This book is about manhood, and, well, other stuff. But let’s address the manhood thing first.And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking the type of manhood that worships monster truck rallies and nacho fries and fast cars; that paints its bare chest green and sits in the subzero stands of Lambeau Field with a hunk of plastic cheese on its head while bellowing like a gutted Klingon; that communicates largely by grunting, belching, or telling fart jokes.You know, all that stereotypical crap.But that’s not what I had in mind. In fact, I had this notion of manhood that combines the do-goodedness of the Boy Scouts with some heaping doses of self-determination and pragmatism, sprinkled with a dollop of Testosterone, and seasoned with a few fistful-size pinches of Howard Stern.From my experience and observations, men and boys are in some serious need of a new definition of manhood. Men by and large don’t have a masculine identity that’s much different from the one-dimensional and infantile masculinity epitomized by professional athletes or by the characters in Hollywood action movies or, worse, yet, television sitcoms.But there’s a yin to the masculine yang I just described, and neither side is very pretty.There’s a whole other breed of man who, despite rejecting silly Maxim Magazine notions of manhood, has gone completely in the other direction, only slowing down to do some occasional antiquing. Their balls were either cut off metaphorically by society, circumstance, or disapproving wives who put them in a Mason jar and stored them in the shed behind the pickled beets.As a result, many kids don’t have fathers anymore; the traditional American family consists of two “moms,” one with a traditional vagina and one with a penis and testicles that acts like a mom. A lot of wives don’t have husbands anymore – they gave their wedding vows to yet another son who, despite being in his 30′s or 40′s or beyond, has to be told what to do and scolded when he’s bad.The other type of man I described earlier, the beer-swilling, monosyllabic slobs? Oh, he gets married and has kids, too, but he doesn’t stay married very long — if his wife has any sense, that is.So I wrote the columns that make up this book. Most of the articles are about some aspect of my version of manhood, along with the occasional observation about new developments in science or psychology, along with a healthy dose of popular culture and sex (the “other stuff” referred to in the title).I’m hoping against all odds that it helps, at least a little bit, to set things right, or at least generate a little discussion and a lot of laughter.
Category Archives: Bret Contreras
Here’s what you need to know…
Strength training gurus love to say there’s only one way to perform a lift, and that all other techniques and variations are either wrong or ineffective. Such a philosophy is shortsighted, and this article will show how intelligent variation can build a bigger, stronger, bulletproof body.
First, every body is unique, and the best form for a lifter is the one that best suits his or her unique limb lengths, body segment proportions, tendon attachment points, muscularity, and injury history.
Second, the form that a lifter uses is heavily predicated on his or her overall goals. These goals might include hypertrophy, in which case it’s possible to accentuate tension on a particular muscle; strength, in which case it’s possible to perform a lift in a manner that maximizes leverages; or transference, in which case it’s possible to execute an exercise in a manner that best transfers to another lift or sporting action.
And third, all lifters should purposely perform lifts in a variety of ways in order to build well-rounded and maximal strength.
Stubbornly sticking to a particular form or variation that isn’t right for you, no matter how popular it is, will eventually lead to injury. It’s akin to forcing a square peg through a round hole.
Top Athletes Vary in Exercise Form
All my powerlifting and strongman friends look markedly different when they squat, deadlift, and bench. Hell, take a look at the various powerlifting world record holders, strongman champions, top Olympic weightlifters, and even the best bodybuilders on the planet – you’ll see that their techniques with the big lifts vary markedly.
They’ve all taken the time to figure out the style of each lift that caused the least pain and injury, maximized their leverages and performance, and/or allowed them to best reach their particular goals. What’s hilarious is that many of these top strength and physique athletes “break the rules” according to various experts, making it difficult to find merit with any hard rules in lifting mechanics.
The top lifters have also taken the time to figure out their favorite exercise variations. The top bodybuilder might prefer rack pulls over full-range deadlifts because they’re safer on his low back, but still might hammer his entire posterior chain.
The top powerlifter might perform low bar squats and sumo deadlifts in competition, but prefers high bar squats and conventional deadlifts in training until a month out before the meet since they better build his lifts.
The strongman might tell you that he gave up low bar squatting years ago to preserve his shoulder health, but that he still front squats every week. Lastly, the top Olympic lifter may prefer the Romanian deadlift and high-bar full squat as assistance lifts, whereas the top powerlifter might prefer the deficit deadlift and high box squat. You get the picture.
Useful Barbell Variations of Squats and Deadlifts
I realize most don’t have access to specialty bars, so I only included traditional barbell variations. However, there are dozens of incredible variations that use the rackable cambered bar, safety squat bar, or Dead-Squat™ Bar, to name a few.
Deep Back Squats: High Bar Versus Low Bar
Though the difference might appear subtle, the high-bar squat exhibits less forward trunk lean and therefore places more stress on the quads. Conversely, the low-bar back squat increases trunk lean and places more stress on the hips.
Strong quads are critical for proper squat performance, as are strong hips. You should incorporate both types of squats into your training arsenal.
High-Bar Versus Low-Bar Parallel Squats
With sufficient training experience, most lifters will find that they’re stronger with squats when they use a low-bar placement and take a wide stance. However, there are lifters who discover that they’re indeed stronger with high-bar squats.
Usually, high-bar squats are performed with a moderate stance as opposed to a very wide stance. Again, the high-bar squat emphasizes the quads, whereas the low-bar squat will emphasize the hips. Both variations are great for squat training.
Front Squats: Wide Versus Narrow Stance
Most of the time, when you see someone performing front squats they’re using a narrow stance. But there’s no reason why you can’t perform front squats with a wider stance. Again, both should be used in your training regimen.
Box Squats: Low Box/High Bar Versus High Box/Low Bar
Most lifters are familiar with high box/low bar squats where they sit back and keep vertical tibias, thereby maximizing stress on the posterior chain. However, it’s also a good idea to perform low box/high bar squats from time to time. This variation places considerable stress on the quads and is quite useful depending on the purpose.
ZercherSquats: Hip Emphasis Versus Quad Emphasis
Most lifters only employ one style of Zercher squats but it’s a good idea to occasionally perform two different styles. To stress the hips, take a wider stance, keep the shins vertical and sit back more, descending to parallel. To stress the quads, use a moderate stance, keep the torso more upright, sit down, and descend below parallel.
Deadlift: Conventional Versus Sumo
You should perform both conventional and sumo deadlifts from time to time. They build each other, especially if you have a huge strength discrepancy between the two variations.
Block or Rack Pulls: Conventional Versus Sumo
The same logic applies to block or rack pulls. You can and should use a conventional and sumo stance throughout your training year.
Sumo Deadlifts: Quad Versus Hip Dominant
When you pull sumo, there’s a sweet spot for trunk angle and joint ROM that enables you to hoist the heaviest loads. That said, sometimes it’s a good idea to use lighter loads and practice your sumo deadlifts using a quad-emphasis or a hip-emphasis. With the quad-dominant style, sink deeper and keep a more upright trunk. With the hip-dominant style, raise the hips and use a greater trunk lean.
Deficit Deadlifts: Clean Grip Versus Snatch Grip
When pulling from a deficit, you should employ a traditional grip width as well as a snatch grip width. The snatch grip deficit deadlift increases joint ROM and is a brutal yet useful variation.
The hack lift is a nifty way to build quad strength in a deadlift. Just place the bar behind the back and try to mimic your typical deadlift form. This variation stresses the knees and should be used only occasionally. The lockout can be tricky, but most lifters can learn to perform the movement correctly with practice.
The Spice of Training Variety is good for both strength and hypertrophy and it helps prevent overuse injuries. Through tremendous effort and experimentation, accomplished lifters determine optimal positioning and technique for their bodies as well as figure out the movements that transfer best to their particular goals.
The takeaway point is that the best do what works best for them, not what some guru tells them to do. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no standardized perfect form, only what form is best suited for your body and goals.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat… or squat or deadlift a weight.
Here’s what you need to know…
When it comes to squatting and deadlifting strength, the thoracic extensors play an even greater role in stabilizing the spine than the abdominals. And while many lifters perform accessory movements for the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, and abs, most lifters don’t do any accessory work for the erector spinae. That’s a mistake.
For years powerlifting experts such as Louie Simmons and Dave Tate have stressed the importance of targeting the erector spinae, especially when it’s an inherent weak link for the lifter, but until now we haven’t had any research to back up their methods.
A recent study by Fisher et al. showed that performing the Romanian deadlift (RDL) didn’t improve lumbar extension torque, but lumbar extension training was found to improve both RDL performance and lumbar extension torque.
This shows that performing isolation movements for the spine can directly improve deadlifting performance. According to Hamlyn et al., the lumbar erectors fire harder during squats than deadlifts, but the thoracic erectors fire harder during deadlifts than squats.
Needless to say, both the lumbar and thoracic spine need to be incredibly strong to hold the pelvis in place and prevent the spine from buckling during heavy squat, deadlift, and good morning variations.
Below are eight go-to-exercises for accessory erector work. When you perform thoracic extension exercises, it’s very important to do them properly. You want to move mostly at the thoracic spine and not so much at the lumbar spine.
While the lower back does flex slightly when performing thoracic extension exercises, trying to maintain a lumbar arch ensures that it doesn’t round excessively and that the vast majority of motion comes from the upper back. Moreover, the lower lumbar spine and pelvis will remain stabilized with any lumbar motion occurring in the upper lumbar spine.
A variety of barbell, safety squat bar, chain, kettlebell, band, and dumbbell exercises can all be used to develop upper back strength.
Here’s a video that shows how to do all of these movements, with descriptions to follow.
1. Seated Good Morning
The seated good morning is a powerlifting staple for upper back building. Do these in a power rack and make sure you set the j-cups and safety pins at the appropriate heights.
You can do these from a higher bench height or a lower bench height (I prefer higher benches); with the legs bent or with the legs more out in front of the body; with a traditional barbell, or even better, with a safety squat bar.
The trick with seated good mornings for upper back building is to make sure you feel it in your upper back. If you keep a big arch you can make it more of a hamstring movement, but you don’t want this. Keep the bar high up on your back and let the t-spine flex and extend.
2. Safety Squat Bar Upper Back Good Morning
These aren’t traditional good mornings – not even close. You’re not bending over at the hips so much as just bending the upper back over. You can do these with a traditional barbell, but a safety squat bar is even better.
Moreover, you can do them with the safety squat bar in the regular or backwards position. Both work well but they feel differently from one another.
3. Chain Upper Back Good Morning
Chain upper back good mornings are my favorite t-spine exercise. The only problem is that if you’re very strong, you’ll need a lot of chain. Just drape the chains around your neck and then flex and extend the upper back.
You can hyperextend the t-spine with these and obtain good resistance through the entire range of motion. Hell, just standing with the chains on for extended periods murders the upper back.
4. Chain Upper Back Extension
This is an exceptional exercise and probably the most versatile of the group. Set up in a glute-ham developer (GHD), round the torso over the pad, and make sure your knees are bent so the hamstrings don’t contribute to the movement.
Chains are my favorite way to load this movement, but you can pretty much use anything – bands, a barbell, a safety squat bar, a cambered bar, or a dumbbell.
What’s best about this exercise is that you can tinker around with torso hinging placement to target different areas of the t-spine. Lower torso placement on the pad targets the lower thoracic region, mid placement targets the mid thoracic region, and upper placement targets the upper region.
5. Seated Kettlebell Deadlift
The seated kettlebell deadlift is highly effective for thoracic building, but you need a heavy kettlebell. The video shows me using a 48-kilogram (106-pound) kettlebell, but it’s still a bit light. If combined with chains, however, the exercise can be even more effective. Focus on upper back movement and push the chest tall at the lockout.
6. Front Squat Isohold
The front squat isohold is a great thoracic strengthener. Load up a barbell with 130-150% of your 1RM front squat, un-rack, keep the chest tall, squeeze the abs and glutes, and hold for time.
7. Band Upper Back Good Morning
Another convenient way to load the upper back is with bands. Simply stand on the elastic band (or on multiple bands if you don’t have strong ones), wrap it around your neck, and flex and extend the upper back. Get full extension as it will provide resistance through the entire ROM.
8. Dumbbell Upper Back Extension
The upper back extension performed with a dumbbell is another simple way to load the t-spine, assuming you have access to a GHD. Try to hold the dumbbell up near chest level, because if you let it sink to navel level it reduces the torque loading on the spine.
Powerlifting legend Fred Hatfield used to perform this exercise with 225 pounds for sets of 10 reps using a special contraption that allowed him to hold a loaded barbell up closer to his chest so he could achieve full ROM. He felt that this exercise was very helpful in allowing him to achieve a 1,000-pound squat way back in the day.
3 Weeks to New PR’s
Squats and deadlifts can build a world class back, but isolating joint actions can thicken your thoracic region and help you blast through plateaus.
I recommend hammering the erectors for three weeks by incorporating some of these movements into your regular training. Test your max on the fourth week to see how your hard work paid off!
Gene Lawrence is a 73 year-old powerlifter who stays up-to-date with the writings and recommendations of his favorite strength coaches. Like many lifters, he finds the conflicting advice extolled by the various experts to be downright confusing.
I’ve been training with Gene for the past several months, watching him bust out 365-pound deadlifts like it ain’t no thang. Just recently he said to me, “I really wish someone would just write an article that taught me the rules. What are the things you have to do versus the things that are just nice to do?”
I pondered his question for several days, and came to the conclusion that there are only 8 laws in strength training.
At first I figured there’d be more, but almost every time I thought up a potential law, a refuting argument came to mind.
Now of course, it’s difficult to make hard-fast laws due to varying goals and genetics. However, in the end I feel that I was fair with my determinations.
These laws are based on what I’ve learned both as a lifter and researcher, and they’re formed by my current level of scientific understanding, meaning they’re malleable and subject to change.
Bear in mind here that I’m assuming that since you read T Nation, you care about both your strength and your physique.
