Diagnosing Your Bench Press Problems

Q: In a previous column you gave us a table explaining the problems and solutions for each sticking point in the military press. Can you do that for the bench press?

A: Sure! Now, this table only lists the most probable issue causing each sticking point. There could be something more complex going on, or a technical issue that's more unique to you. But eight times out of ten, I've found that strengthening the sticking point area will solve the problem.

So take a look at this table, determine where your sticking point is, take note of the causes, and use the appropriate assistance exercises to strengthen that area.

Bench Press

Sticking Point Causes Assistance Exercises
Breaking off from chest 1. Lats weak or not properly engaged

2. External shoulder rotators

3. Upper traps more dominant than lower traps and rear delts
1. Straight-arms pulldown, Pendlay row, seal row

2. Cuban press, seated dumbbell snatch, external shoulder rotations

3. Trap-3 raise, rear delt machine, Powell raise, victory raise
Lower third Pecs Wide-grip bench press, Spotto press, decline bench press, floor press, dumbbell bench press, bench press with Duffalo bar
Mid third 1. Anterior delts

2. Rear delts and rhomboids (Shoulder lifts up from bench)
1. Incline bench press, slight incline bench press, lying front raise

2. Bench press with resistance band around wrists, rear delt machine, face pulls
Upper third (lockout) Triceps, especially long head Close-grip pin press, lockout bench press, close-grip floor press, close-grip decline bench, overhead triceps extensions

If you're unfamiliar with some of these exercises, use this list:

Seal Row

A seal row is a chest-supported row (using dumbbells or a bar) using a bench. Elevate the bench on blocks or plates. If you don't have that setup, a regular chest-supported row will do.

Cuban Press

Trap-3 Raise

Powell Raise

Victory Raise

Spotto Press

Bench Press With Resistance Band Around Wrists

Bench Press With Duffalo Bar

Once you fix a muscle weakness, it'll take some time to transfer those strength gains to the bench press. Your body will need to change the intermuscular coordination pattern. Don't panic if your strength gains in pressing lag a few weeks behind your strength gains in the assistance lifts.

Trap Bar Deadlift

CNS Stress and Trap Bar Deadlifts

Q: Are trap bar deadlifts any less demanding on the central nervous system than barbell deadlifts?

A: That's a good question. Let's look at what's likely to increase the stress on the CNS when lifting.

  • The Weight Lifted: The more weight imposed on your body (tendons, skeletal system, muscles), the greater the demand will be on the CNS.
  • The Work Performed: I'm not talking strictly about volume here, but more about the amount of work you perform when doing a movement. Work is equal to force X distance. That's why a partial lift is often less demanding on the CNS even if you're using more weight.
  • The Amount of Muscle Involved: If more muscles are involved at the same time, the CNS will be challenged more. This happens in part because normally more muscles involved means heavier weight, but also because the system needs to work harder to coordinate all of those muscles.
  • The Complexity and Coordination Required: The more difficult the technique is, the harder the CNS will work.
  • Technical Efficiency: The less efficient your technique, the harder your nervous system will work to properly execute the movement. A better engrained motor pattern, and a more efficient movement, is more economical on neurological resources. That's one of the reasons why elite Olympic lifters with superb technique can snatch and clean & jerk every day.
  • Speed of Execution: Both speed (more precisely, accelerating the bar) and mass moved will increase the demands for force production. Force equals mass x acceleration. So the more force you need to produce, the greater the demands on the CNS.
  • The Perceived Stress: When the body sees a lift as potentially dangerous, either voluntarily or subconsciously, it'll produce more cortisol which leads to an increase in adrenaline production. More adrenaline production can lead to what we wrongfully refer to as "CNS fatigue" either by depleting dopamine (adrenaline is made from dopamine) or a desensitization of the adrenergic receptors due to overstimulation.

Now, using this info, let's compare the two.

Traditional Deadlift vs. Trap Bar Deadlift

  • The Weight Lifted: Pretty much everybody will lift more on a trap bar deadlift, especially if using the high-handle position. So if we're talking strictly about using a certain percentage of your max, let's say 85% of your max on that lift, the trap bar "wins" this one.
  • The Work Performed: If you're using the lower setting of a trap bar, the linear distance travelled will be the same as a conventional deadlift. However, the bar path is much straighter on a trap bar deadlift.

    So while the distance from point A to point B is the same, the path is "longer" on the conventional deadlift, and the muscles should be under load for slightly longer. I give this one to the conventional deadlift.
  • The Amount of Muscle Involved: Conventional wisdom would say that since you're lifting more during a trap bar deadlift, more muscle is involved. But that's not the case. You're moving more weight mostly because of a better leverage: the center of mass is in line with your body, whereas in the conventional deadlift it's in front of you.

