Overhead presses and “hinge points” – I have a problem!

One of the exercises I’m doing as part of strength training is the overhead press (sometimes called the “military press”, or simply “the press”).  Here’s how it works.  (No, I’m not lifting nearly as much weight as shown in the video!  I’m just a beginner!)

I’m following that instruction, and doing the overhead press at least once weekly as part of my workout routine.  However, my spine is fused right at its base, where it joins the hips (the L5-S1 vertebrae, to be precise).  That means I can’t do the “hip thrust” Mark Rippetoe mentions without that fused joint acting up.  Also, even if I leave out the hip thrust, my lower back protests vigorously as I add more weight to the barbell, feeling very unsteady and unstable and “wobbly”.  I’m making good progress in other types of lift, but I just can’t seem to get that part of my back to “go with the flow” of the overhead press.

That’s where I’m turning to you, dear readers.  I know (from past comments and correspondence) that some of you have also had spinal fusions (sometimes multiple ones), and are also involved with weightlifting.  Can you offer any advice, from your experience, on how best to overcome this hurdle?  How can one strengthen the muscles around a fusion site like that, perhaps the most critical “hinge joint” in the body, so that one can make progress with the overhead press?  Ideas and suggestions are welcome.  I’ll run them past my instructor, and we’ll see what might be able to work for me.

In the interim, as soon as my new bench gets here, I’m going to concentrate on modified (and lighter weight) overhead presses at home, using dumbbells.  Here’s how that works.  No, I don’t look nearly as “buffed” as the man doing the demonstration!  Sorry about that . . .

That should provide enough support that my fused lower spine won’t give me the same problems.  One can do the same exercise using an EZ curl bar (video at the link).  I have a curl bar, so I’ll probably try to incorporate that in due course, too.  If I find everything goes well, I’ll probably start doing seated overhead presses with heavier weights at the gym, too.

(I deliberately limit myself to lighter weights at home, because of the risk of injury if something goes wrong.  At the gym, I can have a “spotter” if I need one, and can work out inside a rack [the iron framework shown in the first video clip above], where I can position crossbars to catch a barbell if I fall, preventing it landing on me and injuring me.  I don’t have any of those precautions at home.)

Thanks in advance for your input.



  1. The fusion more than likely is the reason you can't do the hip pivot as your back just can't flex there any more.

    The seated curls would definitely provide improved stability as will doing lighter weight but increasing the number of reps. Both will increase the strength in your lower back as well exercises to help reduce/strengthen your abdomen.

    Or you could check in with your surgeon or with a sports specialty physician. Most would be interested in talking with you as they are trying to get their other patients to get off the couch and get active. Probably would cost an office visit fee.

    My $0.02.

  2. I don't have a back issue but have been pressing for awhile.

    Since your doing other weight bearing exercises unless you have mammoth tris and shoulders like boulders it shouldn't be hurting your back.

    Back pain seems like you are leaning too far back to try to get your chest into it. Are your feet square or staggered?

    Are you keeping your body static or moving an trying to be dynamic?

    Lastly adding weight on press just goes really slow.

  3. I’m a competitive weightlifter so I don’t have back problems but I have to use overhead pressing daily. The hip thrust that rippatoe recommends is not ideal as it’s a way to overload at the top (I.e hitting your triceps).

    I strongly recommend buying a land mine press from Rogue. That’s going to hit the same muscle group in a much safer way on your low back. Add in from a kneel and you’ll get a great ab workout as well

    1. Should add if you wish to keep the overhead press on your lifting regime you can modify it to make it a push press.

      Can also maybe dig up a link to show an amazing band variant which is my go to when my shoulders get beat up around week 8 of my program.

      For hip hinging ask your instructor if it’s safe to bring in Romanian deadlifts. Great hip hinge movement that you can load via many ways. It’ll help with spinal erectors, QL, and your hamstring group

  4. @Floyd Ferguson: Thanks, but I don't have a Facebook account, so I can't access the first link. The second worked.

