5 Top Tips for Improving your Bench Press – by Adam Bishop CSCS

Here is the final instalment in my “5 Top Tips” series and this time we’re addressing possibly the most popular gym exercise of all time, the bench press. While it is the most popular, it is also the exercise that is the least understood by a lot of athletes. The 5 pointers below are there to aid all athletes, from whatever sport, who include the bench press in their training.

Tip 1 – The Set up is crucial

 Far too many athletes merely lie down on a bench as if it were a nice comfy mattress and expect their upper bodies to do all the work. The bench press, when performed properly, is in fact a lift that utilises the whole body in order to press the maximum loading possible. If you ever watch a powerlifting meet, live or on youtube, you will here several phrases repeated over and over again during the bench press. One of these commands is “stay tight.” This “tightness” refers to a state of whole body preparation for the lift to come and ranges from driving the feet into the floor, all the way up to squeezing the bar with the hands.

Now as I have mentioned before in previous articles, the power lifts are all about the transfer of energy through the kinetic chains of the body and ultimately through to the bar in order to initiate movement. If you are not driving through your feet then this is a weak link in your chain and the loading you achieve will be decreased. Minimise the energy lost to maximise the efficiency of the movement and ultimately lift more weight. Here is a simple check list for ensuring a solid set up on the bench:

1)     Are your feet plated solidly on the floor?

2)     Are you pressing your upper back into the bench as hard as you possibly can?

3)     Are your hands squeezing the bar as tight as you can?

4)     Ensure you are “pulling” the bar out of the rack in order to maintain this body position.

Tip 2 – Know your weakness

 As a lifter, you should know where you fail on your lifts by finding where your sticking point is. The sticking point refers to the point at which the bar ceases to move upwards and you fail. Adjusting your assistance exercises to better address your weakness will reap greater gains. For example let’s say lifter A fails his press at the bottom of the lift, ie: on the chest or 1-3 inches off it. This would suggest weak pectoral muscles and suitable assistance exercises would include flat dumbbell bench press, weighted press ups and decline pressing movements. One may wish to perform lower half partial reps i.e. not lock out as to keep constant tension on the pectorals and not the triceps.

On the other hand Lifter B has trouble locking out his presses at the very top of the lift. If you fall into this more common problem then you are in luck as there are many exercises that can be used to solve this problem. A weak lock out usually indicates weak triceps which can either be strengthened specifically (through bench press movements) or non-specifically (through other movements). Here is a list of my favourite lockout strengthening exercises:

BENCH PRESS VARIATIONS

1)     Board press – This involves reducing the range of motion with the use of wooden boards in order to overload the triceps at the top of the lift.

2)     Floor Press – Basically a bench press performed while lying on the floor. This also reduces the range of motion and forces the triceps to be used more. Please note the use of this lift is to make the triceps do the work and thus improve…do not be the idiot that starts lifting their butt of the floor just so they can add more pounds on the bar by attempting to throw the weight up! Let me spell it out to you…all that does is serve to allow the triceps to get out of some of the work! I have seen ‘coaches’ allow this, all this proves to me is that there  is to much egoism present and not enough brains in the coach to know the correct purpose of the lift.

3)     Bench Press with bands or chains – The use of bands or chains provides a steady increase in load throughout the lift thus adding load to the lockout portion of the lift. The big advantage to band or chain work is that it trains the lift through a full range of motion and therefore allows the athlete to improve their pressing technique at the same time. It also teaches the lifter to explode into the lift to overcome the ‘wall’ of resistance the bands provide (see tip 4).

4)     Close Grip Bench press – This lift places a greater emphasis on the triceps and, the closer hand position, the greater their involvement is in the lift. Remember, the hand placement does not need to be excessively close together, just narrower than your standard grip.

OTHER MOVEMENTS

1)     Dips – Everyone who can dip without pain should do so

2)     Skull crushers – Standard bodybuilding exercise to increase the mass of the triceps

3)     Pressdowns with bands – I favour press downs with a band over cables and the band tension at the bottom is greater than the top therefore once again placing more resistance at the lockout.

4)     Tate Press – Halfway between a DB extension and a DB bench press the Tate press is an awesome exercise for improving triceps strength at lockout, especially for those of you out there who compete in equipped powerlifting.

Tip 3 – Get your Line right

 I’ve lost count of the number of athletes I’ve worked with who bench with elbows flared out throughout the lift. While many bodybuilders use this technique to put extra stress on the pectoral muscles, it is not the most efficient way to press and will reduce the potential load.