    And because of that, the conventional deadlift works the posterior chain a bit more. The trap bar, on the other hand, will work the quads a bit more. I'd say the conventional deadlift tends to recruit slightly more muscle if done properly. Why? Because it recruits the lower and upper back a bit more. So I give this one to the conventional deadlift too.
  • The Complexity and Coordination Required: I have to give this one to the conventional deadlift. Technically speaking it's a more complicated lift because of the bar path.

    You must lift up and in a backward arc to pass the knees properly. But you lift in a straight line during the trap bar deadlift. So assuming they're both done properly, a trap bar deadlift is much simpler than a conventional deadlift.
  • Technical Efficiency: Here it really depends on the lifter. If you're a master technician on the conventional deadlift it'll be no more demanding (in this category) as the trap bar deadlift. But because the trap bar is so much simpler and because most people have a very inefficient deadlift technique, this one normally goes to conventional too. But if your conventional deadlift technique is world class then both would be similar.
  • Speed of Execution: This isn't really lift-specific; it depends on the load and the attempt to accelerate. If you want to be anal about it, the trap bar might be a bit easier to accelerate because of the straighter bar path. Both lifts would be similar in this variable, maybe a short "win" for the trap bar.
  • The Perceived Stress: The conventional deadlift is significantly higher than the trap bar deadlift. The conventional deadlift will load the spine a lot more than the trap bar. That's because the load is positioned in front of you versus aligned with your body in the trap bar. Axial/spinal loading is one of the greatest stresses your nervous system can be under.

So as you can see, a trap bar deadlift puts a lower neurological demand on you compared to a regular deadlift. However, it would put a greater demand on you than a squat.


Facts On Fat Burning Supplements

Q: I know training and diet come first, but can fat burning supplements actually help you get super lean? How do they even work?

A: The "fat burning supplements" category is quite broad. Tons of different products are being sold with the claim of helping you lose fat faster and more easily.

Fat loss supplements are formulated to do one of the following:

  • Increase metabolic rate or energy expenditure via increased beta adrenergic (adrenaline) activity
  • Increase metabolic rate or energy expenditure via a higher T3 (thyroid hormone) production
  • Increase fat mobilization via inhibition of the alpha-adrenergic receptors
  • Increase fatty acid transport and/or utilization of fat for fuel
  • Improve insulin sensitivity
  • Activate the mitochondrial uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1)

There might be other mechanisms (like reducing fat absorption) but these are the main ones. So let's break each of these down.

Increased Metabolic Rate Via Beta Adrenergic Stimulation

This is done with products often labeled "stimulants" so think ephedrine, synephrine, and the like. Caffeine can even be included here, indirectly.

These work, and they do increase energy expenditure which leads to fat loss. But their effect is fairly small. An old study looked at the effect of the ephedrine/caffeine stack. It improved metabolic rate/energy expenditure by 5%. That's maybe an extra 100 calories per day.

It can still have an affect and help get that last bit of fat off when you're dieting down for a contest, but it's no miracle.

The main reasons stimulants "work" is that they blunt appetite, which makes you eat less and makes it easier to follow a diet. It also gives you more energy when you're tired from dieting down. If you have more energy, you'll move more and train harder which will also help you lose fat.

But overusing stimulants comes at a price. First they lead to an increase in cortisol, and most of us already have too much of that. But more importantly, when you chronically overstimulate, the beta adrenergic receptors can easily become desensitized (they don't respond well to adrenaline anymore). When that happens it'll actually become harder to lose fat and you'll also have less energy and motivation. Ultimately, you'll start to feel worse and worse.

This category of product is best left for losing the last few pounds. I only recommend using them for a few weeks, which is why they need to be the very last thing to add in a regimen.

Increased Metabolic Rate/Energy Expenditure Via Higher T3 Production

The T3 thyroid hormone is in large part responsible for elevating your metabolic rate. The body produces mostly T4 which is then converted to T3. To boost T3 levels you can either increase overall thyroid hormone production or increase T4 to T3 conversion.

To boost overall thyroid production the best thing to do is to provide the body with enough raw material to make these hormones. Specifically iodine and tyrosine. As such, supplements containing both can help a bit with thyroid production.

As for T4 to T3 conversion, one of the best things you can do is decrease stress levels. Chronically elevated cortisol can impair that conversion. Zinc deficiency will also be problematic because zinc is required for the conversion to take place. Rhodiola and raspberry ketones, which are in Hot-Rox® Extreme, can indirectly increase that conversion too.

