I do a lot of consultations on the telephone. It’s still the best way I know to get a sense of what someone is doing and, maybe more important, what they think they’re doing.
Writing emails, letters, and articles has lead me to an inescapable conclusion: most trainees understand only about ten percent of what they read. This might explain why a friend of mine did benches and curls on his “leg day.”
When I first talk to someone, I ask about their background in training. With a rare exception, the following is their first statement:
“My best bench is…”
After hearing literally dozens of people sum up their training with a bench press number, I began to think that of all the basic human movements – push, pull, hinge, squat, and loaded carry – the last thing you should worry about is the push.
But then, my clientele got more “special.”
Big, Banged-Up Bob
I began working with a guy we’ll call “Bob.” Bob is 6′ 8″ and weighs 310 pounds. He’s only this light in the off-season and will bulk up nicely for his job as an NFL lineman.
He makes a fair amount of money stopping people from hitting quarterbacks, and he’s done the job well enough to wear three Super Bowl rings. He has a few issues, of course: he can’t straighten out his left arm and his right shoulder is a mess.
He’s not the only one. I’ve been working with several elite athletes the past few years who simply can’t “push” as well as a normal person. Because of these people, I’ve developed a nice little system for bringing the push back to their game.
Enter the Push-Up Plank
As always, I start with patterning. In the world of pushes, I think the plank is the base.
Oh, and I also know this: nobody I know thinks they need planks. But I have a little test that I stole from Stuart McGill, the great back expert from Canada:
If you can’t hold a plank for two minutes either you’re obese or your abdominal training is wrong.
Not flawed, mind you, wrong!
(Keep in mind, though, what Gray Cook talks about, too: you can do a side plank for the month of June and still fall apart when you move. So make sure you consider mobility, too.)
I use the push-up position plank (PUPP) for most of my work. This is simply a plank performed by holding the top of a push-up, arms extended. A beat-up athlete can almost always still PUPP and you can blend the exercise with other movements fairly easily. It’s a great “rest” exercise to make an easy workout harder. I like to mix swings and goblet squats with PUPPs. It’s simple: instead of resting between exercises, plank between exercises.
Now, here’s the key: it’s getting up and down off the ground that will drive the heart rate through the roof, not the actual plank.
I use every plank imaginable. And I work all my athletes quickly into doing wall-assisted handstands, too. Once I accomplish this, I move to the King of Planks: the cartwheel.
The Cartwheel. (Really.)
Yes, I know, no one does cartwheels, but when I first saw Frank Shamrock’s training programs and saw his use of cartwheels, I was impressed, so I tried them. It was, oddly, one of the most difficult conditioning workouts of my life! In addition, my shoulders were given a workout that simply shocked me.
It’s a rare person who wouldn’t gain from more planks in their training. Use them as a focused rest period by mixing them with a big move, or add some cartwheels into your outdoor conditioning. It will shock you, too.
The issue I always deal with is this: there’s some belief that the plank, or any patterning exercise, is beginner stuff and not worthy of an “elite.” But we’re all beginners when it comes to the quality of movement.
Military + Bench = Win
The “grind” family is pretty obvious in the push world: push-ups, bench press, military press and, literally, the list seems endless. I’m a big believer in both military and bench press for nearly every athlete I train. I’ve been doing both since 1971 and I think I’ve kept my shoulders reasonably healthy by keeping both in my weekly training quiver.
For most people, the grinding presses are about all that will be needed. I honestly wish I could say more, but there are far better people to speak on the press than me. I’m a big fan of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Training and he advocates both presses each week, to I must be in good company.
Symmetry Press Workouts
This is the step that most people skip. But anyone who wants to hit or throw at high speeds needs to consider these: symmetry press workouts.
I was first exposed to the one-arm bench press by the late Lane Cannon. We did them in his basement and I discovered that my body is “one piece.”
When I recommend them, I always note to keep the free, non-weighted hand “free.” Don’t grab onto anything; just let the hand stay free. This will demand that your body “lock up” and become solid. The one-arm bench press is one of the greatest ab workouts of your life!
Ethan Reeves filled in the next part of the equation for me: standards. He believes that hoisting 125 pounds for five reps on the one-arm bench press is the “gold standard” for his athletes. I lowered this to 70 pounds for five reps for my high-school boys.
Prepare yourself before you jump up and try this challenge! With anything around 100 pounds, the weight is going to really pull your off-side around and down the bench. You have to counter it by aggressively squeezing everything from your feet up to deal with the weight. It’s a full body lift with heavy weights. Remember: keep the off-arm free!
Here’s the deal: If you can do 125 pounds with the right and only 70 with the left, you have issues.
Now, I don’t know what those issues are, but it’s better to deal with them with one-arm work than to do what often happens: add explosiveness to an asymmetrical issue! It’s far better to deal with this problem in a systematic approach that includes strengthening the weak side, addressing mobility and flexibility issues, and perhaps even some aggressive rehab work.
The One-Arm Overhead Press
Fifteen years ago, it was rare to see anyone one-arm overhead press. With the influence of Pavel and the kettlebell, the lift has returned with a vengeance.
I’m a big fan of this lift, and many of my personal workouts are anchored with one-arm presses. Again, it’s easy to see asymmetries here. I’d suggest that most men strive for a half-bodyweight one-arm overhead press and, logically, be able to do it with each hand.
Most people find that their one-arm presses combined are heavier than their two-hand barbell press overhead. It makes some sense as you have two legs and your whole body supporting the single-arm press, and most people don’t have four legs and two torsos!
If you have symmetry, by all means move up to the push press or other explosive moves. Someone not long ago asked me why people get bigger when they do push presses. My answer, obviously genius, was simple “’cause you use bigger weights.”
There’s a truth in that statement that most skinny trainees never grasp. Bigger Faster Stronger has a video of me push pressing 365 for five reps. At that load, you must have a fairly solid foundation underneath the bar.
The push press is simple: With the weight on the chest, the normal position for overhead pressing, dip your legs in a controlled bend. (I used to tell people to do a quarter-squat.) Then, vigorously drive the bar using your whole body into the finished press position.
It’s relatively easy to do, but take your time adding plates. There is an issue with your chin being in the way of the bar as you drive it up, and it takes a bit of practice to learn to pull your chin out of the way. I learned that the hard way.
Beyond the Bench
The press is a favorite for most lifters, but there’s still a need to look at the push through the lens of patterning, grinding, and symmetry.
There are few things more rewarding than holding a big lift overhead or nailing a big number in the bench press. Long-term improvement can come from including some work with planks and one-arm presses, in addition to the countless sets of bench presses.
Your shoulders will thank me.