Z Press 101: The King of Shoulder Presses

In this post, we’ll talk about a less-known but extremely beneficial shoulder movement known as the Z press. Don’t worry, if you have no idea what the Z press is, you’re part of a significant majority.

In the increasingly commercialized fitness world that we find ourselves in today, there is so much gimmicky, false, and useless information out there. Especially when it comes to exercises for muscle strength and hypertrophy training, treasures like the Z press find themselves lost in this sea of fallacies.

While you might have heard about the Z press from Crossfit circles, you won’t find the Barbell Z Press in any chapter of a notoriously popular strength or bodybuilding program. It’s because these programs are usually filled with redundant and nonoptimal exercises, which the Z Press is absolutely not. Yes, these bro-programs might work, but they don’t work as well as they could.

Most lifters haven’t even heard of the Z press, let alone tried it. But since you’re here, you may have just learned about it and would want to explore the Z press further. The goal of this post would be successful if you are convinced to perform the Z press on your next shoulder workout if you don’t already do.

Let’s get straight into it.

Z Press Backstory

Just like the bench press and standing overhead press, the Z Press is also a type of press. It would be well deserving to be crowned the king of all presses, that is despite being an accessory movement to the regular overhead press.

Specifically, it is a shoulder press just like the Overhead press, Military Press, Arnold press or dumbbell shoulder press – in comparison to which it is fairly new, much more difficult, and even more beneficial. Since you can’t lift that much weight on this exercise due to the absence of leg drive and trunk support, it is meant to be an accessory lift to help train strength and mobility of the shoulders.

The exercise was invented by Strongman Zydrunas Savickas (Big Z), hence the name Z Press (also called as the Savickas Press by some). The Lithuanian giant is not only the world’s strongest man, he is also arguably the world’s strongest presser. Famous for his 500lb overhead press (gulp), Zydrunas Savickas recommends this movement for building brute strength in the shoulders, upper back, trunk, and core.

Big Z does numerous things to increase his vertical pressing power for strongman competitions, and the Z press is a very big part of these efforts.

You don’t need to take our word for it. The man with the strongest shoulders on the planet has invented an exercise for you – it’s up to your wise choice whether to take it or not.

Z Press Proper Form

Here is a video of a correctly performed Barbell Z Press:

To perform the exercise, make sure to follow these steps and observe the proper form accurately:

  • Set the bar on a rack to align with your upper chest near the sternum area and above your nipples. Never try to pick up the bar from the floor to press as this will strain on your lower back and wrists. Always use a rack so that the bar travel path from the bar at rest to the initial lower position of the press is minimized.
  • Sit down flat on the floor with your back absolutely upright and straight. Be sure there is no rounding or overarching of the back here.
  • Open up your legs in a “V” shape. The entire leg from the hamstrings, back of the knee, calves, to the heels should be glued to the ground throughout the lift. If your legs tend to “jump” off the floor, your core is weak and you need to start off with a lighter weight. Attempt to “sit” on the hamstrings, not the glutes.
  • Now, grip the bar just like you would in the regular strict overhead press. That is, grip the bar slightly outside shoulder width such that your forearms are vertical (perpendicular to the floor). When the forearms are vertical, you generate maximum pressing power – just like how it is in the standing overhead press.
  • After gripping the bar, unrack it and press it in the exact same motion as the standing overhead press. Bar path should be vertical and your head should move slightly forward as you lock out your elbows on the top.
  • Be sure to brace tight and maintain a straight back as you lift. Also, try to squeeze your core to really engage your abs so it takes off the load from your lower back.
  • Don’t lean back to ease the lift at the end of the set. If you can’t lift it without leaning back, the weight is too heavy for you or your set is done.
  • Avoid half-reps. Observe the full range of motion which starts from the bar at your sternum until your elbows lock out at the top.

That’s about all you really need to know to perform the Z press effectively. Interestingly, it is a simple movement in terms of form but quite difficult in terms of the strength and mobility required. In other words, the exercise has a close-to-zero learning curve but offers exceptional results – what more can you ask for in an exercise?

The Z-Press factor

So why bother with the Z press? What does it have that the regular overhead press does not? What is that extra factor?

Overall Strength and Mobility

Because the Z press rules out leg drive and back support, it relies on trunk strength, hip flexor mobility, hamstring flexibility, and spine health to aid in lifting the weight. And the more you perform this movement, the more strength, and mobility you will develop in these areas – especially in the trunk and core.

Trunk and Core Strength

If there’s one single reason why you should Z press, it would have to be that it is equally an abs exercise as it is a shoulder exercise. The Z press absolutely fries your abs and develops incredible core strength, which by the way, will carry over to your other overhead presses. Heck, the Z press is even more effective than sit-ups and planks when it comes to building abs of steel.

