Q & A

Q & A: How to Write Resistance Training Programs, Part 3

(Note: Part 1 covered training oneself and Part 2a covered the coaching component).

3. Practice Writing Programs. Apply these programs to real people, then write more programs. Repeat x Infinity.

If you want to get better at baseball, then you practice playing baseball. If you want to get better at reading, then you practice reading. If you want to get better at writing training plans, then you.....Yep, nothing too crazy here.

Every single one of SAPT"s clients receives an individualized program specific to their needs, injury history, training history, and current physical fitness level. And, if you"re a personal trainer or strength coach, I can only hope you do the same for those under your watch.

And chances are high (read: 110% likely), that throughout your time involved in program writing, you"re going to face multiple scenarios that require you to write something other than a cookie-cutter program that works for the 90% of the healthy population.

Let"s say you need you need to write a program for one of the following scenarios. How do you do it?

  • An office worker who works 60 hours a week, travels on the weekends, and only has time for two, 45-minute training sessions a week. Yet he needs to lose 40lbs and wants to improve his bench press by 15lbs?
  • A baseball player online casino walking in your door telling you he has Spondylolysis (vertebral fracture)?
  • A volleyball player ten weeks who just had ACL surgery 10 weeks ago?
  • A female (or male) with a goal of doing their first-ever chinup?
  • Someone who can"t keep his or her knees out while squatting, or someone who can"t help "shifting" to one side as they approach parallel during a squat?
  • A mom who wants to get "bikini ready" for Summer, yet only has access to a home gym with limited equipment?
  • A young man needing to pass a physical fitness test for US Special Forces selection and assessment?
  • A 70-year old simply seeking prevent her osteopenia from morphing into full-fledged osteoporosis?
  • An elite level triathlete (or mixed martial artist) that needs to get stronger but can"t afford to add any mass to his or her frame?

I ask these questions because, unless you want to do your clients a disservice, you can"t just write one program up on the chalkboard for everyone to follow. You have your own unique goals, strengths, and weaknesses, don"t you? So shouldn"t the program for you, personally, be specific to those variables and goals?

I wish I could give you a magic formula, the reality is in order to get better at writing programs you have to practice writing programs.

Currently, I have over 700 programs saved on my desktop that I"ve written for athletes and clients. Yes, some of them make me want to stab my left eye out, but I had to write program #1, #2, and #3 to get to program #700.

Program #700 took me one-third the time to write as Program #1, and at the same time is (hopefully!) much "better" and more accurate to the goals of the person it was written for.

Which is how it should be, in my opinion. If you were to flip through the programs of any good strength coach, you should see changes from their first program to their most recent one, as this reflects that they are continuing to research, they"re able to learn from their mistakes, and that they genuinely care about giving their clients and athletes they best possible training that"s in their power to do so. The best in the industry are those who recognize that the more they learn, the more they realize how much they don"t know.

Q & A: How to Write Resistance Training Programs, Part 2: Coaching

Q. One thing I was wondering, and maybe it’d be a topic to write about … how do you come up with workouts?? Do you make stuff up?? Have a “grab-bag” of moves and pull out of that?? Borrow and modify from other trainers??  I always wonder where trainers come up with new ideas.A. For those who missed Part 1, I discussed the importance of training yourself on a regular basis. Let's move on to #2 on the list....

2a. Spend Time Coaching

I don't care if it's your mom, your coworker, or your friend who wants some help getting ready for Spring Break. Just start coaching someone. The best coaches (and, thus, those typically good at writing programs), are those that have spent thousands of hours in the trenches, coaching the heck out of people.

Chris Romanow comes to mind. If you've never trained at SAPT, you're probably asking who Chris Romanow is. He hasn't published any books or articles on training, he doesn't have a Twitter, he doesn't a keep a fitness blog, doesn't send out a newsletter, and he hasn't produced any fitness products.

Yet he is one of the best coaches in the industry, hands down. He can coach people and design training plans better than anyone I know. Heck, the man could teach a freshly born giraffe how to perform a solid overhead squat.

And you know what Chris received his college degree in? NOT Exercise Science, or even in a related field. He became a great program designer, and an even better coach, not by reading some textbooks, taking a few exams, and receiving a diploma for it, but by coaching his butt off, twelve hours a day, for years on end.

