Guest post by Mike Robertson
There are times when bench press training can feel like an exercise in futility.
I’m definitely not the best bench presser to ever walk the face of the Earth. While my squat and deadlift were always quick to go up, I always struggled with the bench press.
With that being said, I’m constantly reminded of a quote from Brad Gillingham. While I may mix up the numbers, the gist of the quote stays the same:
“If you start with a 200-pound bench press at the age of 20, if you only increase your bench press by 10 pounds every year, you’ll be a 400-pound bench presser by the time you’re 40.”
That little quote has always kept me motivated to keep pressing.
But as we get older, injuries start to creep up. It could be sore and achy joints, or the occasional muscle pull. But if we want to get that consistent 10 pounds every year, then staying healthy is key.
If our goal is to stay healthy and bench press heavyweights for extended periods of time, they are three key areas of the body that we must focus on. Those three areas are:
#1 – The thoracic spine
#2 – The scapula
#3 – The rotator cuff
Let’s examine how efficient training of each of these areas can not only keep you healthy, but keep your numbers going up for years to come.
The thoracic spine
The thoracic spine may still be one of the most misunderstood areas of the human body. As powerlifters, we’re taught to rely on the strong muscle of our lower back. However, if our goal is to not only maximize performance, but to minimize injury, we must improve the extensibility of our thoracic spine.
If you watch any elite level bench presser, chances are they have a high degree of thoracic extension, which leads to a solid setup and big arch. If you’re forced to get all your extension from your lumbar spine, you’ll not only lose some of your arch but you’ll probably suffer from low back pain as well!
The easiest way to improve thoracic extension is to drive thoracic extension on either a piece of PVC pipe, or a foam roller. The exercise is simple: lay the pipe or roller perpendicular to your body around the area of your mid back. Once set up, place your fingertips behind your head and pull your elbows together in front of your face.
Gently brace your stomach, and slowly wrap your upper back around the roller or pipe. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, and then slowly work the roller up and down your upper back.
This exercise is effective whether it’s used pre-workout, post-workout, or simply throughout the day to loosen up your upper back. Not only will better thoracic extension spare your lumbar spine, but it will also improve your upper extremity biomechanics as well. This simple tip could be the difference between a healthy body and jacked up shoulders or elbows.
The Upper Back
Once thoracic extension is in place, it’s now time to lay the foundation for a big bench press. In this case, a thick and stable upper back will allow you to maximize your bench press poundage’s.
The key, however, is not only maintaining stability through your upper back, but to build strength and mass as well.
When setting up to bench press, the name of the game is stability. The upper back is crucially important, and we need stability in both scapular retraction (pulling the shoulder blades together), as well as scapular depression (pulling the shoulder blades down).
Basic stabilization exercises such as prone I’s, prone T’s, and prone Y’s may not look like much at first blush. However, these exercises focus on recruiting the appropriate musculature to stabilize our scapula. Far too often, we’re forced to use big, prime mover muscle groups to not only produce motion, but prevent it as well.
Instead, our goal should be to strengthen our stabilizers so they are on par with our prime movers. When we do this, we allow our prime movers to do the job they’re best at – move heavy weights!
Once we build the basic stability with low-level activation and recruitment exercises, it’s time to really focus on strength and muscle mass throughout the upper back.
We know that big, compound movements are ideal when it comes to building muscle mass. However, we need to develop strength both in horizontal pulling movements, as well as vertical pulling movements.
Exercises such as chest supported rows, dumbbell rows, and low cable rows are fantastic for building width through the upper back, as well as strength and stability in scapular retraction.
When rowing, think about pulling through your elbows, and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Dorian Yates used to say that if you can’t hold the midpoint contraction for a second or more, you are simply using momentum to lift the weight. This couldn’t be truer in our case, as a maximal bench-press often lasts anywhere between five and 10 seconds. You need that maximal contraction.
Instead of massaging your ego with ridiculous poundage’s, make sure to use the appropriate muscles, and really focus on squeezing at the midpoint of each repetition.
In contrast, chin-up and pull-up variations are ideal for not only training scapular depression, but also for building our lats. The lats are critical for controlling the weight, as we will use to help actively pull the bar down to our chest when bench pressing. This “active” pulling helps maintain our stability and control on the negative portion of the lift.
Much like the row, we still need to focus on pulling through the elbows to initiate the contraction on vertical pulls. However, at the bottom, instead of pulling the shoulder blades together, we should be focused on actively pulling them downwards. Pavel describes this as pulling your shoulder blades into your back pocket. This is the essence of scapular depression, and it’s something that many trainees often struggle with.
The Rotator Cuff
The rotator cuff is the final piece of our puzzle. While many of us know that the rotator cuff is important, far too often rotator cuff training is quickly forgotten. Rather than taking a few extra minutes at the end of a session to train the rotator cuff, we leave it as an afterthought and figure we’ll get to it the next work out.
