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.

Optimal Strength Ratios

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).

  • Close Grip Bench Press
  • Absolute score: 160 kg (352 pounds)
  • Relative score: 100%
  • Incline Barbell Press
  • Absolute score: 133 kg (293 pounds)
  • Relative score: 83%
  • Supinated Chin-Ups
  • Absolute score: 130 kg (286 pounds)
  • Relative score: 81%
  • Behind-the-Neck Presses
  • Absolute score: 102 kg (224 pounds)
  • Relative score: 64%
  • Scott Barbell Curls
  • Absolute score: 74 kg (163 pounds)
  • Relative score: 46%
  • Standing Reverse Curls
  • Absolute score: 48 kg (107 pounds)
  • Relative score: 30%
  • External Rotation SA (8 reps)
  • Absolute score: 15 kg (33 pounds)
  • Relative score: 9%

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

  • Athlete: Jim McKenzie
  • Sport: Ice Hockey
  • Position: Left wing/enforcer
  • Nickname: The "Real" Big Mac
  • Team: Phoenix Coyotes
  • Age: 28
  • Height: 6'4"
  • Weight: 235 pounds
  • Bodyfat: 15.7%
  • Lean Body Mass: 198 pounds
  • 14-Inch Close Grip Bench: 280 pounds
  • Single-Arm External Rotation: 8 pounds for 3 reps
  • Fighting Record for 1997-98 Season: 19-1-0

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

  • Athlete: Jim McKenzie
  • Sport: Ice Hockey
  • Position: Left wing/enforcer
  • Nickname: The "Real" Big Mac
  • Team: Anaheim Mighty Ducks
  • Age: 28
  • Height: 6'4"
  • Weight: 229 pounds
  • Bodyfat: 7.0%
  • Lean Body Mass: 213 pounds
  • 14-Inch Close Grip Bench: 380 pounds
  • Single-Arm External Rotation: 35 pounds for 8 reps

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.

General Notes on the Tests That I Use

  • All lifts are done on a 40X0 tempo (that's four seconds to lower the bar, no rest, and an explosive concentric rep).
  • Lifts are to be tested after six to eight sets of low-rep (one to three) warm-ups.
  • Form, of course, has to be perfect on all lifts.
  • Except for the reverse curls, in which I use an Ivanko bar, I use competition Eleiko plates and bars. The Eleiko weights allow me to adjust the weight to the nearest 0.5 kg.
  • Not all lifts are tested on the same day. Instead, I prefer to use different ones at various sections of the training process.

Specific Notes on the Lifts I Use

14-Inch Close-Grip Bench Presses

  • I chose the width of the grip myself, as it represents the most common hand spacing in all of those sports requiring some sort of pushing action: bobsleigh start, clearing traffic for hockey defensemen, push-off in the short-track speedskating relay, keeping opponents away in judo, etc.
  • I wanted to use a grip that my colleagues in other sports or other countries could also use to collect data.

Incline Presses

  • The width of the grip should be slightly wider than the bi-acromial width (the distance between the two points of the shoulders), and the elbow angle should be 45 degrees between the forearm and the upper arm in the bottom position.
  • The bench is inclined at 45 degrees.

Supinated Chin-Ups

  • The weight recorded is equal to the weight of the athlete, plus whatever additional weight that he or she can pull.
  • The chin must clear the bar, and the elbow flexors must make contact with the forearms in the top position.

Behind-the-Neck Presses

  • I can hear physical therapists pissing and moaning at the choice of this exercise, but they're the same people who recommend knee extensions for knee rehab patients, so don't pay much attention to their advice. The shoulder, when healthy, is designed to do the press behind the neck without any problems. If you can't do it, you have, as my good friend Gary Roberts of the Hurricanes would say, "some issues." These issues can range from a tight subscapularis to a weak infraspinatus. Before testing it, fix these problems.
  • The bar is pressed from the meaty area of the traps to 99% of elbow extension.
  • The grip is as narrow as your present level of hypertrophy will allow.

Scott Barbell Curls

  • I use an Atlantis Scott bench for the test. I like it because it prevents cheating. You might not have one, but don't ignore the point: refrain from cheating!
  • The grip is slightly narrower than the bi-acromial width.

Standing Reverse Curls

  • I use an Ivanko bar for the reverse curls.
  • The grip is the mid-grip pronated spacing on the EZ-Bar.
  • The back is supported by a Swiss ball to prevent cheating and minimize the stress on the lower back.

Single-Arm External Rotations

  • A dumbbell is used as the means of resistance.
  • I look for 8RM performance. If the athlete does, let's say, only five reps with a given weight instead of eight reps, I deduct 2% per rep off the 8RM target. For example, if the athlete did six reps with 20 pounds, he is two reps (two reps = 4%) off the 8RM target. Therefore, he would have done 19.2 pounds for eight reps (20 x 0.96 = 19.2 pounds). *
  • The elbow is supported on the ipsilateral vastus medialis (on top of the thigh) and should be about two inches lower than the tip of the shoulder.
  • It is extremely important that the maximal range is achieved in the eccentric range.

* The 0.96 is derived by taking 100 and subtracting 4%. Similarly, if he had only done five reps with 20 pounds, he'd have missed his rep target by three. I would then multiply three reps by 2% to get 6%. If I subtract 0.06 from 1.00, I get 0.94. Therefore, 20 pounds x 0.94 = 18.8 pounds.


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 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 in your routines will dramatically increase your bench press performance.