Pressing Progressions

We get asked often how and why we pick an exercise with our personal training clients and place it in a certain place in a gym programme.

The answer we often give relates back to the individual. It isn’t just a programme thrown up on a whiteboard in a random order. Every different person may have different levels of strength/ muscular balance that denotes a certain exercise may be unsuitable. Below directs the hierarchy of pressing exercises that we  work with at Results FAST:

Level 1

Now I look at a lot of peoples early sessions as a rolling assessment. That said taking someone straight in to a full press up or bench press without correct muscular balance is often inappropriate. Often what you will see is a lot of dominance from the traps (neck) as someone struggles through their reps. Now this is great if you wanted a massive neck, most people don’t want or need this- twinned with the issues it can give around the scaplular shrugging while pressing is a massive no no. Typically you will see this with flared elbows (that means out wide rather than 70’s fancy dress) rather than being tucked closer to the rib cage. You tend to see this on high rep style workouts in strong individuals and highlights why form needs to be maintained in these type of sessions and is why I often favor lower rep protocols for conditioning.

Entry exercises are often teaching the basics of stability during pressing. We often start with neutral grip incline chest press and raised height press ups (sometimes from the knee). We look to teach scapular control by keeping the elbows tucked- I am happy to work with lighter loads at this point to make sure everything looks right.

We would also use floor presses at this point as well- often in beginners it is good to contol range of movement- going straight to a flat bench without stability may be a little too much range for unstable shoulders.

Level 2

From here we look to progress in to single arm variants of incline pressing and we may go to a flat bench protocol. Often we will start to integrate full press ups as well as press ups from an incline. Often performing press ups from an incline can be a better start point for trap dominant movement patterns. Although most people consider this exercise as more advanced it promotes a moving more similar to incline pressing. The difference is that as with press ups it dictates that there is a suitable level of strength in the torso area. Often this is the point that limits pressing strength. Simply said if you have poor torso strength the lower back will sag and it will be hard to provide a stable base to press up safely from.


Level 3

Standing pressing is my next progress point. Pressing from a standing position again challenges the torso’s ability to stabilize while performing a pressing movement. It also varies out the stimulus of pressing and often can be used in conjunction with other forms of pressing. In general we often use this as more of a supplemental exercises rather than a primary strength developer as form often falls apart under heavy loads.


Level 4

At level 4 we bring in barbell bench press. Often referred to as the king of pressing exercises it often gets prioritized way to early in a lot of peoples training programme. While being one of the most efficient exercises for force development it also highlights that unless proper form is utilized the trap dominant movement will be utilized. We find that if we have encouraged good form using an elbow tucked/ more powerlifter style/ narrower grip pressing action then cheating on the bench press will be less likely.

Often newbies will come to you and want to bench straight away. This can be okay but be realistic with loading and understand that coaching here is paramount. I would advise that someone can crack out perfect form DB chest press and press ups first.

Pressing from an unstable surface as a supplemental pressing exercise can be incorporated. Single leg press ups, feet on swiss balls and press ups from vibration plates (unstable surface training in my experience works well for the upper body but not necessarily very well for the lower body).

Rather than re-write bench press technique set up and hand position, check this out from the guys at Cressey Performance.


Level 5

Overhead pressing is an contentious issue. With poor shoulder stability it can place the shoulder joint in a range of motion where it is most unstable. My background is also with tennis players and swimmers who indeed spend a fair amount of time with their arm overhead and who ultimately end up with a range of shoulder overuse injuries. The issue with overhead pressing in these populations is that do you want to spend more time exposing the shoulder joint to unnecessary stress when the shoulder should be being trained to be more stable. Indeed a lot of work away from the court or pool should be spent balancing out the postural issues associated with playing such sports not compounding them. For the general population overhead pressing will work well, other people simply may have symptomatic shoulders that don’t need overhead work or indeed previous injuries that may cause instability or pain in movement.

Level 5 could also progress in to different types of pressing such as band pressing, pressing with chains and board pressing with heavier loads. It may also be where I add in supplemental work which challenges torso strength as well. a good example would be the below that Dean Somerset demonstrates well but again this would again be more of a supplemental exercise.

Published by ianmellis

Ian Mellis MSc. CSCS is the co-founder of Results FAST ( in Ware, Hertfordshire. Specialising in athletic development, physique improvement and injury rehabilitation he provides personal training, strength and conditioning and nutrition coaching for motivated exercisers and those looking to make a long term change to their health, fitness and performance.

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