Upper back Involvement

One less known benefit of this exercise is its ability to build the muscles in the neck and upper back. Unlike other shoulder presses, the Z press actively engages the neck muscles, traps, rear deltoids, and upper back muscles (rhomboids). It will provide hypertrophy in these muscles to help give you that thick, strong look – just like the man himself, Big Z.

Shoulder Strength and Health

Since there are no supporting forces from the other large muscles of the body, the shoulders can freely be isolated and move in a healthy motion during the Z press. Performing Z presses can help with your shoulder health and mobility and fix inflammation and shoulder tightness that is caused by heavy pressing in the main lifts. Aside from shoulder health, this movement also betters scapula and thoracic spine health.

Fix weak links in the chain

The Z press also helps fix limitations or weak links in the chain in your other lifts. For example, it develops the strength to push the bar off the chest from a dead stop. So if this is your weak area in the standing overhead press, the Z press will help fix that. Moreover, it also helps strengthen the rear delts, obliques, and upper back muscles which will carry over to the standing overhead press.

That’s why the Z press is an amazing accessory lift and functional exercise that every presser needs in his/her lifting arsenal. While it cannot replace the standing overhead press, since that is where you can lift the heaviest weight and get stronger overall, the Z press can certainly be a useful accessory lift to iron up your foundation.

Undoubtedly, the Z press is definitely the hardest kind of shoulder press; for which reason, it is the King of shoulder presses. For the sake of comparison, the Squat is known as the king of all exercises for the same reason – it is the hardest among all lifts.

Z Press: the Abs shredder

The added benefit that comes with Z pressing is the involvement of the abdominal muscles including the obliques. If you’ve done Z presses for reps, you would know that feeling of excruciating pain derived from burning up the abs during a set of Z presses. Perform this exercise for long enough and you’ll find yourself covered with iron abs of steel.

While the Z press is primarily a shoulder movement, you can turn it into an ab workout by using just the empty bar and pressing it for a high number of reps. To further engage the abs, bring your feet together instead of the “V” position that was mentioned earlier. This will pose an all-new formidable challenge to the muscles of your core and hips to stabilize the weight overhead.

Z Press Recommended Workout

There is mixed opinion on how you should train the Z press in terms of the rep-scheme. Generally speaking, the Z press provides optimal results when you go for a higher rep range. That’s right, leave the 3 to 5-rep heavy sets for standing overhead presses. Instead, focus on the 8-10 rep range.

A sample workout would be doing 3 sets x 10 reps using 70% of your standing overhead press weight. So if you can overhead press 100lb for 3 sets of 5 standing, your Z press workout will consist of 3 sets of 10 reps using 70lbs.

Alternatively, you can spice things up by doing a timed challenge. For example, performing 80 reps using the empty bar within 8 minutes.

Remember that the Z press is not a substitute to the Overhead Press, it is simply an accessory to it. Therefore, you cannot replace your OHPs with Z Presses. To incorporate Z presses with OHPs, you can do them in the same workout with the Z press following the overhead press. Something like this:

  • 3 x 5 Standing overhead press
  • 3 x 10 Barbell Z press

Z Press variations

While the Z press is done most commonly using a barbell, you could opt for other variations for whatever reason that is hindering you from performing the exercise correctly. Some variations include:

  • Dumbell Z press
  • Kettlebell Z Press
  • Single arm Kettlebell Z Press
  • Z Press using a weight plate
  • Closegrip Z Press (for triceps engagement)
  • Thick bar Z Press

Final Thoughts

If you think Overhead presses are strict, you have no idea what the Z press is capable of. The Z press is the most strict of all presses and is among the most beneficial exercises.

It is a challenging functional movement that fires up your shoulders, upper back, and core muscles. It builds strength, mobility, and hypertrophy in the upper body. The compound nature of the movement makes it an excellent metabolic exercise to shred excess fat too. If it was an investment, it would offer a high bang for the buck considering its numerous benefits.

The exercise exposes your shoulders and forces you to press with proper form since there is no support from the legs and back. If you have a poor form in overhead presses and get away with it, you won’t do well with Z presses. Not many exercises come close to this one when it comes to building brute pressing strength in the shoulders and upper body.

If strength is your goal, this exercise will do wonders for you; not to mention the added benefit of shoulder health and mobility that also comes with it. The Z Press is definitely a valuable exercise in any lifter’s shoulder workout program.

What’s the fun in living stronger alone? If you found this article useful, go ahead and share it with the people you care about! Let’s live stronger together!

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