The Head-Off Chest Press has recently become one of my favorite chest pressing variations. This unique positioning may look unusual, but the benefits it provides to your bench press mechanics, shoulder health, posture and chest growth are significant.
Other coaches, including world-renowned strength coach Nick Tuminello, have discussed the benefits and values of the head-off technique. However, my approach is slightly different in that it emphasizes shoulder health and pressing mechanics more than neck strengthening.
To perform the Head-Off Chest Press, simply slide back toward the end of the bench and position the base of your neck at the edge of the bench with your head completely unsupported. This can be done on any Chest Press variation.
The Head-Off Chest Press promotes spinal rigidity and optimal levels of t-spine extension, because the head is not fighting against the bench or floor as is typically the case when the base of the skull is pressed into another surface. As a result, optimal spinal alignment can be achieved without the neck being forced into slight cervical and thoracic flexion, as is typically produced from traditional chest presses (the bench pushes the head slightly forward, which can also lead to neck pain).
The benefits this has on posture, spinal positioning and shoulder mechanics are incredible. It is much easier to retract, depress and medially rotate the scapula when the head and neck are unrestricted. The key is to maintain a neutral cervical position while producing extension through the t-spine.
Oddly enough, many of my athletes end up preferring Head-Off Presses once they become accustomed to the unique stimulus. Traditional variations (with the head on the bench) tend to feel constricting and unnatural compared to head-off variations. In addition, I've seen this do wonders for shoulder injuries and upper-body movement mechanics due to improved shoulder centration and packing of the glenohumeral joint. These improved mechanics typically lead to increases in upper-body pressing power, strength, stability and force production.
As an added bonus, it's one of the best neck-strengthening and neck corrective exercises there is, which happens to be an underrated and often overlooked component of fitness. For individuals who sit at a desk and spend excessive time in cervical flexion, this is of huge value. In addition, it does wonders for curing neck pain and cervical dysfunction.
Is this excessive extension?
No, this is not excessive or exaggerated extension as many coaches falsely assume. This represents optimal postural positioning not only for horizontal pressing exercises but for most movements in general.
Cervical flexion or forward head tilt is one of the biggest issues I see, not only in individuals who sit at desks all day, but also in many so-called expert trainers and coaches. Unfortunately, what many trainers and coaches consider ideal postural alignment does not involve ample t-spine extension. In fact, over the last 5-7 years the fitness industry has perpetuated the idea of using an overly flexed spinal position (as a means of avoiding lumbar extension). This is typically accompanied by excessive posterior pelvic tilt and extreme rib cage tuck.
As a result, this has led to shoulder rounding, spinal compression (instead of spinal elongation), loss of natural spinal curvature, forward head tilt and cervical compression. The whole notion of packing the head has been taken too far. It falls into the category of trying to overcorrect cervical hyperextension. The goal should be cervical elongation with natural extension, not hyperextension or tilting back. An overly packed head leads to cervical compression, tight pectorals, shoulder rounding, tight glutes, low-back pain, impaired breathing patterns and poor hip hinge mechanics.
And yes, cervical elongation is critical for upper-body mechanics, since it allows the shoulders and scapula as well as the rest of the spine to set into its natural and proper position for pushing and pulling mechanics. Not only does it improve posture and body positioning but your strength, shoulder mobility, and shoulder stability will markedly improve on all upper-body exercises.
Proper posture on upper-body movements involves significant t-spine extension and a tall head position (not a compressed head). To avoid excessive low back extension, the lifter needs to focus on creating extension through his or her upper torso by firing the lats and keeping the core braced. This eliminates excessive lumbar curvature, which is a common compensation pattern for weak lats and the inability to create optimal thoracic extension.
As previously mentioned, the head-off protocol can be applied to a number of chest presses. Here are a few of my favorites.
Bottoms-Up Chest Presses are very conducive for incorporating head-off variations. Here I'm working with collegiate football superstar and NFL athlete Blake Sims, helping him improve his shoulder health and upper-body mechanics after he suffered an injury early in the season.
The combination of bottoms-up training with eccentric isometrics and head-off bench press technique does wonders for the shoulder joint by optimizing scapulohumeral rhythm. The bottoms-up technique forces the lifter to centrate the glenohumeral joint by stabilizing the shoulder, as the load is highly unstable. This requires the lifter to retract, depress and medially rotate the scapula toward the spine in order to control the load and dial in the movement. Combining this with the head-off technique helps to further reinforce t-spine extension, scapular retraction and shoulder depression.
Barbell Bench Press
The Barbell Bench Press variation can be effectively employed with the head-off protocol by simply sliding a bench 4-6 inches in front of a squat cage or power rack. The impact this has on improving bench press strength and technique is phenomenal.
Performing incline head-off chest press variations is one of the most effective methods for improving hip and leg drive on horizontal presses. If you're not driving with your legs and activating your glutes, you'll simply slide down the bench, thereby providing immediate feedback about lower-body recruitment. This can be applied to barbells and dumbbells. Here's another one of my NFL athletes, wide receiver Larry Pinkard, demonstrating the Incline Dumbbell Press. We used this frequently to work around a shoulder injury he suffered during the season.