He was forced to learn how to teach kids the squat pattern (including hundreds who aren't genetically gifted and couldn't pick it up, even after the hundredth six attempt), how to teach a good pushup to mothers who never weight trained in their lives, show an unmotivated 12-year old softball player how to rotate through her hips instead of her lumbar spine, to teach an arrogant 17-year old that no, he really can't really squat 400lbs to depth.

And to do this over, and over, and over, and over again with people from all walks of life and varying genetic predispositions.

I, on the other hand, did study Kinesiology/Exercise Science in college. I also had many colleagues right alongside me doing the same thing. Going to lectures, learning about muscle insertions and attachments, the sliding filament theory, force-velocity curves, motor unit force potentiation, glycolysis, yadda yadda yadda.

And you know what I find myself telling people on a weekly basis? I would trust Chris with coaching me, and writing ME a program, a thousand times more than having one of my fellow colleagues (with a B.S. in Exercise Science) coach me or write me a workout plan. No question about it. And no offense to those of you from Virginia Tech who may be reading; it just is how it is.

As strength coach Mike Robertson once put it, "Some of the best coaches in S&C are the ones you’ve never heard of, and never hear from. They’re tucked away in some remote part of the country, just kicking ass and taking names."

That's Chris. And any talent I have at writing programs and coaching others, I owe in large part to him.

My point in all that is that learning the "science of training" is completely different from practicing it in real life. And no graduate degree or Ph. D. can replace time invested learning it first-hand (wasn't it Malcolm Gladwell who articulated it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something?). It's very difficult to become proficient at program design without putting in your dues coaching others. And you can't truly appreciate this until you experience it for yourself.

I can't tell you how many times I've written what I thought to be a "perfect program" only to see it fail miserably upon implementation. And, unless you work with Olympic-level athletes, you're going to have to help countless people with quite poor movement quality (yes, even "higher level" athletes) learn to hip hinge, squat, pick things up off the ground, press things, and pull things. Correctly. And they aren't usually going to get it the first time.

Coaching teaches you a lot of things. As long as you pay attention, remain awake, stay astute, and make an effort to truly observe the feedback you're receiving (both verbal and nonverbal), you'd be surprised at how much your clients can teach you about yourself. And you will then learn to be a better program designer.

I remember, upon first becoming a personal trainer in college, I decided to take one of my clients (a soccer player) through a few sets of front squats. Easy peasy, right? Except that his knees persistently collapsed inward during the bottom half of his squat. So me, being the brilliant trainer I was, continually barked at him to drive his knees out. Yet he couldn't do it.

Was he deaf? No. Was he stupid? Of course not. Yet me, in all my trainer awesomeness, thought the only way to get him to align his knees over his second toe was to tell him to do it.

Now, don't get me wrong, on many occasion this can fix the issue. However, what I didn't realize at the time was that structural restrictions in this guy's ankle and/or hip could possibly prevent his knees from tracking correctly, despite how hard he tried to. I had no clue what implications closed-chain ankle dorsiflexion had during a front squat, or that poor hip internal rotation combined with flexion could force his knees inward in the bottom, or that sucky gluteals wouldn't allow him to power the movement correctly.

And, naturally, didn't know that I might have to program these into his workouts in order to help him squat correctly. This forced me to research and learn.

Should squats be in the program of most people? Yes, duh. However, what good is it if they can't do it proficiently? (Hint: they probably can't, at least until they're coached on it.) You need to be able to write their program so they can receive a training effect in the meantime, while at the same time helping them get from Point A to Point B.

It's the hundreds of hours you spend teaching a wide variety of people - coordinated and uncoordinated, conditioned and deconditioned, male and female, young and old, hobbit, dwarf, and wizard - to do things correctly that make you a better coach and program designer. Teaching and coaching elite level athletes is easy. Your only job there is basically to ensure they don't injure themselves under your watch (now, increasing their vertical five inches is another issue, but I'm just discussing the coaching component for the time being).

If you can coach some of the most uncoordinated, deconditioned people in the world through the fundamental human patterns, then chances are high you can write a program that doesn't suck.

Which leads (kind of) to the next point....

3. Practice Writing Programs. Apply these programs to real people, then write more programs. Repeat x Infinity.

I'll return with this part on Monday. Hope everyone has a great weekend.

