Throughout my years in the strength and performance business, I've often observed that an athlete's plateau in strength development is caused by a lack of structural balance. Let's say, for instance, that you can bench 250 pounds, but unfortunately, you've been stuck at that particular weight since the year Donna Summer's hit "Love to Love You Babe" soared to the top of the disco charts. That wouldn't be good.

Believe it or not, I meet lots of athletes who are in the same situation. The first thing that I do is look for the aforementioned disproportionate ratios between different exercises. For instance, if a particular athlete's personal best on the close-grip bench press is 225, but he has to ask the bag boy at the local Piggly-Wiggly to heft the one-gallon jugs of milk into his trunk, something is terribly, terribly wrong. In other words, more than often enough, if you're failing to make progress in a given lift, the body is protecting itself from injury by neurally inhibiting strength gains.

By working with hundreds and hundreds of elite athletes over the course of two decades, I've been able to collect some normative data about how much an athlete should be able to lift, relative to his other lifts. The athletes who achieved those ratios tended to perform better on the international scene and had the lowest incidence of injuries.

For the purpose of this article, I'm only going to discuss the upper extremities. I use the 14-inch grip bench-press test as the reference value for other upper extremity exercises. Even though I acknowledge that this area needs further study, this was the first time that the strength and conditioning coaching community was presented with simple tests to assess the athlete's optimal strength ratios. This data is presented below in Table 1. You don't need to spend too much time looking at it right now, because I'll be coming back to it.

Table 1
Optimal strength ratios in the male elite athletes involved in upper body dominated sports as they related to a 1RM, 160 kg performance in the 36 cm close-grip bench press (Poliquin, 1997)

Optimal Strength Ratios

Let's take a look at one of my case studies, and you'll get a better idea of what I'm talking about:

Case #1202 Beginning Stats
May 15, 1998

Jim's close-grip bench press poundage, at 280 pounds, was average for someone his size. Take a look at the table, though. Based on his close-grip bench 1RM, he should be able to use 25 pounds on single-arm external rotations (with a dumbbell) for eight reps (25 pounds is 9% of 280). The trouble was, he could only do eight pounds for three reps! In other words, he needed to start using a TV remote control (without the batteries, of course) as a means of resistance. In other words, his external rotators of the humerus were pathetic!

Since one of the priorities of the ice hockey enforcer is the ability to pummel an adversary, bench press power is important. I knew that the best way to increase his bench press strength was to increase the strength of the limiting factor in his strength profile which, of course, was the external rotators. So what did I prescribe?

First, contrary to what you might think, I had him stop bench pressing. Second, I had him start doing two different external rotator exercises on a five-day training cycle. Third, I needed him to drive up all of the other values that were out of line. In Jim's case, he had poor brachialis strength and poor overhead pressing strength.

By August 15, he was able to do 35 pounds in the single-arm external rotation for eight reps, and a 331-pound close-grip bench press. That means he had a 51-pound improvement in the close-grip bench press without even doing the exercise for 12 weeks! His rotator cuff strength was now at 10.6% of his close-grip bench press. Therefore, he enabled his close-grip poundage to zoom upwards.

Single-Arm External Rotations

Since he was just three weeks away from training camp, combined with the fact that he had just been traded from the Phoenix Coyotes to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, I wanted to make sure that he would test awesome at the pre-season training camp. Since I knew that his rotator cuff was now up to par, I put him on one of my bench press specialization programs. By September 10, his final stats were as follows:

Case #1202 End Stats
September 10, 1998

At the Mighty Ducks training camp, Jim performed 23 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press. This is exceptional, since the average NCAA Division-1 lineman does only 11 reps.

Furthermore, during the 1998-99 season, Jim only fought 20% as much as he had in the past. His potential opponents are well aware that they're no longer a match for him. News of the dramatic changes that he made in his physique and strength spread like wildfire through the league. In fact, the beating he gave to Jim "Fighting Legend in His Own Mind" Coté of the Nashville Predators was so fierce that every single one of my NHL clients who phoned me during that week asked me if I had seen it.

Okay, chances are you're not a hockey player, nor do you have the reputation of being the neighborhood enforcer. Regardless, you probably want to make sure that your lifts in the movements outlined in my chart are within acceptable limits. Otherwise, you're going to be spinning your wheels for a long time.

I suggest that you figure out your 1RM in all of the described movements and make training adjustments accordingly. For instance, if you test your close-grip bench press 1RM and it's 225 pounds, you know that you should be able to do eight reps of single-arm external rotations with 20 pounds (225 x 0.09 = 20.25 pounds). Similarly, you should be able to do 187 pounds on the incline barbell press (225 x 0.83 = 186.75 pounds), 182 pounds on supinated chin-ups, 144 pounds on behind-the-neck presses, 104 pounds on Scott barbell curls, and 68 pounds on standing reverse curls.

If you fail to come close or meet any of those parameters, you need to focus on that particular body part. Again, this topic needs more research, but I've found these guidelines to be invaluable in determining an athlete's strengths and weaknesses.

Here are some general notes on the tests that I use:

Here are some specific notes on the lifts I use:

14-Inch Close-Grip Bench Presses

Incline Presses

Supinated Chin-Ups

Behind-the-Neck Presses

Scott Barbell Curls

Standing Reverse Curls

Single-Arm External Rotations

Now, I realize that it would be swell to include strengthening routines for any body part in which you may lack strength, but that would make this article as long as "War and Peace." Instead, I suggest that you use the Testosterone search engine to dig up any or all of the articles that we've posted in the last year on training various body parts.

You may consider all of this testing to be too much trouble. Fine. At the very least, test your close-grip bench press and your single-arm external rotation. If you're like the majority of athletes, you'll find that your rotator cuffs are woefully underdeveloped, and simply including this movement into your routines will dramatically increase your bench press performance.