overheadMy wife flies around a lot. She’s all important and what-not, so she gets to travel to big cities helping people with her elite lawyering skills. Since these are usually quick trips, she travels with a roller bag, a really big purse, and not me. When it comes time to board the plane, a funny thing happens to her every time she needs to put the roller bag into the overhead bin: a man offers to help her. This probably doesn’t surprise anyone (especially when I mention that my wife is also smoking hot). And I’m certainly not saying it’s rude (I help people put their bags in the overhead bin every time I fly). The reason I think it is funny is because my wife is probably stronger than the majority of the men asking if she needs help with her little 30lb bag. She one arm presses bells way bigger than that. And after all the chivalry, most of the men struggle to get the bag up there.

Maybe it was all the time I spent backpacking in High School instead of dating, but I consider traveling a great test of fitness. There are few times in modern urban living when we have to rely upon our bodies, plans, and wits in order to accomplish a task. And fitness is just the ability to complete a task.

The Task

You’re going someplace. You are leaving your home for a number of days so you put everything you need into a bag. You have to carry that bag, picking it up and putting it down. Pulling it and pushing it this way and that. Twisting with it and squatting down to get things out of it. Pressing it over your head and never letting it leave your sight. You need a certain amount of stuff. Stuff weighs a fixed amount. The weight of the bag should be determined by your needs, not by your physical ability to maneuver that bag. The task has been determined; you must be fit enough to complete it. So when the time comes to put the bag into the overhead bin and you cannot hoist it, the bag is not too heavy; you are too weak.

Overhead

A decently strong man can deadlift 2x his bodyweight; clean, jerk, front squat, and bench press 1.5x his bodyweight; and military press 1x his bodyweight. Clearly, pressing weight overhead is the hardest of static human movements. It requires stability, tension, coordination, breathing, focus, and intensity of the highest order. And the ability to turn that level of strength on is a learned skill. Quite frankly, a person who can press a lot is a person who can do a lot. And getting weight overhead may only be second to carrying it for distance when it comes to life-specific training. Still have doubts? Then why do you think the expression “in over your head” is so evocative?

Pressing Prep

When I meet most of my clients, they are way too jacked up to put weight overhead. It seems to be the first skill we lose to mobility and stability issues. Wall slides, pec stretching, massage, lacrosse balls, and scapular stabilization training are all usually required. But what’s the best bang-for-your buck? Waiter walks. Put the heaviest weight you can cheat up with one hand over your head, and start walking. Keep your elbow locked and your shoulder packed. Keep breathing, but keep your ribcage down for as long as you can. When any of these fail (the abs go, the shoulder shrugs, or the elbow bends), stop! Rest. Cheat the weight up with the other arm and walk back. If you can put a 24kg bell overhead and walk “pretty far” with it in either hand, it’s probably cool to start pressing.

Press a Lot

There is an old Russian joke: “To press a lot, you must press… a lot.” Of all the human movements, pressing seems to respond the best to daily practice. Every gain I have made after my initial newbie bump has been the result of pressing less than I could for as many sets as I could throughout the week. This was either a Grease the Groove program, Even Easier Strength, Easy Strength, or Pavel’s truly excellent Enter the Kettlebell. The principles of all these programs is the same though: press less for more. Pressing is incredibly fatiguing precisely because it is so hard. You have to generate a hell of a lot of tension to get weight overhead. Coincidentally, this also makes it a very handy fat-loss tool. But you have to be careful not to overdo it on reps. Stick to the “Rule of 10” reps and just up the sets. After 2-3 weeks of patient practice, the weight will probably feel light. So move up! That overhead bin just got a whole lot easier to fill.

Traveling is hard. It’s hard on our bodies and fraught with frustration and compromise. Why not begin the journey in the best shape possible for completing it? Pick up heavy things. Carry them. Put them overhead.