Breaking Plateaus: the MilitaryPress


I’m a big fan of the military press (aka the press, the standing press, the overhead press). I like putting the weight overhead. It’s a challenging total-body exercise that in my mind probably delivers more useful strength and skill than something like a bench press. I’d like to press 200 lbs. which is my body weight. For that reason, I tend to lift heavy and I typically don’t go above five reps per set. My progress stalled for a while so I went on the hunt for ways to move it along. This led me to read up on all kinds of interesting ways to break through plateaus.  (Admittedly, a torn ACL didn’t help my pressing. My press was slowing down though prior to the tear.)

To get stronger we generally need to add weight to whatever it is that we’re lifting. This is the simplest, most obvious way to get stronger. It’s inevitable though that at some point our progress will slow and we’ll have to find other ways to move forward in our strength training. Here are a few methods I’ve used to improve my press:

  • Weight: A lot of people tend to lift in the same rep range. I often see people in commercial gyms lifting in the 10-15 rep neighborhood. A good way to make progress is to add weight and move down in reps. The 5-rep and below range is good for getting stronger. In contrast, if we’ve been lifting in the low-rep range, there might be a benefit to reducing weight and adding reps.
  • Speed: We can subtract weight and move faster. To get fast we need to move fast. If we reduce the weight (40%-60% of your 1-rep max) and move very fast then we get a very different type of powerful stimulus to the muscles. I’ll talk about this more below.
  • Different exercises and movement patterns: If progress stalls on the barbell military press then we might want to switch to an incline barbell press, or a dumbbell military press, or a seated military press, or a behind-the-neck press. You see my point? Choosing an exercise that’s the “same but different” can help us make progress in our main lift.
  • Bring up weak points: I’m not much of a fan of bodybuilding-type training in which individual muscles are emphasized. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for this approach. If we look at the particular muscles involved in a given lift then we might use exercises to isolate those muscles and make them stronger and/or add mass. For instance, we could use tricep extensions in order to strengthen that piece of our press. Similarly, we might look at supporting musculature–the upper back for instance–and target those muscles to a stronger foundation from which to press.

Here’s some more on my experience with dynamic effort, “same but different” and some bodybuilding work.

Dynamic Effort

Speed and strength live in the same house. They are very close acquaintances. They have a lot of physiological similarities. Training one tends to help the other. Fast twitch muscle fibers are our strong and fast fibers. They should be trained with heavy weights as well as high velocities.

As we add weight to the bar, the bar slows down. We create more force but we don’t create speed. If we want to train speed then we need to lighten the load considerably and move a lot faster. The Westside Conjugate Method addresses both strength and speed during the week. Max Effort (ME) day has lifters lifting very heavy weights and generating a lot of force but at a slow velocity. Dynamic Effort (DE) day has the lifter using much lighter loads moved at a high velocity. This creates explosion.

Incorporating a dynamic effort day into your lifting may help you break through any current plateaus you may be experiencing. If you’ve never employed the DE method, then you probably have a nice well of untapped potential and you’ll likely see impressive results fairly quickly.

I’ve from pressing 135 lbs. for 2 reps to 145 lbs. for 3 reps in about four weeks since incorporating the DE method. Cool! As advocated by Louie, the DE day came 72 hours after the ME day. I typically did 10 sets of 2 reps, adding 5 lbs. each week.

At no time did I become anything like exhausted by the DE work.  That isn’t the point. Speed is the point. If you get tired then you’ll slow down. Don’t expect to experience a typical workout feeling with DE work.

Louie wrote an article titled Westside Military Press Training for Mike Mahler’s Aggressive Strength site. Here are the tips:

  • Do the seated press with dumbbells. Choose three weights for example 100 lbs, 75 lbs, and 50 lbs. Work on setting a repetition record with one dumbbell weight. the reps should range from 10 to 25 reps.
  • Do dumbbell extensions or barbell extensions for special work along with rear, side and front raises.
  • Do barbell pressing in the following manner. Ten sets of three reps in a three- week wave. 70% the 1st week 75% the second week and 80% the third week. Pendulum back to 70% and start over. Second day 72 hours later do max effort work.
  • Use chains on the bar or JUMPSTRETCH bands to accommodate resistance. (Editor’s note: Usually as the bar gets close to lockout you will naturally slow the bar down. The bands keep the resistance on all the way to the end).
  • Work up to new PR in the incline press.
  • Do rack lockout work on the high pin where 10%-15% highest weight can be done.