In Part II of this series, I’ll give you the 8 laws, but in this article I’ll set the stage and present 20 potential laws that got shot down. Many coaches and trainers might determine that some of these are indeed laws, but not me.
The following 20 things are “nice” to do, but not absolutely necessary.
The 20 “Almost” Laws that Didn’t Make the Cut
1. You must foam roll.
Foam rolling feels good. Ask any foam rolling lifter if it makes them feel better, alleviates pain, or prevents injury, and the resounding answer will be yes.
However, there are millions of lifters who don’t foam roll who do just fine. To date, there are only a couple of studies that have been conducted on foam rolling, and to be frank, we really don’t know much about it as far as what it does and doesn’t do (Miller & Rockey 2006, MacDonald et al. 2012).
Right now we can speculate as to what it does, but at this point it’s just that – speculation.
2. You must stretch.
Stretching usually feels good too, and intuitively most lifters feel like it’s a good idea. Nobody wants to lose their flexibility, and it’s no fun being tight.
However, proper strength training itself involves stretching. Research shows that strength training is as effective as stretching at building flexibility, due to several factors (Aquino et al. 2010, Simao et al. 2010; Morton et al. 2011, Nelson & Bandy 2004).
First, the eccentric component of exercise, along with exercises that place sufficient tension on muscles at long lengths, induces sarcomerogenesis and actually increases flexibility through creating new sarcomeres in series and lengthening muscle (Brughelli & Cronin 2007). So resistance training is a viable form of loaded, active stretching.
Next, passive stretching can indeed decrease stiffness and increase pain tolerance to stretch, but it doesn’t regulate muscle length like active stretching does (Weppler & Magnusson 2010, Riley & Van Dyke 2012). If you regularly perform exercises like full squats, Romanian deadlifts (RDL’s), lunges, chin-ups, dips, and calf raises with good form through a full range of motion, you’ll possess good overall flexibility.
3. You must do cardio and/or HIIT.
Cardio sounds good in theory. After all, the heart is the most important muscle, right? But what exactly is “cardio?” Doesn’t the heart beat quite hard during strength training?
While prolonged low-intensity cardiovascular exercise does indeed have its own merits, strength training – particularly performed intensively close to muscular failure – provides many of the benefits that cardio does (Steele et al. 2012).
As long as you have an active lifestyle and lift weights frequently with sufficient intensity, cardio isn’t mandatory. If you’ve ever performed a set of 20-rep walking barbell lunges with 225 pounds, then you know that resistance training works the cardiovascular system very well.
Over the past decade, exercise scientists have raved about HIIT, pointing out that it leads to greater metabolic expenditure and fat-loss over prolonged periods compared to steady state cardio due to the effects of EPOC (Tremblay 1994, Hazell et al. 2012). However, lifting weights is a form of HIIT, as long as you train intensely.
4. You must go heavy (i.e., lift over 90% of your 1RM).
Recently, it’s been shown that lighter weights performed to failure can indeed provide a potent muscle hypertrophy stimulus, perhaps even greater than heavy weights (Mitchell et al. 2012).
It’s too early to tell as the studies have relied on beginner subjects, but at the very least the newer research shows that you can certainly build muscle without using heavy weights.
Ever seen Kai Greene train his glutes? He uses light weight for high reps and focuses on feeling the glutes moving the loads. Jay Cutler doesn’t go nearly as heavy as he did earlier in his career, but nevertheless he’s more muscular due to a shift in focus on muscle contraction.
Few bodybuilders go lower than 6 reps, and for lower body most stick to sets of 10-30 reps. For the most part, Andy Bolton, the first man to deadlift over 1,000 pounds, relies upon Dynamic Effort deadlifts to build his world class deadlifting strength.
5. You must train explosively (i.e., Dynamic Effort).
Many lifters benefit from the Dynamic Effort method. Explosive lifting increases muscle activation at the start of the lift and allows for more frequent training due to lighter loads being used.
However, explosive lifting also diminishes muscle activation in the latter half of the lift due to requisite deceleration of the load (Frost et al. 2010).
Most bodybuilders lift semi-explosively, yet they’re sure to control the weight through the entire ROM. Many seek to keep more constant tension on the muscles to maximize the pump effect.
Furthermore, many powerlifters have gained plenty of strength having never focused on lighter weight for maximum acceleration. Dynamic Effort work is a great idea for Olympic lifters and athletes, but it’s not mandatory for general lifters.
6. You must go to failure.
Growing up reading strength training articles, I was led to believe that the last rep of a set was the only one that counted and the only one that built strength. Now I realize that it was hogwash.
You can build incredible strength staying far away from failure. Sure you won’t build maximum strength if you don’t push the boundaries from time to time, but you can leave a rep or two in the tank and still be quite strong and muscular.
In fact, a recent article showed that maximum muscle activation during a set was reached a few reps prior to failure (Sundstrup et al. 2012). A decent case could be made that by avoiding the increased wear-and-tear on the joints and nervous system induced by going too heavy or too hard might lead to increased progress through decreased stress, pain, and injury, along with increased recovery.
7. You must squat.
The squat is the king of lower body movements, no doubt. But do you have to squat? Some lifters never seem to dial down their form on squats, and this has much to do with their anthropometry.
Ben Bruno has shown that it’s indeed possible to make steady progress with squatting strength through intensive focus on single-leg strength. Research has shown that single-leg strength and power training led to slightly better performance effects than double-leg strength and power training, though the effects weren’t significant (McCurdy et al. 2005).
Strength is highly dependent on the movement pattern, so as long as you perform a single-leg squatting movement such as a Bulgarian split squat or a reverse lunge, your strength on the squat won’t suffer dramatically.
Let’s say that week in and week out you performed a bilateral deadlift or good morning variation along with a single-leg squat variation, yet you never did bilateral squats. Your quads would still be muscular, your spine stable, and your hips strong.
8. You must deadlift.
If the squat is the king of lower body movements, the deadlift is the king of total body movements. Therefore you must deadlift to see great results, right?
Westsiders showed long ago that a lifter could build a very strong deadlift without deadlifting. They performed tons of box squats, good mornings, back raises, pull-throughs, reverse hypers, and glute ham raises – and their deadlifts were incredibly strong.
I’ve found that heavy-ass kettlebell swings can do wonders for building and maintaining deadlift strength. Max Shank can single-leg RDL 315 pounds for reps, which provides a huge training effect for the hip extensors, keeping the deadlift pattern strong while sparing the low back.
In terms of bodybuilding, many lifters prefer the blend of bent-over rows, T-bar rows, and back extensions for their mid and lower back development rather than deadlifts, as they’ve found that the deadlift just isn’t worth the risk to their body.
If your program contained heavy KB swings, box squats, good mornings, bent over rows, T-bar rows, and back raises, your deadlift would be plenty strong, and your back and hip extensors would display impressive muscularity.
9. You must bench press.
Now let’s move on to the king of upper body movements, the bench press. The bench press is without a doubt the most popular exercise in the world, but do you have to perform it? Many lifters’ shoulders just don’t agree with the bench press, and therefore, they need not include it in their programs.
You can build a strong bench press through other pressing movements. For example, a lifter who performed lots of weighted push-ups and/or dumbbell pressing from different angles will have muscular pecs and triceps, not to mention a reasonably strong bench press.
10. You must do unilateral or bilateral exercises.
Let’s say a lifter only performed squats, leg presses, deadlifts, hip thrusts, back extensions, glute ham raises, bench press, military presses, dips, push-ups, bent-over rows, chins, and barbell curls for his entire lifting career. I think we’d all agree that he’d be incredibly strong and muscular, provided of course that he gets strong on those exercises.
Conversely, let’s say a lifter only performed Bulgarian split squats, reverse lunges, single-leg RDL’s, sled-pushes, single-leg hip thrusts, single-leg back extensions, single-arm db bench presses, single-arm DB shoulder presses, one-arm DB rows, single-arm pulldowns, and alternating DB curls for his entire lifting career. He’ll also be incredibly strong and muscular, provided he gets strong on those exercises.
11. You must train your core directly.
Free-weight compound exercise does a good job of activating the core musculature. Getting an aesthetically pleasing mid-section has more to do with being lean than possessing muscular abdominals anyway.
If you perform exercises such as chin-ups, push-ups, squats, deadlifts, farmer’s walks, military presses, and barbell curls, your core will be plenty strong and muscular. Combine this with proper nutrition and your midsection will look great.
12. You must use free-weights.
Free weights reign supreme in the strength training world. They allow for natural movement patterns and require real-world stabilization. Therefore they’re absolutely necessary, right? Not so fast.
Prime-mover muscle activation can be matched with machine training, and a lifter can gain incredible strength and size this way.
Moreover, there’s a big difference between a crummy machine program and an optimal machine program.
For example, if a lifter simply performed leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises, pec deck, straight-arm pulldowns, and lateral raises, he probably wouldn’t get very far in terms of total body strength and muscularity.
However, if a lifter performed Lever squats, Hammer strength deadlifts, leg presses, lying leg curls, Hammer strength upper body presses and pulls from various angles, and cable curls, he’ll be incredibly strong and muscular, provided he gets strong on those exercises.
13. You must always strive for progressive overload.
Earlier in a lifter’s career, progressive overload is mandatory. But later on, there are other ways of progressing. For example, you can use better form, emphasize a particular muscle, or exert better control.
Many bodybuilders, in an attempt to spare their joints and decrease the likelihood of injury, actually place heavy squats and/or deadlifts toward the end of the workout so they can achieve a training effect while not relying on such heavy loads.
Let’s say you’ve built your strength up to a 300-pound bench, 400-pound squat, and 500-pound deadlift, and you decide to stay there for a year while improving upon your form and honing in on your diet. You’d look better despite not using progressive overload. Progressive overload is critical, but it’s not always mandatory.
14. You must incorporate plenty of variety.
Variety is the spice of life. Training can be quite mundane, and it’s always nice to spruce your programs up with new exercises, altered stance and grip widths and ranges of motion, or other tweaks such as pause reps or drop sets. Failure to vary your workouts is said to lead to stagnation and “habituation”.
However, is variety truly necessary? Plenty of Olympic weightlifters from Bulgaria didn’t fall into this trap – they performed around six exercises year-round. And this is the crux of John Broz’s system – back squats, front squats, power cleans, power snatches, clean & jerks, and snatches.
Let’s say that a certain lifter performed the same five exercises his entire lifting career, and for 30 straight years he only did back squats, deadlifts, bench press, military press, and bent over rows. He’d probably have better strength and development than 90% of lifters.
Variety is nice – we all like it, it breaks up the monotony, and it keeps us interested in going to the gym, but if you don’t like change, then you don’t have to change in order to see excellent results.
15. You must periodize your training.
Periodization is essential for lifting success, right? The Russians were all about it, and American sports scientists have gone to great lengths planning detailed cycles of varying lengths. So it has to be mandatory for success, right?
The fact is, periodization is debated in the literature, and studies don’t tend to show a huge difference in gains between varying periodization models (Kiely 2012, Issurin 2010).
If you’re in tune with your body, you possess ample “common sense”, and you know the basics of program design, then you don’t really need to “periodize” your training.
But first let me clarify this statement. What is “periodization” anyway? It’s “planning”. How can any sensible lifter not perform some sort of planning when he trains? Even the biggest fools at the gym know what their “go-to” exercises are for the chest and biceps.
The vast majority of respectable lifters plan their training splits, training frequency, exercise selection, and order. Based on intuition and biofeedback, they tend to vary the intensity and volume on a particular day, but there’s some structure and planning to their methods.
Therefore, every single respectable lifter does in fact periodize his training. But do you need to jot down an annual plan full of cycles and phases? The vast majority of bodybuilders don’t do this, especially the top dogs.
Furthermore, “life” tends to force you into cycles and phases. Stress, new jobs, vacations, injuries, parties, holidays, work, deadlines, new relationships, and travel force lifters into varying their programming.
Moreover, periodization doesn’t allow for “on-the-fly” adjustments and can be too rigid. Chuck Vogelpohl was notorious for maxing out on his Dynamic Effort day; once he got ramped up he couldn’t resist going heavy. Are you going to tell him he’s not lifting correctly?
16. You must deload and/or fluctuate your training stress.
As mentioned above, life forces you into fluctuating your training stress. Nevertheless, should you plan recovery weeks? Probably, but what if you’re the type of lifter who simply “nails” the optimal training variables each week?
Some lifters lack testicular-fortitude and never overreach. These folks don’t need back-off weeks. Some lifters train balls-to-the-wall and are prone to overdoing it. These folks benefit greatly from deloading.
But there are certain lifters who intuitively understand just how hard to push things. They might slightly overreach by Friday, but after taking the weekend off, they’re good to go by Monday. They make steady gains despite never taking a week off or even taking a back-off week, due to the fact that they perform just the right amount of frequency, volume, and intensity for their body week in and week out.
17. You must train frequently.
I’m a huge fan of HFT. But is it absolutely necessary? Some of the best gains I ever made were from a HIT program. Every five days, I performed a full-body workout consisting of big basic movements such as squats or front squats, deadlifts or sumo deadlifts, bench presses or close grip bench presses, and chins or rows. I got incredibly strong and gained a lot of muscle. Mike Mentzer saw great success from infrequent, full-body, intense training, as have plenty of other strong lifters.
One of the biggest misconceptions out there is that you have to be in the gym all day long in order to see results. If more aspiring lifters knew that they could in fact see incredible gains from lifting just six days per month, they’d probably embark on a resistance training regimen.
The caveat is that you have to do it right – no wimpy isolation lifts allowed. Hammer the big basic movements every five days and you’ll see great results.
18. You must perform total body workouts, or you must split your workouts.
The vast majority of bodybuilders split their programs. Many powerlifters split things up too. Total body training works for many individuals, but no single system is ideal for every individual and goal.
On the contrary, Olympic lifters don’t split their workouts, nor do most strongmen or athletes. There are prisoners who’ve gotten incredibly jacked from daily full-body workouts. Split training works for many individuals, but no single system is ideal for every individual and goal.
