Are you just getting involved in powerlifting with hopes of setting a new record or two? Or are you just a regular guy looking to increase your bench press? Whichever, the ten tips below will put you on the path to strength!
Tip #1: Perform board presses for triceps.
There's simply not a better exercise for the triceps than the board press. In order to fully recruit and tax all the targeted fibers of the triceps, both research and experience have shown us that very heavy weights need to be employed to build lockout.
Your triceps are limited by the poor leverage at the bottom end of complex movements like bench press and close-grip bench press. The isometric contraction of the triceps in the stretched position throughout the lower end of the range of motion (before the triceps are called on to lock out a weight at the top) further limits maximum contraction. Even though isolation movements like dumbbell extensions, skull crushers, and pressdowns have some place in triceps training, the limiting factor is the poor leverage of the triceps at the elbows when flexed beyond the 90 degrees position.
The overload allowed by the shortened range of movement in the board press has no competition for yielding tremendous results. Weights in the vicinity of your raw bench press 1RM can be used for reps with 3-5 boards and a wider grip. Likewise, you can do reps with your close-grip max on a 2-3 board with a close grip. It isn't hard to figure out why this works for both strength and mass.
To do the board press, you need some boards. You can duct tape a phonebook if you want to save the redwoods, but I don't recommend it. You can use either 2 x 6s or 2 x 4s from 12 to 24 inches long. I buy mine in the cull wood section of Home Depot. This is the cheap, throw-away wood available in the back of the store. I build all my boards and boxes for box squats out of this material.
If you train alone or with only one spotter, keep the boards closer to 12 inches long so you can stick them under your T-shirt or secure them to your chest with a belt or knee wrap. If you have more spotters or partners, the boards can be longer, and one can even be fashioned into a rudimentary handle.
You need at least a 3-board thickness to start. These boards are 1 1/2 inches thick, so that gives you a board that reduces your range of motion by 4.5 inches. I recommend also building a 4-board, and if you have long limbs, a 5-board.
There are many ways to use boards in your training. You can make one bench press or pushing day a board-only day, and either do a Westside Barbell style max effort day or work to any other number of variations, i.e. 5 x 5, 3 x 3, reverse pyramid, 10 x 3, etc. You can do these with or without a bench shirt. Alternatively, you can do them after your normal bench press workout as assistance.
Board presses can be done with various grips, from above and below your bench sticking point, and even in the power rack with the pins slightly below board height if you train alone. (For most lifters, training alone is usually a very bad idea on the bench press.
Tip #2: Vary your stances, range of motion, and grips.
Many athletes constantly search for the newest and most effective exercises to use in their training. Some of the best variations available are simple and come from changing your grip on the bar, your foot spacing, or the handle or implement you use to perform the movement.
For example, the bench press is a very different movement when done with a close grip, pinky on the ring, and even index finger outside the max legal bench press grip ring. In the squat, going to a wider or narrower stance changes the movement and what muscles it involves.
I'm aware of the theory that none of these changes effect muscle action, but move your squat stance in or out on your next workout and consider the theory yourself when you wake up and feel your legs the next day. In fact, DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) will peak for you at about noon to 2 PM the next day.
In the deadlift or bent row, your grip and stance can make a tremendous difference. If there's a big variation in your sumo and conventional deadlift, working the weaker style will bring up your strength and muscle mass.
Changing range of motion is another easy and effective variation. The board press changes the bench press range of motion, but the rack pull or deadlift off blocks can target a weak area also via adjusting range of motion. The squat can be targeted with low box to high box squats, squats off low or high pins, or even by changing from a flat sole to a heeled shoe.
The box squat
You can take the variation theme further by experimenting with various grips or implements in the lat pulldown or in pull-ups/chins. Finally, you can use a safety squat bar, Manta Ray attachment, or trap bar for squats and deadlifts.
Tip #3: Train abs with your feet on the floor.
This is as simple as it sounds. The hardest training for your abs involves exercises with your feet on the floor. Doing two-hand push passes or overhead two-handed throws with a medicine ball for distance will make your next morning not so much fun.
