Hi Bret, I’m a huge fan of yours and love the evidence-based approach! Quick ABC (Ask Bret Contreras) question for you – whenever I do standing military press it hurts my lower back. Why does this happen, and what can I do to prevent it from occurring? – Santino
Your low back most likely hurts when you perform military presses because you are hyperextending your lumbar spine during the movement.
Most trainers would tell you that you need to work on your core stability and would prescribe a bunch of planks and the like. This usually does absolutely nothing to solve the problem.
Bad lifting form is usually due to one of four things:
- Poor mechanics (usually motor-control and coordination related, but is also heavily influenced by anatomy/anthropometry)
- Poor joint mobility
- Poor joint stability
Assuming you have proper mobility and stability in the various joints, then it’s just a matter of learning proper form. Watch this hilarious video from Martin Rooney which shows how to perform the military press properly (he discusses this from 1:45 to 3:25 and it’s actually one of the best quick videos on the military press):
You may be able to just work on your form and fix your issues. Make sure you try all of the things Martin mentions, including:
- Narrow grip (triceps on the lats while tensed)
- Tight core and legs (abs and glutes are tensed) * this is important!
- Bar goes straight overhead (head goes forward after bar passes)
- Feel the delts AND traps (to upwardly rotate the scapulae) working
- No excessive leaning back
If this works for you, congratulations!!!
If not, then here are some things that might be going on:
- You may have poor shoulder flexion mobility (ability to raise the arms up all the way) and are leaning back (substituting lumbar hyperextension) to compensate
- You may have poor thoracic extension (upper back extension) and are leaning back to compensate
If one of these are the case, then you need to work on bringing up your shoulder flexion or thoracic extension mobility, and then you need to blend the newfound gains in mobility into your motor programs. Your body will still want to use the same form it’s always used even though you’ve gained mobility, so you have to rewrite your movement patterns. A 2-4 month flexibility program may therefore be in order along with a gradual reintroduction to the movement.
You may also have poor stability, but it’s usually not a lack of core (ab/oblique/erector) strength, it’s just poor patterning. It’s worth mentioning that many folks are very resilient to hyperextension and experience no pain with the military press even if they lean excessively (I’ve notice the same thing with hip thrusts and back extensions). Other folks are able to master military press form relatively quickly from simply practicing the form with lighter weight while squeezing the abs/glutes and focusing on remaining relatively upright to prevent lumbar hyperextension.
Some folks start overarching the back only when the loads get heavier. If you fall into this category, you might be able to get away with military pressing with solely lighter loads (for example, sets of 10 reps or higher). Refrain from going heavier, refrain from going near failure (keep a couple of reps in the tank to avoid encouraging excessive lean), and always try to remain as upright as possible.
Let’s say that you’ve tried all of these things and you still experience back pain while military pressing. Don’t be depressed. Some folks simply don’t have the body structures to safely perform the military press. The slightest deviation from neutral spine irritates their lumbosacral regions, and some have tremendous trouble avoiding lumbar hyperextension with the military press. This could be due to their strength curves – perhaps they’re just so dramatically stronger in the incline press ROM and therefore they always inherently resort to leaning back to mimic the incline pressing motion when the loads get heavy.
If this is the case, do not fret! There are still plenty of options for you. You can still see if the following lifts work for you:
- Standing dumbbell overhead press
- Seated barbell overhead press
- Seated dumbbell overhead press
If you go with the seated variations, please make sure that you choose a bench that doesn’t pin your scapulae together. You’ll need a lower-height military bench for this as the taller are usually problematic in this regard.
I have one more variation that I want to introduce to you. It’s something that I’ve found very beneficial – the Anderson half-kneeling overhead press:
I’ve found this to be a pretty good alternative for folks who always experience low back pain from performing military press yet still want to perform a movement that they feel gives more “bang for their buck” and enhances functional stability. It’s done out of the rack in the half-kneeling position, which requires sound levels of hip stability (the adductors and abductors on the front leg are getting stimulated in hip flexion, while the adductors and abductors on the rear leg are getting stimulated from a neutral hip position). Make sure to squeeze the glute on the rear leg. Some folks (like me) don’t see much of a drop-off in strength when moving to this variation, however others have to move down in weight drastically until they gain coordination.
I hope that answers your question, and best of luck!