Q & A: How to Write Resistance Training Programs, Part 1

Q: Hi Steve,I'm very new to the powerlifting/strong(wo)man training world ... and I love reading your blog! It's always chock full with information. One thing I was wondering, and maybe it'd be a topic to write about ... how do you come up with workouts?? Do you make stuff up?? Have a "grab-bag" of moves and pull out of that?? Borrow and modify from other trainers??  I always wonder where trainers come up with new ideas.

Thank you for all the great info!!

A: First, I'm humbled that you enjoy reading my (and my fellow coaches) musings here on SAPTstrength and I thank you for the kind words. It's always good to feel appreciated and to be assured that not everyone, to put it as eloquently as possible: thinks I suck.

Second, as I began to draft my response, it didn't take me long to realize how multifaceted this topic really is, so I'm going to break up my answer into a short series that hopefully doesn't tank as much as Pirates of the Caribbean. Moving on to the first point....

1. Train Yourself

Yes, I'm serious. You'd think I wouldn't have to make this #1 on the list, but I'm continually shocked by how many people are out there, either on the internet or in actual gyms, training other people when they don't walk the walk themselves. I'm not saying you have to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or possess the raw strength of Andy Bolton, but at least get after it yourself, for the love!

For one thing, are people going to listen to your advice regarding fat loss if you're borderline obese and get winded simply from walking from your car to the front door? Second, and more importantly, consistently training yourself gives you a chance grow in understanding of how all the training variables interact with one another.

And I'm not talking just sticking with one training methodology, either. While I personally haven't experimented with everything under the sun, I've completed full cycles of Bodypart Splits (more cycles than I'd like to admit, hah!), High Frequency Training, Upper/Lower, Powerlifting, Escalating Density Training, Total Body Training, Push/Pull Splits, Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 (for six months....not sure why I stopped to be honest), Stevo-Gets-Sexified Training, and more.

Through this, I've figured out which exercise pairings are brilliant, those that are not-so-brilliant (I'd be embarrassed to recount them all), what type of plans actually make me stronger rather than turning me into a huge pile of fail, and what style of training is best to implement based on what my goals are and/or what I have going on outside the gym walls.

Heck, I've competed in running/obstacle races, and even Triathlon, in order to garner a deeper understanding of the training stressors distance athletes face specific to their style of training. This, in turn, has helped me become a better coach and and allowed me to write the programs for SAPT's endurance athletes with much greater accuracy and proficiency, due to the fact that I've walked (or ran) in their shoes. These races provided me with a real, first-hand opportunity to see how:

  • Performing 4x8 Bulgarian Split Squats or SL RDLs the day before a Threshold or Cardiac Power Interval run will be akin to asking for a suicide mission, and also, perhaps, for your gluteal musculature to fall off the bone and onto the pavement
  • Intervals are a very powerful tool in training for endurance events, but should not be used exclusively
  • When designing conditioning programs (be them interval or steady state), it's best never to increase the total distance or time by more than 20% per session, as this will greatly reduce the risk of injury while still allowing the athlete to improve
  • The frequency/volume of swim sessions will affect the implementation of vertical and horizontal pressing performed in the weight room
  • You actually won't turn in to a weak pile of poo if you do steady state cardio, as long as you design your weight lifting program appropriately
  • Yes, distance athletes need to resistance train. They needto foam roll (I don't care what people are saying, just do it). They need soft tissue work. They need to stop worrying about their six-pack.

The same can be said for when I experimented with all the weight training methods above, it gave me a chance to feel what it's actually like to train different ways, and this has helped me to better write the programs for my athletes and clients.

I've trained using 2x/week plans (when I was working three, part-time jobs simultaneously while studying for the CSCS), 3x/week, 4x/week, and even 6x/week plans (shoot me), all for extended periods of time which helped me feel out how to best distribute the training stress throughout the week depending on the plan being used.

And yes, I realize everyone is different, and other people won't always respond the same way I do (positively OR negatively) to a particular training plan, but it's still a much greater step in the right direction that sitting on your butt all day and then commanding other people to suck it up and train (because that always goes over real well).