Increased Fat Mobilization Via Inhibition of the Alpha-Adrenergic Receptors

We have two main types of adrenergic (adrenaline) receptors: the beta and alpha receptors. The beta receptors are the "on" switch. When activated they increase heart rate, CNS activation, energy mobilization (including fat) and muscle strength. These are the receptors being targeted by most stimulants.

The alpha receptors are the "off" switch. When activated, they shut down energy/fat mobilization, slow heart rate, decrease CNS activation, etc.

Some supplements are antagonists of the alpha adrenergic receptors. This simply means that these supplements block the alpha receptors. If you block them, your body continues mobilizing energy for longer.

There's a theory that stubborn body fat sites (where you have problems losing fat the most) have more alpha and less beta adrenergic receptors, making it much harder to mobilize fat there.

Yohimbe HCL/yohimbine, which is also found in Hot-Rox® Extreme, is an antagonist of the alpha receptors. For that reason it can work for increasing fat mobilization, especially in stubborn regions.

Just be aware that if you're overly stressed or planning to do a monster CrossFit-like workout, yohimbe might not be a great idea: even without stimulants these kind of workouts will increase adrenaline so much that you can run into trouble. The best use for a yohimbe-containing product is before steady-state cardio.

It's not a magic pill, but it can help get rid of the stubborn body fat when that's all you have left. It works WITH exercise – it'll make the exercise more efficient at mobilizing fat. By itself it will have a small impact, and it'll be a lot more effective with cardio than weight training.

Increased Fatty Acid Transport and/or Utilization of Fat for Fuel

Some supplements improve fatty acid transport to the mitochondria or they increase the enzymes involved in energy production from fat. Some supplements only claim to do this, but don't.

For example Acetyl-L-Carnitine can help you use fat more efficiently for fuel. However, that effect is fairly small. The main benefits of ALCAR are mostly on brain function, for which it's actually quite effective. (It's one of the ingredients in Brain Candy®.) Now, some bodybuilders use the injectable version of ALCAR and it seems to work a bit better for fat loss, but it's still pretty minor.

Raspberry ketones can help by increasing the enzyme responsible for breaking down fatty acids so that they can be used for fuel by the mitochondria.

Improved Insulin Sensitivity

This is where most people should focus. Besides helping with body composition, improving insulin sensitivity is very healthy. There's not really any drawback from improving insulin sensitivity.

How is being insulin sensitive good for losing fat? Insulin is a storage hormone, as long as it's elevated significantly above baseline, fat mobilization is less effective. If you're insulin-resistant your cells don't respond well to insulin, and as a result you must produce a lot more of it when eating a meal (especially a carb-containing meal).

If you produce more insulin it takes longer for it to go back down to normal levels. So you spend less time in "efficient fat mobilization mode" which makes it harder to lose fat. Being insulin resistant doesn't necessarily make you store more fat, but it makes it harder to mobilize it.

If you become more sensitive to insulin, you produce less of it when you eat, and it comes back down to normal levels much faster, giving you more time in the fat mobilizing state. It just makes it easier to lose fat.

Many supplements are effective at improving insulin sensitivity. The two best ingredients are cyanidin-3-glucoside (Indigo-3G®) and berberine.

Other effective supplements include r-ALA, omega 3 fatty acids, and chromium has a small effect. There are others too but nothing spectacular. Apple cider vinegar and cinnamon also have a positive impact on insulin sensitivity.

Supplements that improve insulin sensitivity won't lead to a dramatically increased rate of fat loss, however they will make the fat loss process much easier and will make you a lot healthier in the process.

Activating the Mitochondrial Uncoupling Protein 1 (UCP1)

This leads to more heat and less energy production, which means you need to burn more fat for the same amount of required energy production.

The most well known "uncoupler" is the dangerous drug DNP. It was, at one point, popular in bodybuilding circles, but it directly led to a few deaths. Basically, uncouplers work by making the energy production very inefficient. Instead of being turned mostly into ATP (energy), glucose and fatty acids are turned into heat. This means you need a lot more fatty acids/glucose to produce enough ATP to function. This dramatically increases energy expenditure.

A few supplements can have a small effect on UCP1 but nothing spectacular. If something has a large impact on UCP1 then it'll come with many potential side effects.

The Bottom Line On Fat Burners

Not all fat loss products are BS. In fact, a lot of ingredients are backed by science.

The best supplementation strategy to help with fat loss is targeting insulin sensitivity. Stimulants and antagonists of the alpha-adrenergic receptors are effective, but not magic. They should be used carefully, only when truly needed (for that last little bit of fat), and for a brief period.

Related:  Question of Strength 55

Related:  3 Reasons Trap Bar Deadlifts Are King