The History of Overhead Pressing for Strongman
Article By Trey Isom
Overhead pressing is the hallmark upper body strength test in the sport of Strongman. Josh Thigpen states in his book Cube for Strongman 2.0 that, “based on percentages the overhead press is the most important event in strongman. This is based upon the fact that not only will you find it in almost every strongman competition, but that it is often times in a competition twice.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise as our sport is based heavily on the most ancient and primal tests of strength through time, and pressing a heavy weight overhead is an undeniable proof of brute power.
The earliest examples of this display of strength come from Ancient Egypt. A mural on the walls of a tomb in Beni Hasan from 3500 BC depicts some early pressers. According to Connor Heffernan in An Early History of Weightlifting, “[the technique] could be compared with the modern day clean and jerk Olympic lift. Weightlifters would lift a sack of sand with one hand and keep it overhead for a period of time.” Another early example comes from the Greeks of 6BC where a 315lb stone was found in Olympia bearing the carved inscription, “Bybon son of Phola, has lifted me over his head with one hand”.
Regulated pressing as modern Strongman competitors would recognize it made its first appearance in 1892. Louis Uni, a French stage strongman better known by his stage name “Apollon”, procured an axle from a railway car with the wheels still attached which weighed 366lbs. He would press this overhead as part of his act. The implement became a favorite test of strength for weightlifting champions, with Norbert Schemansky becoming the first to clean and jerk the axle a full three times while weighing less than 240lbs in 1954. In the actual sport of Strongman the first implement to be pressed overhead was a barrel filled with lead shot and water in the inaugural Worlds Strongest Man contest. Bruce Wilhelm won this awkward event with a 250lb press.
The 1980 Worlds Strongest Man contest introduced our most iconic press, the Log. Bill Kazmaier and Lars Hedlund tied for first with a 346lb press. The log has since become almost the standard measure of pressing strength in Strongman, rarely will a contest be held without it being represented in some fashion. Currently Zydrunas Savickas holds the undisputed log press record with an almost strict 500lb press, while Robert Oberst and Dimitar Savitnov each hold the American record with 460lbs.
Strongman continues the ancient tradition of pressing heavy weights overhead in any way possible as an ultimate display of strength. The log press and axle are both still well represented and are joined by varied implements such as kegs, natural stones, blocks, sandbags, circus dumbbells, yoke and the Viking handles. Whatever your method of choice modern strength athletes should never forget that there’s little more impressive than taking a weight most of humanity couldn’t budge from the ground and shoving it into the sky.