Push-up Your Explosive Strength!
Techniques for breaking through strength
plateaus in the bench press
by Chad Waterbury
Speed. You can't have too much of it. If your goal is to get really strong, explosive speed training is one of the most important elements. Remember that old "muscle-bound" theory that arm-chair experts had about weight training? They thought big muscles built from weight training would make an individual slow. Well, they were partially right. If you train slow you'll eventually become slow.
Make no mistake about it, the way you train will ultimately determine your fate as a powerlifter, weightlifter, or athlete. Don't worry, though, because I'm going to show you how to become powerfully fast from explosive strength training!
If there's one element that's constantly lacking in the majority of strength-building programs, it's explosive strength training. What I'm talking about here is training fast with light loads, sometimes referred to as the dynamic method. As a strength coach, I'm always interested in successful programs. The majority of them I read about are nothing more than run-of-the-mill programs consisting of three sets of 8 to 12 reps performed slow and controlled. What a joke!
Other more famous and successful programs like that of the Westside Barbell Club involve a ton of speed work. This type of strength sets you apart from the competition due to one extremely important factor speed. So what I'm going to show you is how to build speed in your upper-body pushing muscles. Throw that slow training out the back door along with your Bob Paris autographed 8 x 10's and get read to toss up some real weight!
[Editor's note: Keep in mind that speed training, strength training, and hypertrophy training are all different things and while there's often considerable overlap, each has its own fairly specific rules]
Explosive Strength: What is it and how do I get it?
As defined by strength expert Yuri Verkhoshansky, explosive strength consists of three important components: maximum strength, starting strength, and acceleration strength. Maximum strength can be increased by lifting heavy loads for multiple, low-repetition sets. Starting strength is the ability to develop force before the load moves and acceleration strength is the ability to generate maximum force very quickly.
We'll focus here on the latter two. In reference to the bench press, starting strength will help you get the load moving after pausing it on your chest while acceleration strength will help you get the load moving quickly. Pretty simple, huh?
In order to completely understand explosive strength you must also understand the Explosive Strength Deficit (ESD). This is the difference between the maximum force your muscles can produce and the development of maximum force when little time is available.
For example, Lifter A and Lifter B both have the ability to generate 400 pounds of force when bench pressing. Lifter A needs 0.4 seconds to generate this force, whereas Lifter B can generate it in only 0.2 seconds. Therefore, Lifter B has a smaller ESD and would smoke Lifter A in a pressing competition.
Once again I'll refer to the bottom of the bench press. Many lifters have the ability to generate the amount of force required to lift the load; they just can't generate it quickly enough. The result? The load crashes back to their chests. By decreasing the ESD you'll increase the force output in explosive movements. How do we decrease the ESD? Fast, explosive training, of course!
As stated above, speed is the most important component when attempting to increase explosive strength. This type of strength was exemplified by the late Bruce Lee. The guy was extremely powerful. Why was he so powerful? Because he was lightning quick.
Another example would be great bench pressers. The best ones are almost always the ones who train the fastest. If you ever get a chance to see a world champion bench presser train, you'll notice how quickly the bar moves compared to the lesser mortals. If you really want to tap into the higher-threshold motor units and move some serious weight, explosive strength training is mandatory.
So now you're probably thinking, "I know, I'll just start pressing the barbell fast on all my bench presses." Sorry, Bubba, it ain't that simple. If you lift light and fast all the time, you'll lose maximum strength! To make matters even worse, traditional barbell training can limit the body's ability to increase explosive strength. How? The body has many built-in inhibitory mechanisms that are intended to protect our joints and tissues. Without them, we'd probably turn our limbs and joints into something reminiscent of a piece of meat being shared by a pair of grizzlies.
Here's a test to prove this last point. After thoroughly warming up, lie on a bench with a loaded barbell that's approximately 50% of your raw bench press 1RM (rep maximal). Lower the barbell under control and quickly reverse the motion and press it up as explosively as possible.
Did you feel anything strange? Whether you knew it or not, your nervous system sent a signal to the brain to slow down the speed of the barbell as you approached lockout. These mechanisms inhibit further muscular action in an effort to protect your joints from being destroyed. Without them, your training days would come to an end very quickly as your arms would probably rip out of their sockets.
Traditional barbell training doesn't "override" these inhibitions and we're left with an explosive movement that isn't too explosive due to the body's protective mechanisms. So is that it? Is the holy grail of strength training out of reach because we're limited to barbells? Fret no more, city boy, I have a solution.