Please don't mistake me sharing all this an attempt to brag (don't know what exactly it would be bragging about....but just in case). Continually training yourself, through no matter what "Life" throws at you, gives you a greater appreciation the demands your clients experience outside of the gym walls, and say, for example, you had planned for them to do cluster sets of front squats (hint: they're awful), but then Life hit them with a poop-storm before they walked in the doors of the gym, it is actually okay to change the plan you wrote for them, and instead, give them something more "invigorating" and something that will set them up for success rather than make them hate you for life. They'll still get results, and they'll love you more for it, I promise.

I was just talking to Sarah the other day about how she's just weeks away from giving birth to her second child and yet she's still getting after it every day, be it inside or outside the gym.

And you know what? When her daughter grows up and becomes pregnant, and then complains that it's not possible to exercise regularly while facing the demands of pregnancy (and if you're like Sarah, owning a business while simultaneously working as a full-time strength coach for a DI university), she'll be able to look her child in the eye and say, "You know what, twice a week I did one prowler push for every week you were in my belly, along with lifting 4x/week."


Anyway, that's it for now. Be back with part 2 on Friday.

Q & A: Training for Mass vs. Power

Q: My first question is a classic one: how do the training programs of a body-builder and a "strongest man" competitor differ? In short--mass vs power. And why does the body-builder appear stronger than, for instance, the **German who clean and jerked 565lbs for his deceased wife? Ive heard so many different theories on this stuff...

A. First of all, for those of you reading who haven't seen the video referenced in the question, please see below. Doing so will automatically raise your testosterone levels by 150% (don't worry ladies, you can still benefit as there's a romantic side to the story).

It's important to note that:

A) Powerlifters and Olympic Lifters ("O-lifters") each care about one thing: the maximal amount of weight they can move for the FEW key lifts in their respective competitions (squat/bench/dead for powerlifters, and clean+jerk/snatch for O-lifters). Their end goal is to find the most efficient way to move the weight through the desired range. For example, powerlifters often create a huge arch in their back during a bench press so they don't have to move the bar as far up and down, and O-lifters learn to keep the bar as close to their body as possible so it doesn't "arc" out in front of them.

B) Bodybuilders, on the other hand, also only care about one thing, but it's entirely different: Aesthetics. Put another way, hypertrophy (hy-PUR-truh-fee), which simply means increasing the size of the muscle fibers.

(Note: Pardon me as the above points may seem very obvious, but it's important to note nonetheless.)

Training Differences

One could argue that the primary difference in training for these two respective goals (power vs. mass) comes down to the development of the nervous system. The German who clean+jerked 565lbs for his deceased wife trained his nervous system to "drive" the muscles to be able to contract+produce power as quickly and efficiently as possible. In an Olympic lifting context, this is typically done by moving sub-maximal weights at maximal speeds using low reps. An example of this would be executing power cleans for 5 sets of 2 reps at a weight than can be moved quickly and smoothly by the lifter. You can use this same principle with deadlifts, squats, and bench presses, too. In fact (as you may be well aware), many powerlifters use a high set/low rep at a low % to work on pure speed/power development. They are teaching their nervous systems to produce maximal force in as little time as possible. The faster one can do this, the more weight they can typically lift, or throw overhead.

Basically: you can become extremely "neurally efficient" without necessarily becoming big.

Heck, look at Tom Martin (180lbs) who set the world record for the deadlift in his weight class. He pulled 771lbs, yet appears wayyy less muscular than your average bodybuilder!

Let's briefly discuss training programs. If you take the program of a powerlifter and compare it to that of a bodybuilder, you'll immediately notice how much "simpler" the powerlifting program is compared to that of the bodybuilding program. Let's take a look at a sample "Leg Day:"



1)   Deadlift 5x2

2)   Glute-Ham Raise 3x8

*3)   Split Squat 3x10/side

4) Weighted Plank 3x :20


1)   Squat 4x10

2) Deadlift 5x5

3)   Leg Press 4x15

4a) Walking Lunges 4x10/side

4b) Seated Leg Extensions 3-4x10

5a) Lying Leg Curls 3-4x10

5b) Seated Calf Raise 3xInfinity

Elite-level powerlifters and Olympic lifters know how to "trim the fat" in order to do enough so that their main lift improves, but NOT so much to the point where their body has to recover from a bazillion supplementary exercises. This will depend on the lifter of course (some powerlifters find that their body responds to slightly more assistance work than others), but the common theme is that they do the minimum required to see their competition lifts improve.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, are known for their extremely voluminous training sessions, often spending 90-120 minutes in a single workout. They'll also do whatever it takes in their training to maximize how large their muscles grow, examples including (but not limited to):

-manipulating their form to maximize tension on a particular muscle

-using a slow tempo (during both the lowering AND lifting portion)

-using machines to isolate a muscle (taking that muscle's "helpers" out of the equation....ex. in a squat the hamstrings+glutes are still going to help the primary mover - the quads - do the lift....but in a leg extension machine you can isolate the quads to a much greater degree).