19. You must perform multiple sets.
Research clearly shows that multiple sets trump single sets for strength and size (Krieger 2009, Krieger 2010, Rhea et al. 2002). However, think of it this way:
Let’s say that a lifter did one exercise per workout and squatted on Monday, benched on Wednesday, and deadlifted on Friday. He performs five sets in each session.
Let’s say another lifter did one set of five compound exercises on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. They’re both doing 15 sets of exercise per week. Do you really think that they’d be much different in terms of strength or size?
Aside from a couple of warm-up sets, Dorian Yates performed one set to failure, and he had one of the best physiques in the history of bodybuilding.
The first set is by far the most important, with each subsequent set being less and less important. And if you end up hitting the muscles from more angles due to more exercises being performed, a case could be made that you can see even better results in terms of hypertrophy with single-set protocols versus multiple-set protocols.
20. You must consistently train balls-to-the-wall.
If you don’t go all-out every session, you won’t progress, right? Maybe not. Many experts feel that overdoing things holds more lifters back than underdoing things. Leaving a rep or two in the tank, choosing less-taxing exercise variations, and performing Dynamic Effort work allows lifters to train more frequently by sparing the nervous system and the joints from heavy pounding.
Pavel Tsatsouline advises lifters to “grease the groove” and quit obsessing about maximal performance on every set of every exercise.
Let’s say you train five days per week, never quite going to failure or maxing out on chain close grip bench press, feet-elevated inverted rows, chain front squats, heavy kettlebell swings, and farmer’s walks. You’d be very fit, strong, and muscular, and your joints would thank you.
I’m definitely not telling you that you shouldn’t do the things mentioned in this article. However, some of the tenets listed will be more or less important for you depending on your particular genetics and goals. Just keep in mind that these 20 items are nice to do, but not absolutely mandatory for success.
In Part 2 of this series I will disclose the things you must do to ensure optimal gains in strength training.
Most of you likely spent the holidays relaxing with family and friends while assaulting your senses with food, alcohol, and the new Justin Bieber Christmas album. But while you were out decking the halls in your gay apparel, I was poring over the latest strength and conditioning research so you can kick off 2012 on the right foot. The typical lifter, athlete, personal trainer, strength coach, or physical therapist is bound to find something useful in this article.
Stretching and DOMS
DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) typically arises within a day of exercise and peaks in intensity at around 48 hours. Many strength & conditioning practitioners believe that stretching before or after exercise will reduce soreness.
Henschke and Lin (2011) reviewed the research on this topic and concluded that stretching does not affect muscle soreness. Twelve total studies were included with a combined 2,377 participants. Pooled estimates showed that pre- and post-exercise stretching reduced soreness on average by one point on a 100-point scale one day following exercise, increase soreness on average by one point on a 100-point scale two days following exercise, and had no effect on soreness by day three.
Findings were consistent across settings (lab vs. field studies), types of stretching, intensity of stretching, populations (athletic, untrained, men, women) and study quality, so the conclusions are not likely to change with future research. To reiterate, stretching doesn’t affect muscle soreness.
Power Lifts versus Olympic Lifts – Peak Power Outputs
For decades coaches have argued about whether Olympic lifting is mandatory for athletes seeking maximal power production. Some coaches are strong advocates of Olympic variations based on the premise that Olympic lifts produce much higher power outputs compared to the powerlifts (Garhammer, 1993).
This may be true for maximal Olympic lifts compared to maximal power lifts, but this is because maximum power is derived with differing loads in the Olympic lifts compared to the power lifts. Maximum power is obtained with much heavier loads relative to 1RM with Olympic lifts, whereas with power lifts, maximum power is achieved with much lighter loads relative to 1RM.
Data from Garhammer (1980) showed that the highest peak power outputs involved in elite Olympic weightlifters belonged to lifters from the 110kg weight class. These lifters developed 4,807 watts of power during certain phases of the Olympic lifts. Examining the power clean, Winchester et al. (2005) reported maximum power values of 4,230 watts while Cormie et al. (2007) reported maximum power values of 4,900 watts.
A recent study examining 23 powerlifters and rugby players showed that deadlifts at 30% of 1RM produced 4,247 watts of power (Swinton et al., 2011a). This is slightly less than values reported by the same researchers in another recent study, which showed that peak power in a straight bar deadlift was 4,388 watts (at 30% of 1RM) while peak power in a hex bar deadlift was 4,872 watts (at 40% of 1RM). In fact, some individuals were able to reach values over 6,000 watts in the submaximal deadlifts (Swinton et al., 2011b).
The Olympic weightlifting versus powerlifting debate will undoubtedly continue to rage, but this emerging research should provide some interesting fuel to the equation. Considering the available research, it appears that dynamic effort hex bar deadlifts with 40% of 1RM can match the Olympic lifts – including the power clean – in peak power production.
Full ROM Versus Partials for Hypertrophy
Several studies have been conducted measuring the effects of full range of motion (ROM) lifts versus partial ROM lifts on maximal strength, but until now no study had measured the effects of full ROM lifts versus partial ROM lifts on hypertrophy.
Ronei et al. (published ahead of print) found that performing two sessions/week of preacher curls for ten weeks with full ROM (0° to 130° of elbow flexion) resulted in significantly higher muscle thickness gains in the biceps compared to the partial ROM group (50° to 100° of elbow flexion). The full ROM group increased hypertrophy by 9.52%, whereas the partial ROM group only by 7.37%, although the volume for the full ROM group was 36% lower than that of the partial ROM group.
The subjects used in this study lacked resistance training experience, so conclusions should be limited to newbies. Based on this research, newbies should use a full ROM to maximize hypertrophic adaptations.
Sprint Acceleration – Everything Works
Australian researchers recently came up with a very cool study – they examined the effects of four different protocols (free sprinting, weights, plyometrics, and resisted sprinting) on sprint acceleration performance (Lockie et al., published ahead of print). Subjects consisted of field athletes who were already training at least three hours per week. Respective additional training sessions were performed twice per week for 60 minutes each for six total weeks.
Here are the highlights:
- All groups significantly increased their 0-5 meter and 0-10 meter velocity by 9-10%.
- All groups significantly increased their mean step length.
- The weights and plyometrics groups also significantly increased their 5-10 meter velocity.
- The free sprinting group significantly increased their 5-bound test, a measure of horizontal power.
- The free sprinting, plyometrics, and resisted sprinting groups significantly increased their reactive strength index (jump height divided by contact time), a measure of elastic strength.
- All groups significantly increased their 3RM squat and relative 3RM squat, with the weights group showing the largest increases in strength.
- All groups increased their speed through increases in stride length, not by way of increases in stride frequency or decreased contact time.
This study showed that the underlying mechanisms for improvements were protocol-specific. Prior research has shown that combined training yields even greater results than using one specific method (Kotzamanidis et al. 2005), so chances are even better results could be realized if multiple protocols were trained concurrently.
Moreover, the weights group performed just vertical plane exercises consisting of squats, step ups, hip flexion, and calf raises. It’s possible that the weights group could have seen even better results had the researchers added in a horizontal hip strengthening exercises such as a hip thrust or a back extension.
The Kettlebell Swing
Brand new research by McGill and Marshall (published ahead of print) has taken a close look at the kettlebell swing. Swings were performed one arm at a time with a 16kg kettlebell and were initiated with the participant in the squat position with a neutral spine. Participants were cued to “initiate the swing through the sagittal plane by simultaneously extending their hips, knees and ankles and to use the momentum to swing the kettlebell to chest level and return to their initial starting position.”
Here are the highlights:
- Lumbar spine ROM ranged from 26 degrees of flexion at the bottom of the movement to 6 degrees of extension at the top of the movement.
- Hip ROM ranged from 75 degrees of flexion at the bottom of the movement to 1 degree of extension at the top.
- Knee ROM ranged from 69 degrees of flexion to 2 degrees of extension.
- As the movement progressed from the bottom of the swing to the top of the swing, back muscle activation peaked first at around 50% of MVC, followed by abdominal/oblique activation at around 20-30% of MVC, followed by gluteal muscle activation at around 75% of MVC.
- The glutes were closely associated with end-range hip extension torque.
- Spinal loading was greatest in the beginning of the swing (461N of shear and 3195N of compression), which dropped significantly as the ROM progressed to the middle of the swing (326N of shear and 2328N of compression) and finally to the top of the swing (156N of shear and 1903N of compression).
- The effort is mostly concentric as gravity assists most of the eccentric component of the swing.
- Muscle activation ramps up during a half-second interval in the concentric phase and then transitions to almost complete relaxation during much of the eccentric phase.
Russian kettlebell master Pavel Tsatsouline participated in this study and was able to reach 150% MVC in his erector spinae and 100% MVC in this gluteal muscles with just a 32kg kettlebell.
Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors
One of my American strength coach buddies in Auckland gave me an amazing book to read during my free time titled Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors: Volume I. Randy Roach, the author, spent considerable time researching the history of bodybuilding, from the origins of physical culture through the rise of the iron game. You may recall T Nation contributor Chris Colucci interviewing Randy about the book in 2009here.
I was very interested in learning more about some of the personalities of the characters who helped mould and shape the industry, including the Weiders, Bob Hoffman, and Vince Gironda to name a few. Though geniuses, most of our founders seem like eccentric and overly arrogant egomaniacs.
You’ll certainly find it interesting to learn about the “Weider Research Clinic,” not to mention the origins of various debates such as those pertaining to the squat exercise or training for strength versus size, and finally the infiltration of anabolic steroids.
I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the bodybuilding and nutrition industries as it’s important to know and understand their roots and progression.
A study has finally been conducted examining the training methods of strongman competitors. Until now no such study existed. Winwood et al. (2011) surveyed 167 strongmen from 20 different countries on a variety of training topics.
Here are the highlights:
- 66% of strongmen reported that the back squat was the most frequently performed type of squat. Front squats were often performed as well.
- 88% of strongmen reported that the conventional deadlift was the most frequently performed type of deadlift. Partial deadlifts were often performed as well.
- 80% of strongmen periodize their training and 83% use a training log.
- 74% of strongmen perform hypertrophy training, 97% of strongmen perform maximal strength work, 90% of strongmen perform power training, and 90% of strongmen perform aerobic/anaerobic conditioning.
- 60% of strongmen perform dynamic effort squats and deadlifts (explosive reps with submaximal loads), 56% use elastic bands, and 38% use chains.
- 88% of strongmen incorporate Olympic lifting into their arsenals with 78% performing the clean. The jerk, snatch and high pull were frequently performed as well.
- 54% of strongmen perform lower body plyometrics, 29% upper body plyometrics, and 20% ballistics (i.e., jump squat, bench throw).
- 55% of strongmen perform HIIT and 53% perform low intensity cardio.
- 54% of strongmen competitors train with strongman implements once per week and 24% train with strongman implements twice per week.
- 82% of strongmen perform the tire flip, 95% perform the log clean and press, 94% perform the stones, 96% perform the farmers walk, and 49% perform the truck pull. Other strongman implements and exercises performed included various types of overhead presses (Viking, sleeper press, and dumbbells), carries (Conan’s wheel, shield, hydrant, and frame), pulls (harness, arm over arm, ropes, and chains), walks (duck and yoke), lifts (safe, kettlebells, and car deadlifts), holds (crucifix), and grip exercise (block, hand, and tools).
Low Back Loads
Many trainees fail to grasp spinal loading, in terms of both biomechanics and in common levels reached during functional movement, sports, and exercise. To help address this poorly understood topic, I created a chart below involving over twenty different studies.
Before you delve into this chart and start analyzing the data, there are a few things you should understand:
- First, if you want to convert Newtons to pounds, know that one Newton equals .224808943 pounds of force. Conversely, one pound of force is equal to 4.44822162 Newtons. You can use these numbers to convert back and forth from pounds to Newtons and vice versa. For example, in Cholewicki’s deadlift study, 17,192N of compressive force equates to (17,942N)(.224808943 lbs/N) = 4,034 pounds of force.
- The reason why such incredible compressive forces are placed on the spine during deadlifts has a lot to do with the intense contractions of core muscles needed to support the spine. These muscles clamp down on the spine, causing compressive forces to far exceed the load of the barbell. Granhed’s study used a slightly lower moment-arm measurement for the spinal extensor musculature (5 cm compared to 6 cm) than Cholewicki’s study that helps explain the larger values reported.
- Due to the orientation of the various vertebrae, joint shear force estimates are highly dependent on the vertebral level examined. For example, L5/S1 is inclined forward around 30° more than L4/L5, causing it to receive much higher shear forces. For this reason, comparisons should only be made between studies examining the same vertebral level (and even then methodology differences complicate matters). Moreover, shear forces can be directed anteriorly or posteriorly; this chart doesn’t specify the direction of forces.
|Football linemen blocking manoeuvre||L4/L5||8,679N||3,304N
|Lifting a 50 pound box from knee to waist height||L5/S1||6,000-7,000N||1,200-1,600N||Marras|
|Lifting a 33 pound box||L5/S1||6,342N||1,755N||Kingma|
|Pushing and pulling at waist height with 40% of bodyweight||L2/L3||N/A||1,100-1,200N||Knapik|
|Half squat w/loads of .8-1.6x bodyweight||L3/L4||10x bodyweight*||N/A||Cappozzo|
|Combined (sumo and conventional)||L3/L4||18,800-36,400N||N/A||Granhed|
|Straight leg sit up||L4/L5||3,230N||260N||McGill|
|Bent knee sit up||3,410N||300N|
|Straight leg sit up||L4/L5||3,502N||N/A||Axler|
|Bent knee sit up||3,350N|
|Lying leg raise||2,525N|
|Hanging straight leg raise||2,805N|
|Hanging bent knee leg raise||3,313N|
|Standing cable walkout||L4/L5||2,743-4,185N||464-714N||McGill|
|Overhead cable push||2,327-3,006N||584-760N|
|Isometric axial twist||L5/S1||3,382-4,158N||1,409-1,688N||Arjmand|
|Low Back Exercises||Site||Compressive
|Quadruped hip ext||L4/L5||2,000N||150N||Callaghan|
|Standing isometric back extension||L5/S1||1,400-1,600N||950-1,100N||Kingma|
|Swing to snatch||2,992N||404N|
|Atlas stone lift||5,659N||635N|
|Bent over row||L4/L5||3,576N||87N||McGill|
|Push Up Exercises||Site||Compressive
In 1981 the NIOSH set action limits for compression at 3,400N with maximum permissible limits at 6,300N. Some spinal experts have suggested that maximum shear loads should be limited to 1,000N.
