push press if you have good push press technique and have experience doing overhead work with the cambered bar. This is the most challenging overhead movement you can do.
The slightest deviation from the proper bar will make it very hard to make the lift. So unless you have a very solid and stable push press, I would not attempt it. But those who can do it properly will greatly increase their push press performance in very little time of using this drill.
What do you need to avoid?
- Do not initiate the press forward, keep it as close to your face as possible. Most “bodybuilders” have the tendency to start pushing in a forward arch then have to work extra hard to bring it back in a decent line… most actually end up pressing the barbell too far in front which will only hit the anterior deltoid and can put a lot of straight on the rotator cuff muscles and the shoulder joint.
- Avoid overarching the lower back. This is a common occurrence with people with poor shoulder or thoracic mobility. They can’t press the barbell in a backward arc so that it is behind the ear line when at the top, so they compensate by arching the lower back to get the illusion of “getting under the bar”.
- Don’t lean back at the start. The press was dropped from Olympic lifting competition when people started to cheat by leaning back too much in the press, turning it into a technique lift instead of a pure strength one. If your goal is building muscle you should lift your chest up in the starting position, but not lean back. This definitely not good for the lower back.
- Don’t lose whole body tension. People are so focused on pressing the barbell up that they tend to lose tension in their legs, hips and core. While at first thinking about staying tensed might lead to a lower performance, once it becomes automatic you will reach a much higher level.
What are the best loading parameters?
Really any parameter that you use with regular compound upper body lift will work. So it can be anywhere from doing strength work in the 1-5 zone up to building hypertrophy with reps as high as 12 (or even 15 if you into that sort of things).
I personally prefer not to go above 10 reps per set, and normally I stay at 8 or lower. The increased stabilization demand might make it hard to do more than 10 reps with proper form with a decent weight.
I tend to gravitate toward different rep ranges depending on the variation.
For the “normal” cambered bar overhead press I like to use sets of 5 & 8-10 reps. (I like to ramp up to a technically solid 5RM then do 3 lighter sets of 8-10). Sometimes I will do down to 3 & 6 reps using a similar pattern as above.
For both the close-grip & the wide-grip cambered bar overhead press I normally stick to sets in the 6-8 reps zone (note that I can use different schemes, could be straight sets, could be 8,8,8,6,6, could be 6,8,6,8,6,8, etc.).
For the behind the neck cambered bar press I like slightly higher reps normally 8 to 10 reps (again with various schemes), sometimes doing the odd set of 12.
With the cambered bar Bradford press I stick to sets of 6 to 8 but that is pretty like doing sets of 10 to 12 because each rep has both the front and back portion. It is only half of the range of motion so it is not equivalent to 2 full reps but it targets the hardest part of the lift so each rep does count, physiologically speaking, for more work than a regular rep.
I normally don’t use special schemes with this exercises, I just do 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps. But I will sometimes add regular military press reps after my 6-8 Bradford reps, I can normally get 2 or 3 full range press.
If you are using the cambered bar push press you should stick to low reps: 1, 2 or 3. So 3/2/1 waves work well (1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1, 1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 1, etc.) and so do the highly scientific “do a bunch of singles (6-10 singles) or the variation “bunch of doubles” and “bunch of triples”.
Pressing (overhead or bench pressing) with a cambered bar is an amazing way to train. Squatting with it is pretty awesome to! Sadly not everybody has access to a cambered bar. As you can see in my video we are using an attachment that you can put on a regular barbell. You can find a similar attachment for either the squat (long) or bench/overhead press (shorter) here
They only have the longer ones listed but the shorter ones are also available, you need to contact them by email to get them until they are put on the website. A great investment since it can be used for many exercises, for example, I used them for curls and it works awesome too. Well worth it.