Good mornings are ab killers too; go ahead and try it. Standing crunches with a cable or a band will reveal some real weaknesses. Pushing a car or truck is another ab killer. Doing the wood chopping motion with a band or cable in place of an ax handle will open your eyes, and even weighted crunches done on a stability ball, with the feet stabilizing your body, makes the abs work far more than the normal crunch.
Good mornings are ab killers too!
The idea that abs need higher reps is nonsense. They need heavy work like everything else, both in moving the sternum toward the pelvis and in the isometric stabilization of the spine. If you want ripped abs do some push-aways: push yourself away from the dinner table. If you want strong abs, lift, push, or stabilize some heavy weights. Doing bodyweight crunches to strengthen your abs is like doing jumping jacks to increase your military press!
Tip #4: Don't waste your time on barbell shrugs.
Powerlifters sport traps that would make a Silverback gorilla envious, yet the barbell shrug is not part of most powerlifting training programs. The reason is that the shrug doesn't duplicate the skill or build the strength for pulling a heavy deadlift to lockout.
Shrugs done standing with an Olympic bar are also limited in the range of motion and leverage due to the bar being on the thighs. Besides, traps don't lock out deadlifts, hips and grip do. If you can't get your spine and hips extended with a weight, you can't possibly do a shrug with it. Trying to shrug a weight to lockout will generally make you try to pull it with your biceps. Hello, biceps tear!
You don't want to shrug the weight upwards and extend the distance the weight is moved; you want to retract your shoulders as you extend your back and push your hips forward. This is called a lockout. Practicing lockouts with a large weight in the power rack, with the spine fully extended from the start, can help you practice the skill of lockout and overload your grip, but it won't build your traps very well.
So if most powerlifters don't do shrugs, and if the lockouts they practice aren't big trap builders, what's the secret to their trap strength and size? The secret is training the upper back from all angles with high frequency!
Upper back is one of the hardest body parts to overtrain. It can be trained up to four or five times a week. Splitting exercises by plane of motion into rows, pulldowns, and pulls gives us a basis on how to do this. Rows include bent rows, supported rows, T-bar rows, pulls to the face, and cable rows. Pulldowns include pulldowns with various handles to the front and back, pullovers, chins, and pull-ups. Pulls include barbell cleans, kettlebell cleans, high pulls, upright rows, dumbbell power cleans, and even the Kelso shrug (shrugs done with the upper torso at a 30-45 degree angle and the back arched, allowing the rhomboids to enter the movement).
Pulls to the face
You can hit upper back two to three days consecutively by doing a row, a pull, or pulldown one day, then hit your back the next day with a different motion. For example, if you bench Monday and Thursday, and squat/deadlift Tuesday and Thursday, you can work rows after your upper body and pulldowns or pulls after lower body. Then you can hit an extra workout for upper back Saturday in the plane of motion you didn't hit Thursday or Friday. You can customize this to your preference as the permutations and combinations are endless.
Bill Starr recommends about 50 total reps for upper back in a workout, and Bill is hard to disagree with on any subject. Reps and sets of 10 x 5, 7 x 7, and 5 x 10 work well here. You can even do two exercises with 5 x 5 if you're feeling froggy.
Start hammering your back like this and not only will your traps and entire upper back blossom, your biceps will follow suit, even though you might be dropping some arm work after 50 heavy reps of upper back!
Tip #5: Use powerlifting equipment but limit belt use.
Lots of noncompetitive lifters swear off powerlifting gear but wear that big padded nylon and Velcro belt. This is a mistake. Powerlifting gear, when used wisely, can protect against injury and prolong your lifting and training career.
This can be done by wearing "looser-than-meet" gear around a problem area like the low back or shoulders. A loose squat suit with straps down or loose groove briefs can take a lot of stress off the hips, groin, and low back while keeping warmth where it's needed. A loose bench press shirt is just the ticket most older lifters need to protect their problem shoulders.
Louie Simmons has said he thinks 90% of most groin and hamstring pulls could be alleviated in pro sports by the use of powerlifting style briefs. An NFL cornerback wore a loose bench shirt under his pads last year to protect his pec tear.
Is this concept too much for you perhaps? Then there's always the use of neoprene. The use of neoprene knee and elbow sleeves, and good old neoprene compression shorts, can give you some support but more importantly keep heat and moisture in and around a joint and the surrounding muscles. I use all of these things, and am even toying with the idea of using a neoprene divers shorty top for my shoulders when benching.