Developing the Overhead Press is another good article on Mahler’s site. If you like to press then read it!

The Conjugate System can get a little complicated and hard to understand. For a very good and concise explanation of the system, check out Jordan Syatt’s article The Westside Conjugate System: A User’s Guide.

Other ways to train speed (either lower or upper body) include the following:

  • jumping
  • medicine ball throws
  • plyometric pushups
  • power pull-ups: Do these explosively for 1-3 reps.

Same but different

I’ve varied the way I press–but I’ve kept pressing. In the book Easy Strength, Pavel Tsatsouline talkes about the “same but different” concept. With this concept, we take the main lift we’re working on–the press–and find some way to change it just a little. We offer a little variety to the nervous system, we learn a slightly new skill, and we can improve our main lift.

A similar process is proposed by Bill Starr in the book the Strongest Shall Survive. This system employs a heavy/light/medium approach to lifting where the exercises are changed slightly between each workout. For example, the back squat is used on the heavy and medium days and the front squat is used on the light day. Presses alternate from the bench press to the military press to the behind-the-neck press. Read the book to learn more.

In my case, I’ve incorporated the standing behind-the-neck press as well as seated dumbbell or kettlebell presses in which I sit on the floor with my legs straight out in front. I do these for reps.
Here are some examples “same but different” changes we could incorporate into our press routine

  • military press to behind-the-neck press to incline press
  • standing press to seated press
  • handstand or incline pushups
  • dumbbells and/or kettlebells in place of the barbell

Other things

I’ve also incorporated back-off sets after my heavy pressing days. I reduce the weight considerably and press for 10-12 reps. I expect this to help build some mass.

I’ve used dumbbell rear delt flyes to help build my upper back. I do these for 8-15 reps typically and I vary the weight each workout. This is the type of bodybuilding isolation work that I haven’t done in years.


I’ve just scratched the surface with this stuff so I anticipate continued progress. As my ACL heals I expect progress to accelerate quite a bit. This has been a very interesting process. I’ve enjoyed learning about and applying these concepts, particularly the dynamic effort work. I just recently started a little bit of jumping. I expect this to help my squat and deadlift. I plan to keep a speed day as part of my workout plans.

4/14/14 Workout


Easy/short one today.  Kettlebell/barbell class tomorrow.

  • jump rope and mobility work
  • Power clean: 115 lbs. x 5 – 135 lbs. x 5 – 145 lbs. x 5
  • Double kettlebell snatch: 12 kg x 20 – 16 kg x 20
  • Double kettlebell windmill: 16 kg x 5 reps x 2 sets
  • Jump rope intervals: 4 x 45 seconds

Done and Done.

4/10, 4/11 & 4/13/14 Workouts


Several days gone by and I’ve had several good workouts. I did some power cleans for the first time since the ACL and everything felt fine. I also rode up Lookout Mt. in Golden, CO and again, things felt good. Here’s what it all looked like:


  • Power cleans: 135 lbs. x 5 reps x 5 sets
    • Knee was stable.
    • Weight felt fine.
  • Front squats: 135 lbs. x 2 x 5 reps
    • Easy/light day for squats
    • Front squats are more challenging than back squats but that means I can load myself lighter.
  • Good mornings: 135 lbs. x 6 – 145 lbs. x 6 – 155 lbs. x 6 – 165 lbs. x 6 – 175 lbs. x 6 – 185 lbs. x 6
    • Heaviest on GM I’ve gone since the knee.
    • I do these on light days, deadlift on heavy days.
  • Kettlebell snatch: 16 kg x 40 reps – x 50 reps – x 30 reps = 120 reps total
  • Super set: 3 sets
    • 1-leg squat: 30 lbs x 7 reps
    • cable anti-rotation: 15 lbs x 3 seconds x 10 reps


Lookout Mt. from the air.  My favorite climb.

Lookout Mt. from the air. My favorite climb.

Bike ride up Lookout Mt: about 2 hrs/20 miles.

  • Tough ride but good.
  • Early season climbing is always an eye-opener.
  • Knee felt fine.
  • Lunch and beers afterward! Yeehaw!



