Know what sucks? Not being able to do what you were once great at, or seeing your performance slowly get worse. And it’s not because you’re not trying – it’s often because of injuries or irritations that limit your training. This is a common scenario with the bench press, the military press, and the squat.
In my case it was the bench press. I’d gone from benching 445 pounds, to barely making 225 pounds, to not being able to bench more than the bar. And I was gaining strength in other exercises so it wasn’t just old age.
Shoulder pain and inflammation were the culprits. They resulted from nerve compression, which kept me from fully using the triceps, delts, and biceps. The problem led to a drastic atrophy of these muscles and a lousy bench press. It may sound like an individual problem, but it’s not uncommon.
Luckily, Dr. John Rusin helped me nail down a solution: proper workout preparation. It has saved my bench press and upper body musculature. After just a few weeks I’m now able to bench press without pain and my upper body is quickly improving.
Oh, you don’t have shoulder problems? Don’t wait to prevent them. Had I taken some preventive measures when I was benching monster weights, I’d have avoided the problem in the first place. In other words, this is essential if you’re a serious lifter who benches a lot of weight. Start now. You may find that you can lift more as a result and even build more muscle because you’re able to recruit more muscle fibers.
Here’s what workout prep can do:
- Help current shoulder problems holding back your bench press or overhead press.
- Prevent future shoulder issues.
- Prepare your body for heavy lifting by amping up the CNS, increasing the efficacy of the peripheral nervous system (improving specific muscle recruitment) and minimizing nerve compression.
It’s a four-step process plus one bonus strategy that you can do during your pressing sessions.
Step 1 – CNS Activation
All the drills you may do to “fire your glutes” or “wake up your rotator cuff” won’t be nearly as effective if you didn’t activate the computer – your central nervous system – first. Specific activation makes a muscle (neuromuscular junction) more sensitive to the neural drive. But if your CNS isn’t efficient at sending the signal you won’t get much out of the specific work.
According to Dr. Philippe Croisetiere, who specializes in the nervous system, you can’t properly activate a specific muscle or region if the central nervous system isn’t already activated. So how do you activate the CNS?
The first thing to do, after a general warm-up to elevate body temperature, is to use an explosive drill to fire up the CNS. Any type of explosive activity will do. I prefer either a jump variation or Prowler sprints. We don’t want to use the upper body too much at this point.
Do 2-3 sets of 5 jumps (box jumps, vertical jump, jumping with a kettlebell, hurdle jump, etc.) or two or three 20-30 meter sprints with a light load on the Prowler or sled.
Step 2 – Prepare The Shoulder
You’ve got to make sure your shoulders aren’t stiff when you start the workout. That’s the best way to have bad muscle recruitment and improper mechanics. You also want to increase blood flow to the area. This will increase the sensitivity of all the shoulder girdle muscles to the neural drive.
Start with a superset of two exercises: the band shoulder dislocates and weighted shoulder circles.
I like to use bands for the shoulder dislocates since it’s much gentler than using a stick (which is often used by Olympic lifters). The band tension also creates some muscle activation which makes it more of an active mobility movement. That means it’s going to be more transferable to lifting. Always keep your arms straight. As you get better at it, grab the band with a narrower grip to increase tension. If you feel a sore spot at any point in the range of motion do slow partial reps or isometric holds at that position until the soreness subsides.
For the shoulder circles, try using both small and larger circles. No need for a specific ratio, just play with it to get the most thorough effect possible. Do 8-12 reps in each direction. Start slowly at first and gradually get faster as you get more comfortable. While you don’t have to go super slow, still control the movement, don’t do a crazy windmill.
Do this first superset three times for the first three weeks. As your shoulders become more mobile, twice will be enough.
Step 3 – Improve Stabilization
Next is the bottoms-up kettlebell press, an amazing drill to improve the precision of your pressing mechanics and also to train your body to stabilize the shoulder.