Note that I haven't talked about using a lifting belt. I avoid mine unless I'm in a meet or training in meet gear, as do most powerlifters. You'll get more out of a belt when you use it sparingly. Too many rely on the belt for everything they do. So use what you need equipment wise, but belt use needs to be limited.
Limit the use of lifting belts.
Tip #6: Train hamstrings without leg curl machines.
Leg curls are a pretty useless exercise for athletes. No athletic movement or competitive lift is done with the upper thigh braced and the lower leg flexed at the knee. The hamstring is a double insertion muscle so you need to work the upper thigh being drawn behind the torso and the lower leg flexion at the knee.
As a matter of fact, if you do rock bottom squats, the hamstrings contract first to get you moving out of the bottom. So rock bottom squats are a good place to start. Stiff-legged deadlifts are great but almost always are done with too much back rounding at both the upper and lower back. The Romanian deadlift is a much better alternative. These are done with less range of motion than the stiff-leg deadlift, but the lower back is arched tightly the whole time the exercise is being performed. Start these by taking the weight off a bodybuilder's squat rack like you were doing curls, step back, arch your low back hard, and lower until you begin to lose your arch. Flex your hams and start back up.
The lunge and step-up work well too. The only machine that's good for hamstrings is the glute ham raise. Get one with a foot plate. If you must do leg curls, choke a band to a power rack and do seated leg curls with a band. Don't let your friends see you.
The glute ham raise
Tip #7: Perform extra workouts.
These periods can be performed many ways for many purposes. They can be done to bring up a weak area, enhance recovery, add volume, or practice technique or form.
Extra workouts are best done quickly, several hours after a main workout, alone on a rest day, or can be thrown on to the end of another workout. Higher reps, 25 or more, actually do enhance blood flow to an area. Extra volume can help add muscle. Add some light squats or benches the day before or after your main workout for that movement and your groove and recovery are improved.
Lats and abs can be hit again on these workouts. A brisk hike or sled dragging can be a recovery enhancer, or if cranked up a bit can target a weak area. These workouts can be done with kettlebells, barbells, dumbbells, sleds, lawnmowers, wheelbarrows, rocks, children, kegs, (kegs and children are not done together) or whatever you like or need.
Sled dragging can be a great extra workout.
Tip #8: Wave your volume and intensity independently.
The inverse relationship between volume and intensity is an oversimplified and ineffective means of training. Basically, volume is most critical to muscle mass development and intensity is most important for building strength.
As you get bigger and stronger (in the overall training picture) you need to lift more and heavier weights. It takes an increasing diet of volume and heavy weights to go from 300 to 800 in the squat, bench, or deadlift. Bigger doesn't always mean stronger, but it usually does. The problem is you just can't linearly increase volume and intensity endlessly without burning out. Some weeks need to be low volume and high intensity, but other weeks can and should be high volume and medium intensity, low volume and low intensity, medium volume and high intensity, etc.
Some weeks you hammer yourself mercilessly, and others you spend doing very little. Most weeks you're somewhere in the middle. According to Mel Siff, volume must not drop more than 15-30% over your entire training cycle, and can't linearly increase over the training cycle. Holding the volume steady and waving the intensity can be very effective, but a fairly boring, brutal, and risky approach. There are better ways!
You don't need to maintain or linearly increase the volume and intensity at the same time. Independent waves are better! For example, let's consider a simplified four-week mini-cycle. We'll rate relative intensity and volume on a scale of one to five over the four weeks, one being the easiest week and five being the hardest. Right from the beginning we'll plan on week four being the back-off week, so initially our scheme will look like this:
Let's wave the intensity in this cycle. So we now have:
We're going to wave the relative intensity up pretty high in week one, then back it off in week two, then take it to the highest of the four week cycle in week three. So now wave the volume a bit:
With week one being fairly intense, the volume will be fairly low. Week two will be a lot of volume with less intensity. Week three the volume goes back up and the intensity peaks. Week four we back both volume and intensity down.
This is only one of many possibilities, and some exercises can be cycled differently within your cycles. Let's continue to another four week mini-cycle following the first. We'll follow the same basic pattern but ramp it up slightly on weeks five to eight.
Week seven is our biggest training week of our cycle. The two cycles together look like this:
Try it and see for yourself!
Tip #9: Taper!
During our taper weeks what we're really doing is letting our bodies "supercompensate." Supercompensation is the process of the body recovering to new highs in GPP (general physical preparedness), speed strength, and absolute strength as we rest and use recuperative methods.
We start our cycles with only so much recovery ability (RA) and an estimated or tested 1RM. Over the entire training cycle we exhaust our RA and our 1RM actually drops from the training load, so we badly need to taper. This is the time to work on speed strength that may have been lost due to heavy training loads if you're a powerlifter, or the time to work on your tan and posing routine as your muscles fill in if you're a bodybuilder.
The length of the taper can be as long as the loading cycle, up to three weeks depending on the individual. Generally, the larger and more accomplished a lifter, the longer the taper required. A longer taper is also necessary if a lifter has completed several mini-cycles. Since 3-4 week mini-cycles are the norm before the back-off week, 1-2 weeks of taper is normally sufficient after 2-3 mini-cycles of loading, but 3-4 weeks may be required.
The first taper week you'll train your normal schedule but volume and intensity are dropped a great deal. Speed work is used for a powerlifter and blood flow enhancement for a bodybuilder. The second week we do almost nothing but technique work and relaxation. When we put it all together, the training waves, their approximate effect on a representation of 1RM and RA, and the taper, it looks like this:
Both 1RM and RA are represented on the chart as a relative figure and represent where you are notionally at the start of the week. At the start of week four, you can see the athlete is out of gas recovery-wise and needs the back-off week. At the start of week five, we're stronger but don't have as much RA as when we started the cycle.
The second mini-cycle takes us to the brink of overtraining, but a back-off week and two weeks of taper allows our bodies the chance to supercompensate. We have a larger 1RM on meet day and have a bit more RA to start the next cycle.
You can't make yourself get stronger or bigger in the last two weeks, but you can let yourself get stronger or bigger. Learning to taper and peak isn't easy, but it's worth every bit of the effort it'll take to master this skill.
Of course, the chart is just a representation of an imaginary lifter, and I make no claims or guarantees to any other lifter or his successors. Past performance is no indicator of future gains. Possible side effects include, but aren't limited to, pulled muscles, ripped calluses, sore back, weight gain, chafing thighs, distraction during meetings, endless Internet surfing, and sweaty palms.
Tip #10: Eat!
I assume most powerlifters are allergic to Tupperware because, unlike bodybuilders, they don't walk around with coolers of brown rice and broiled chicken breasts in little Tupperware containers. You also rarely hear a powerlifter talk about being a "hardgainer." The reason for both of these phenomena is that powerlifters eat. They eat a lot.
If you don't eat, you won't grow, and you probably won't get a lot stronger. It's a simple thermodynamic equation: calories expended must be less than calories consumed or you'll stagnate. There are all kinds of dietary theories; however, all the knowledge of nitrogen balance and insulin spikes, of percentages of carbs and proteins and fats at prescribed hours of the day, and of optimum grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is all for naught if the scale needle isn't moving, or your training partner sees you coming and loads the same 185 on the bench for you.
Eat! If you don't eat breakfast, you might as well stop training! You can eat normal meals, just eat twice as many or carry meal replacement bars with you for snacks. Drink only fluid with calories in place of water. Have a snack before bed. Don't miss meals on weekends. Eat after you workout and before you workout too. Eat as healthy as you want; you just have to eat more.
There are even low-carb protein powders that taste great. I like to add ice cream and peanut butter to them for smoothness.
Hopefully my point is coming through. No excuses. This isn't about whether you eat more than your friends, family, or countrymen. There's no such thing as oral relativism. If you aren't improving or gaining, you aren't eating enough. If you aren't positive you're ready to make the commitment to fullness, then I'm sure there are lots of spin classes, callisthenic boot camp classes, and dance aerobics at your health club eager to welcome you to the land of Spandex. It's your choice!
These ten tips should help you break through any strength plateau. Try them and get on the path to strength today!