The Case for the Push-Up
In an effort to override the inhibitory mechanisms, the load must be released. If you're training with equipment that can't be released, you're only holding back your explosive strength potential. So there you have it. Just throw the bar up in the air and have your training partner catch it! Sure, he may miss and you'll die a horrible public death, but you'll be real freakin' strong if you survive long enough! Nah, just kidding. I have a much better (and safer) option push-ups!
Push-ups are the exercise of choice because they allow you to push your body off the ground which mimics a "release" of the load. Therefore, maximum muscular force can be produced explosively without fear of injuring the joints. Not only that, but you'll also get some great abdominal activation since your core needs to be stabilized throughout the movement. Depending on your body structure, the traditional push-up position would create a load of approximately 60% of bodyweight. I only mention this as a point of reference; the load isn't the most important factor, but rather the speed of execution.
Therefore, as long as your strength levels allow a very explosive tempo, you'll benefit. On the other hand, if exact numbers are important to you, figure out your raw 1RM for the bench press. Take 50 to 60 percent of that value in order to find the necessary load. Fifty to 60 percent of raw 1RM is an extremely effective range for explosive training. An inexperienced lifter (less than two years of training) would err on the higher (60%) side, whereas the experienced trainee should err on the lower (50%) end. Any greater load would either slow down the movement too much or induce excessive fatigue given the parameters.
Here are the parameters for developing explosive strength:
Tempo: Take one second or less to lower, then explosively push yourself up
Rest: 60 seconds
Percentage of raw 1RM: 50-60% ("raw" meaning no bench shirt)
Why only three to four reps at such a low intensity? Because this method isn't intended to induce muscular failure. Just the opposite. You should feel invigorated after completing the sets. (The guidelines are taken from the excellent Russian text, Managing the Training of Weightlifters.)
For maximum strength development you should perform upper-body work twice each week. In keeping with this, execute this push-up routine on one day and perform maximum strength training for the same muscle groups the second day. If you're extremely limited with time and can only perform one upper-body routine each week, perform this exercise first in your routine. It's always best to execute speed training when the nervous system isn't fatigued.
Instead of insulting your intelligence by telling you how to do push-ups, I'll only touch on the variables you might not know. First, the feet should be wider than shoulder width. Why? Because it keeps your body from twisting in the air and will help maintain balance.
Second, the torso should remain tight throughout the movement. Don't let your hips sink toward the floor when lowering your body. Unless your gut resembles that of a HIT trainee, your chest and abdominal region should touch the floor at the same time. If your goal is to increase maximal strength levels for bench pressing, perform all the sets with your hands shoulder width or narrower. This will keep the focus on the triceps and away from the shoulders, which could result in soreness.
On the other hand, if you're trying to induce pectoral hypertrophy (i.e. chest growth), perform all the sets with your hands shoulder width or wider. This will activate more pectoral fibers. Your head should be neutral with the spine; don't look up.
Take one second to lower yourself to the floor and explosively push yourself up as hard as you can. Your hands should come off the ground. Push hard! If you can bench press 400 pounds, then apply 400 pounds of force when executing this movement. Trust me, if you don't, your results will suffer.
When your body drops down after being airborne, let it lower to the floor smoothly no abrupt changes in tempo. The set should look smooth and continuous for all repetitions. This will take some practice but you'll get the hang of it very quickly. (I only prescribe the one-second lowering as a point of reference; in actuality it'll be less). Continue for three to four reps. Rest 60 seconds and complete the prescribed number of sets.
For the extremely strong lifters (those who can jack up 500 pounds or more), it might be a good idea to stretch one or two mini-bands around your upper back to add more resistance through the concentric (pushing) phase. You can get these through Jump Stretch by calling 800-344-3539.
In addition to this exercise, train the hell out of your triceps, deltoids and lats twice each week and you'll develop incredible explosive strength in your bench press. So the next time some ACE-certified, chrome dumbbell fitness trainer tries to lure you into the Smith machine for a set of slow-controlled bench presses, drop him to the floor and show him how to perform explosive push-ups. If he lives, he'll learn something!
About the Author
Chad Waterbury is a strength and conditioning coach with Bachelor of Science degrees in Human Biology and Physical Science. He operates his company, Chad Waterbury Strength & Conditioning, in Tucson, AZ, where his clientele ranges from members of military special forces units to non-athletes seeking exceptional physical performance and development. You can contact him through his website, ChadWaterbury.com.
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