As you can see, much of what we do on the field or in the weight room exceeds these limits (sometimes by a large margin). Many coaches vilify certain exercises based on the levels of spinal loading they produce only to prescribe alternative exercises that exceed the levels reached in the exercises they discourage. Hopefully this chart will assist coaches with logical consistency in exercise prescription decision-making.
Coaches have long debated whether specific neck training is necessary for maximum neck strength and size. Some say that neck isolation lifts are needed, while others say that posterior chain exercises such as squats, deadlifts, shrugs, and bent over rows will build all the necessary neck strength and size.
I recently located a study conducted in 1997 by researchers out of The University of Georgia that took a close look at the topic of training for neck strength and size (Conley et al., 1997). One group performed 12 weeks of squats, push presses, rack pulls, shrugs, RDL’s, bent over rows, and crunches.
Another group added in neck harness extensions. Group number one failed to increase their neck extension strength and neck size, whereas group number two saw a 34% increase in neck extension strength and a 13% increase in the cross-sectional area of selected neck muscles (mostly the splenius capitis, semispinalis capitis, semispinalis cervicis and multifidus). Take home message: If maximum neck size and strength is important to you, then make sure you perform some isolation exercises for the neck.
Yin and Yang Planks: The Hardstyle Plank
RKC creator Pavel Tsatsouline likes to talk about yin and yang planks. Yin planks are performed by simply chillaxin’ in the plank position. You might think your 3-minute plank is pretty badass, but George Hood, a 54-year-old former Marine and DEA Agent, recently shattered your best plank performance by a long shot. On December 3, 2011, in Naperville, Illinois, Hood held a plank for 1 hour, 20 minutes, and 5 seconds. You read that correctly – over 80 minutes! While incredibly impressive, this is an extreme example of a Yin plank, since it can be held for a prolonged period of time. Here’s a video highlighting Hood’s performance:
A yang plank, on the other hand, is done with an all-out performance in a shorter period of time. Allow me to introduce the RKC plank.
The RKC plank is a reverse-engineered core exercise that’s evolved into a brutal full body iso-hold. The RKC plank is also called the “Hardstyle Plank,” and when done right, wipes you out completely after only 10 seconds.
Pavel likes to teach his students the “yang” plank and show them how they can completely exhaust their bodies through maximum static exertion. The RKC plank has you manipulating whole body muscle tension to generate maximum internal work from the plank position.
Though you won’t be moving – it’s a static exercise – you’ll be engaging in an all-out 10-second isometric war by applying torque to joints that are locked into the ground by gravity. Pavel has all sorts of nifty cues that he’s come up with and will even teach you how to breathe efficiently for maximum performance, but I’m a straight up biomechanics geek so my instructions will be very cut and dry. Here’s the RKC plank in 10 not-so-easy steps:
- Get into standard plank position
- Make sure the neck is in neutral and there’s a straight line from the head to the toes
- Keep the forearms in neutral and the elbows placed directly underneath the armpits
- Make tight fists with the hands to allow for irradiation (meaning the tension is so high that it “spills” over into the other muscles)
- Keep the shoulders back and down and screw them into place through an external rotation torque
- Contract the quadriceps forcefully to lock out the knees (you’ll be surprised how high they go)
- Squeeze the thighs together through an adduction torque
- Pull the elbows down to the toes with the lats
- Pull the toes up to the elbows via the abs and hip flexors, thereby creating a hip flexion torque at the hips (i.e. a pike)
- Forcefully contract the gluteus maximus to a) counter the hip flexion moment (pike) and keep the hips extended, b) counternutate the sacrum to allow for proper inner core unit function, and c) posteriorly tilt the pelvis which decreases residual tension on the hip flexors and lumbar spine and increases residual tension on the gluteals and abdominals (when the knees are locked your pelvis won’t rotate much).
It takes some time to get this right – don’t expect to master it the first time you try it. Pick a couple points at a time and eventually you’ll have all of it down pat. When you finally get it right, you’ll never question the level of challenge provided by a plank ever again. I’ve been teaching the hardstyle plank to trainers and it’s an instant hit as within 10-20 seconds they’re shaking and convulsing.
I hope you enjoyed my ramblings and perhaps picked up something useful you can use in your own training.
- Stretching doesn’t do jack squat for reducing muscle soreness.
- Perform explosive hex bar deadlifts with 40% of 1RM and you’ll register just as high of power outputs as you would in an Olympic lift.
- Full range movements trump partials for strength and hypertrophy.
- Multiple methods including weights, sprints, sled work, and plyos will improve acceleration performance.
- Kettlebell swings are a great glute activator that builds terminal range hip extension power.
- Read Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors to gain an appreciation of our industry’s roots.
- Strongmen incorporate many types of training into their arsenals, including hypertrophy, strength, power, and conditioning work.
- Many things we do on the field or in the weight room far exceed spinal loading safety limits.<
- If you want a big and strong neck, train it specifically.
- Hardstyle (RKC) planks rock the standard plank’s world.
See you next month!
Like it or not, the bench press is the gold standard of upper body strength lifts. Critics frequently try to knock it down, calling it “over rated,” “injurious,” or the dreaded “not functional,” but the bench press isn’t going anywhere.
And for good reason. There’s no better upper body lift than the bench press. What other upper body lift requires a good amount of leg drive, sufficiently activates the lats, delts, pecs, and tri’s, is stable enough to allow for the hoisting of huge loads, and is specific to many sports due to the horizontal pressing nature of the lift?
The answer is, none!
- Powerlifters perform the bench press as one of the “Big 3” lifts in their sport and have developed numerous variations to boost their strength.
- Bodybuilders bench to build the pecs and triceps.
- Bench pressing is so revered by everyday gym rats that the first day of the week has been renamed “International Bench Press Monday.”
- The bench press is used to measure upper body strength endurance in the NFL Combine Test, and it’s correlated with many different sports performance markers.
Interestingly enough, despite all this, the bench press wasn’t readily accepted by the weightlifting community.
History of the Bench Press
At the time when pressing from a lying-down position started cropping up around the lifting communities, standing exercises were the only lifts deemed “manly.” Weightlifters scoffed at the pretty-boys who would lie on a bench to “expand their pecs.” However, once women started swooning over the broad-chested bodybuilders, the weightlifters soon jumped on the bench-pressing bandwagon.
Interestingly, the bench press has evolved over the years, from floor, bridge, and belly toss variations to the methods used by bodybuilders and powerlifters today.
At first the strict floor press was the most popular method. In 1899, using a barbell with 19-inch discs (plates), George Hackenshmidt, inventor of the barbell hack squat, rolled a barbell over his face (which was turned to the side) and performed a strict floor press with 361 pounds. This stood as a record for 18 years until Joe Nordquest broke it by 2 pounds in 1916.
Around this time, new methods started gaining ground. Lifters started figuring out that strong glutes could help them get the bar from the ground to overhead. They’d lie on the floor and position the bar over their abdomens, then perform an explosive glute bridging movement, thus catapulting the bar overhead and catching it at lockout.
The heaviest weight lifted by way of this method belonged to heavyweight wrestler-strongman Georg Lurich, who “belly-tossed” 443 pounds in 1902. Critics argued that the “belly toss” method was more of a hip-power exercise rather than an upper-body strength exercise, as the triceps were simply being used to support the weight in a locked position.
In a lighter weight class, Arthur Saxon pressed 386 pounds using the same belly toss method, a record that was later bested by Joe Nordquest, who broke it by 2 pounds in 1917. This technique remained popular through much of the 1920s and 1930s.
Here’s George Lurich, circa 1885:
Soon it became the norm to set up in a bridge position and perform a “press from back” variation, essentially turning the lift into a modified decline press. The other option was to set up normally and use the hips for a boost through a “bridge press” method. This variation differed from the belly toss and press from back methods in that the bridging motion (hip thrusting) was performed under control and held into position while the pecs and tri’s contracted concentrically to finish the lift.
However, when Bill Lilly started setting records by bridging his surprisingly flexible spine and hips all the way to where the bar was locked out, with no separation of the barbell from the abdomen until the lift was completed, people started realizing the absurdity of this method as a demonstration of upper body strength.
Fortunately, Lily’s flexible spine and hips sparked changes in acceptable form, although Lilly’s 484-pound lift remained unchallenged throughout the 1930s.
The AAU outlawed the bridging maneuver by standardizing the pullover and press in 1939. This technique involved keeping the legs straight, the feet together, and the buttocks on the ground. Nevertheless, many wrestlers would still bridge, arching up onto their heads and performing “wrestler’s bridges” while pressing, which required unbelievable neck strength.
Eventually floor pressers realized that small boxes and crates could be used to increase the exercise’s range of motion and pectoralis activity, and before long specialized pieces of equipment were being manufactured. Throughout the 1940s, several types of horizontal presses were popular: the strict floor press, the belly toss, the press from back, the bridge press, and the bench press.
By the 1950s bodybuilding was on the rise, and full range of motion was deemed the best method for hypertrophy. At this time the bench press was crowned the king of upper body lifts. As benches grew sturdier, spotters gained competency, form improved, and supportive equipment evolved, bench press numbers have continued to rise.
In the 1950s, Doug Hepburn became the first man to bench 400 and 500 pounds with a pause on the chest. The first 600-pound lift belonged to Pat Casey in the 1960s while the first 700-pound bench is credited to Ted Arcidi in the 1980s. Tim Isaac became the first 800-pound bencher in the late 1990s while Gene Rychlak became the first 900-pound and 1,000-pound bencher in the early 2000s.
The current record belongs to Ryan Kennelly, who benched 1,075 pounds in 2008 with supportive equipment, while Scot Medelson holds the raw record at 715 pounds, which he performed in 2005.
Indeed, the bench press has received its fair share of controversy every step of the way. From day-one, lifters claimed it produced unequal chest to back development and created poor posture. This debate rages on today, with coaches questioning its functional transfer, safety, and optimal technique.
Just as the arched back technique was questioned long ago before actual benches were used, the current arched back technique popular in powerlifting is still frowned upon by many, as is the use of bench shirts.
One thing is certain; lifters will always seek ways to increase their strength on the bench. Before we delve into the various methods used to increase bench press strength, let’s examine what the literature has to say about this exercise.
A Review of the Bench Press Literature
Substantial research has been conducted regarding the bench press and its variants. Probably the most important yet overlooked component to bench press performance is the importance of technique. Less experienced lifters differ from more experienced lifters in setup strategies, execution strategies, and overall technique (Madsen & McLaughlin 1984). We recommend that beginners devote considerable time and attention to proper technique and reinforce good technique with every repetition performed.
Researchers have debated the mechanisms behind the “sticky point,” but we recommend that the sticky point not be thought of as a “point,” but a “region.” This region is characterized by a period of lower external force in relation to gravity resulting in a slowing of bar speed and a decrement in momentum.
A typical 1RM-attempt repetition may last around 1.8 seconds. The sticky region starts at around 2-4 tenths of a second into the concentric portion of the repetition and ends at around 8-9 tenths of a second, comprising around 25% of the duration of the shortening motion (Van den Tillaar & Ettema 2010; Elliot et al. 1989).
Two predominant theories exist which explain the reasons for the sticky region. Elliot et al. (1989) found that muscle activity remained unchanged in the prime movers and suggested that the occurrence happens as a result of the termination of the period of increased elastic strain energy from the reversal portion of the movement.
But the elastic assistance ends very quickly, thereby creating a burden for the active contractile components of the muscle fibers. This makes a lot of sense, but Van den Tillaar & Ettema (2010) found otherwise.
They showed that muscle activity in the prime movers was diminished during the sticky region, and proposed that a neural delay is created between the point where the muscle’s leverages diminish and where the brain ramps up muscle activation to complete the movement. We recommend using a variety of strategies to increase your ability to overcome the sticky point, which we’ll discuss later in the article.
Any serious lifter understands the importance of mental preparation before a heavy lift. Tod et al. (2005) conducted a very interesting study where they found that “psyching up” led to an 8% increase in force production compared to controls.
They also took a look at force production in a bench press when distracted and found that distracted lifters were unable to produce maximum force. A 12% difference existed between psyched up lifters and distracted lifters. This could amount to a 36-pound difference for a 300-pound bench presser!
We recommend that you save your huge psyche-ups for true max attempts and use them sparingly for optimum performance. Furthermore, we recommend that you concentrate diligently during your lifts and ditch any workout partner who likes to tell jokes or talk during your sets.
Power output during the bench press was shown to increase from 10% to 50% of 1-RM and then decrease from 50% to 90% 1-RM (Stock et al. 2010). This jibes with the findings of Siegal et al. (2002) who found optimal power loads at 40-60% of 1RM. Similarly, Jandacka & Uchytil (2011) found optimal loads at 30-50% of 1RM, while Pearson et al. (2009), found that maximum mean and peak power in the bench press occurred with loads of 53% and 50%, respectively.
Regarding tempo, Pryor et al. (2011) found that fast eccentrics with no rest in the bottom position resulted in the greatest power output gains when compared to slow eccentrics and pauses in the bottom position (something Thibs has been saying for years, which has finally been validated). We recommend using loads of around 50% of 1RM if trying to demonstrate maximum power (remember power equals force x velocity), but when trying to develop maximum power, use a variety of loads ranging from 30-100% of 1RM. For maximum power production, we also recommend incorporating bench throws, which have an optimal power load of 55% of 1RM bench press (Baker et al. 2001) and display higher levels of peak force compared to the bench press (Clark et al. 2008).