  • Jump rope & mobility work
    • First time for any jumping since the knee.
    • 5 x 50 reps
  • Circuit: 8 rounds
    • Weighted pull-ups: 20kg x 4 reps
    • Kettlebell swings: 32kg x 20 reps – 36kg x 15 reps – 40kg x 10 reps for all remaining sets
    • Push-ups: 10 reps – 3 reps plyo push-ups – 10 reps – 3 plyo reps – 10 reps – 3 plyo – 10 reps – 10 reps = 59 reps total
    • 1-leg hops: 20 reps
    • This was a moderate workout. I went at an easy pace and worked until I was moderately fatigued.

This past week I was successful doing power cleans, jump rope, and 1-leg hops. This is fairly aggressive stuff and everything held together well. I’m very pleased.

Surgery is scheduled for May 1. It’s a little tough to contemplate after seeing so much quick progress since the initial injury. That said, I’m ready to get fixed up.


Relatively Good ACL News & 4/3/14 Workout


ACL News

I saw a non-surgical orthopedist yesterday and he walked me through my MRI. It wasn’t the worst news in the world. There were no bad surprises. I do have a grade III sprain aka a fully torn ACL. I have a grade II sprain of my MCL. No surprises there. The good news is my minisci are intact and undamaged. That’s great news! There’s also no bone damage. I’m really happy about both of these things. Surgery will be required but this injury could’ve been quite a bit worse.

I told him about my activities (staying as active and mobile as possible so long as I’m not in pain) and he approved. He said most people who get this type of injury sit down, prop up their leg, and move as little as possible. The muscles whither and their movement suffers. They go into surgery in bad shape and they come out worse. Recovery takes much longer under these circumstances.

This is no good. I’ll meet both meet with a surgeon and start physical therapy in two weeks. Some people have expressed exasperation and frustration at the pace of this process. I’m not one of them. I’m not the only guy wandering around Denver with an injury and this isn’t life threatening. I’m grateful that I have insurance, I don’t have some awful, exotic injury or illness and I’ve got people around me who can help. Anyway, the doc said surgeons typically wait on the surgery for two reasons: 1) We want to reduce swelling as much as possible and 2) We want to restore as much range of motion as possible. This stuff takes time and there’s no way around it.

4/4/14 Workout

  • Good morning: 135 lbs x 6 reps – 145 lbs x 6 reps – 155 lbs. x 6 reps x 3 sets
  • Super set 1
    • pull-ups x 4 reps
    • push-ups x 4 reps
    • goblet squat x 4 reps: I worked up from 16 kg to 20 kg to 24 kg
    • I accumulated 74 reps on pull-ups/push-ups but I didn’t time it.
    • My squat depth is getting better and I’m very happy about that. My knee is tolerating the movement well.
  • Super set 2
    • windmill: 16 kg x 5 x 2 sets – 20 kg x 5 – 14 kg x 5; What’s the windmill? Watch the video.
    • stability ball leg curl: 13 reps x 4 sets

    All’s well. Might get in a bike ride today.

3/28/14 Workout


Today I repeated the pull-up/push-up superset for 10 minutes.  Last time I did this for sets of 2 reps on each exercise and did as many as I could in 10 minutes.  I accumulated 40 reps. This time I did 3 reps on each for 10 minutes and I got 57 pull-ups and 54 push-ups. Then I did some other stuff. Here’s how it all went:

  • super set 1
    • pull-up x 3
    • push-up x 3
    • AMRAP (As many reps as possible) in 10 minutes
  • super set 2
    • anti-rotation cable press: 15 lbs. x 5 sec hold x 5 reps x 5 sets
    • Y-T-A-W shoulder patterns: 10 lbs x 5 reps x 5 sets
  • Reactive Neuromuscular Training (RNT) band split squat: to exertion (15-20 reps) x 2 sets
      • My right knee often wants to cave in since there’s no ACL to help stabilize it.
      • This exercise is done to help create more knee stability.
      • I use high reps (10-20) for endurance and pattern repetition rather than strength.
      • I try and do something like this every day, ideally throughout the day. I’m “practicing” more than I’m “working out.”
      • It looks like this, but instead of a person holding a band, I looped the band around a nearby support.