-"supersetting" exercises for the same muscle group (ex. walking lunges paired with seated leg extensions) to "exhaust" a particular muscle

-choosing lifts that take the muscle through a greater range of motion (ex. doing a dumbbell bench press instead of a barbell bench press)

-etc. etc. etc.

It's also shown that the higher rep/volume style of bodybuilding leads to development of what's called sarcoplastic hypertrophy, or, in laymen's terms, increasing the size of the non-contractile portions of the muscle cell (muscle cells have both contractile and non-contractile tissue within them). This is another method through which they can look very very big but not necessarily possess the strength of powerlifters.

An Important Caveat

The immediate conclusion most people draw from this is that if their goals strictly lie in the sphere of aesthetics, then they should train like bodybuilders with a very high volume, high repetition approach. Which leads me to this:

The two training methodologies aren't necessarily mutually exclusive of each other, ESPECIALLY when it comes to training for aesthetics. 

For example, my wife, Kelsey, earned her Pro Card in bodybuilding by primarily using a powerlifting-style approach in her training!

WBOW KelseyDoucette
WBOW KelseyDoucette

In fact, this is sometimes the biggest setback I see in people training solely for the goal of lookin' good: they aren't strong enough. I strongly feel that most people - even those with bodybuilding aspirations - should begin with (and continue to cycle in) "powerlifting'esque" training tools as many will be surprised at how much they grow simply by getting stronger on the compound lifts (squats, overhead presses, deadlifts, bench presses, chinups, etc.).

The "Illusion" of Bodybuilding

Alright, this is Q & A is already significantly more prolix than I was anticipating, so just one more point: Diet and creating an "illusion" are HUGE factors in making bodybuilders look bigger. Bodybuilders will diet down to insanely low bodyfat levels, and strategically manipulate their nutrition, to make themselves appear more "full" right before a competition. Not to mention, the spend hours practicing their poses in order to make their muscles appear larger than they actually are.

Going back to the example of my wife, many girls may look at the picture of her above and think "No way would I ever want to look manly and bulky like that!".

Guess what? Do you think that's how she looks walking around the street? Nope. Despite the fact that she has set American records in powerlifting (hint: she is very strong), she actually, *gasp,* looks very feminine, and sexy to boot, walking around day to day. The picture from her bodybuilding show is the result of very meticulous nutrient partitioning and hours of hard work practicing her poses and routines.

Here's a picture I found, via a quick desktop search, of us at a Lord of the Rings showing with a live orchestra. Which goes to say: bodybuilders don't look like they do on stage year-round.


And yes, the show was as cool as it sounds.

I bet if Matthias Steiner (the German O-lifter from the beginning) were to diet down to a very low bodyfat and manipulate his carbohydrate/water intake, he would look very, VERY muscular, too.

Another example: see the before/after photos of Dave Tate, a powerlifter who went on a "bodybuilding kick" and got his nutrition in order. I hope this helps prove my point.

Whew, anyway, I hoped this help elucidate some of the differences between training for mass vs. power. It was far from comprehensive (the topic can literally be discussed for days), but hopefully at least gets you started on the right track.

**On a side note: Matthias steiner should technically be considered one of the most powerful men in the world, as opposed to strongest - because he moves weight at a higher velocity - when compared to powerlifters who are some of the strongest people in the world. Kinda ironic how powerlifting actually involves moving heavy weights at a slow velocity, whereas Olympic lifting is all about moving it fast......

SAPT Blog Gems of 2011

With it being the Friday before the New Year, I thought this would make a good time to share some of the most popular blog posts I wrote during 2011. I thought it would make a great way for some of our newer readership to catch some things they may have missed, give our "veteran" followers some reminders of things they may have read a while ago, and hey, not gonna lie, it makes for an easy day of blog content on my end! 2011 saw substantial growth for SAPTstrength, and I honestly cannot thank you all enough for your support. This was also the first year I made a effort to write consistently, totaling roughly 150 blog posts (along with a few additional articles for websites).