Multiple sets have been shown to be superior to single sets for strength gains in the bench press (Rhea et al. 2002).
As far as exercise order is concerned, the bench press is most often performed before exercises such as flies and dumbbell presses due to the increased total body musculature used in the barbell bench press, though all three offer similar levels of pectoral activation (Welsh et al. 2005). Rocha et al. (2007) found similar levels of pec activation between the bench press and pec deck, which lends credence to the findings of Welsh et al.
Placing the bench press first in the workout is a more ideal strategy than placing it at the end of the workout if increased bench press strength is the goal (Simao et al. 2005; Spineti et al. 2010).
As long as volume is matched, it appears that training two times per week versus three times per week or using total body routines versus split routines doesn’t make much of a difference in bench press strength gains (Candow & Burke 2007;Arazi & Asadi 2011).
Following a high-intensity workout, women recover their max bench press strength in only four hours whereas men take 48 hours to recover (Judge & Burke 2010).
For maximum bench press strength, we recommend performing a bench press variation twice per week with an emphasis on lower rep ranges and maximal and dynamic effort methods. Women seeking increased bench press strength train the lift more frequently as they don’t fatigue to the same degree as men on this exercise.
It’s common knowledge amongst lifters that for pec activation, the clavicular head (upper pecs) is recruited more during an incline press, whereas the sternocostal head is recruited better in a flat bench press. Trebs et al. (2010) found the “sweet” spot to be right at 44 degrees for upper pec activity.
Barnett et al. (1995) found that the horizontal bench press activated the most sternocostal pec muscle and triceps fibers, close grip incline press activated the most clavicular pec fibers, and military press activated the most anterior delt fibers.
Lehman (2005) showed that a supinated (reverse) grip led to higher activation in the clavicular (upper) fibers compared to a regular grip and that narrower (close) grips led to higher triceps but lower pec activation than regular grip.
Glass and Armstrong (1997) examined the level of pectoral muscle activation between the decline press and incline press. They found that the decline press activated more lower pec fibers compared to the incline press, while the level of upper pec activation was similar between both lifts.
Clemens and Aaron (1997) found the wide grip bench press worked more prime mover musculature than narrow grip in all the major muscles. For maximum hypertrophy, we recommend performing a variety of grip widths and torso angles to stimulate as many fibers as possible.
Upon analyzing injuries during flat bench press, Green and Comfort (2007) explained how shoulder abduction at 45 degrees with a medium grip offered the safest method of bench press performance for the shoulder joint. For maximum pectoral development, we recommend performing a variety of chest exercises in a variety of rep ranges.
Massey et al. (2004) examined partial range of motion (ROM) training, full ROM training, and a combination of both. They found that none of the three categories resulted in superior strength gains of full ROM bench pressing, yet interestingly the combination group saw the least results.
Regarding machine versus free weight bench pressing, Schick et al. (2010) demonstrated that Smith machine bench pressing activated less shoulder stabilizer and prime mover muscle than free weight bench pressing. Researchers have also identified that a max free-weight bench press is significantly higher than a max Smith-machine bench press (Cotterman et al. 2005).
Research by Ignjatovic (2009) indicates that measures of static strength in the bench press don’t correlate well with measures of dynamic bench pressing strength, so isometric outputs shouldn’t be used to predict a 1RM.
Duffey and Challis (2011) found that there are considerable lateral forces at play when bench pressing. They used a special bar that allowed for the measurement of vertical and lateral forces and found that the “pulling apart” force exerted on the bar equaled roughly 25% of the upward force. It appears that the muscles involved in pressing the bar upward produce considerable outward forces as well.
This helps explain why individuals can’t dumbbell press as much as they can bench press; not only is more stabilization required, but lateral forces aren’t allowable in dumbbell pressing as they’d cause the dumbbells to move away from each other, which would result in a failed lift. The fact that triceps EMG is lower during dumbbell pressing compared to barbell pressing lends support to this theory (Saeterbakken et al. 2011). Elitefts has been preaching about spreading the bar apart during the bench for years.
“Forced reps” are quite popular, especially in commercial gyms. Drinkwater et al. (2007) found no significant difference in both strength and power gains between lifters using forced repetitions and those not using forced repetitions. As for taking the training just to failure, Drinkwater et al. (2005) showed that 4 sets of 6 repetitions was superior to 8 sets of 3 repetitions for strength and power gains.
As a set progresses from first to last rep, bar speed slows down and the bar path shifts more to lifting over the shoulders rather than over the lower/middle chest area (Duffey & Challis 2007).
The bench press has an ascending strength curve, meaning that it becomes easier as the concentric range of motion rises. Elliot et al. (1989) found that bench pressing with an 81% 1RM load resulted in 48% of the lift being performed in an acceleration phase and 52% being performed in a deceleration phase. These periods of deceleration are necessary to prevent the bar from jolting the lifter upward at the termination of the lift. For this reason, amongst others, the use of variable resistance such as bands and chains are commonly used.
Bellar et al. (2011) showed that distributing the load with 15% band tension and 85% free weight tension allows for superior strength gains compared to free weights only. Burnham et al. (2010) demonstrated equal 1RM increases between chains of 5% total load and free weights only, similar to the results of McCurdy et al. (2009), who used greater proportions of chain to bar loads.
Using 15% chain load and 60% free weights for a total of 75% of 1RM, Baker and Newton (2009) found the method to be superior in enhancing concentric lifting velocity compared to using a regular 75% 1RM of free weight only. Studies suggest using 40-50% of 1RM with either chains or bands has the greatest effect on power variables (Ghigiarelli 2009). We support the use of chains and bands as the research is clear, but we feel a decent base of strength should be built before traveling down this path.
Ojasto & Hakinen (2009) found that accentuated eccentric loading as in weight-releasers was more productive for power production when using lighter loads. Specifically, they found that concentric force reduced when supramaximal eccentric loads were used before a maximal concentric rep, yet they also found that when heavier eccentric loads were used for submaximal loading, concentric power was maximized. Doan et al. (2002) showed that accentuated eccentric loads through weight-releasers with 105% loads led to subsequent increases in concentric loads of 5-15 lbs. We recommend using weight-releasers as a strategy to increase upper body pressing power while using around 70% of 1RM loads for the eccentric portion and 50% of 1RM for the concentric portion.
Concerning stable versus unstable surfaces, it’s been shown that bench pressing on unstable surfaces allows for an increase in activation of total body stabilizer muscles during the movement, and the mode of instability has the greatest effect on which areas of the body recruit more stabilizers (Norwood et al. 2007; Saeterbakken 2011).
For example, the triceps are used less but the biceps are used more during dumbbell pressing compared to barbell pressing (Saeterbakken 2011). The pectoralis major (chest) and shoulders showed similar recruitment patterns in both dumbbell versus barbell pressing (Saeterbakken 2011).
Koshida et al. (2008) demonstrated decreased peak power (10%), velocity (10%), and peak force (6%) when benching on a Swiss ball. Conversely, Goodman et al. (2008) reported no differences in 1RM strength and muscle activation during the traditional flat bench barbell press compared to the barbell Swiss ball bench press. Obviously more research is needed in this area as we doubt that elite bench pressers would be able to bench the same amount on a Swiss ball compared to a flat bench.
Santana et al. (2007) looked at the differences between a standing one-arm cable press and a traditional supine bench press and found that the barbell bench press was better for the pecs, shoulders, and erectors, whereas one-arm cable pressing was better for the lats and internal oblique. They confirmed that whole body stability and coordination were greater and thus more of a limiting factor in the standing version compared to the supine.
All types of stretching protocols for the pecs, shoulders, and triceps have been shown to have no effect on maximum bench press strength (Molacek et al. 2010). As for stretching between sets of bench press, Garcia Lopez et al. (2010) found that absolute velocity decreased when performing static stretching between sets whereas it was unaffected by ballistic stretching.
Researchers compared heavy resistance training only and combined heavy resistance training with ballistic training. The results showed greater significant increases in 1RM strength with the combined protocol compared to just heavy resistance training (Mangine et al. 2008). Wilcox et al. (2006) demonstrated that using two plyometric pushups or two light medicine ball chest passes around 30 seconds before bench press performance enhanced maximum strength acutely.
Methods for Improving Bench Press Strength
This section will discuss bench press technique and showcase methods used for strengthening various ranges of motion and variations.
Your technique will be determined by your anatomy and goals. In comparison to powerlifters, most bodybuilders don’t arch their backs as much, they flare their elbows out more, and they lower the bar higher onto their chest.
Pilot research has shown that a guillotine press with 225 pounds of resistance activates more pec musculature than a 275 pound powerlifting-style bench press. This indicates that bodybuilders know what they’re talking about when it comes to muscle activation, but it’s also very important to consider joint health. While there’s no doubt that the guillotine press is superior for pectoral activation, it’s also more dangerous for the shoulder joint.
Physiological responses to different technique options can vary. For example, some lifters can guillotine press their entire careers and never suffer any consequences. However, other lifters impinge their shoulders by simply glancing at someone performing a guillotine press.
At any rate, for higher pec activation you may choose to flare the elbows outward and lower the bar higher up on the chest, but for maximum shoulder joint safety, using a 45 degree shoulder angle is the safest bet.
Another strategy for increasing pectoral involvement and decreasing triceps’ involvement is to not “pull the bar down to your chest” by “spreading the bar apart.” Doing this will allow the pecs to contribute more to the bar deceleration than if you used your triceps on the way down.
If you simply want to decrease the force contribution from the lower body and force the upper body muscle to do the work, then eliminate the leg drive during the ascent by placing your feet flat on the ground under your knees. Be sure not to drive into the ground during the press and concentrate on using only upper body force.
Varying the grip will also shift muscular contributions during the bench press. A closer grip would use the arms and shoulders more while the wider variation receives a greater contribution of force from the pectorals. If you’d like a bit more contribution from the triceps, simply keep your elbows tucked in throughout the movement.
In the end, these strategies are not absolutes. Some lifters may not get as much of a pronounced change as others by altering their bench press technique. The reason being is that lifters present varying levels of mobility, stability, weak points, and anthropometries. Some might experience a much different pressing feeling by using a different technique while others only feeling a slight change.
If interested in maximum strength, we recommend the following:
- Don’t ignore leg drive, experiment to find the best foot position for you, create a stable base, get the quads tight, and force the knees out to activate the glutes.
- Set up onto the upper back and get a big lower back arch while “screwing” your scapulae down into the bench. Don’t lose this position during the lift off and settle the bar overhead before lowering to your chest.
- Experiment to find the best grip width for you, grip the bar as hard as possible while wrapping the bar tight with your thumb, and maintaining a neutral wrist position, and spread the bar apart throughout the lift.
- Hold a huge breath and pull the bar down with the lats, initiate the press with the lats and focus on pushing your body away from the bench. Experiment with different bar paths to find the best path for you, release your breath only after you’re passed the sticky region.
- Don’t bounce the bar off your chest or raise your butt off the bench during the lift.
Unique Methods for Improving Strength
Raw powerlifters should spend a significantly larger proportion of time focusing on bottom range bench press strength and using full range repetitions, whereas equipped powerlifters should dedicate more time building top-end strength since their bench shirts will provide tremendous elastic assistance at the bottom of the lift.
Most Important – the Standard Bench Press
If all you ever did was a standard bench press, you’d be okay. But the variations below will get you from point A to point B quicker if you train correctly.
Bottom Range Strength
In this video we showcase three different methods to increase your bottom range bench press strength:
- Pin press from bottom range
- Bottom range yielding iso-hold
- Bottom range overcoming iso-hold
Mid Range Strength
In this video we showcase four different methods to increase your mid range bench press strength:
- Mid range yielding iso-hold
- Mid range overcoming iso-hold
- Dead-stop floor press
- Pin press from mid range
Top Range Strength
In this video we showcase eight different methods to increase your top range bench press strength:
- Floor press
- Board press (1-4)
- Pin press from top range
- Top range yielding isohold
- Top range overcoming isohold
- Reverse band
- Bench plus chains (Overloaded at top)
- Bench plus bands (Overloaded at top)
In this video we show you two different ways to overload the eccentric/negative/lowering phase:
- Negative accentuated
- Weight releasers
In this video we provide five methods for improving stability in a bench press:
- Chain stability press
- Kettlebell stability press
- Dumbbell press
- Alternating dumbbell press
- One-arm dumbbell press
Weak Links and Variety
This video details several different variations that can and should be employed during various phases throughout the year:
- Speed bench
- Speed bench with chains
- Speed bench with bands
- Close grip bench press
- Wide grip bench press
- High incline press
- Mid incline press
- Low incline press
- Decline press
- Narrow neutral grip bar
- Wide neutral grip bar
- Thick bar
Many bodybuilders train the bench press once per week during their chest day with large amounts of volume. Many powerlifters train the bench press movement twice per week — once with maximal loads, and once with maximum power outputs.
This is a good place to start, but all bodybuilders and powerlifters should experiment with form, variations, frequency, volume, and intensity to figure out what works best for them.
Generally, most lifters can handle two bench sessions per week. For hypertrophy purposes, perhaps one session per week focusing on the bench press and another focusing on the close-grip incline press is ideal. For maximum strength, perhaps one session per week focusing on the bench press and another focusing on the board press is ideal.
For hypertrophy purposes, we recommend a variety of rep ranges ranging from 3 x 10 to 10 x 3, ascending pyramids to descending pyramids, cluster sets to drop sets.
For max strength, we recommend staying under 5 reps and getting comfortable performing maximum singles. It’s critical that you use good form to stay healthy over the long run, rotate variations to prevent pattern-overload and habituation, and consistently add load to the bar every year.
As far as the myriad of methods and variations shown in this article, don’t be a jackass and try to do everything at once. The guy who ignores all the crazy methods and variations and focuses on straight sets of the standard bench press is usually much stronger than the douchebag who tries to perform every variation and method in existence. Every few weeks pick a new focus, and then rotate to a different focus.
