Photo Credit: Grace Dresher
You see the headline all the time: "The best exercise you're not doing." Then it turns out to be a movement like overhead squats, Turkish getups, or another movement that you're actually quite familiar with.
The Z Press is a different animal, and it is an exercise that you should be doing.
Whereas a standing press allows the legs to stabilize the trunk, especially via a wider base, the Z press is performed sitting flat on the floor.
The knees are to be kept straight, and a slouch is strictly prohibited. If you try holding that position without any weight on the floor, you'll get an idea how uncomfortable and just plain hard it is to simply maintain the position.
In short, you'll need a whole lot of trunk strength, hip flexor mobility, hamstring flexibility, and lumbar and thoracic spine health to perform these bad boys well. And if you don't have every one of those things in check, the lift will suffer.
Remember, you have absolutely nothing to lean back against, and you have nothing to drive into since your feet aren't planted on the ground. That makes it one of those "no cheating" exercises similar to the guillotine press. Below you'll see me doing them with 165 pounds. Note that the emphasis is still on getting the head and chest "through the window" rather than overarching to compensate. Staying tall is key.
- Maintain an upright posture. Don't slouch.
- Attempt to sit on your hamstrings to make the low back stay tight.
- Perform the movement like a standard overhead press in terms of bar path. Press the bar over the spine.
- Keep the heels and backs of the knees glued to the floor. Try not to move them.
- Don't attempt to sit on your butt. It'll translate to a round back and an injurious pressing position.
- Don't lean back during tough reps. If you can't stay straight as an arrow, your set is done.
- Don't start with the barbell on the floor. I once made the mistake of "cleaning" the bar from the floor while sitting on my butt, and I strained my rhomboids so badly I needed my chiro to take a jackhammer to them for the next few days. Set up the pins in the squat cage a couple of inches below shoulder level.
This movement isn't easy. And just like any big movement, you'll fare poorly if you have mobility or flexibility restrictions. The most common area of weakness I've seen come from hip flexor mobility restrictions. Basically, the low back can't maintain its stiffness from a seated position with straight legs due to the aggressive hip flexion taking place.
There are two ways to overcome this. First, widen your foot position – open the legs further apart – and make room for the hips. This will usually place the femur in a better place in the acetabular socket.
If that doesn't work, the second alternative would be to simply reduce the degree of hip flexion. Place a step platform under your butt so you've got a slight elevation. Even a couple of inches can make a huge difference in having a desirable start and finish position.
A lack of trunk stability can also be the reason for a lowered strength output, especially when compared to your standing press. (If you can't Z press half of your standing press, you're in trouble). For that reason, I recommend keeping the load light and going unilateral in order to make the trunk muscles do more work to resist forces and keep the body straight. Here's coach Todd Bumgardner doing them:
You'll also notice that Todd possesses the ability to keep a narrow foot position, which makes a smaller base and requires more oblique activity. Above all, I like using dumbbells for the same reason I use them to bench press or shoulder press – you can modify the hand grip and elbow position. Switching to a neutral grip with a tucked elbow can act as a shoulder-saver since the head of the humerus gets to roll back.
If you're a guy with shoulder issues and joint discomfort, this modification is for you. Feel free to use a pair of dumbbells for a bilateral version, too.
The Z Press doesn't need to take the place of regular pressing entirely. There are important components of having a floor drive and planted feet that the Z Press can't offer, and that's why you can lift more weight standing up. However, the Z press can be used as a tool to train for strength and mobility, along with overall health of your muscles and joints.
I like starting or finishing a press workout with Z Presses, but remember to stretch out those hips if you plan to move on to a hip-dominant movement like a back squat, leg raise, or leg press afterwards.
The Z Press is one of my favourite exercises because it's hard as hell and it has too many benefits to be overlooked. It's not always about lifting as much as you can "beast up" with poor form, and that's especially true with the Z Press.
Let the grinders have their place, but focus just as much on quality of movement. Having good quality movement starts with knowing how to move. If you can't do that, you'll fail miserably at this exercise.
If you expect to go into this moving 225 for reps, you'll be humbled quickly. It all comes down to whether or not you want to have a new window into your body's ability to move well and be mobile and strong, or whether you want to naively keep telling yourself you've got it all together. If you were waiting for a sign that you need to change it up, the Z Press is probably it.