It amazes me to see the readership of this site growing weekly, and it really does humble me to know that many of you out there enjoy the coaches+writers of this site (Sarah, Chris, and myself), and think that we, to put it scientifically: don't suck.

That being said, let's get to the list. Happy New Year everyone, and we look forward to 2012 with you all!

Warrior, The Resistance, Mobility, and Happy Birthday Baggins

You know, it's so funny, sometimes the posts I put together last-minute, on a whim, and in a "holycrapIcan'tthinkofanythingtowritesoletmediscussLordoftheRings" mindset, are the ones that receive the most traffic. This one topped the list, and it wasn't even really about training! Geeze people, comon'! Stop being so hard to please.

I don't know if it's because I talked about Lord of the Rings or discussed the epicness of Tom Hardy's traps, but apparently this one hit home with you all.

26 Things I've Learned: Training Edition

Okay, now for some that are actually training related. Here I recap - via 26 short bullet points - several "ah ha" moments I've had since entering the strength and conditioning industry. This one trimmed the fat and gave the "quick and dirty" for anything ranging from improving one's results in the gym to program design.

A Few Things I've Learned: "Life" Edition

It honestly surprised me how much traffic this one received, as I wasn't anticipating this post being that big of a hit. Here I put on my sage hat (at least as much as possible for me to do so) and give some quick bullet points on anything from behavior economics to yellow traffic lights.

CrossFit: Friend or Foe?

You know what they say about discussions with in-laws at the dinner table: Avoid the topics of politics, religion, and......CrossFit. Just kidding (kinda), but it does seem that people tend to fall on vastly different ends of the spectrum when it comes to CrossFit. It's as if it's an either-or topic...black and white, if you will: Either it's so evil worse than Satan himself, or it's so good it has saved you from congestive heart failure.

In this post, I do my best to look at it from an objective point of view. Is it for elite athletes? General fitness enthusiasts? Are ALL affiliates awful facilities that (quote) "do nothing but injure people?" Click the link to see for yourself.

To Overhead Press or Not to Overhead Press

The overhead press is a hot topic of debate among doctors and strength coaches alike. See this Q & A for a quick run down on if the overhead press is the right exercise for you.

And now, here are two great ones from Sarah and Chris:

A Little Bit About Knee Injuries - Sarah Walls

Here Sarah does a great job breaking down the what, why, and how-to-prevent of knee injuries. Notice that one of her main points is to "get those glutes firing!" I can't tell you how many times I'm working with a female with a knee injury/pain and have her doing glute work when she looks at me, and (*cue sassy voice*):

"Um, I don't want my BUTT to get any bigger...."

Well, do you want your knee pain to increase in magnitude, too?? Get those glutes workin' girl! Your butt circumference won't increase in an unfavorable way, I promise.

Our Take on "Sport Specific" - Chris Romanow

Last, but certainly not least, is an excellent short blurb by Chris on sport specific training. I can't tell you how many times I'm asked by a well-intentioned parent on why I'm not having their child perform X exercise since it is "sport specific." Should you do band-resisted running if you're a sprinter? Is it really necessary to have a soccer player squat, since it doesn't look like a very "sport specific" drill? See his points on the link above.

**That's all for now. Feel free to chime in below for any topics you'd like to see covered in 2012!**

To Overhead Press or Not to Overhead Press

I received this question from a friend of mine who is currently in physical therapy school and thought I'd share my response here. Q. Had a question. I know that at [X clinic he worked at] some of the therapists told me that overhead press was bad to do due to some impingement of the supraspinatus. This is also something we've learned in school but im not sure if this is specifically for those who just aren't strong enough or those recovering from injuries and such. Do you do overhead shoulder press w/ dumbells or BB and what is your take on the subject?

A. As usual, this is a question of contraindicated exercises versus contraindicated people. To make a blanket statement such as "no one should overhead press" would be both remiss and short-sighted. For example, if this is the case, should I avoid taking down and putting up my 5lb container of protein powder on top of my kitchen cabinet each morning? But I digress.