3/24/14 Workout


I managed six miles on the exercise bike today which felt pretty good. Less than a week ago I could barely turn the crank at all. I plan to add 2 minutes each time

  • Bike: 13 min./3 mi. mostly at level 5
  • Super set 1
    • Pull-ups x 2 reps
    • Push-ups x 2 reps
    • Repeated 2 and 2 for 5 sets as fast as possible then took a brief rest
    • Repeated this whole pattern for 10 minutes
    • accumulated 40 reps of each exercise
  • Super set 2
    • Stability ball leg curl: 10 reps x 4 sets
    • Face Pull: 40 lbs. x 15 – 55 lbs. x 12 – 90 lbs. x 10 x 2 sets
  • Super set 3
    • Tall kneeling lift: 20 lbs. x 10 reps x 2 sets then switched to 1/2 kneeling lift x 10 reps x 2 sets
    • split squat x 10 reps x 2 sets then switched to step up on left leg x 10 reps x 2 sets
  • Bike: 15 min./4 mi. 104 watts; mostly at level 5

I intend to add reps to the leg exercises and time to the bike. I will track time, mileage, resistance level and watts on the bike. I am pleased to be progressing!


3/23/14 Workout


I had another good workout today. My mobility continues to increase while my discomfort is on the decline. Here’s what I did:

    • Exercise bike: 5 minutes for about 1 mile at a 1 resistance.
      • Difficult to get started but feels better as I pedal.
      • Going to do this tomorrow morning for more time/distance.
    • Warm-up super set:
        • body weight squats to about 90 degrees x 10 reps x 2 sets
        • anti-rotation cable press (aka Pallof Press): 10 lbs x 10 reps w/5 sec hold x 2 sets

      • The Pallof press is my first attempt at challenging my transverse plane abilities since I tore my ACL. My ability to resist rotational forces is severely compromised without an ACL. Glad to see I could do this successfully.
    • Super set 1
      • Barbell press
        • Worked up to a 1RM of 135 lbs.
        • Did 95% (about 125) x 2 reps x 5 sets in a super set with
      • Split squats with the right leg fwd: 10 reps x 5 sets and pistol squats to a bench for the left leg x 6 reps x 5 sets
    • Super set 2
      • Deadlift: (My favorite exercise!) 95 x 5 – 105 x 5 – 135 x 5
        • Really happy to pull!
        • Tried a sumo deadlift with an unweighted bar and the knee wanted to collapse in. Won’t be doing sumos for a long while I’m guessing.
      • Bent Row: 95 x 10 – 105 x 10 – 135 x 6
    • Super set 3
      • Kettlebell 1-arm press: 16 kg x 10 reps x 2 sets
      • 1-leg RDL – right leg: no weight x 10 reps x 2 sets: Here’s a look at the 1-leg RDL:

I believe all this work I’m doing is helping me a lot. Psychologically I feel much better than I would if I were sitting around with this thing. Much of what I’m reading discusses the benefits of continuing to move and maintaining any and all strength and mobility. That’s what I’m doing.

3/13/14 Workout


The barbell/kettlebell class I like so much is Tuesday/Thursday mornings. My track workout is also on Tuesday and my tempo run is Thursday. It’s good to put a bunch of hard work on the hard days, and do easy stuff on easy days.

The class is a very tough class. I think it may be impacting my tempo runs, thus today I decided to forego the class and do the tempo run then lift later in the day. Here’s what the day looked like:

  • 7 am 2 mi. run: easy & slow with Diva the Dog.
    • I love running with my dog!! The vet listens to her low heart rate and calls her an athlete. I love that!
    • This was a warm-up for the tempo run.
  • Tempo run: 6 mi. at 8:26 pace.
    • This was rugged! It was supposed to be an 8:23 pace but such is life.
    • I’m not certain the class damages my tempo run.  The tempo run is just tough.
    • For the next tempo run, I plan to skip the class again, run the exact same route but this time I will fuel beforehand with Ucan. Curious to see if fueling with the slow-drip carbs will improve performance.
  • 3 pm: weights
    • This was late in the day for me to be lifting.
    • According to the 5/3/1 plan I’m following, this is a de-load day on deadlifts, so I decided to do power cleans in place of deads.  (You can’t clean as much as you can deadlift.)
    • power cleans: 175 lbs x 5 – 185 x 5 – (and because I read this article from Dan John) 205 x 3 x 2 sets. In reality, I got 2 sets of 2 and that third set… I only got one. It whopped my a$%…
    • 1-leg box jumps: 4 x 4 sets. Trying to create more 1-legged power for running.
    • pull-ups: 24 kg x 5 x 5.  I don’t do pull-ups regularly (I used to) and these were tough.
    • kettlebell snatches: 24 kg x 120 reps (60 each arm)
      • We typically do 200 reps in the class.
      • I have a nice big, hot blister on my left hand and an almost-healed blister on the right.
      • I taped my left hand and that didn’t quite help me enough.
      • I was smoked at this point and I’m a big girlie sissy thus, only 120 reps.
      • Oh well…
  • The big thing: Regarding the run, I’m quite interested to see what putting some carbs in the mix does for my run next week. I’m doing my best to be in ketosis. Lack of carbs may negatively impact these types of efforts–but my track workouts don’t seem to be suffering. There’s a question here that I’m very interested in answering. Next Thursday might reveal that answer…

3/11/14 Workout


For no particular reason, I thought I’d post my workout for the day.  Going to try and post this every day.