Benching with the elbows out also increases the risk of shoulder injury and should be avoided, especially in those of you who participate in high impact sports such as Rugby. For those athletes with susceptible shoulders, Ben Coker wrote an excellent piece on this here.

This brings me on to the second common command heard at powerlifting meets, “tuck”. While many would argue that tucking in a bench press is more applicable to those lifting equipped, it also has importance in teaching the lifter the right line that the bar needs to travel in. The bar should be touching the chest at nipple height not above that. This is achieved through keeping the elbows close to the side of the body hence the tuck command. This allows for greater pectoral and triceps recruitment in addition to providing greater stability and reducing the risk of injury.

 

Tip 4 – Train to accelerate the bar

 This comes down to making the pressing movement as fast as possible in an attempt to avoid the bar stalling or sticking at any point during the lift. In the same way as squats, bands can be used for dynamic or speed bench in order to better utilise the stretch shortening cycle and produce a faster movement.

The bands work in two ways: Firstly they speed up the eccentric part of the lift resulting in a faster bar speed than normal and increasing muscle recruitment. Secondly they also add accommodating resistance to the lift forcing the lifter to power through the added resistance at the top to complete the lift. While speed bench without bands can be done, it is my belief that it is not as effective as with bands. In the absence of bands, I would personally prescribe different upper body Plyometric exercises such as medicine ball throws or plyo-press ups.

The inclusion of dynamic bench press work could possibly get those bench press numbers moving again if the athlete starts to plateaux.

Tip 5 – Progressive Overload

 Once again I’m going to stress the importance of smart loading patterns for the continued progression of your bench press. Do not think you can go to the gym and perform 1 RMs week after week and see progress. This just does not happen with a trained individual.

Think about your weekly loading and rep ranges and slowly increase the load over time. You can still hit PBs over time working with 5 or 3 reps. As you increase the load week after week, maybe decrease the number of reps you perform and remember to take a break or a deload week every so often to avoid overtraining. It is these considerations that ensure continued progression in your training and separate the smart, educated lifters who get stronger from the gym idiots who get stuck on a weight and go nowhere.

Until next time. Train hard. Train Smart. Be Strong. 

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Interview with John Hamson, Junior British Powerlifting Record Holder

John Hamson is a superb rising talent in the powerlifting community. Aged only 20, he is still a Junior yet boasts lifts than many seniors aspire to! Recently crowned the holder of 3 Junior British records in powerlifting, John still has 2 and a half years as a Junior to go to further this immense feat!

EK: John, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Firstly, congratulations on your recent performance in the South Yorkshire Open. Now, I know the readers are dying to know already so why don’t you put them out of their despair and tell us what your lifts were on the day and what records you set.

JH: Hello, no worries and thanks. My lifts were 330kg on the squat which was a British record, 230kg on the bench which was a British record and 292.5kg on the deadlift which took the total record which is now 852.5kg.

EK: Very Impressive to say the least. Ok, let’s rewind a few years. Tell us when it all began. When was it that you first became interested in lifting weights?

JH: It all began at the age of 12. My brother had a weight set with a bench in the garage and I started experimenting with various lifts, when I got to 14/15 I had out grown the equipment that was in the garage so we updated the equipment and bought a rack and a Olympic bar along with plates.

EK: Did you decide early on that you wanted to power lift or did you rather stumble across it along your  route of progression in the weight room?

JH: I stumbled across it when I started training my goals were to simply get stronger and bigger, I was always an active individual; did cross country running, played football, rugby, swimming, boxing and also did my own training so you could say my GPP was high!

EK: There are a lot of readers out there who are thinking about competing at a meet for the first time. Tell us about your first meet; how did you find out about entering and indeed preparing for it?

JH: My first meet was terrible I had not long turned 16 and I was keen to impress but my openers were too high I didn’t know the commands properly, but fortunately I didn’t bomb – I totalled 510kg. I researched the different federations and decide that the GBPF was the best for myself.

EK: What advice would you give to a new lifter entering his/her first meet in light of your experience?

JH: Do your research, know what the rules/commands are before you enter and train the way your gonna compete. Don’t be sloppy with your technique in the gym as it will fall apart when you get on the platform. I have been to many comps where people fail their first lift and then come back into the warm up room saying I did that for 5reps in the gym no one cares! Check your ego at your first comp get your first lifts on the board and get in the game. Your not in the comp until you pull your first deadlift.

EK: Are there any forums out there that you use or know off that you would recommend to both new and experienced lifters, looking to further their knowledge and experience in powerlifting?

JH: I use the GBPF forum and the sugden barbell forum, both have some good info on. I also log my training on both sites so check it out!

