Tag Archives: Powerlifting

Building a Big’Ole Bench

The bench press is one of the most common exercises in the gym. It was once the most popular lift that could be done. Recently it has become a victim to trends; what is old and mainstream tends to get cast aside and vilified. Now many coaches will be of the opinion that having big bench numbers will not make you a better athlete. I say that anything that increases overall strength in any movement is useful to any athlete. While not critical it is certainly something worth having. The bench press is still one of the best upper body compound movements there is.

Still an important exercise for overall strength and power

Still an important exercise for overall strength and power

While the bench press may seem relatively simple, it is often performed pretty poorly. Before you start working on building up your bench press have a look at any of Dave Tate’s bench press videos. His technique description is about as good as it gets. It is simple and gets you in the ballpark. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QnwAoesJvQ

From my point of view there are two key parts.

 1) Build a solid base: Jam your feet into the floor and your shoulders into the bench. Make sure you keep your head down too. If you are rock solid on the bench then when the weight becomes a struggle every bit of energy will move the bar rather than squirming you’re body around. Feet flailing in the air will never help you get force through the bar. Being solid allows for all your effort to be transferred to the bar. It is also a lot safer than being unstable.

A good stable base and keeping the elbows tight to the body makes this lift much more effective.

A good stable base and keeping the elbows tight to the body makes this lift much more effective.

 2) Keep the elbows tucked. This means elbows closer to the body which will result in the bar a bit lower on the chest at the bottom position. While this helps keep forces moving through the shoulder in a much safer way, it also helps with the first point. Wide elbows when on the bench tend to result in the chest compressing towards the bench. The shoulders then protract slightly as the athlete begins to struggle. They then begin to wiggle and one arm inevitably shoots up in an awkward path and the bar goes in every direction but up. Not the most scientific explanation but very common when novice lifters begin to fail. Failing to keep the elbows tucked can be a result of scapular instability as well. Maintaining some scapular and upper back strength exercises are a great supplement to pressing movements.

In terms of reps and sets, it depends on the goal. Generally speaking some initial volume work is great to build up musculature and help ingrain the movement pattern. For increasing strength, back off sets work wonders for bench press. After you follow a basic starting strength program this can really take things to the next level. 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler would be my suggestion for anyone starting strength. It is simple, effective and works even with the most experienced lifters. https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/531-how-to-build-pure-strengthTo work back off sets effectively, I suggest working up gradually to max set of 2 repetitions. These should be comfortable reps with no slow grinding lockouts. It will be approximately 90% of max or slightly below. Then simply complete a couple of sets of slightly higher reps at a lighter weight.

A session might look like this: (Example 1RM of 100kg)

Work up to a heavy double

Bar X5

60kg X5 reps

75kg X3 reps

80kg X3 reps

85kg X2 reps

88kg X2 reps

89kg X2 reps

Then calculate your working percentage (This example taking 75%)

Complete two sets of 6 at 75%

There is quite a large amount of activation of motor units when working up to a heavy double. When you back off the weight feels light. You can really explode off the chest with each rep. This does wonders for training the neural aspect of strength without overloading the joints too much. Reps are quicker and smoother which is exactly how you want to train. I have used this method several times with many different athletes and without a doubt it is the most effective method for rapidly increasing bench press numbers.

There are many tools to do many jobs. The bench press is a great tool in building upper body strength and power. Use it safely and effectively to increase the potential of you or your athletes performance.

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It’s never wrong to be strong!

There are very few sports where absolute strength is unimportant. Regardless of whether or not the athlete’s bodyweight is important to performance, strength is always beneficial. A strong athlete will often be able to make up for skill more often than we like to admit. We have all seen clumsy, brutish athletes simply overpower and overwhelm more skilled opposition. In combat sports the argument is that two fighters of equal skill, bodyweight will be the defining factor. This is the reason for weight classes. Now, in a particular weight class we recognize that the stronger fighter will have the advantage.

Despite this we still argue that strength isn’t everything. While I believe other factors are just as important I will present a case for absolute strength being a critical factor. First we will look at the debate of relative strength. The Powerlifter/strongman vs. Olympic lifter is one such example. On one hand we have the Olympic lifter, a master technician who can shift weight more efficiently than most other athletes. They have incredible strength relative to bodyweight. Then we look at a powerlifter or strongman. They demonstrate tremendous strength while not being as technically efficient as an Olympic lifter. They also have much greater bodyweight which diminishes their strength to weight ratio. The following video shows how they compare when asked to squat their own bodyweight for max repetitions.