Exercises that emphasize the pecs and lats strengthen the internal rotators of the shoulder. To help maintain muscular and structural balance at the shoulder joint, we need to incorporate external rotation work in our programs.
Standrard exercises such as external rotations on the knee, or side-lying external rotations can get us started. However, I also like bigger bang exercises such as face pulls where we not only train external rotation of the shoulder, but we also get some upper back strength/stability as well.
Bringing it all together
One of the best times to get healthy and lay a better foundation is the off-season. Here are some simple tips to help regain structural balance, and put you in an optimal position to start training for your next meet or competition.
First and foremost, start your upper body workouts with a heavy pulling movement first. If you’re used to always pressing first, leading off with a pull-up or rowing variation will allow you to get more out of these exercises. You won’t be as fatigued as you normally are, and you’ll be surprised at how much more energy you have to train these lifts. With my powerlifters, we’ll often do this for the first 2-3 months of their off-season just to make sure we’re putting an emphasis on upper back strength and stability.
Along those same lines, the off-season is an ideal time to place an emphasis on all the little guys such as our rotator cuff, our scapular stabilizers, etc. Remember, the little guys are important for stabilizing the joint, and allowing the prime movers to do what they do best – move heavy weights. If we don’t bring our stabilizers up to par, we’re never going to see improvements in our primary lifts.
Whether your goal is to set a PR in your next powerlifting meet, or just be the biggest bench presser in your gym, the tips above can help take you to the next level.
Take a few weeks (or months) and build them into your next training cycle. I promise, you won’t be disappointed with the results.
About the Author
Mike Robertson has helped clients and athlete from all walks of life achieve their strength, physique and performance related goals. Mike received his Masters Degree in Sports Biomechanics from the world-renowned Human Performance Lab at Ball State University.
Mike is the president of Robertson Training Systems, where you can find tons of free blogs, podcasts, and even register for Mike’s free newsletter.
Mike is also the co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training, which was recently named one of America’s Top Ten Gyms.
John F. Kennedy held a dinner in the white House for a group of the brightest minds in the nation at that time. He made this statement:
“This is perhaps the assembly of the most intelligence ever to gather at one time in the White House with the exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Especially read the last quote from 1802.
When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.
The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.
It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.
I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.
My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.
No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.
The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.
Thomas Jefferson said in 1802:
‘I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property – until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.’
Guest post by David R. Kamerschen, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, University of Georgia
Suppose that every day, ten men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:
The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
The fifth would pay $1.
The sixth would pay $3.
The seventh would pay $7.
The eighth would pay $12.
The ninth would pay $18.
The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.
So, that’s what they decided to do.
The ten men drank in the bar every day and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve. “Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20.”Drinks for the ten now cost just $80.
The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free. But what abou t the other six men – the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his ‘fair share?’
They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer. So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay.
The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).
The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33%savings).
The seventh now pay $5 instead of $7 (28%savings).
The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).
The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 ( 22% savings).
The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).
Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.
“I only got a dollar out of the $ 20,”declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man,” but he got $10!”
“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a dollar, too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more than I!”
“That’s true!!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!”
“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison. “We didn’t get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!”
The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.
The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!
And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, this is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax t h em too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.
For those who understand, no explanation is needed. For those who do not understand, no explanation is possible.
guest post by Lee Hayward
Competitive Bodybuilder and Powerlifter
The pullover is an exercise you seldom see done in the gym anymore. Yet back in the “Pumping Iron” days of bodybuilding it was a staple in almost everyone’s routine.
In fact, way back in the old days before the invention of bench presses with upright racks for holding the bar, guys would do a barbell pullover, lifting the bar from the floor to their chest, and then do their bench presses. But gradually over the years this exercise got pushed to the wayside and is hardly ever done by the average gym goer.
The main benefit from pullovers is that they help expand the rib cage and work all the supporting muscle groups along the torso, chest, lats, arms, and shoulders through a full range of motion. This can really help add thickness and depth to your torso, which is one area that a lot of people lack these days.
I know from the majority of people that I see at the gym that very few of them have a well developed torso. It’s actually quite common to see a guy with muscular arms and shoulders stacked on a slim chest and torso. But by adding pullovers to your routine you can help fill out and expand your rib cage and correct this problem.
Your rib cage is the frame work that supports all your upper body muscles. So if you have a well built frame underneath, the muscles of your chest, shoulders, lats, and arms will look much more impressive.
I was fortunate enough to have included pullovers as a regular exercise in my workouts from the start and I think this has certainly helped me to develop a large rib cage and good chest expansion, which is clearly seen when I hit a side chest pose as in the pic above.
The main reason I even did this exercise was the fact I started training in a simple home gym and didn’t have access to a lot of the fancy machines that are so common in most gyms today. So from having limited equipment I tried to include as much training variety as I could using basic free weight barbell and dumbbell exercises. For this reason I sometimes feel that training with limited gym equipment can be a blessing in disguise.
