Even though I played (okay, we should put play in quotation marks because I mostly made sure the bench didn’t fly up) college basketball, I wasn’t a particularly gifted athlete. In fact, almost no one else in my whole family even played varsity high school sports! I like to think I am more stubborn than gifted, but if there was ONE thing I was good at and came easy to me was the bench press. It could be that my structure (I have a pretty big rib cage) made progressing in the bench press pretty easy. As a guy, especially a young one, that was SOOOOO awesome because most young guys at the time didn’t care about your squat or deadlift, but EVERYONE cared about their bench press!
The funny thing was that I never really found having a great bench press had a great benefit to me on the basketball court. There were times I would get pushed around by guys I KNEW I could our bench rather easily. How is that possible?! It was even more confusing as I began my career in college Strength & Conditioning. I worked under a strength coach that was a great powerlifter and I hate to admit it, we trained all the athletes pretty much like pseudo powerlifters too. At the time it seemed to make sense, if you could lift a ton of weight you should be strong in your sport. That is after all, the only job of a good strength coach right?
Funny enough, the more I have learned about the body, the LESS and less I have found purpose for the bench press. I tell you the story above because I know if I told you that to start you would probably think, “that’s because Josh is just really crappy at the bench press.” While I wasn’t setting any world records, my best was 405 and that’s considered pretty solid, especially in basketball circles. If anything you probably SHOULD expect to actually defend the bench press instead.
Don’t worry, you might be thinking I’m going down some weird “functional” path where I give you goofy looking exercises that aren’t based on any science as an alternative of the bench press. Sadly, you are going to just have to settle for some good ole fashion science.
While years ago I started to feel this way about the bench press, I really didn’t know why or what to do that was better. As I started to really study from true experts in all areas of physical preparation, the problems became clear. Renown spinal expert, Dr. Stuart McGill’s book “Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance” was one of the first books that really started to lay out many of the issues of applying the bench press to athletes. If you think that Dr. McGill is only a “lab geek”, he was a powerlifter in his younger years and if anything should have a great affinity for the bench press. However, he shares some interesting thoughts…..
-“In many approaches, the mainstay of free resistance training is provided with barbells. Yet, very few tasks or events have the hands tied together with a bar-they move independently. Dumbbells better mimic the environment of real sporting competition. A more attractive natural consequence of using a dumbbell in just one hand is asymmetric loading of the torso. This challenges the torso stabilizing mechanism to train optimal force transfer from the upper to lower body.”
Translation: If we had to break down the meaning of the core to ONE thing it would be to create a strong foundation to help the upper and lower body to communicate to each other. As I wrote yesterday (you can read HERE) our bodies are made for locomotion, not the gym. So, the arms and legs have to work together to really make us strong and “functional”. So, what are some examples of this?
A classic one is our Lateral Bag Drag. The goal is to produce force into the ground while creating tension against the Ultimate Sandbag. It is more of a pushing action than pulling and it is ALL about connecting the upper and lower body. However, many people get it wrong and DVRT Master, , shows the difference!
What most people find is that doing this drill correctly is WAY harder than they initially thought and find out were the weaknesses are hiding. Even though we have ways to build up to such DVRT movements, I know there are going to be some that think, “Josh, I just want to look good and have a nice looking upper body okay!” I get it, but we don’t have to have one or the other. One of the keys that Dr. McGill is teaching is that when we integrate the core and hips with the upper body, we can lift more and actually get just as good if not better result! How so? I have three ways that I love showing people they can have both!
Option 1: Standing Band Presses
One of the great things about getting people standing is that they have to navigate gravity more and that brings in more muscles to the game, especially the core! Since the shoulder actually works with the opposing hip, getting people into a split or even half kneeling stance is an awesome way to both build up the upper body, but connect the body too! Imagine if we made people FEEL as good as they look!
There are some keys with a standing press like having the thumb up versus palms down. While people often default to the palms down because it looks like a barbell, they miss the opportunity that changing hand position can make them use more muscles and save their shoulders. We want to press with the lats THEN with the chest, shoulders, and triceps. This is a method that powerlifters use all the time to lift huge weight, but it is also how we save our shoulders.
You will also notice Jessica is pressing a kettlebell overhead at the same time as she presses. What gives?! Our body is basically a big cylinder and if we look at walking you see how we use opposite arm/leg movement to propel us through space. Heck, even fighters will often say their second punch as they coil back is stronger than the first. Using the kettlebell in this manner uses this natural tendency of the body, but also takes into account that grip is highly correlated with rotator cuff health. I actually like this form of kettlebell press more for this connection because it is less technique driven and has so much more feedback to the body.
Option 2: ARES Standing Press
When we came out with the ARES sled we wanted to give people a tool that could accomplish a lot of the goals that others could not. Performing an ARES standing press is a great example because we can add movement of the body with it to create synergy from head to toe. The pull of the sled gives feedback and instability of the body that forces us to use our feet and core with our upper body. Like the standing band press, even though it is not technically demanding we want to be aware of many of the same keys. Additionally, we want to reinforce that the push comes from the bellybutton area, NOT the chest. While we can use just the handles, what DVRT Master, Cory Cripe, shows is that when we add in the Ultimate Sandbag and work on “ripping apart” the weight, we engage so much more of the upper body and down the entire chain!
We can make ANYONE successful with these methods and that is a HUGE part. Great job to the crew at Fitness Lying Down for making people see they CAN achieve their goals!
While push-ups and all their variations are great and definitely fit, it can be hard once you teach people how to do push-ups correctly to get them to have the strength to do awesome push-ups. While many use suspension tools to make push-ups more difficult, I find them a great vehicle to make the push-up more accessible and teach many of the lessons we have discussed in an environment where the person can actually perform all the right techniques.
Hopefully I’ve at least made you really question if the bench press is right for you! Are you going to die if you perform the bench press? Of course not, but I also hope two things. One, you aren’t one of those people that start rubbing their shoulders a lot after each set because they hurt! Second, we all are trying to accomplish as much as we can with the time we have to train, if we can do better, shouldn’t we?
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