Attention should be dedicated toward strengthening the shoulder external rotators and scapula retractors for structural balance. Exercises such as L-flies, band no-moneys, cable external rotation, face pulls, rear delt raises with scapular retraction, one arm rows, seated rows, one arm cable rows, chest supported rows, and inverted rows are very important to prevent negative postural adaptations and prevent future shoulder injuries.
Furthermore, push ups and overhead pressing and pulling help keep the scapulae working properly, which is vital long-term benching prowess, so don’t ignore them, either.
If you’re trying to maximize the functional transfer of your bench press and improve your athleticism, we recommend supplementing your existing program with JC Band presses, which will strengthen the hips and core to allow for more carryover, along with explosive work such as med-ball chest passes and plyo pushups, which will increase explosive power and reactive strength.
Of course having strong legs and hips through squatting, deadlifting, hip thrusting, and sled work will also go a long way in increasing your horizontal pushing power and will ensure that your upper body pressing transfer isn’t limited by weaknesses and energy leaks down the kinetic chain.
We hope you enjoyed the history lesson, the literature review, and the videos. Now get to it!
To say I’m a workaholic is like saying Tiger Woods has commitment issues. Through all the lifting, training, reading, and researching that I do, I’m constantly being exposed to and coming up with new ideas.
This column will introduce T Nation readers to just some of what I happen to stumble upon every day, in no particular order of importance. The typical lifter, athlete, personal trainer, strength coach, or physical therapist is bound to find something useful in this article.
1. Low Load Glute Activation is Legit
One thing I love about T Nation is that often the best coaches in the world are years ahead of the research. You might remember Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey writing about glute activation as early as 2004. I can remember thinking, “Why in the hell would I do some silly Jane Fonda exercises?”
When other top coaches including Mark Verstegen, Mike Boyle, and Martin Rooney started recommending glute activation, I could no longer ignore their advice. I got down on the floor and got my bridge, clam, and bird dog on and immediately recognized the potential in these simple movement patterns.
And thus began a love affair unparalleled by any other. Some guys have pictures of their girlfriend on their nightstand. Me? A picture of some glutes with a bouquet of roses stuck in-between the cheeks.
Kidding. But I do keep my eyes and ears open for new glute research. Case in point:
Australian researchers recently put 22 professional Australian Football League (AFL) players through three different warm-up protocols:
- Standing on a whole body vibration platform for 45 seconds at 30 Hz.
- A 5-7 minute, 7-glute exercise routine consisting of glute bridges, side lying clams, quadruped hip extensions, side lying hip abductions, prone single leg hip extensions, fire hydrants, and stability ball wall squats.
- A control group.
The researchers found that during a countermovement jump, the whole body vibration group fared 2.4%worse than the control group, while the glute activation group outperformed the control group in peak power by 4.2%, along with outperforming the whole body vibration group by 6.6% (Buttifant et al. 2011.).
My conclusion is that you’d be wise to include some low load glute activation work in your warm-ups. Remember, the purpose of glute activation isn’t to “rep-out” or “max-out,” but to groove proper motor patterns and focus on getting the glutes working efficiently. Ten high-quality repetitions of each exercise is all you need.
2. Cue the Glutes!
Speaking of glute activation, Cara Lewis and Shirley Sahrmann tested the gluteal activation of a prone hip extension exercise (Lewis and Sahrmann 2009). They showed that compared to no cueing, simply uttering the phrase, “Use your glutes to lift your leg while keeping your hamstrings relaxed,” resulted in over double the gluteus maximus activation and caused the gluteus maximus to fire quicker in hip extension.
Based on my experience as a trainer, most beginners suck at using their glutes. It’s important to remind individuals over and over to use their glutes until it becomes automatic.
3. Lifters vs. Weaklings – Lumbopelvic Rhythm
After a couple of months of training with me, my clients always tell me that their backs feel stronger and better than ever. Is it due to increased hip mobility, or is it core stability? Maybe it’s just increased glute strength? Perhaps it’s due to improved fundamental movement patterns? Or is it a case of all of the above?
In his book Low Back Disorders, Stu McGill discusses the mythical lumbopelvic rhythm pattern explained in textbooks – supposedly the first 60° of bending is accomplished by flexing the lumbar spine while the remaining flexion takes place at the hips (McGill page 74). While most individuals bend with a blend of spinal, pelvic, and hip motion, weightlifters possess unique movement patterns at the hip. Stu states that:
Of course, Olympic weightlifters are better at hip hinging than normal individuals, but the importance of this information is that the movement patterns developed in the weight room transfer over to everyday life.Master the hip hinge first and everything else seems to fall into place.
Here’s my man Tony Gentilcore demonstrating proper hip hinge patterning with a dowel.
4. Powerlifters vs. Olympic Weightlifters – Hip and Knee Moments During Squatting Tasks
Swedish researchers measured the hip and knee moments of six powerlifters and eight Olympic weightlifters during parallel and deep squats (Wretenberg et al. 1996). The results were intriguing: during deep squats powerlifters exhibited 41% higher hip extension moments and 37% less knee extension moments compared to weighlifters, and during parallel squats the powerlifters exhibited 43% higher hip extension moments and 42% less knee extension moments than weightlifters.
This study shows that during squatting tasks, powerlifters use a low-bar position, sit back more, and use their powerful hips to a greater degree than weightlifters, whereas weightlifters use a high-bar position, stay more upright, and use their powerful knee joints to a greater degree than powerlifters.
Maximum sports performance requires strong hips and knees so it’s wise to rotate between different types of squats throughout the year, including low bar parallel, box, front, and high bar full squat variations.
5. Bench Press and Lateral Forces on the Bar
Wonder why the bench press elicits more triceps activity than a dumbbell bench press? A new study out of Penn State showed that the lateral forces exerted on the bar equaled roughly 25% of the vertical forces (Duffey and Challis 2011).
Ten men and eight women were tested in the bench press and the total vertical forces totaled on average 187 pounds of force whereas the lateral forces applied to the bar totaled on average 53 pounds of force. With these proportions, a 600-pound bench presser would be exerting around 150 pounds of outward pressure on the bar throughout the movement.
If you’ve listened to Dave Tate over the years and learned to use your triceps while benching, chances are your lateral forces are even higher than 25% of the vertical forces.
This extra work is simply a byproduct of the prime mover’s maximal contractions against the barbell – which isn’t possible with the dumbbell bench press as the dumbbells would split apart and result in a failed lift.
6. Elite Fitness Glute Ham Raise
I’ve traveled the world and performed glute ham raises with over twenty different glute ham developers. In a nutshell, 99% of glute ham developers suck. Instead of feeling smooth, the lift usually feels awkward and unproductive.
That is, unless you have an Elitefts glute ham raise. If you’ve never performed a glute ham raise off of an Elifefts model, then you can’t possibly imagine the exercise’s effectiveness, as chances are the one you’re using pales in comparison.
Sometimes I wonder if equipment manufacturers even work out or understand biomechanics. Big props to Elitefts for spending the necessary time getting the design right.
7. Crunch Like This
Research out of Stanford University from 1979 showed that a sit-up exhibited 38 degrees of lumbar flexion, but a crunch where only the scapulae are lifted off the ground exhibited only 3 degrees of lumbar flexion (Halpern and Bleck 1979).
Given that the lumbar spine has between 40-73 degrees of ROM in males and 40-68 degrees of ROM in females (Troke et al. 2005), I think it’s safe to say that this type of crunch remains in the neutral zone for the lumbar spine.
If you limit the lumbar ROM and use a controlled tempo, it makes the exercise much more challenging and you’ll no longer be able to bust out hundreds of repetitions.
Start from a slightly hyperextended position by using a rolled up towel, ab mat, or stability ball. Raise the torso to only around 30° of trunk flexion, moving mostly in the thoracic spine. Control the tempo and accentuate the negative portion of the exercise. I discuss this further in the video below:
To prevent hyperkyphotic postural adaptations in the thoracic spine, make sure you perform thoracic mobility drills and include plenty of exercises to strengthen the erectors.
For example, some mobility drills include thoracic extensions off a foam roller and quadruped thoracic extension and rotation, while some strength training exercises include squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, and farmer’s walks.
8. Four to Six Weeks to Harden Up
When I was 18 years old, I was in the gym quarter-squatting 275 pounds with a pad around the bar. A giant behemoth of a man walked up behind me and told me to back down to 135 and squat down deep to the floor like a real man and quit using the pussy pad. Thankfully I took his advice and never looked back.
I can remember using the bar pad because squatting freakin’ hurt my back. The pressure was overwhelming. After ditching the bar pad, it took around four weeks to stop hurting.
When I started front squatting, the same scenario occurred – it hurt. But I stuck with it and a month later I could no longer feel any pain. Zercher squats took a bit longer to quit hurting – around six weeks – as did hook grip deadlifts. Just recently I started hip thrusting without a bar pad and it hurt like hell. I’ve been doing this for a month and it no longer hurts.
The take home message is, the more frequently you perform the lifts, the quicker your nervous system will become densensitized to the stimuli. So man up and fight through the discomfort. Just remember, what seems like torture today in a month will feel like a hot oil massage from a pair of busty Asian masseuses. I kid you not.
9. Resistance Training vs. Stretching for Flexibility Gains
Many long-term lifters have noticed that they don’t have to stretch much to maintain their flexibility. Fact is, many of us have noted superior flexibility gains from weight training compared to stretching.
In the past few years, several studies have emerged showing that resistance training increases flexibility (Monteiro et al. 2008; Santos et al. 2010). This isn’t surprising, but some have shown resistance training protocols to be just as effective or even more effective in terms of flexibility gains when compared to stretching protocols (Aquino et al. 2010, Simao et al. 2010; Morton et al. 2011; Nelson and Bandy 2004).
I’m a fan of doing all sorts of things for improved mobility and soft tissue functioning such as foam rolling and static stretching. But know that full range of motion resistance training is one of the best things you can do to increase and maintain mobility.
Just make sure your programs are well-designed, as structural balance is critical for postural and functional adaptations. To add icing on the cake, make sure you foam roll, stretch, and perform mobility and activation drills.
10. Broz Mentality – The “Shoot Your Family” Scenario
I’m a big John Broz fan. When I met him at his Las Vegas facility he said something that really hit home. He told me to envision someone capturing my family and informing me that they were going to shoot all of them unless I put a hundred pounds on my squat in one month. Then he asked me how often I would squat if this actually happened, and followed up with this gem: “Something tells me you’d squat more than twice per week.”
I like to think of this scenario for a variety of purposes in strength and conditioning. What if you had to put an inch on your arms in one month without gaining any weight? Something tells me you’d perform some curls and triceps extensions. What if you needed your abs to be the strongest they ever were? Something tells me you’d perform dynamic spinal movements and not just core stability exercises.
I hope you enjoyed my ramblings and perhaps picked up something useful you can use in your own training.
- Activate the glutes
- Learn to sit back and hinge properly at the hips
- Learn to use the triceps properly for maximum bench press performance
- Buy an Elitefts glute ham developer if you want a real GHD
- Limit your lumbar ROM when you crunch
- Know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for dealing with pain from barbell pressure on new movements as they only take a month or so to get accustomed to
- Perform full ROM resistance training for maximum flexibility
- Pick a new goal each month and attack it with purpose.
See you next month!
The most heated argument in strength and conditioning today is to crunch or not to crunch. It’s bewildering that this seemingly harmless, short ROM exercise could create such a rift between so many smart strength and conditioning professionals, yet the great crunch debate rages on.
At the center is research showing that repeated spinal flexion using cadaveric porcine spines resulted in herniated discs. This in vitro research seems to indicate that lumbar flexion is a potent herniating mechanism, and anti-crunch proponents have extrapolated from the data that humans possess a limited number of flexion cycles throughout their lifetimes.
Accordingly, they’ve gone out on a limb and recommended that spinal flexion exercises such as the crunch be avoided at all costs. While this may seem logical on the surface, there’s more to this topic than meets the eye.
Someone needs to step up and grow some balls and address the 2000-pound gorilla soiling the carpet. We know dozens of respected strength coaches, physical therapists, personal trainers, researchers, and professors that all have serious doubts about the danger of crunches, yet none wish to discuss it out of fear of being chastised.
The line must be drawn here!
Fitness is Religion
Humans have a basic need to fall into camps, rally behind a leader, believe in supernatural phenomena, and rebel against scientific principles. Throughout history scientists have been punished for questioning current dogma. Sadly, it’s no different in the fitness industry.
Many fitness professionals have been seeking a culprit for low back pain and jumped aboard the anti-crunch bandwagon without question. These folks have adopted absurdly rigid views of the lumbar spine, believing that you should go through life moving this region as little as possible to spare insult to the spine, to the point of altering normal biomechanics in daily living.
Taking it a step further, they then intimidate others into jumping on the bandwagon and get downright emotional when confronted on the topic.
This is the antithesis of scientific thinking. We’re just happy that we won’t be house-imprisoned like Galileo for hypothesizing that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe.
After delving into the topic, reviewing the literature, and applying our critical thinking skills, we’ve concluded that like every other exercise, a reasonable dose of spinal flexion exercise is potentially good for you and need not be avoided.
We presented our position in a review paper published in the Strength & Conditioning Journal and while we won’t rehash everything in the article, we do continue to question the recent “anti-crunch” movement and suggest a plausible alternative theory.
In our journal article we addressed the following issues, which will only be succinctly summarized below.
For more detailed explanations and citations, we encourage you to pull up the article and read it in its entirety.
Methodological Issues in Research Against Lumbar Flexion Exercise
Removal of muscle. The experiments used in the studies used to refute lumbar flexion exercise used porcine (pig) cervical spines with muscles removed, which alters spinal biomechanics.
No fluid flow in cadavers. Cadaveric spines don’t function the same as living spines as fluid doesn’t flow back into the discs as it does when tissue is alive.
Range of motion in porcine spine. Porcine cervical spines have smaller flexion and extension ranges of motion than human lumbar spines.