There are two basic variations to the pullover, the barbell version and the cross bench dumbbell version. One is not necessarily better then the other, both work well. I personally feel that the dumbbell pullover stretches the chest a bit more and the barbell pullover places a little more emphasis on the lats. But you can pick the one that feels the best for you, or if you have no preference you can alternate back and forth between both variations. The main thing is that you just do them.
The pullover is a stretching exercise, so you’ll make better gains from using a moderate weight, higher reps, and really working through a full range of motion. Add weight to the exercise in a gradual progressive fashion, but never at the expense of sacrificing your exercise form.
Depending on your body structure and how you do the exercise you may feel it working the chest, or you may feel it working the lats, or a combination of the two. So you could include pullovers with your chest or back workouts. The main thing is that you do them consistently so you reap the results that they have to offer.
The first time you do the exercise start off with a light weight and just get used to the movement and the range of motion required. Then go up by 5 – 10 pound jumps in weight each set. By going through this process you’ll naturally find the sweet spot where you have enough weight that allows you to stimulate the muscles hard, yet still be able to perform the exercise through a deep range of motion and fully stretch out your entire rib cage, chest, and lats.
Start off with 1 – 2 warm up sets and then take a working weight that allows for 15 reps with good form. Do 2 – 3 working sets and really focus on feeling the muscles stretch and contract with each rep. Another little tip that will help add to the effectiveness is to take a deep breath before each rep and hold your air in as you lower the weight. This will give you an even deeper stretch throughout the rib cage.
You’ll get more benefit from doing pullovers at the end of your workout when your muscles are already pumped. Doing stretching exercises when you are pumped up and the muscles feel tight will aid in muscle growth because the connective tissues are already being stretched from the blood volume in the muscles, and then by doing stretching exercises at this time as well you get a double whammy effect. This really stretches the connective tissue and increases your muscle growth potential.
By doing pullovers as a staple exercise in your workout routine you are going to experience a good upper body growth spurt and also notice an improvement in your flexibility and mobility for a lot of your other exercises as well. Give it a try and don’t be surprised if you add an inch or two to your chest measurement in as little as 6 weeks.
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Coaching Call with Powerlifter Mike Westerdal,
Pro Strongman Elliott Hulse & “The Muscle Cook” Dave Ruel
In this 90-Minute Coaching Call, Mike, Elliott and Dave reveal:
- How they approach training respectively for powerlifting, strongman, and bodybuilding
- What is “Powerbuilding” and how it can help you get better results
- Their foolproof methods to be successful with your goals when you’re a beginner
- How to get rid of stubborn mid-section bodyfat and finally get a six pack
- How to work around an injury
- The best ways to live longer, stronger and healthier, and what to do to promote “anti-aging”
- The truth about the relation between muscle strength and muscle size
- What is the best: Krill Oil or Fish Oil?
- How to avoid muscle soreness
- The best type of cardio (HIIT or long moderate cardio?)
- How to approach calorie rotation in your diet
- And much more…
Elliott is a riot isn’t he? Leave your comment below!
I just put up this new PowerBuilding audio interview with Mike Schwanke. Mike is a training partner of mine at Tampa Barbell and he’s a pro division powerlifter.
You’ll like it because Mike is super lean and strong at the same time and shares his cardio/conditioning schedule.
A lot of people ask how much cardio is too much when you are trying to stay strong so this should shed some light on the topic.
By the way did I mention Mike weighs 220 lbs and has squatted 1000 lbs, benched 700 lbs and deadlifted 800 lbs in competition! So you’ll definitely want to listen to Mike’s tips.
Got something to add to the discussion? Leave your comment below on how to balance strength with low to moderate body fat levels.
Metabolic and Neural Protocols Redefine Training
Metabolic and neural training are causing a major shift in fitness thinking – which is no surprise based on the amazingly fast whole body results they deliver. Want to know more? Listen to this audio interview I conducted Dr. Kareem Samhouri otherwise known as Dr. K.
About Dr. K the creator of the Ab Strength Guide
Dr. Kareem Samhouri is the president and owner of Global Fitness LLC. Through his company people are able to realize complete wellness, as they serve nutrition, massage, physical therapy, and personal training. Dr. K is a graduate of the University of Miami Doctor of Physical Therapy program and has earned a bachelor’s of science from the Pennsylvania State University in Kinesiology. Additionally, Dr. K is a licensed physical therapist and holds a Health and Fitness Instructor certification from the internationally recognized American College of Sports Medicine.
After you are done listening to the audio interview be sure to:
CLICK HERE for a free Six Pack Abs Presentation
Read more about Dr. K and how is Ab Strength Guide can help you get six pack abs in just 10-minutes a day by visiting this unusual page: http://www.criticalabs.com