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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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.
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