Years ago I found that doing overhead work prior to bench pressing led to superior bench pressing performance, likely because it better prepared the shoulder. With this drill you can get that benefit without having to use very heavy weights, thus avoiding fatigue that might decrease bench press performance.
Note that I’m still working on shoulder mobility. When I’m pressing with my left arm (the formerly injured shoulder) I don’t yet have full range of motion, the press should be in a slightly more pronounced backward arc.
Do two or three sets of 8-12 reps per arm, but don’t go to the point of feeling a lot of muscle fatigue. You should feel a slight pump at the most.
Step 4 – Activate the Pecs and Stretch Them
The final preparation drill is a superset of the dumbbell squeeze press and dumbbell flyes.
Prior to bench pressing you need to activate the pecs (making them more responsive to the neural drive), and do loaded stretching to avoid pulls and tears. Static stretching will have no benefit to your bench press performance and might even decrease it.
Something to remember: Because of “geared” powerlifters (using a bench press shirt) one common belief is that the bench press is mostly a triceps exercise and the pecs play a limited role. But this doesn’t apply to those of us who bench without wearing a supportive shirt (which basically does most of the work in the range of motion where the pecs are most used).
If your pecs are strong and activated, the CNS will rely more on that muscle to do the job, and the delts won’t be loaded up as much. This reduces the chances of a shoulder injury. The pecs are a much stronger muscle than the delts, so becoming better at using the pecs when bench pressing will lead to bigger numbers.
For the squeeze press, press two dumbbells against each other. As you press up, squeeze them together. When using this exercise to build muscle, squeeze in as hard as possible and go up slowly. But when using it as an activation exercise, use only about a 75 percent of your effort when squeezing in and go up at a controlled, but not slow, speed. The goal is to wake up the pecs, not burn them out.
Do 8-12 reps then immediately move to the dumbbell flyes on which you gradually try to use a greater range of motion to stretch the pecs. Do 8-12 reps with these.
Step 5 – Start Your Workout and Use An Antagonist Action
You’re now ready to start your pressing workout. But there’s another thing you can do to improve your pressing work: do antagonist exercises between sets of pressing. This means working opposing muscles between sets of bench pressing. This can be done two ways:
- You could use an A1/A2 pairing where you do the bench press variation as A1, rest 90-120 seconds, then do a horizontal rowing exercise as A2, rest 90-120 seconds, and go back to the bench press, etc. Try using a fairly challenging back exercise along with the bench press. This has the benefit of making sure that the pulling muscles aren’t out of balance with the pressing ones. This is better for building overall muscle mass. On the other hand, doing a heavy bench press and a heavy row can affect performance on one of the two (or both) due to accumulated neural fatigue.
- Or you can use a “minor” exercise for the rear delts/rhomboids between sets of bench press, something like a band pull-apart or rear-delt machine. Here are two antagonist exercises that I really like when bench pressing heavy. The first one is a band pull-apart with external rotation. In the first two reps I only pause between the pull-apart and the external rotation to make the external rotation obvious, but then I do the reps smoothly (no pause) as they’re meant to be done.
The second exercise is a rear delt flye using a supinated grip on the pec deck machine. This position will both stretch the internal rotators that get tense from bench pressing and strengthen hard-to-get muscles of the shoulder girdle. As an additional tip, try to press in the handle with your pinky finger to get better activation.
In this second approach, fatigue won’t cause your bench pressing performance to decrease since you’d be doing such a minor exercise, but you’ll still get the benefit of improving recruitment in those supporting muscles. Only downside? It won’t build as much back mass as the first option.
So for hypertrophy, choose the first option (bench press and rowing variation) using sets of 6-12 reps. For strength, go with the second approach (bench press and rear delts, rhomboid minor exercise) using sets of 1-5 reps.
Just 10-15 minutes isn’t a long time to invest in order to improve performance and shoulder health. And if that’s not exciting enough for you, realize that it’ll increase muscle recruitment, which is necessary for muscle growth.
Don’t wait until you have a problem to optimize your training. Follow these five steps and you’ll see faster progression and a drastic difference in the quality of your pressing.