  5. My sister ShannonJanecek-Lassek asked if lifting weights was ok for someone with a hurt or weak back. I answered but one of my clients (Analisa) had some real world experience to share with her. Here's what she said:

    Shannon, I broke my back and completely crushed a disc. I have titanium hardware fused into my spine in the L5-S1. That is the pivotal point in your back and it is solid bone for me. My surgeon told me I may or may not be able to carry pregnancies, that I would likely have pain management the rest of my life, and that the only way to prevent further damage was to keep my back strong. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to get it strong for over 15 years. I was a swimmer and I was active prior to the injury, but that was not the kind of strength that was going to help me. I did carry two children, though it was painful. I had a daily pain scale for those 15 years anywhere between a 3-8 out of 10. Pain management was part of my life and I had no idea what it was like to not be in pain of some sort on a daily basis. I started lifting two years ago, though I really needed better form, which is where Coach comes in 🙂 I'm in week 7 seeing him. I squatted 185lb yesterday and deadlifted 260lb (but only for 2 reps. I'll get it tomorrow!). I came to him with base knowledge and previous novice experience, so I wasn't completely green and I moved up quickly. But when I started lifting and getting back strength, it was the first time I would experience days with zero pain. I may have a tired back some days, but it's tired. Not painful. For two years now I have had maybe 5-6 days total where I felt pain in my back, and it was a 1 on the pain scale. Basically, I was "aware" I had a back and I was uncomfortable. I do all of this with a myriad of other injuries and permanent damage to my body, but you wouldn't know it to watch me because for the first time in my life, I have the strength (both physically and emotionally, by the way, because that physical pain took an emotional toll). 🙂 I encourage anyone with back injuries to do this and I feel like I can preach from the mountaintops because I am the walking example of why. I never wake up thinking, "man, I really regret getting strong and not having pain." haha Give it 6 months and I guarantee, you will never regret it.

  6. Hmm, without looking at the video at all. The overhead press is a full body exercise the way Rippetoe does it. Which makes a lot of sense because his standard program is structured around those big "moneymaker" exercises. I'd say: If you cannot do the full body exercise, don't do it. That's where the the much maligned isolation exercises come in (or, in this case, one with a bit less overall muscle activation).

    Standing military press, for example, works explicitly without any hip hinge/thrust. Moves a lot less weight, though.

    I'd recommend this while figuring out what your lower back can still do. I'd have a look at Dan John's "Bulgarian Goat belly swing" (he finally got to name an exercise! And now you know why they usually don't let him ;-)), which is great at figuring out the required hinge movement pattern without any distraction.

  7. When I was lifting, I read that folks over about 50 might do well to avoid the military press. I really can't remember why, it's been several years now since I stopped weight lifting.

    I've been encouraged by your reports, it's time to restart that…

  8. Have you tried asking on Rip's forum? It's at startingstrength.com, follow the link to the forum (you'll have to register). There's a "Mark Rippetoe Q&A" forum, if he can't answer your question maybe one of the other coaches there can.

    For the record, that sub-forum is moderated, your question won't show up until it's released.

    Mark D

  9. Peter,
    I wonder if you might be looking at this the wrong way. Your base problem is instability while lifting into a standing position. Consider turning it around. Find a way to move your body weight plus extra by pushing with your legs. I'm thinking that a sliding platform like the unit that Chuck Norris uses might be helpful in getting you to a point of lower back strength/control.

  10. Peter, have you considered bodyweight conditioning? AKA calisthenics? I know Mark Rippletoe is a big believer in weight training, but I have concerns about putting your body into unnatural positions to do your lifting, so I went looking for other possibilities. I think that if you spent some time poking around the bodyweight community, you might find some things that you would find useful.

    Take a look at the reddit bodyweight fitness group. They have a bunch of really good links there.



  11. Peter, here's feedback from Coach Janacek (single quotes means somewhat paraphrased):

    'Analise does presses, She sort of twitches for the pivot, Some people do it big, some people tiny. Hers is tiny."

    'Press was always hard on my back. Rip showed me how to do it keeping the back flat, and the back issues vanished".

    FWIW. Watching her lift, knowing the condition of her back is truly impressive. Heck, it's impressive not knowing about her back.

    BTW, your comment around labor day about getting involved at Rip's gym out was what kicked me to google out Starting Strength and discovering a gym 10 mins away from my house. Getting signed up was the best decision I've made so far this year.

    For any readers in DFW, it's Janacek Strength, in Bedford, he is a certified Starting Strength coach, and specializes in older people (over 40, he has a number (including me) over 60).

    Highly recommended!

  12. Mr. Grant, I realize I'm rather late to this party. Have you started wearing a belt as you lift? I believe that Rip suggests one, particular as you get to heavier weights. Wearing a belt helps give your abs something else to press against, therefore further stabilizing your abdomen and lower back.

  13. @Kirk: Yes, I'm wearing an elastic spine support belt, but not a leather weight-lifting belt, as that doesn't provide the right sort of support to my spinal fusion site (it's below where the belt normally goes). As I get fitter and stronger (and thinner!), I'm told I can expect to "graduate" to a normal weight belt, although I may always need more support than plain leather can give me. Fortunately, there are padded belts that can provide it.

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