Less Pain, More Gain
I love to press, but because of years of going too heavy too often without enough preparation, my shoulders aren't as healthy and resilient as they once were. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one with this problem.
If you've spent a long time trying to build up big pressing numbers, chances are your shoulders are beat up to some extent. The wear and tear of regular pressing will end up hurting the joints more than strengthening the muscles.
So what's the solution? To limit the irritation and build more muscle in the delts, pecs, and triceps, use the scrape the rack technique. John Meadows first introduced me to scraping (or stripping) the rack, and ever since it's never let me down.
What is it? Pressing the bar against the posts of a power rack at the same time as you're pressing up.
Not only will you make the exercises more shoulder-friendly, you'll actually get a much stronger mind-muscle connection and a better pump.
No, it's not. Those who think this only see the posts forcing you to press in a straight line, like in a Smith machine. But there are two major things that set this lift apart:
- The bar isn't fixed, which means you still have to control it. If you don't, it can move sideways or one side can go up faster than the other. Yes, it's more stable than a purely free press, but it's nothing like the Smith machine. You'll realize that immediately when you try it.
- With scrape the rack presses, you're actively pressing forward against the posts of the rack, not just upward. There are two force vectors. Plus the rack provides friction and the harder you press against it, the more added tension you'll have.
While you can also press forward in the Smith machine, it's just not the same thing. You have to try both to feel the (big) difference. With that out of the way, here are the five best scrape the rack pressing exercises.
This one helps emphasize the contraction of the pecs (you get a much better squeeze when you both push up and against the pins) while reducing the involvement of the shoulders. The triceps are also more easily activated. But even more interesting is that by pushing against the rack you automatically engage the lats, which will help stabilize the shoulders.
Every lifter should engage his or her lats when bench pressing, but many can't do it (or can't keep them engaged) and as a result the shoulder is less stable and more prone to injury. The scrape the rack bench press solves that issue and gives you more pec stimulation, which means more muscle growth.
How To Do It
- Start the bar off from safety pins/supports. If you have the square ones you'll have to press it from the pins to the little edge that's slightly higher; this is where the bar is starting on the video. If you're using metal rods as safety pins, which is ideal, you can start from the pins themselves.
- Once the bar is in the starting position (as close to the chest as possible), either on the edge of the pin or on the pin itself, set up like you would in a regular bench press. Get your glutes and abs tight, squeeze both shoulder blades together, and engage the lats – which is easy if you press with about 25% force against the pins.
- Press the barbell both up and against the posts. Normally we apply about 25% of our max force pushing against the posts. If the weight is too light during a set you can compensate by applying more force against the posts. By doing this you'll turn an easy set into a hard and effective one.
This one is exactly like the previous one, but with a close-grip. How close? Well, don't go overboard. Most people use a grip that's too narrow. As a result they put a lot more stress on their wrists while greatly limiting the weight they can use. Not good if your goal is to overload the triceps. Try a shoulder-width grip. Get your pinky fingers aligned with the outer edge of your delts.
The exercise is actually more effective than the regular close-grip bench, at least when it comes to building the triceps. Why? Because most people think that the role of the triceps is limited to the extension of the elbow joint, like triceps pressdowns or extensions. But it's also involved in shoulder extension, like the straight-arm pulldown.
When you're pressing against the rack you're essentially doing an isometric shoulder extension. Even if it's an isometric, you still get the increase in triceps activation which can be used in the pressing action (which involves elbow extension). This shoulder extension action recruits mostly the long head of the triceps, which is the most important one for benching heavy. Pressing against the rack also decreases delt involvement, and thus helps put more emphasis on the triceps.
This is a safer alternative to the regular military press because it engages the serratus more easily, which helps stabilize the shoulder joint. It's also easier to keep the delts under constant tension during a scrape the rack set.
You'll notice a much better pump in the shoulders than you would with a regular military press. I've seen a lot of people with shoulder issues be able to do the scrape the rack shoulder press but they were incapable of doing a military press.
You can lean forward at the top of the movement. (Look at what Nick is doing when the bar is overhead.) This is a great way to work on shoulder mobility and constitutes a form of loaded stretching.
How To Do It
- Start the bar at about chin/neck level. For hypertrophy purposes there's not much point in going lower; it's more stressful to the shoulder and reduces the load you can use. You get a safer and more effective stimulus if you start at the upper part of your neck.
- Use 25% effort against the rack. But if you go too conservative with the weight you can always compensate by applying more force against the rack, which will intensify muscle contraction despite the lower load.
While I've done reverse-grip shoulder presses before, I never really felt them a lot in my delts, which is why this lift is a game-changer. It's basically like the regular grip version but your palms are supinated or facing your body.
Try it and you'll probably be surprised that you feel it a lot more in your delts than even the regular grip version. It'll give you an amazing delt pump. It emphasizes the front delt a bit more than the normal grip version, especially at the top where you get a tremendous peak contraction.
Do moderate reps (6-8) on the regular grip version and go for more volume (8-15 reps) on the reverse grip variation. Here's how to use it in a mechanical drop set:
- A1. Scrape the rack reverse shoulder press x 8-10 reps
- No rest, keep the same weight
- A2. Scrape the rack shoulder press (normal grip) x maximum reps
- For an amazing pump, do this mechanical drop set for 3 or 4 sets.
I've never felt the triceps working during traditional overhead tricep extensions. But with the scrape the rack, I got a great training effect.
The key to making it work is to apply pressure against the rack at all times. This engages the long head of the triceps, allowing you to stimulate this very important portion of the muscle group that gives you more arm thickness and pressing strength.
Continuing to apply pressure against the rack also allows you to get a loaded stretching effect when you focus on keeping the elbows pointing forward and up. That loaded stretch of the triceps is great to activate mTor, which is key for muscle growth.
Try a superset of the scrape the rack triceps extensions and rope triceps pressdowns. This combo will give you the best tricep pump of your life:
- A1. Scrape the rack triceps extension x 6-8 reps
- 15 seconds rest
- A2. Rope triceps pressdown x 10-12 reps
- Do that superset 3-4 times.