EK: A lot of powerlifters dabble in strongman competitions and visa versa. Is this something you have considered or have indeed done?

JH: Yeah I have competed in one strongman comp this year it was the midland U105 qualifier. The reason I did this was because it was held at the same gym were I train. I will be doing the same qualifier in 2012 as its something different from the norm but I will actually train for it this time.

EK: So, powerlifting or strongman, which one do you prefer?

JH: Easy question – Powerlifting

EK: OK, let’s talk training. How do you like to split up your training?

JH: I train 3-4 times a week, I squat three to four times a week, bench three times a week & deadlift twice a week & perform assistance movements when needed. Pretty much all my squatting is to a box – I use three different heights 15.5”, 13.5” and 12”. At the minute I am dabbling with heavy band tension.

EK: Maxing out too often is a major failing in many lifters training, yet we know that to be pushing those numbers up you need to test new water at some point. Where do you feel the balance lies?

JH: Good question! There’s nothing wrong with failing a lift, as long you know why you have failed it, whether it’s your teckers or simply your not strong enough yet. When I was prepping for the South Yorkshire’s I failed three lifts in my 12 week prep I think that’s pretty good going.

EK: What is your prefered way of periodizing your training to keep those numbers going up?

JH: The majority of my training is based on linear progression. I set my myself goals of what I want to lift in a comp and I work towards that, I take each week as it comes and evaluate how the week went then base my next training week on that. I have found that this works best for my self. If there are any technique issues they can be ironed out quickly and easily. Also this allows me to mix my exercise selection up, as what I have found, is that if I create a 12week prep with numbers for every week by the time I get to the last two – three weeks and I generally pick up a injury. Resultantly I have learned to back off abit and listen to body more. I like to have freedom in my programming! 

EK: On to nutrition. Powerlifters can be a little more lenient in their diets over say, bodybuilders.  What are your ‘staples’ of nutrition as it were and give us an idea of what your diet looks like on an average training day?

JH: Average day, oats with milk and fruit smoothie, chicken & rice, then more chicken & rice, 2 pints of milk, lasagne, cereal with milk & couple of yoghurts.

Some days I will have a couple of shakes consisting of whey protein and oats.

To be honest I just try and eat as much as I can, I rarely eat fast food, sweets, chocolate etc.. I wouldn’t say my diet is great but it suits my needs.


EK: Being only 20, you are incredibly young and have an entire lifting career in front of you. Whats the big vision for John Hamson? What are you goals and ambitions?

JH: My short term goals are to win the British Juniors next year [2012] and to get selected for GBPF squads. The long term goal is to total 1000kg+.

EK: Goals that I’m sure you will achieve judging on your progress so far!

John, thank you once again for taking the time to speak with us. I feel a lot of readers out there will have benefited from hearing the words of someone who is truly climbing the ladder in the world of powerlifting. Best of luck in the future, hopefully we will see you on the world stage in the years to come!

5 reasons for the success of my hypertrophy phase – by Ben Coker

Well the beloved bulking phase has passed for me and I am now 2 weeks into a mild trim. Looking back on the months since Christmas in which I put on 11kg, I reflected on the things that contributed to my success. My previous articles on the mistakes of bulking 1 and 2 went a long way in keeping me on the road to success but this article explains 5 more personal reasons.

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1) I set quantifiable, challenging but realistic goals.

For me I had two post-its on my wall; one saying 150kg for 10reps = 170kg and the other 114.3 kg / 18stone, both surrounded by inspiring quotes I hold close.

The first refers to benching 150kg for 10 reps which should equate to a 1rm of 170kg + by the end of my bulk. The second refers to the body wight I wanted to achieve by the end of my bulk.

These notes were glaring at me every time I sat in my room, there was no escape. I had held myself accountable. Looking back those notes where instrumental in me smashing both targets.

I feel that simply entering a bulk phase with the notion of ‘I want to be bigger and or stronger’ will undoubtedly lead to poor or sub optimal results. Have a fixed finish point and make it visible to you everyday as a reminder to yourself; are you doing everything you can to reach your best?

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2) I built my calories up slowly but ultimately if I wasn’t eating when I felt I shouldn’t have then I was stunting my growth.

A recent article about leaving something in the toolbox applies here. When starting a bulk dont go over crazy on the food. Trust me simply by giving your body as little as 500kcal extra a day from its maintenance or dieted levels it has been on between bulking phases is enough to make the body  put on muscle at impressive rates.

BUT here’s the twist. This rate of growth slows as you put on weight so you have to keep increasing your calories over the hypertrophy period to get that surplus of calories above your RMR!

And boy did they the calories have to go up!  Two thirds of the way through my bulk I plateaued. I wasn’t eating enough, but surely 6000kcal a day was enough?

‘Obviously not you idiot’ I told myself.

I went and revised my list on the mistakes of bulking and all boxes were checked barring the fact I wasn’t eating when I felt I shouldn’t!

So up went the calories to 7000kcal and even 8000kcal on some days. What happened? From being stuck at around 110-112kg bodyweight I flew up to 114kg then continue up until 116kg.

So build up those calories conservatively but keep building them up! Don’t fear fat gain as long as your building muscle as fast as humanly possible. There will be another time for you to ‘unveil’ your sculpture later…

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3) I walked everywhere

This one is so important especially when you get REAL heavy but also if you put on a decent level of mass in a relatively short period of time. Last weeks article also touched on it.

By walking everywhere everyday you body doesn’t notice the effects of the extra mass gradually being put on. You feel lighter on your feet, and your cardio-respiratory systems are much better adapt to cope with the larger mass.

Honesty call, I love being big but even to me an out of breath mass monster don’t look (or feel) too good! Everyone should be able to walk briskly for at least an hour whilst still holding a conversation. And I’m glad to say that despite impressive gains in muscle mass I don’t feel ‘burdened’ with the extra weight.

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4) Adapt to setbacks: I got outside the bodybuilding world and fell in love with a sled

At one point my knee was playing up a bit and so I sought different ways to hit my legs. Pulling a sled caused no pain in my knee and so there was the answer.

If I’m stuck with this I thought then I may as well load the thing up to the max and put a lot of work through my legs. 4 weeks of puke inducing sled training and my legs grew by an inch.

A slap in the face reminder that different is good sometimes, even for a bodybuilder. Any bodybuilder would settle for an inch on their legs but for me the benefits went further. Since quitting rugby some time ago I had not run for years. Despite my strength I was now slower and struggled to sprint under my new weight.

The sled training got me right back on track; my legs were not only bigger now but their power had also been increased. I was now functional again despite being kilos heavier and I loved it! I also enjoyed the sensation of high intensity cardio believe it or not. It made me feel healthier and that’s priceless when piling on size.

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5) Deadlift, Deadlift, Deadlift.

I have had issues with my low back for a while and have spent a long time rehabbing and tentatively dabbling in deadlifting again in the process of recovery. But by this bulk phase I was ready to hit them in ernest. I knew deadlifts were the missing link to gorilla muscle, and gorilla muscle was what I wanted.

Gorilla muscle: built by deadlifts.

So I deadlifted and deadlifted a lot. Not always super heavy but I made a point to work hard on form and intensity. Some days I did heavy singles, some days sets of 5 and some days I even did super volume on them like 10×10 or sets of 30reps at 1.5 x bodyweight.

The results of fanatical deadlifting?. My low back and core is now a whole lot stronger and my discs far more protected. A movement that had crippled me even to think of, I now loved. My legs ballooned. My back got super thick. Oh and finally all my other lifts sored up and as a result all their relevant muscle groups grew in a crazy fashion.

The deadlift is the king at building the whole body as the whole body is used. This hypertrophy phases owes a lot of its success to the fact that in it I could for the first time deadlift pain free.  I took full advantage and the scales and measurements went through the roof as a result.

Tricky Triceps and Lousy Lock-outs – by Ben Coker

Do you have match stick arms? A horse shoe that is more fitting for a ‘My Little Pony’?  Do you find yourself struggling to lock out your presses?  Here are some exercise modifications that I use regularly in my pressing workouts or on separate arm days to grow those triceps into horseshoes of epic proportions and develop a super strong lockout.

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1) Dead-stop lock outs from pins (bench or standing/seated OH press)

The sticking point in presses is often the point where the triceps would be taking over in the lift. This works just that.

Firstly I like the standing overhead version. Why? 1) a big shoulder press equals gains in the bench press 2) the synergistic and stabilising work by the lower traps and all the upper back muscles and posterior chain gives you a thicker upper back, a stronger core and a therefore a stronger set up when doing a flat bench.

These are in effect partial reps and so isolate the triceps (and delts) better. Simply set the safety pins at whatever level your sticking point is or at a level to isolate the delts and or triceps to whatever degree you want.

The beauty in these is that dead-stop start allows you to mimic a sticking point by adding in inertia. By having to start each rep from the artificial sticking point you are forced to work through it having to overcome the humbling force of inertia. By being able to set the bar on the pins each rep you remove all stretch shortening activity, its just your muscles versus the inertia of the weight!

Its also worth noting here the beneficial carry over dead-stop pressing has in sports where a stretch shortening contraction is not available yet a powerful press is needed – think football linemen and  shot put for some obvious examples.

The safety pins mean that no spotter is needed and that you can go through fatigue with rest pause. This is essential for overloading those triceps. In effect an weight that you can do for 8 reps without pins, you can now do for 12. Taking a couple seconds rest before each rep when near or at failure enables you to grind out more reps then you normally could. Trust me if you got the guts you’ll be surprised at what you can do.

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2) Isometric press for 3 count (bench or overhead press).

Again this modification can be performed in the bench press position or the overhead press position.

Set you safety pins at a suitable level and rest the bar on them (Yes another dead stop movement because they are bad ass!). Now simply add in another set of safety pins above the first set at whatever part of the press you find you have a sticking point. Proceed to press the bar off the pins and up into the set of pins above. Here you drive as hard as you can, imagine that you are trying to break those safety pins like your life depended on it! Hold that for 3 seconds then return the weight to the first set of pins. Repeat for reps.

Whats happening here is that the second set of pins is a definite sticking point, one you cant actually break… but  be sure to give it everything you’ve got. This teaches you to recruit as many fibres as you can at this crucial part of the lift where you normally fail and also not to give up and keep driving (and breathing) through ‘the wall’.

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3) Pin press into eccentric skull crusher.

Set up is similar to the previous exercise except you only need the first set of safety pins. Close grip press the weight up and then eccentrically lower the weight down in the form of a skull crusher until the bar rests on the pins. Slide the bar back into it’s original position and continue for reps.

These are great as again they use a dead-stop, they allow you to use rest pause and there is no need for a spotter. But, more importantly, it allows you to overload the triceps with a weight that you would not normally be able to handle as you only do the eccentric part of the lift as a skull crusher. This is great for getting those triceps accustomed to heavy loads and makes them swell!

Another modification that can be used but not shown in the video is this: When you can no longer control the weight eccentrically as a skull crusher you may still be able to rest pause and grind up some standard pin presses…get ready for some serious pump if you do!

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4) Triceps Hell

The title of this says it all. Taken straight from Dave Tate at EliteFTS this exercise kicks butt!

What to do: Set up in a bench press position. Choose a weight. Do 5 reps off of 1 board, then without racking the weight do 5 reps off of 2 boards, then off of 3 boards and so on until you do 5 reps off of the 5 board. This is killer. You will need a spot and someone to hold/swap the boards.

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5) Mechanical Drop Set Triceps Cable Extensions

Mechanical drop sets allow you to focus on performing more reps once you hit failure by making a small change to the execution of the movement to allow yourself to get more reps with the same weight.

In this exercise perform cable rope extension keeping your arms apart until failure. When you can no longer perform a rep with the arms in isolation, squeeze the handles together for the concentric part of the lift and keep the arms apart for the eccentric portion. Once you reach failure again try to squeeze out mini partial reps at the top of the movement (if you can). Insane pump guaranteed with these burners. N.b. the weight in this video is way off working set weight and so the pump reps won’t be as easy as demonstrated…most of the time I can only do 1-3  I’m that fried!

(Apologies for the video orientation).

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Wrap up

Include these exercises as finisher on pressing days or incorporate them into body part splits to see big gains in performance and aesthetics in the triceps department!

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Catching up with Josh Hill – UK Powerlifter

Josh Hill is an up and coming powerlifter in the UK, boasting a total of 1000kg (2200lb) in competition, as well as being 2010’s Best Overall Lifter in the British Bench Press Championships. To top it off, he graduates as a Doctor this year and a very knowledgeable lifter too.

EK: Hi Josh, thanks for joining us and taking time out of your busy schedule. To start off, can you give our readers a bit of background on yourself.

Josh: I’m 24 years old, a competitive powerlifter, and I qualify as a doctor this summer.

My first sport was gymnastics, which I began at a very young age, and by my early teens I competed to a national level. Gymnastics conditioning training was my first glimpse of strength work. I remember when I was as young as 10 years old I was sneaking into the weights gym before training!

I come from a rugby background, having growing up in Bath, with my father (Richard Hill) being an ex-international Rugby Union player, and thus inevitably aspired to follow in his footsteps. He was the first one to take me to the gym, and I began to follow a proper strength training programme when I was twelve.

Over the coming years I continued to read about training, improving my knowledge and understanding, adapting my programmes as I went along. From time to time I would visit the rugby clubs my dad was coaching to get advice from the strength and conditioning staff.

By the age of 18 I was able to bench press 180kg raw (unequipped), and deadlift 315kg with a bodyweight around 95kg. From then I began to improve on my strength year after year, winning several British titles in the teenage and junior categories, and so far have continued to be able to bench 10x my age (a little challenge I set myself – lets see how long it can go on!). Last year I won the senior British Bench Press Championships in my weight category, and best overall lifter, with a raw bench press of 233kg (unequipped), which was also the British record in the 110kg and 100kg weight classes.

EK: Those are some big weights being moved at such a young age. What made you make the switch from Rugby to Powerlifting?

Josh: My plans were altered somewhat when I sustained a significant injury to my shoulder whilst competing in a Judo match at the age of sixteen. The injury required surgical repair and a considerable amount of physiotherapy before I could return to contact sports, and by the time my shoulder was ready for this, I had started my medical degree at Bristol University.

Once at university I began training in the Empire Sports Club, a famous weightlifting gym and boxing club where Bristol Rugby Club were training at the time. After finishing lectures each day, I’d head straight to the gym where at the time a powerlifter, Craig Coombes, always trained. I always used to stand and watch in awe as Craig lifted. I had never before seen someone squat over 300kg or shoulder press 90kg dumbbells.

After a while Craig approached me and explained that I was naturally strong and considering I was training at the same time as him each day, whether I would like to join in and begin competing, an offer that I was eventually to take up.

EK: Moving on, can you give us your best competition lifts so far? And your best training maxes?

Josh: Sure thing. In competition, my best lifts are:
Squat (equipped) 400kg
Bench press (equipped) 270kg
Bench press (unequipped) 233kg
Deadlift 330kg

In training, my best lifts so far are:
Squat (equipped) 420kg
Squat (unequipped) 340kg
Bench press (equipped) 300kg
Bench press (unequipped) 240kg
Deadlift 350kg
Deadlift (wearing wrist straps) 390kg

Obviously the challenge is putting all of the lifts together on the same day!

EK: Those are some impressive lifts! What does your training philosophy look like in getting you this far? What have you learned along your journey to date?

Josh: From time to time I would train with the Bath Rugby S&C coach (Chris Gaviglio), an Australian shot-putter, and before he left to return to the southern hemisphere, he put me in touch with a renowned sports doctor turned sports scientist, Christian Cook. Since then, Christian has continued to help me progress in powerlifting, providing me support with training structure, new ideas, principles, and nutritional advice.

I guess, since having support from Christian, I have changed my training philosophy somewhat – I have come to realise the importance of ‘leaving something in the tank’. What I mean by that is, you shouldn’t be failing reps in normal training sessions on compound lifts; there shouldn’t be any assisted reps – it is important to get into a habit of succeeding, and in order to do this you must carefully select weights for training based on a realistic target at the end of the training block – make gradual and constant improvements.

If you have done an entire 6 weeks of training without failing even one heavy rep, when it comes to attempting that new PB in week 7, you will be confident you can lift it, and confidence counts for a lot in lifting. Similarly, if you have completed successfully every attempt in a training block leading up to a competition, why would you even contemplate failing that last and final attempt at a new PB?

Those thoughts of failure, and ‘what if’, will never come into your mind when you are under that heavy weight. As a young lifter, it is too easy to see the route to being strong as lifting as heavy as you can every time you enter the gym; I have made that mistake before, and I’m sure I am not alone.

EK: Those are some great words and ones that every trainee would do well to adhere too. All too often you see people killing themselves and ‘failing’ in the gym. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!
Moving on, what’s your favourite of the competition lifts?

Josh: Undoubtedly my favourite event is the unequipped bench press – it’s the one always asked about. I can’t remember the last time someone asked me how much I deadlift or squat!

EK: Too true! What’s the best advice you could pass on to aspiring powerlifters?

Josh: Just because you are a powerlifter and won’t be getting on stage, it does not give you the right to indulge in poor nutrition and be fat! Stay lean, and train as much as possible without equipment, remembering to keep the habit of successful reps in training.

EK: Great advice Josh. What does the future look like for you in powerlifting?

Josh: My goal as a powerlifter is to get invited to compete in professional powerlifting meets in the USA. To do that I need to prove myself in amateur competition – I have made a good start, but now I want to take my strength to the next level. I know that strength can continue to increase into your late 30s, and my intention is to make my body as strong as my genetics will allow. To reach my genetic potential, whatever that may be.

EK: We’re sure you will most definitely do just that with the mindset you’ve got. Thanks again Josh for taking the time to join us today, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from you soon.


Press like a Powerlifter, Pull like a Bodybuilder – by Ben Coker

This article outlines a training philosophy that I feel holds much credit: ‘press like a powerlifter, pull like a bodybuilder.’ This philosophy carries over to most sporting disciplines that involve strength and power. Why? Because it works in unison with the way the human body is designed to work.

The function of the muscle involved in pressing movements from an evolutionary perspective is that of high force/velocity contractions. Think of this in terms of survival:

  • We thrust spears and punches for attack and defense
  • We fended off predators or attackers with our arms and thrust them off us with our legs hips if we were supine and crouched.
  • We jumped
  • We ran after prey or ran away from predators

I quote Christian Thibadeau saying ‘Pressing is performance…it’s the bodys’ primary movement pattern.’ All these movements are fundamental movements of human beings and the common factor in all of them is high force/velocity. It becomes easy to see how this basic design carries over into sports performance.

It makes logical sense therefore to train such movements with high force velocity/contractions and in order to obtain this you find that the rep range is usually lower (1-5 reps). Every pressing rep should be performed as fast as possible. The actual speed of the bar is irrelevant to a degree its all about attempting to explode into the bar and trying to move the weight as fast as possible. You can read more on this in a previous article on maximum motor unit recruitment .

Press like a powerlifter

 

This type of contraction and rep range should be utilised for bench press, shoulder press, squat, deadlift and sprinting training. Now, just to answer the question many of you are now probably thinking – but yes the deadlift and squatting are presses. Squatting is quite obviously the movement of pressing the floor away from you in order to stand up right? Well so is a deadlift. You do not pull the bar off the floor with your back (if you do your probably injured or will be soon). You press the weight up with a strong leg drive obtaining hip and knee extension whilst maintaining spinal extension- an isometric contraction.

Now lets look at pulling movements from an evolutionary perspective:

  • We grabbed prey and held onto it
  • We grappled and wrestled with prey and predators
  • We held on and pulled ourselves up when climbing trees, rocks etc
  • We maintain posture throughout the day, often having to do this often under a load, usually for duration i.e.carrying objects over a distance.

The back muscles are largely comprised of type I fibres which are slow contracting and fatiguing. This explains the evolutionary role of such muscles.  As outlined in my article highlighting the benefits of farmers walks, it is clear that performance-wise we need our pulling musculature to be trained to stabilise our bodies thoughout any high force pressing. This creates a rigid platform from which we can better transfer forces and thus perform. It makes sense therefore to train such muscles/movements using higher volume using fatigue and constant tension methods such as rest pause, drop sets, isometric holds and eccentric less pulling exercises (for extra volume without undue eccentric damage which prolongs recovery). A good article titled ‘Curing Imaginary Lat Syndrome’ follows on this idea.

Pull like a bodybuilder

On a side note Joe Defranco adopts such a training philosophy with his athletes, not just for the obvious performance results the blend produces but also for the great results it has for shoulder longevity. Again I quote ‘we train the bench press like a powerlifter and the back like a bodybuilder… The upper back will always get twice the volume of our pressing muscles… [using] bodybuilding form and technique.’

Now there are a few exceptions or should I say instances where pressing movements can be trained more along the fatigue methodology. Our legs carry our body all day, everyday, and resultantly have a large amount of type I fibres. Its not surprising therefore that they will respond well to higher volume and or fatigue training too. I am a huge fan of volume training for legs. Now if you are clever you will realise that utilising both methods of training will be advantage for progressions sake in the leg department!

Some people may raise the question – ‘If deadlifts are training pressing and thus using lower reps, why is it then that they develop your back musculature so much?’ The answer: The back is working in an isometric hold for the entire duration of a rep/sets. In a set of 5 reps for a heavy deadlift the back is under isometric tension for about 20-30 seconds! Exactly how I prescribed the back to be trained.

I also understand hypertrophy specific methods can be added into a programme but on the whole the concept of press like a powerlifter and pull like a bodybuilder forms a very solid template from which to structure the majority of your training, especially if performance is more important to you. Lets not forget that training muscles in the way they were designed to work is going to lead to substantial hypertrophy regardless.

Now lets put this all together. To perform we need (1) to press with high force and (2) our pulling muscles must create a rigid platform for us to transfer those forces. To do this efficiently we need our pulling muscles to be trained to stabilise our bodies throughout any high force pressing, or over multiple presses. Therefore train the pressing muscles like a powerlifter; heavy and powerful for fewer reps whilst training your pulling muscles with fatigue and constant tension methods for higher volume. The perfect blend for a healthy and truly functional athletic performer.

The result: Athletic performance on a big scale!

The Spartan Approach to Assistance Work – by Jamie Bolton

Assistance work is a funny topic.Some people have a list as long as their arm when it comes to it, and hit muscles from every conceivable angle and with every possible piece of apparatus to ‘maximise’ their gains. Others pick exercises which exacerbate their weaknesses, rather than correcting them, leading to muscular imbalances, posture problems and ultimately sub-optimal performance.

For example, with someone struggling to improve their bench, they may find that doing extra accessory work on pecs (with various flies & presses maybe) is not the remedy to the issue. The issue may be to do with poor scapulae stability, lack of trap and upper back strength and stability (raw lifters especially), lack of lat strength and stability (lifters in gear especially) or tricep weakness.

What it boils down to, is that your assistance work may not even be assisting! First of all lets remember what we are actually trying to achieve when it comes to assistance work. In fact, if you haven’t done so already, I’d recommend that you read the ‘8s of training’ parts one and two to remind yourself what each part of your training structure is designed to achieve, but I digress.

Assistance work comes into play after we have completed our main lift or movement of the day, and typically, we are trying to achieve one of two things:
1. Accumulate more volume for the target muscle groups that work in our main lift/movement.
2. Bring up weaknesses in either terms of performance and/or aesthetics.

The second reason is an often cited one, yet  for probably ⅔ of lifters out their they don’t have weaknesses in the sense they perceive they do. The reality of most people’s situation is that everything is a weakness. Unless you can cite some proper reasoning for why something is a weakness, chances are it isn’t. By this I mean, for instance, weak triceps hindering your bench lockout, a judge at a contest commenting your rear delts effect the shape of your back badly, instability at the hip causing power loss out the blocks when sprinting, and so on.

As you may have noticed from some of my stuff by now, I’m a big believer in minimalism and keeping things simple. We can apply the 80/20 principle again here, i.e. that 20% of what you do is responsible for 80% of your results. What I’m going to propose here thus may sound outlandish, but hear me out. I want you to use two, yes just two exercises for your assistance work.

20% of what you do gives you 80% of your results

What this forces you to do is think about what you are choosing and focus on exercises that provide the most ‘bang for your buck’. Sometimes I’ll go further and only pick one assistance lift. Look at it like this, if I’ve ramped up and done some heavy squats as my main movement, followed up by some trap bar deadlifts for volume, and finish off with some sled pushes and pulls for conditioning, do you honestly think I am losing anything by not doing more?

Moreover, if you do have a long long list of assistance work to get through, I find it detracts from the workout in the sense that you may find you have to ‘pace’ yourself too much, as it seems like there is so much more to do. By limiting assistance work to two movements, it allows you to really focus on what you are doing. Not least, it saves a good amount of time. And don’t misinterpret that last bit, I’m not calling for minimising gym time, what I’m calling for is maximising quality of time in the gym.

Now here’s what I want you to do. For the next two weeks, limit your assistance to two movements that are the best investment of your training time. And if afterwards you really believe you need to add more back in, then do it, but only after two weeks. And don’t add it back just for the sake of of it.

To give an idea of how this may look, I’ll give some examples.

For the bodybuilder, on back day. You might start with deadlifts, and then for assistance follow up with bent-over barbell row and pull ups.

For the powerlifter on bench day, you start with bench press (you would hope!), and follow up with say dips and chins.

For an athlete, after doing power cleans, you might follow up with front squats and military presses as assistance.

In particular, I realise that every bodybuilder out there will be screaming, “that’s not enough”. And quite possibly they may be right, and require the extra volume to grow optimally. But I’d still recommend trying it, you may find yourself surprised. But for the performance athletes, I honestly believe that once you go too far beyond two assistance movements all you really serve to do is detract from recovery and future performance. Especially when you throw into the balance that you have conditioning work, skill work and the like lined up on your schedule also.

To finish off, one last prescription is required. Sets and reps. Now, with the main movement already done in our workout at this point, what we are really trying to achieve here is the accumulation of volume. That leaves things pretty open, and that’s kind of the way I want to leave it to you. Anything sensible, from 4×6-10 right the way up to 5×10-15 can work here. To really switch things up sometimes I’ll even do 10×3 with a weight I could move for 6 reps initially. The point is to get in some volume to support that main movement.

Finally, don’t forget to be a bit flexible with it if you need to. If you’re feeling like crap for some reason that day and the session isn’t quite going to plan, then there’s no real harm in backing off a little, there’s no point in beating yourself up. Equally, on those days where you feel great, don’t be afraid to push it a little more and amp it up a bit.

Wrap Up
That’s the spartan approach to assistance. Why use more than you need to do the job? Try doing just two assistance movements only for 2 weeks and get back to me.

“It is futile to use more to achieve what can be done with less.” Occam’s Razor

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