Doesn’t mimic crunch exercise regimen. When most people do crunches, they might do a few sets of 10 to 20 reps or so and then wait a couple of days before repeating. This allows the discs to repair and remodel. In the studies used to bash lumbar flexion, thousands of nonstop cycles were performed, which does not replicate a strength and conditioning regimen. It should also be noted that cadaveric spines do not remodel while living spines do.
Genetics. In the world of intervertebral disc degeneration, the role of genetics is huge. It appears that some individuals are quite prone to disc issues while others are not, suggesting that optimal programming would require knowledge of genetic traits.
Range of motion in the crunch exercise. Many years ago, an NSCA journal article described proper performance of the crunch exercise, which involved 30 degrees of total trunk flexion, most of this motion occurring in the thoracic spine, not the lumbar spine. If the lumbar spine doesn’t approach end range flexion in the crunch exercise, then the studies wouldn’t be applicable to the crunch exercise.
IAP controversy. There’s a chance that models used to estimate compressive forces during the crunch have been overestimated due to failure to take into account the role of intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). If this is the case, then the studies could have used too much compression along with range of motion mentioned earlier, which would render the studies inapplicable to crunching. However, there’s conflicting research in this area and it’s likely that the effect isn’t significant.
Potential Benefits of Lumbar Flexion Exercise
Increased fluid flow and nutrition to posterior disc. Lumbar flexion enhances nutrient delivery to discs by increasing nutrient-carrying fluids to the discs.
Increased remodeling of tissue. Proper doses of spinal flexion likely strengthens the disc tissues, which would therefore increase tolerance to lumbar flexion exercise and prevent future injury.
Sagittal plane mobility. Some studies have linked lack of spinal mobility to low back pain, however the literature is somewhat contradictory. At the very least crunches can prevent losses in spinal mobility, which might be important in low back pain prevention.
Rectus abdominis hypertrophy. When taking into account the entire body of knowledge on hypertrophy research, it’s abundantly clear that dynamic exercise is superior to isometric exercise in increasing muscle mass. Much of this has to do with the increased muscular damage incurred from eccentric activity as well as the increased metabolic stress. Bottom line, if you want to optimize your “six-pack” appearance, spinal flexion exercises will certainly help to achieve this goal.
Performance enhancement. Contrary to what some have claimed, lumbar flexion is prevalent in many sport activities. Thus, concentrically/eccentrically strengthening the abdominals may very well lead to increased athletic performance.
Anecdotes and Other Arguments
Now let’s look at some anecdotal evidence to support our claims.
If we’re indeed “limited” in the number of flexion cycles, where does the number lie?
Several fitness professionals have suggested that humans possess a limited number of flexion cycles and believe that we should save these cycles for everyday living such as tying one’s shoe rather than wasting them on crunches. Realizing that anecdotal evidence doesn’t prove squat, it’s still interesting to ponder and can provide a basis for theoretical rationale.
- In 2003, Edmar Freitas, a Brazilian fitness instructor, performed 133,986 crunches in 30 hours, thereby setting a world record. This beat his previous record of 111,000 sit-ups in 24 hours set in the prior year.
Manny Pacquiao, one of the world’s best boxers, performs 4,000 sit-ups per day.
- Finally, Herschel Walker, football legend, Olympic bobsledder, and current MMA hopeful, has been performing 3,500 sit-ups every day since he was in high school. He started doing sit-ups daily when he was 12 years old. Considering that he’s now 49 years of age, this equates to 47,267,500 sit-ups. That’s almost 50 million flexion cycles performed under compressive loading!
Granted, the argument could be made that perhaps all these individuals have screwed up spines and if you were to obtain MRI’s from each you’d see appalling evidence of herniations and degeneration, but we doubt this is the case. Instead we believe that this is clear evidence that the spinal discs can remodel and become stronger over time to resist damage incurred from spinal flexion exercise.
Another argument could be made that these folks are “outliers” and their freakish genetics allow for such incredible flexion cycles. We disagree, and believe there are likely many individuals that have unknowingly met or exceeded this number in their lifetimes. Instead, we believe that this is evidence that muscular balance, abdominal strength, and flexion exercise can protect the spine.
Should We Just Shoot Ourselves?
If we cherry-picked select disc studies to determine which forms of exercise we do, we wouldn’t be allowed to do literally anything.
We found 13 studies to indicate that spinal flexion is a bad idea. (Callaghan and McGill, 2001; Drake et al., 2005; Tampier et al., 2007; Drake and Callaghan, 2009; Marshall and McGill, 2010; Adams and Hutton, 1982; Adams and Hutton, 1983; Adams and Hutton, 1985; Lindblom 1957; Brown et al. 1957; Hardy 1958; Veres et al., 2009; Court et al. 2001). This means no crunches and sit ups.
We found 11 studies that showed that combinations of spinal loading aren’t a good idea. (Gordon et al. 1991 (Flexion and Rotation); McNally et al. 1993 (Flexion and Anterolateral Bending); Shirazi 1989 (Lateral Bending and Rotation); Kelsey et al. 1984 (Flexion and Rotation); Adams et al. 2000 (Complex); Marshall and McGill, 2010 (Flexion/Extension and Rotation); Drake et al. 2005 (Flexion and Rotation); Veres et al., 2010 (Flexion and Rotation); Schmidt et al. 2007 (Lateral Bending and Rotation, Lateral Bending and Flexion, Lateral Bending and Extension); Schmidt et al. 2007 (Lateral Bending and Flexion, Lateral Bending and Rotation, Flexion and Rotation); Schmidt et al. 2009 (Lateral Bending and Flexion, Lateral Bending and Extension). This means no exercises such as twisting sit-ups or Russian twists.
We found a couple studies showing that spinal extension is a big no-no (Adams et al., 2000; Shah et al., 1978). This means no Supermans.
Several studies show that spinal rotation is bad (Krismer et al., 1996; Aultman et al. 2004; Farfan et al. 1970). This means no cable chopping motions. And you better not be performing these on a vibration platform as that would produce a double whammy to the spine. Vibration has been shown to be bad for the discs (Dupuis and Zerlett 1987).
There’s research to suggest that lateral bending is bad for you (Costi et al. 2007; Natarajan et al. 2008). This means no side bending. Similarly, asymmetrical lifting has been shown to lead to negative results as well (Natarajan et al. 2008). This means no unilateral exercises or weighted carries.
Here’s where things get interesting. We found 18 different studies showing that static or dynamic compression is a very bad idea (Virgin 1951; Liu et al. 1983; Lai et al. 2008; Lotz et al. 1998; Tsai et al. 1998; Iatridis et al. 1999; Lotz et al. 1998; Kroeber et al. 2002; MacLean et al. 2003; Hsieh and Lotz 2003; MacLean et al. 2004; Ching et al. 2004; Masouka et al. 2007; Veres et al. 2008; Lai and Chow 2010; Nakamura et al. 2009; Wang et al. 2007; Huang and Gu 2008).
This not only means no squats, deadlifts, and core stability exercises, it means no physical activity involving free weight exercise whatsoever, since muscular contractions create compressive loading on the spine. We should have known that though, as heavy lifting is bad for the back (Lee and Chiou 1994; Kelsey et al. 1984), as is overactivity (Videman and Battie, 1999). So now we know that weightlifting and intense training is out.
It goes on and on. We’ve found studies suggesting all sorts of every day activities are bad for the back, even sitting down and bed-rest. Maybe we should all just shoot ourselves before we become completely debilitated?
Do Crunches Screw up Your Posture?
The theory goes something like this: Crunches shorten the rectus abdominis. Since the rectus abdominis spans from the sternum/rib cage to the pelvis, continually shortening the muscle will pull down your ribcage, ultimately resulting in kyphosis (i.e. a round-back posture). It’s an interesting theory. It’s also completely unfounded.
As with many theories, the essence of this claim is based on a kernel of truth. Specifically, placing a muscle in a shortened position for a prolonged time causes it to assume a shorter resting length. For example, if you immobilize your arm in a cast at a flexed position for several weeks, your arm will tend to remain flexed once the cast is removed.
This is due to an adaptive response whereby the elbow flexors (i.e. biceps, brachialis, etc.) lose sarcomeres in series while sarcomeres are added to the antagonistic extensor muscles (Toigo & Boutellier, 2006). This has been coined “adaptive shortening.”
Perhaps you can see the flaw in hypothesizing that performing a crunch will shorten the rectus abdominis, namely, crunches aren’t solely a shortening exercise! Rather, the crunch also includes eccentric actions where the rectus abdominis is returned to its resting length.
Thus, any potential negative effects of shortening contractions on sarcomere number would be counterbalanced by the lengthening effect of the eccentric actions. The net effect is no change in resting length.
Some anti-crunch proponents also argue that performing spinal flexion exercises (i.e. crunches) overly strengthens the rectus abdominis so that it overpowers its antagonists, thereby pulling down on the ribcage.
This is a straw man argument. Certainly it’s true that an imbalance between muscles can cause postural disturbances – I’m sure you’re familiar with guys who hit chest and arms every workout and end up so internally rotated that they have trouble scratching the back of their head. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t perform bench presses and arm curls.
The issue here is one of poor program design, not an indictment of specific exercises.
Regarding crunches, the same principle holds true. Sure, if you perform a gazillion crunches every day and don’t train other muscle groups, you’re setting yourself up for a postural disturbance.
But this is a non-issue if you adhere to a balanced routine. Performance of virtually any standing, non-machine based exercise will heavily involve the core musculature, particularly the posterior muscles that antagonize the rectus abdominis (Schoenfeld, 2010, Lehman, 2005). It also should be noted that the average person tends to have weak abdominals (Morris et al. 2006), so they could very well benefit from performing spinal flexion exercises.
To sum up, there is no convincing evidence that performing crunches as part of a total body resistance training routine will have any negative effects on posture.
Do crunches lead to additional dysfunction, such as breathing dysfunction and glute dysfunction?
If crunches did indeed pull down on the ribcage and induce kyphosis, then one could speculate that breathing and glute functioning could be compromised. However, as just mentioned, this likely isn’t the case.
Anecdotally, hundreds of thousands of athletes in the past few decades have achieved terrific success in spite of doing crunches. If crunches did lead to shortening of the abdominals, given that a majority of people including athletes seem to display an anterior pelvic tilt in their daily posture, one could argue that it would be wise to perform crunches to pull up on the pelvis, which could theoretically decrease anterior pelvic tilt and lead to a more neutral lumbo-pelvic posture.
Are crunches a nonfunctional exercise?
Whenever one questions the implication that crunches are as dangerous as wake boarding in a tsunami, anti-crunchers quickly counter with something like, “Who cares if they’re dangerous or not? Crunches aren’t functional! They’re a short range movement performed while lying on your back. They can’t possibly transfer to anything.”
As our mentor Mel Siff aptly stated:
Anti-crunchers will point out that the crunch solely involves bodyweight and therefore isn’t heavy enough to transfer to high-force or high-velocity movement. This is absurd, as it’s very easy to hold a dumbbell at the upper chest to increase the exercise’s intensity. You also can perform a kneeling rope crunch using a cable apparatus to increase training intensity.
What carries over best to functional activity depends on the task. Here’s a chart that should help you determine optimal transfer of training.
|Biomotor Ability||Examples||Exercise Category||Examples|
|Trunk Rotary Stability, Strength and Power||Throwing a football or baseball, throwing a discuss, swinging a bat, throwing a left hook||Rotational exercises and anti-rotation exercises||Woodchops, landmines, Pallof presses, cable or band chops and lifts|
|Trunk Lateral Bending Stability, Strength and Power||Stiff-arming, posting up, landing a jab||Lateral flexion exercises and anti-lateral flexion exercises||Side bends, side planks, suitcase carries, cable or band side bends|
|Trunk Flexion Stability, Strength and Power||Sitting up from a bench, bar gymnastics exercises, bracing for a punch to the midsection, resisting being pushed rearward as in sumo wrestling, throwing a soccer ball overhead||Flexion exercises and anti-extension exercises||Crunches, sit ups, hanging leg raises, planks, ab wheel rollouts, bodysaws|
|Trunk Extension Stability, Strength and Power||Carrying heavy loads, picking up stuff off the ground, staying upright in the clinch||Extension exercises and anti-flexion exercises||Squats, deadlifts, back extensions, reverse hypers, farmer’s walks, Zercher carries|
Basically, stability exercises appear to be better for stabilization tasks as well as tasks that require proper inner-core unit functioning, while strengthening exercises appear to be better for dynamic tasks and hypertrophy.
As you can see, an exercise like a weighted crunch could transfer quite well to a myriad of functional tasks, and therefore shouldn’t be maligned for its applicability to functional or sports performance.
Is There a Healthy Balance and Do Discs Heal and Remodel?
It’s been stated by many practitioners that the discs don’t heal. This is misleading. It’s true that they’re poorly vascularized and struggle to receive adequate nutrition, and it’s true that disc tissue doesn’t heal rapidly. Proteoglycan turnover may take 500 days (Urban et al. 1978) and collagen turnover may take longer (Adams and Hutton 1982).
Hence, the discs’ rate of remodeling lags behind that of other skeletal tissues (Maroudas et al. 1975; Skrzypiec et al. 2007).
However, much evidence of disc-healing exists. Common sense would dictate that discs do heal, otherwise anyone that suffered a disc injury would never get better. We’d all just get progressively worse until we could no longer move.
Based on epidemiological studies, it’s clear that there’s an optimal window of spinal loading that is somewhere in between bed-rest and overactivity (Videman et al., 1990).
A healthy balance has been shown to occur with spinal compression (Hutton et al. 1998; Lotz et al. 2002; Walsh and Lotz 2004; Wuertz et al. 2009; MacLean et al. 2005) and spinal rotation (Chan et al. 2011). Positive aspects of spinal bending have been shown to occur in the discs as well (Lotz et al. 2008; Court et al. 2001).