Getting to your the center of your question: Is the overhead press a fantastic exercise? Absolutely! Can the majority of the population perform it safely? Eh, not so much. In fact, this is a very similar subject matter to the back squat. The squat is arguably the greatest exercise to add lean body mass and increase athletic prowess, but may not be the wisest exercise selection depending on the person/situation. Chris actually addressed this very question in THIS post as to why he doesn't back squat the Division 1 baseball players he works with over at George Mason.

First things first: Look, I LOVE the overhead press. In fact, nothing makes me feel more viking-like than pressing something heavy overhead.In my personal opinion, the barbell military press is one of the BEST exercises to develop the deltoids, traps, serratus, and triceps, along with (if performing it correctly) the abdominals, glutes, low back, and upper thighs. HOWEVER, a lot of "stuff" needs to be working correctly in order to safely overhead press:

  • Soft Tissue Quality
  • Thoracic Mobility (specifically in extension)
  • A Strong (and Stable) Rotator Cuff
  • Upward Rotation of the Shoulder Blades
  • General Ninja-like Status

Improved thoracic extension will positively alter your shoulder kinematics as you press overhead, a strong and stable cuff will help keep the humeral head centered in the glenoid (the shoulder socket) in order to free up that subacromial space (decreasing risk of impingement) , upward rotators will keep the scapulae in proper positioning, and I don't think I need explain how obtaining ninja status will help you overhead press like a champ.

If you can get all the things above up to snuff (via specific drills/exercises), then you're in pretty darn good shape. In reality, this comes down to ensuring you lay down a sound foundation of movement before loading up that very pattern. If the movement patterns and necessary kinematics are there, then chances are you get the green light to overhead press.

However, it doesn't stop there. A few other things need to be taken in to consideration:

1. Training Economy. If you only have X number of hours in the gym and Y capacity to recover, then you need to choose the Z exercises that will give you the most bang for your buck without exceeding your (or your athlete's) capacity to recover. Considering that the "shoulders" already receive tons of work from horizontal pressing movements (on top of horizontal and vertical pulling exercises), I really don't feel that most trainees - especially those that are contraindicated - need to overhead press if the primary goal is to further hypertrophy the deltoids and/or elicit some sort of athletic performance improvement.

2. Injury History. Partial thickness cuff tear? Labral fraying? Congenital factors? All these (and more) will come into play with deciding if overhead pressing will set you up for longevity in the realm of shoulder health.

3. Population. Are you dealing with overhead athletes? They're at much greater risk for the traumas listed in #2, and, not to mention, they already spend a large majority of their day with their arms overhead so you need to consider how mechanically stable (or unstable) their shoulder is, along any symptomatic AND asymptomatic conditions they may possess. Conversely, if you're dealing with a competitive olympic lifter, or an average joe who moves marvelously, then the overhead press may be a fantastic (or even necessary) choice to elicit a desired outcome.

4. Type of Injury. Ex. Those with AC joint issues may actually be able to overhead press pain free due to the lack of humeral extension involved (whereas the extreme humeral extension you'd find in dips or even bench pressing could easily exacerbate AC joint symptoms). Using myself as example, I can actually military press pain free, whereas bench pressing quickly irritates my bum shoulder. I don't have an AC joint issue (as far as I know...), but I've still found that my pain flares up when my humerus goes into deep extension (past neutral) in any press such as a pushup, barbell press, dumbbell press, etc. so the military press actually feels pretty good for me PERSONALLY. With regards to pushups and dumbbell pressing, I can usually do it fine as long as I'm cognizant to avoid anterior humeral glide.

As for pressing overhead with dumbbells vs. barbells, I find that, frequently, it's best to start someone with dumbbell pressing with a NEUTRAL grip (palms facing each other) as this will give your shoulder more room to "breathe" by externally rotating the humerus and lowering risk of subacromial impingement. From there, you can progress to the barbell as long as the items listed in the beginning are in check.

In the end, this comes down to how well you move, your posture, and your individual situation. With technology currently PWNING our society's movement patterns via increased time in cars, sitting in front of our computers, gaming, and overall sedentary lifestyle, we have to fight much harder than our ancestors to turn that "red light" to a "green light" in the sphere of overhead pressing.

Note: to conclude, feel free to watch the video below by Martin Rooney. Hopefully, you can read the central message portrayed: