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!

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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

Get Some Form – by Ben Coker

Today I want to talk about 3 exercises that are very often performed wrongly and it irritates me massively to say the least! Especially when you consider the growth these exercises done properly can induce, you’re shortchanging yourself by using sloppy form. Remember practice makes permanent so practice with perfect form! 

Squats

Get some depth. I don’t care who you are or what sport you do squat ass to grass. The most common cop out is but ‘when do you ever have to go that low in a sporting scenario?’ My polite reply is ‘when do you ever see anyone who goes to full depth not be greatly stronger and more powerful at half depth or even stronger and more powerful still at a quarter depth? If you train a movement at its hardest it can only mean your on field strength and power will be greater! For those of you looking for big legs I don’t really need to say much just find me a picture of a top class weightlifter who has small weak legs. For those of you pushing PBs don’t cheat yourself as the truly strong guys your trying to impress ain’t giving you any respect for that calf raise you just called a full squat!

Another thing that grinds me is when people squat by ‘breaking’ at the knees not at the hip. Kick your ass back as if you were about to decent onto a chair (you should feel a stretch in your hamstrings) and then sit between you legs. Do not simple let your legs fold under neither you and let your knees track forward. You’re in a weaker position and you will end up getting injured. Too many supposed ‘coaches’ watch their athletes do this many times daily and fail to correct it. If your unsure of your form use mirrors and a coach that knows what hes doing. If he doesn’t then there are plenty of videos on you tube from Dave Tate and Eric Cressey (to name a few) that you can show the fool.

No quarter squats thanks!

Deadlift 

Here is the real back breaker! If you look like Quasimodo when you deadlift then you’re not ready for that weight, simple. Granted the nature of a PB means that perfect form is not possible as the body is stronger than perfect form will allow but lets not take the piss here. Some lifters are simply ignorant to the fact that they lift with poor form but this excuse is frequently bandied about by those that are so gung ho on getting super strong that they are rush their progress. I see it all the time and both are harboring a ticking time bomb which will cause ‘boom’ time in their spine! Even the worlds best deadlifters can kept a back that is near enough straight at their upper most resistance levels so get hold of a mirror or a truthful training partner, check your form and or ask them to tell you whether you back rounds when you lift. If it does back off the poundage and work on form! Coming from a guy who has had back surgery trust me you don’t want to f*** with your back. If your a newbie just take care of the form and get it right from the start and the pounds will take care of themselves.  If you’re a guy rushing PBs have a reality check, slow down and consolidate that strength. After all Rome wasn’t built in a day neither was Andy Bolton!

Andy Bolton - not built in a day....

Dumbbell rows 

How should I put this… a dumbbell row is well, a row movement. It is NOT a ‘pull the dumbbell in any way, shape or form I can, including mini squats and an additional boost from lumbar spine rotation, to get the weight up’ movement. Your not kidding anyone when you throw a dumbbell around with no control or thought, looking like your gonna snap in half at any second, especially when your back is no wider than a pencil and no thicker than a sheet of A4 paper! Get a weight you can manage, ‘drag it’ up and back to the hip, leading with the elbow moving the weight primarily with the upper back muscles. Period.

‘Drag’ that dumbbell row
Summary 

Remember there is no shame with using a lesser and weight using correct form, and making that form permanent. If this means putting your ego aside, do it as your ego is probably getting you laughed at. The serious lifters in any gym are not fooled by the masquerades put up by the masses. They can cut through the crap and see someone who is getting on their grind, keeping their head down. In fact its those guys that usually make the gains and end up being the ones people want to emulate!

Pull Heavy to Move Fast – by Ben Coker

There is a common misconception that lifting heavy weights will make you slow among sprint coaches. Many will stick to body weight and plyometric workouts, using only weights that are sub maximal and moving them fast if any weights are used at all. Lifting around 50-60%1RM and doing speed work isn’t wrong but it’s only one possible way to address the issue. 

When lifting heavy weights the nervous system is forced to recruit as many motor units as possible to move the weight. In sprinting, surely you want to have all of your fibres at maximum efficiency, ready to all contract at the same time for maximum force output. Now yes you can partially get this from trying to move a weight fast or indeed sprinting itself but there’s more. If you try to move an even heavier weight fast then your body is forced to recruit even more fibres. What I’m getting at here is the concept of motor unit potential. Have you ever noticed that when you’ve lifted a heavy weight when you release it and perform the same anatomical movement without the weight it feels extremely light? Your brain still thinks it needs all the fibres it had just recruited to do the movement. Simply put for a short period after lifting a weight all those fibres that were activated are on standby in case you have to perform the movement again.

This phenomenon only last a short time (seconds) so we must be quick. I’m aware that many track/gym facilities are substandard but if you have access to a sled or a lifting platform that is near a track then you’re sorted.

Approach one: Potentiate then perform – aka contrast sprints

Choose an exercise that requires hip extension and knee extension (the drive of sprinting) that allows for large weights to be lifted. I prefer squats, deadlift or sled pulls. Next set out a sprint distance you want to train over. Perform 2 repetition of the exercise at about 80-90% 1RM then get to the start line promptly and then sprint the distance. Why 2 reps? Well it takes about this time for your brain to fully recognise the force needed to move the weight. In a sense the first rep is ‘sluggish’ as the body wakes up and its the 2nd and even 3rd rep (if the weight isn’t too heavy), that the body produces most power as the relevant motor units are now all awake and firing together. If your pulling the sled/prowler simply choose a weight at about 80-90% 1RM then pull/push the sled/prowler for between 5-10m. It is important not to overdue it as the effect is lessened if fatigued! Remember we are activating not fatiguing ourselves here.

Plyometrics are used to accomplish similar results but they recruit fibres by quick lifting whereas lifting heavy recruits fibres by creating the need for many fibres to lift the weight. One must also remember that if one attempts a 1RM then by definition they are moving the weight as fast as they can, no matter how slow, it is at maximum speed! 

Approach two: Pure heavy pulling sessions mimicking sprinting

Here I am speaking specifically about the use of sleds and prowlers. Continued use of pulling heavy in a way that mimics sprinting means the body will eventually adopt and be able to pull a given weight faster over time. Now you’ll have to be mad to try and disprove that this won’t carry over into being able to propel your body weight faster if you’ve become accustomed to pulling a damn heavy sled at a worthy pace! It is worth noting that to pull a substantially heavy sled or prowler involves the person naturally getting into the correct or optimum position for the drive phase in sprinting! If you don’t quite simply the thing won’t move! So in using sleds and prowlers you are also grooving correct body angles and positions for sprinting as an added side benefit!

Wrap up
Not only do these exercises carry over into an immediate sprint, allowing one to groove quickness of limb movement but I speak from experience in saying that this approach also makes you faster in the long run. But if that isn’t enough then have a browse through the training methodologies & youtube pages of trainers like Joe Defranco, who are hugely successful in producing elite athletes year in year out and frequently use both techniques in their programmes. I’ll leave it at that.

Inspiration 10/03/11

Today we’ve got another selection of videos from the web to get your fired up about your training and sport.

This clip I feel encapsulates what it takes to be the best; the power of inner belief, going hard everyday, staying on your grind, rising to and overcoming the challenges.

 

For all you bodybuilders out there i don’t need to explain why this clip is immense!

 

Don’t dream, don’t you dare dream. That won’t get you anywhere!

 

Its you versus 2nd place pal…let’s see what you’ve got!

 

Until next time. Train hard. Train smart. Stay strong.

Interview with Adam Bishop – Midland’s Strongest Man 2010

Adam Bishop is an up and coming strongman and powerlifter. Amongst a strong and accomplished sporting history he recently obtained the title of MIDLANDS STRONGEST MAN U105 2010 and came in 5TH in the UK’S STRONGEST MAN U105 2010.


EK: Thanks for joining us today Adam. Can you give our readers a little background on yourself?
Adam: I’m a former professional rugby player (winger), and have been lifting weights for six years. I entered my first Open Strongman Competition in 2010 and came 10th out of 20 despite being the lightest.

EK: That’s pretty impressive. What made you want to get into Strongman?
Adam: I always watched Worlds Strongest Man (WSM) and other strongman competitions on the tv ever since I was young and wanted to have a go at it one day. I started posting on a strongman/powerlifting website called Sugden Barbell and ended up going over to a facility called the Container near Melton Mowbray. I found I was pretty good at a few events and it kinda snowballed from there to be honest.

EK: How do you get access to the specific training implements you need to train for strongman?
Adam: The facility at Melton Mowbray has equipment specially made for me and the guys I train with by Jason Talbot, owner of www.atlasstones.co.uk . He can make any weird implement we need to lift with.  I also personally own a small collection of implements which I train with.

EK: What kind of training split do you use when preparing for strongman events?
Adam: I train 4 times a week in the gym following Westside Barbell principles at the moment, which looks like this:
Monday – Max effort upperbody (log, axle, circus DB etc)
Tuesday – Max effort Lower body (Including Deadlift and squats)
Wednesday – AM Repetition upperbody PM Atlas stone lifting
Thursday – Dynamic effort Lowerbody (including speed squats and speed pulls)
Friday – REST
Saturday – Events training
Sunday – REST
It’s a pretty heavy schedule and I wouldn’t recommend it to others but my body seems to recover well so it works!

EK: That’s definitely intense, you must be having to get in some serious food to fuel all of that? How do you tailor it in the run up to an event?
Adam: Off season its calories calories calories for me as I find it very hard to put on weight otherwise. Obviously as I compete in the u105kg category I need to diet back down to around that weight. In the run up to a competition I’ll keep an eye on what I eat and just pretty much clean up my diet. I’m pretty simple when it comes to food.

EK: It’s nice to see someone who isn’t afraid to eat big! Do you put this together yourself or do you turn to a nutritionist?
Adam: I’m on my own with this really. I mean I have a relatively good understanding of nutrition from my rugby days so don’t seek any help from nutritionists.

EK: That’s good to hear. Moving on to competition day, how do you approach it?
Adam: It depends on the event really. Some events require relative calmness and concentration such as keg throwing or most overhead pressing where a lot of skill and technique is required. In other events, such as deadlifts, stone lifting and car flipping I tend to go a bit ape-sh** and get really worked up about the lift, I mean no sane human being would do that stuff would they!?

EK :  What do you do when something doesn’t quite run to plan?
Adam: I just try and stay calm. In one competition I dropped a railway sleeper on my head. Hardly ideal but you gotta just keep going in order to win.

EK: Ouch that’s got to hurt! What’s your favourite event?
Adam: Probably the Atlas stones with the Deadlift a close 2nd. I think atlas stones are the defining event in strongman, it’s always usually the last and most exciting.

EK: We’re sure everybody wants to know what they are, so could you rattle off your most impressive PBs for us
Adam: On the powerlifting movements I’ve deadlifted 320kg from the floor on a normal bar and pulled 360kg on the silver dollar Deadlift. Squatted 270kg in a belt and knee wraps. On strongman, I’ve pressed a 140kg axle overhead and lifted a 175kg atlas stone onto a platform.

EK: Impressive. What does the future hold for you?
Adam: The short term goal is to defend my Midlands Strongest Man u105 title this year and gain qualification for the UK’s Strongest Man where to be honest, I want to win. I came 5th last year in my first year in the sport, so now I want to take the title and go to the World’s! After achieving this I think I’ll try and gain some weight and look to compete more in the open weight category.

EK: Fantastic stuff. Thanks again for joining us and all the best for the upcoming contests!

Make Time – by Jamie Bolton

Time. We all claim to wish we had more of it. There’s supposedly so much more we could do if only we did. 

“I could be as strong as him, but I don’t have time to train 3 hours a day”.
“Sure my diet could be tidied up, but I don’t have time to cook all that healthy food.”
“My mobility sucks but I don’t have the time to stretch and stuff.”

Some of this is misinformation. The rest is just weak excuse making at best, and plain old laziness at its worst. Yet I dread to think what a tally might come to if I kept a note of these instances over the average week.

I’ll start with the misinformation. Anyone who believes those getting results must be putting in 2-3 hour sessions daily is wrong. And heck, unless you’re a professional athlete, there is no need to do so. Most trainees that are out there looking and performing good are investing on average an hour or so a day, four to five times a week. That’s a total of about 5 hours a week. Now before you start up and moan, ‘but I can’t find 5 hours a week’, I’m going to call bulls***. How many hours a week do you spend watching TV? Thought so.

Healthy cooking? This one really winds me up. It’s not hard to eat well. Almost every piece of fruit requires no preparation beyond a bit of peeling at most. Its not very hard to steam some veggies either. And how hard is it to cover a few chicken breasts in some olive oil, salt and pepper and stick them in the oven for 20mins? Heck do it en masse, stick them in tupperware containers and you’ve got meals for the next few days pre-prepared. I always cook chicken and brown rice in bulk to get me through for a few days. It doesn’t even have to be as hard as this, the real easy option is to consume more through shakes, of the like that Ben described in his article here. There are an unbelievable amount of easy-to-cook wholesome, healthy recipes that take less than 30 minutes to do if you care to have a look.

When anyone claims they “don’t have the time”, what they are really saying is “I don’t want to find the time”. Now, that’s absolutely fine. But realise that results don’t just happen. They are worked for. If you are going to take that attitude, don’t be surprised when you’re as weak as you were a year ago, or look the same, and so on.

Life is about choices. Sure, you have a finite amount of time. But how much of it is wasted on pointless procrastination? Seriously, as a simple exercise, ban yourself from TV and general-internet browsing (with the exception of elitekinetics.com !) for a day, and suddenly you’ll realise how much time you really have. Now tell me you don’t have the time to get in that mobility work, or make healthy meals etc. And when it really boils down to it, missing a few hours of TV or internet or whatever a week isn’t a big deal. But looking and performing great? It’s absolutely priceless.

There is nothing fantastic or spectacular that those who are getting results are doing that you cannot. They simply make it a habit to do so; they consistently do it. They make the time. Stop making excuses for yourself. If you really, truly want to be better. Then just start being better. Do it from today.


I realise this could mean wholesale changes for some of you. So take baby steps. Drink too much coca-cola? Switch to diet coke. Then cut down on how many you have. Then cut it out completely. Not doing any mobility work? Then work in 5-minutes a day once you get up. Then make it 10 minutes. And so on. 

Its amazing what you can accomplish if you take it step-by-step. You have the time. Its always a choice with what you do with it. You want to be better? Be better.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” Aristotle.

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