Furthermore, 16 different studies indicate that the spinal discs can repair and remodel themselves. While several papers reviewed the topic (Lotz 2004; Stokes and Iatridis; Adams and Dolan 1997; Porter 1987), others demonstrated that flexion damages can heal (Court et al. 2007), compression damages can heal (Lai et al. 2008; Korecki et al. 2008; MacLean et al. 2008; Hee et al. 2011), prolapses can reverse (Scannell and McGill 2009), herniations can improve (Girard et al. 2004; Wood et al. 1997), the outer annulus can strengthen (Skrzpiec et al. 2007), collagen within the disc can remodel to become stronger (Brickley-Parsons and Glimcher, 1984), and vertebrae, ligaments, and strengthen to resist loading (Porter et al. 1989; Adams and Dolan 1996).
Every time you move your spine you cause micro-damage to the tissues, which triggers both anabolic and catabolic processes. Ideally, you want to limit the amount of damage, as healing from larger scale damage usually leaves the disc biomechanically inferior.
For example, annular damage is repaired by granulation tissue and the scar never regains its normal lamellar architecture (Hampton et al. 1989). End plate injuries heal with cartilaginous tissue (Cinotti et al. 2005; Holm et al. 2004), fibrocartilage replaces nucleus material (Kim et al. 2005), and a healing of harmed tissue is often replaced by a thin-layer of weaker fibrous tissue (Fazzalari et al. 2001).
A Stress – Eustress Solution?
The study of biomechanics is unique because you must not only consider forces and stresses on human tissues, you must also consider adaptive remodeling. The ideal situation in programming doesn’t avoid stress; it keeps the body in eustress while avoiding distress, which ensures that anabolic agents inside of tissues exert more work than catabolic agents inside of tissues to promote full repair, recovery, and strengthening.
We hope that we’ve provided you some food for thought and encouraged you to rely on logic rather than emotion in decision-making involving exercise safety and program design. An effective practitioner weighs all available evidence and makes appropriate conclusions in a dispassionate manner, without adhering to rigidly held beliefs.
We believe that future research will help hone in on the safety of the crunch exercise and determine proper dose responses, but this research needs to be conducted on living humans and involve pre and post-MRI results with a training intervention that ensures proper crunch technique.
The New Rules of Strength Training
I’ve just received word that I’ve been appointed the new President of the Strength Training Industry.
As your leader, my first order of business is to address what I consider to be the greatest challenge facing the industry today: the widespread acceptance and proliferation of biomechanically dangerous exercises.
We’ve allowed strength training to become a “risky” or “dangerous” business, attracting an unsavory mix of foolish, hardcore, Jackass-inspired thrill seekers who preach lifting ridiculously heavy weights in a chalk-dusted frenzy. Their unwanted influence needlessly injures thousands of well-intentioned exercisers that just want to enjoy a refreshing workout and follow a healthy lifestyle.
I can say with confidence that it doesn’t have to be this way. And thanks to my newly acquired authority, with just a stroke of a pen I can render strength training as safe or safer than the stationary bike, lawn bowling, and Chinese checkers, current gold standards of exercise safety.
The following is a list of banned exercises that shall not be performed again, along with a brief explanation.
Abducting your arms over 90 degrees combined with severe internal rotation will shred your shoulders like Grandma’s 4th of July coleslaw.
Behind the neck press, behind the neck pulldowns, and behind the neck pull-ups
The “high five” position characterized by shoulder abduction and extreme external rotation is an injury waiting to happen. While you grind away at your rotator cuff, inducing tendonitis, you’ll also be stretching out the ligaments and anterior capsule, leading to permanent elongation, hyperlaxity, and instability.
While you’re at it, why not jam the bar into your spine and damage a cervical process? Might as well multi-task, right?
All squatters have round lumbar spines and posteriorly-tilted pelvises when they go deep, and if their poor discs could talk, they’d be screaming bloody murder. The low bar position wreaks havoc on the shoulder joints, and the ACL, PCL, and patella take a beating during the descent. Too heavy a weight leads to excessive forward lean, exposing the lumbar spine to injury.
Worse, the lift requires dangerous levels of intra-abdominal pressure and can lead to rectal prolapse, a condition where the walls of the rectum protrude through the anus and become visible outside the body. Good luck riding your bike home from the gym after that happens.
The barbell puts the wrist in a fixed position that can damage the elbows and shoulders, while the powerlifting style low-back arch will hammer the posterior elements of the spine. Going deep overstretches the delicate shoulder ligaments, and the scapulae can’t move naturally as they’re pinned against the bench. Not to mention, the scapulae will be permanently abducted and the shoulders internally rotated, which over time can lead to a Neanderthal-like posture.
Ignore that the head is dead smack in the path of the barbell and just focus on the fact that the delicate acromions can’t handle the load. Furthermore, the typical kyphotic posture will massacre the shoulders and cause spinal hyperextension.
A perfectly named exercise. The deadlift will create numerous disc herniations and permanent elongation of the spinal ligaments due to a slumped posture. Weak glutes encourage lumbar flexion and posterior pelvic tilt to initiate the lift, and lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt to finish. Just imagine, a single exercise that can create flexion and extension intolerance in one fell swoop!
Increasing or decreasing the load doesn’t improve the safety profile one iota. Heavy deadlifts over stress the CNS, leading to permanent downregulation of key brain chemicals and eventually mental retardation, while high rep deadlifts can lead to cardiac arrest.
If you bumped into an extra terrestrial at the gym and asked him to put a heavy bar on his back and bend over with it, he’d likely start laughing hysterically in that cute way benevolent aliens do before shooting you in the face with a phaser. It’s sad that even aliens have more common sense than meatheads.
Reverse hypers and back extensions
Most people’s hips don’t work correctly, so they move at the spine and not the hips. Down low, they flex the spine to make up for crappy hamstring flexibility, and up top hyperextend the lumbar spine to make up for weak glutes. Why not just foam roll on the freeway and get it over with?
Glute ham raises
Nobody does this exercise properly. Weak hamstrings require anterior pelvic tilt to try to improve the length tension relationship, which puts the low back into hyperextension and annihilates the posterior elements of the lumbar spine.
Lunges, Bulgarian split squats, step ups, pistols, and single leg RDL’s
All single leg exercises lead to SI joint pain and sciatica. Crappy hip stability causes the knee to move all around in the frontal and transverse planes, obliterating the patellofemoral joint. Any PT who prescribes a single leg movement is a shill for the knee replacement industry.
Hip thrusts, barbell glute bridges, and single leg hip thrusts.
Whoever thought up these abominations is a serious douchebag. Since weak glutes can’t do the job, the pelvis will anteriorly tilt and the low back will hyperextend, thereby taking a jackhammer to the posterior elements of the lumbar spine. Furthermore, the weak glutes will fail to exert a rearward pull on the femur, leading to anterior hip pain as it jams forward in the acetabulum.
If you still choose to perform these hare-brained movements, maybe you should consider the other exercisers using the facility. Unless you have an Airex pad to place under the bar, too much pressure is placed on the abdomen, resulting in volcanic eruptions of explosive diarrhea.
Extreme shoulder extension combined with external rotation will inevitably lead to anterior capsule dysfunction. Dips are for dipshits.
Push-ups are too hard on the wrists and elbows, and if the feet are elevated to make them more difficult you risk hyperextending the neck. Due to most lifter’s obsession with the bench press, the serratus anterior and trapezius fibers often don’t fire and can’t properly stabilize the scapula so once again the shoulders take a beating.
Leg presses and seated rows
These exercises require too much hamstring flexibility, leading to severe lumbar rounding under heavy loads and eventually herniated discs. Moreover, machines place the body in unnatural fixed positions that can lead to faulty motor recruitment in as little as six workouts, and walking like Frankenstein’s monster in twelve.
Bent over rows
I get it. Since the ribcage can serve as a trampoline in the bench press to max out at 225 lbs., it would be silly to only row 95 lbs. So you pile two plates on each side of the bar, round the back to 30 degrees, and start performing upright rows to the belly.
Chin-ups and pull-ups
Supinated chins over stress the biceps tendons, while wide grip pull-ups over stress the shoulder joints. To make the exercise easier lifters hyperextend the low back and shrug the shoulders to account for weak lower traps.
Sit-ups, side bends, and Russian twists
Sit-ups will induce compressive and sheer loading on the spine, leading to compromised neural function, mindless incoherent babbling, and eventually holding up homophobic signs at Michele Bachmann campaign rallies.
Since the hip flexors are already tight from sitting, you should never, ever try to strengthen them. Twisting sit-ups combine lumbar flexion and rotation, which is akin to a Mike Tyson right uppercut – left hook combo.
The spine was meant to stay in neutral your entire life and should never be moved. For this reason, side bends and Russian twists are out, along with getting out of bed, tying your shoes, sitting, and picking up loose change off the ground.
Shrugs, farmer’s walks, and all loaded carries
Most lifter’s upper traps already dominate their lower traps. You should never, EVER, carry anything heavy or even take a plate or dumbbell out of the rack or your traps will become perpetually imbalanced.
Pullovers, flyes, lateral raises, barbell curls, and prone rear delt raises
Single joint exercises in the stretch position such as flyes and pullovers are hard on the shoulder joint, and lateral raises, unless performed in the scapular plane, will destroy the shoulders.
Barbell curls over stress the biceps tendon and the bones of the lower arm.
Prone rear delt raises require hyperextending the neck while lying prone on an incline bench, which can cause amnesia, aneurisms, or stroke.
Let’s not forget the most important point, that single joint lifts aren’t functional. Even though they may look like movement patterns seen in swimming, tennis, and strongman, don’t let your eyes fool you! There’s zero functional transfer to the real world.
Power cleans and jump squats
People can’t clean worth a piss these days, and the wrists take too much of a pounding over time. Jump squats jar the entire body upon landing.
Pallof presses, cable chops, cable lifts
These exercises require simultaneous contraction from all the core muscles, which clamp down on the spine and create enormous compressive loads. This leads to vertebral issues and severe constipation that cases of Metamucil can’t cure.
Since I’m President, I’ve decided to eradicate the terms “lumbar flexion” and “posterior pelvic tilt” from the Kinesiology textbooks, and the rectus abdominus will now be referred to as “The Muscle Whose Name Cannot be Mentioned.” (TMWNCBM for short.)
Before you roll onto your back and start crunching, realize that the lumbar spine only allows for 20,000 flexion cycles. When you hit this number, all five lumbar discs herniate immediately and you begin writhing in uncontrollable spasm.
Even if you’re way shy of the 20,000 limit, with every single rep your athleticism and ability to walk upright while chewing gum decreases by .02%. You do the math.
Crunches destroy the workings of the pelvic floor musculature, resulting in you pissing yourself uncontrollably every time you laugh or sneeze, or whenever the fighter jets do a fly-over on opening weekend.
Furthermore, crunches are linked to glute dysfunction. It doesn’t matter if you’re sprinting or hip thrusting, crunches override those signals and extinguish their effects. The result is now you can’t walk, run, or jump properly.
Worse, this glute dysfunction can lead to erectile dysfunction. Since the glutes no longer function properly, thrusting becomes impossible, and even the most accommodating partner is bound to start laughing hysterically at such anemic displays of ass drive, resulting in the “little general” shriveling like over-cooked linguini. This psychological catastrophe can embed itself deep into the brain, resulting in permanent erectile dysfunction.
Finally, crunches can lead to AIDS and other STD’s. Many lifters who perform crunches become so horribly kyphotic that they can’t attract a mate through conventional means, leading to encounters with prostitutes and other ladies of ill repute. This significantly increases their exposure to AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis, certain politicians, herpes, and other single-guy buzz kills.
The New Rules to Strength Training
What’s the deal? Has Contreras sold out?
Hell no! I wrote this article to make a point. If you know enough about anatomy, physiology, and strength training, you could make a case for why every exercise in the book should be avoided. Conversely, you could also make a case for why every exercise in the book should be performed.
Without further ado, here are President Contreras’ actual new rules to strength training:
- An exercise is judged by how it is supposed to be performed, not by how the jacktards screw it up.
- If you think lifting weights is dangerous, try being weak. Being weak is dangerous.
- There are no contraindicated exercises, just contraindicated individuals. Learn how your body works and master its mechanics.
- If you can’t perform an exercise properly, don’t do it. If an exercise consistently causes pain, don’t do it. If an exercise consistently injures you, don’t do it.
- Earn the right to perform an exercise. Correct any dysfunction and become qualified with bodyweight before loading up a movement pattern.
- There exists a risk-reward continuum and some exercises are safer than others. It’s up to you to determine where you draw the line. Don’t bitch about your lack of progress or poor joint health as you lie in the bed you made for yourself.
- Exercises performed poorly are dangerous, while exercises performed well are beneficial. If you use shitty form, you’ll hurt yourself. It’s only a matter of time.
- If you display optimal levels of joint mobility, stability, and motor control, you’ll distribute forces much better and be able to tolerate more volume, intensity, and frequency.
- Structural balance is critical. You must strengthen joints in opposing manners to ensure that posture isn’t altered. If your posture erodes due to strength training, it means that you’re a shitty program designer.
- Body tissues adjust to become stronger to resist loading. The body is a living organism that adapts to imposed demands.
- Your training will be based on your needs, your goals, and your liking. Different goals require different training methods. The loftier your goals, the more risk entailed.
- There are two type of stress: eustress and distress. Keep yourself in eustress and you’ll be okay.
- If you believe an exercise will hurt you, it probably will.
- Injuries in the weight room have more to do with poor form and poor programming than the exercise itself. Exercises are tools. You are the carpenter. A good carpenter never blames his tools.
- Rather than drift along with popular trends, it’s more fruitful to learn how the body works, which will allow you to understand the pros and cons of every exercise and make educated decisions in your programming.
At the end of the day, how you train is your call. Whether you play it safe or roll the dice, at least you’re not sitting on the couch. Pain and injuries have a way of teaching you proper form and programming, and having a large arsenal of exercises is important to prevent boredom and habituation and spark further adaptation. In short, keep learnin’ and keep liftin’!
I’m President Contreras and I approve this message.