While the strongman and Olympic lifter achieve the same total reps the powerlifter has a greater total load lifted. Work done is an extremely important factor in all sports. This simply demonstrates that despite him not achieve the same reps his absolute strength allows him to beat more efficient lifters.

In the case of endurance athletes the argument may not be as obvious. Endurance athletes must sustain workloads in order to be successful. Our initial thought may be that their conditioning is going to be the critical factor. Again this is not the case. The greater an athlete’s maximal power output is, the easier he can manage submaximal work. Relative workloads become less intense. An athlete who must sustain 300watts when his max is 350watts will struggle against an athlete who maintains 300watts with a max of 400watts.

Crossfit athletes are also a very good example of this. They are often prescribed workloads which disregard any differences in the size or strength level of an athlete. In this case an athlete who must complete 20 deadlifts of 100kg, having a max effort of 150kg will need to work much harder than an athlete who has a max effort of 200kg. The first athlete is lifting 75% of their max in comparison to 50% with the second. This allows for a large advantage which may be too great to overcome even with a more efficient technique.

While I do not advocate neglecting technique or conditioning, it is important to realize the advantage that absolute strength provides. A weak yet technically good athlete will automatically be at a disadvantage. For this reason it is a very good idea to ascertain strength standards which athletes should look to achieve in their discipline. If they fail to do so it may highlight where they might struggle during competition. Very often direct attention to strength development can make a very significant impact on an athlete’s performance. Neither coach nor athlete should ever disregard the benefits of an effective strength program. It is often overlooked especially in technical sports. At high levels of competition this oversight may be the weakness that gives the opposition the opportunity they need to win.

Science of strength!

In this post I will discuss the physiological components that make up physical strength. In general the strength of a muscle is determined by its cross sectional mass. When we assess the improvement of strength in a muscular contraction, we see a significant increase in force output in a short space of time with no change in mass. This shows us that there is also a neural component that plays a significant role in strength. In order for a muscle fiber to hit a peak contraction it must be stimulated fully. A beginner to strength training will be unable to reach his true max because he will be neurally untrained. This means he is not capable of using all his muscle fibers or even capable of using the select few to their full potential.

When we want to move, we send a chemo-electrical signal from brain to the muscle which results in a contraction. The more signals we send the more forceful the contraction. In order to achieve maximum contraction we must have a constant and rapid train of impulses coming from our brain. The route the impulse takes down the nerves must be capable of sustaining and transmitting these signals. Early in our training it is these nerves which improve at delivering stimulus, that results in strength improvements.

There are several factors which can prevent us achieving maximum contractile forces. We have safety mechanisms which prevent us reaching our limits in order to prevent damage to our muscle tissue. These mechanisms are largely involuntary and are not simply a case of pushing harder. When we train the thresholds for these “safety switches” raise, allowing us to lift more. This is partly because our muscles become more conditioned and less susceptible to damage but also because our overriding mechanisms improve. We can prove this theory by using a simple maximum voluntary contraction test on a muscle. An athlete produces their strongest contraction and when it peaks we add extra stimulus externally with an electric impulse. The peak will increase significantly higher than voluntary stimulus could achieve, proving there is more force possible.

So how do we increase strength? There a couple of areas which can be improved. First we need to train the movement. Becoming more accustomed to the movement helps us learn the pattern of muscle activation required to perform the action effectively. Second we must improve stimulation and muscle activation. The obvious method is working closer to our maxes which in theory requires a “close to max muscle contraction”. Become accustomed to producing maximum force will improve the mechanisms involved over time. This can be taxing on both the central nervous system (CNS) and the muscle structure itself. It will require structural recovery which takes time. Speed training is an excellent variation as it allows us to improve the rate of impulses coming from the brain. More ballistic type exercises such as jumping are a good way to improve rate of neural transmission. Adding bands or chains to sub-maximal weights for particular lifts can also be another variation to include. The increased resistance over the range of the movement requires an accelerated contraction.

Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com

Adding chains can be very effective at improving neural components involved in strength. Photo source: www.clintdarden.com

These types of training are excellent ways to improve the neural component of strength without needing any structural recovery. They are demanding on the CNS and as always adequate recovery is necessary. The next area to work on is increasing muscle mass. This involves hypertrophy of the muscle fibers which occurs over a much longer period of time.

Becoming strong is important to all athletes but understanding what makes them strong can be just as important. The body adapts quickly and so a multidirectional approach can help progress in terms of consistency. Often athletes employ the maximal lifting approach exclusively and plateau quickly. Combining different methods over a periodised training plan can make sure that an athlete continues to improve in the long term and achieve full potential.