The Secret to Optimal Upper-Body Performance
Having your body in perfect working order and being able to reach peak performance go hand in hand.
Sadly, talking about training to keep the joints and muscles injury-free isn't "sexy" and a lot of people skip to the next article. That's a mistake because healthy, functional joints and performance cannot be dissociated. Furthermore, chronic injuries clue you in on the training mistakes you're making. These mistakes will also prevent you from reaching the peak of what your body can achieve.
Vassily Alexeyev (arguably the greatest Olympic lifter of all time) once said that the thing that a lot of athletes lack in regard to achieving their potential is a serious injury. He said that the injury first forces them to reevaluate their training methods, then makes them realize what they're missing and how important a sturdy, injury-free body really is for performance.
The Shoulder: Highly Functional, Highly Prone to Injury
When it comes to performance lifting, I've rarely seen an intermediate and advanced gym rat who has never had nagging shoulder pain that prevented him from being able to progress.
The reason isn't always bad lifting technique. In fact, a lot of them are getting that shoulder problem despite excellent technique. (Hey, I was one of them!) No, the problem comes from an unbalanced development in shoulder internal vs. external rotation function. This is mostly due to their heavy emphasis on the bench press.
Yeah, you've heard that before, but not the way I'm about to present it.
I've heard it too:
"You need to balance the pressing with pulling to prevent shoulder issues."
"You need to work the rotator cuff to avoid chronic shoulder issues with the bench press."
And I've applied that to a "T" because pressing performance has always been at the top of my to-do list in the gym. I've done sets of a pulling exercise after every set of bench pressing. I've done every type of rotator cuff work known to man.
You know what? It never worked!
Why? Most pulling exercises (rowing, pulldowns, chins) are done with an internally-rotated shoulder, or in the best case scenario, a neutral position. But they certainly don't work external rotation strength. And forget about having big lats balancing your pressing; the lats are actually internal rotators! So by doing a ton of pulling, you're not solving the internal/external rotation imbalance. You might actually be making it worse!
Do you honestly believe that you can balance a 405 pound bench press with 15-pound dumbbell external shoulder rotations or a 25-pound cuban presses? Good luck with that!
What Actually Works?
In retrospect, the times in my life when I had the least shoulder issues was when I was doing the Olympic lifts. Even when I wasn't doing them for competition, and doing only the power snatch in my training, my shoulders were painless. I achieved my best bench press (445) when I was bench pressing six days a week, sometimes twice a day, but doing the power snatch daily too. In fact, my training was pretty much only the bench press, power snatch, and deadlift, with some occasional supportive work thrown in there for flavoring.
Every other time in my life where I tried to bench press more than twice per week (without doing the power snatch) I'd get performance-stopping shoulder issues after two or three weeks.
Furthermore, I don't remember training with any Olympic lifter who had chronic shoulder issues. But I never put one and one together until I started working on overhead holds and re-learning the Olympic lifts.
You see, the way I teach and practice the overhead holds is to squeeze both shoulder blades together and then externally rotate the shoulders as you press overhead (show your armpits). But that rotation must come from the back. Imagine that the back is rotating the shoulders, then hold in that position.
This way, you end up loading the externally rotated position under a significant resistance, not the 15 pound dumbbells you'd use for rotator cuff exercises!
I teach the same position for the power snatch catch and the push press/push jerk catch. All this leads to plenty of fairly heavy work in the external rotation position. And THAT allows you to balance the heavy pressing you're doing!
John Schlecht (Synergy) commented while in the Biotest Training Lab that normally he needed 5-6 warm-up sets to be able to bench press pain-free. By doing overhead holds between sets, he was able to work up to 365 in two sets and to 435 in four sets, and his shoulders felt much better than they ever felt when bench pressing heavy.
Pressing is for Performance!
I always said that the body is built to press for performance. And to maximize performance you need to practice something as frequently as possible. But without the proper external shoulder position work to balance the heavy pressing, you simply cannot bench press as frequently without running into shoulder issues that will limit your rate of progress.
So what are my recommendations?
1. Include the overhead support at least three days a week (I do it everyday).
2. Peform overhead supports prior to your bench press or between sets.
3. Do some of your bench pressing with a reverse grip, which puts your shoulders in an externally rotated position.
4. Do plenty of overhead work, and on every repetition focus on getting into the perfect overhead hold position (shoulder blades together, show the armpits) and hold it for a second or two.
5. Start your workouts with the overhead band pull-apart drill I explained in an earlier Live Coaching Lab. -- Christian Thibaudeau
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