  • 6 am barbell/kettlebell class:
    • Squats: up to 235 x 3.
      • I’m still looking for a 1RM with my new deep squat technique.
      • I LOVE deep squats.
      • Is that an odd thing to say?
    • Push press behind the neck: 105 x 3 sets x 5 reps.
      • Haven’t done this before.
      • Probably could’ve gone heavier but this was good.
    • kettlebell half-snatch: 40 kg x 20 rep sets for 100 reps each arm.
      • HELLO BLISTERS!  Gotta do some more snatching throughout the week to build up some callouses on the palms.
  • 9 am track workout: 6 x 800m @ 3:50.
    • Cold weather blew in early and it got frosty and very windy out there but I got ‘er done.
  • Tomorrow: Rest day

Big-Time Fun: Week of Skiing, Running & Camraderie


Last week was an incredibly fun and highly active week of alpine skiing, Nordic skiing (2nd time in my life), running and much fun with friends. I haven’t had that much fun in a while. It was the Colorado lifestyle in full-effect. It was Nirvana! Bliss! Unimagined delight! Insert your own superlative here! Weeks like this are why we moved here.

A bunch of people from the DC/VA area came out and we stayed in Pagosa Springs, CO. Got up there Saturday and I did my long run on Sunday, followed by a recovery run on Monday and we checked out the town of Durango which was really cool. Can’t wait to get back there for mt. biking, rafting, etc. in the warm(er) weather.

The next day a bunch of us got out on the Nordic track at Wolf Creek ski resort. That was an ass-kicker of a fun deal! I don’t think I did too badly for a newcomer. There’s a smooth flow and glide thing that happens when you’re moving correctly. I’ve definitely found a new must-do activity! (Fortunately, XC skis and boots cost a lot less than downhill gear. The wife and I are planning on a hut trip next year with one of my former clients and some of her friends. We now have a legit reason to get into this gig.)


Weeeeeeeeeeee heeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!

Day after that was downhill time. Unfortunately, in a place known for fantastic snow, the conditions weren’t great–but they were OK. (Our East Coast friends loved it though. Anything out here beats anything out there it seems. Another good reason to live in CO!) I had a blast out there despite the conditions. My Volkl AC50s were perfect for the hard packed conditions. It’s like having two Millennium Falcons strapped to my feet.  Groomers at warp speed were beautifully sublime and they were really good in the trees and bumps as well.

Our last ski excursion was to Monarch. They had several inches of snow the night before and it was… Well…  I truly don’t have words for it. Take absolute perfection and then ramp it up about 2000%. That’s what the day was there.

I demoed the K2 Sidestash. I got them at the Mt. Shavano Ski Shop. I talked to them over the phone the day prior, told them what I usually ski and that I wanted to try something a little more suited to powder. They hooked me up in very good fashion.  The Stashes were tons of fun. They floated very well in powder, they were stable at speed and I could carve turns or smear them very easily as needed. They were absolutely perfect for the day’s conditions.

The vacation amounted to a long, extended play date with friends. Interestingly the idea of playing can be a powerful thing.  This article from Tim Ferris is titled How to Cure Anxiety – One Workaholic’s Story. Six Techniques that Work. The first point is Enjoy Guilt-Free Play with Friends. Though I don’t seem to suffer from anything like anxiety, this experience of vigorous outdoor play with people I like was deeply, thoroughly enjoyable on almost a spiritual level. (I’m not one to use word like “spiritual” very often. Whatever. This was a GREAT time!) A similar sentiment–to play–is echoed by this article from Kate Galliet at Prokine Performance.

This gig was so much fun I came home and started researching skis. The Sidestashes were great but after reading a good bit, I decided on the Blizzard Cochise 193cm. Should be getting those tomorrow!! Might try them out Saturday.