02 July, 2021

5 Reasons to Stop Doing the Bench Press

 "Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness." -James Thurber

Every guy loves the Bench Press, but there are many good reasons why you shouldn’t be doing them. Here are five reasons to stop doing the Bench Press and some options for replacing it.

“Blasphemy!” “Treason!” “Burn the writer!” I know, I know, I know, but before you chastise me for committing the ultimate sin, hear me out. For years the bench was just a sacred a lift to me as it may still be to you. Every week there came back around that all important day, bench day. I would sit on the edge of the bench, breathe once, then again really getting my mind right.

Then I would lay back, lift my chest to the bar a few times, check my right hand placement, check my left hand placement, check both again (as if they’d moved), then look at my spotter, nod my head like a bull rider in a bucking shoot and bench.

Most guys have a similar routine before the bench. I worked and worked at it and never got great. My best (because someone will ask) was 295lbs for a single rep while weighing 155lbs, that was nearly a decade ago. Now I bench maybe once a year just for novelty, so what changed and why? Ultimately I kept seeing some of the same philosophical impasses and not satisfied with any answers I comfortably walked away from the bench because I was not dogmatic about it.

These five reasons will better illustrate my point about why you should stop bench pressing.

1) It is NOT a Great Measure of Strength

It seems every guy that has ever been in a weight room has been asked the trite question, “What’s your bench bro?” Ugh. That question alone was nearly enough for me to quit the gym years ago. My response was usually, “don’t know, don’t care.” Or I might have responded, “What is your squat or deadlift?” at which point the conversation just ended.

Now I still get jazzed to see a big bench in a competition. A 600-700 pounds bench press is impressive no matter who you are. However your average gym warrior is not even going to be remotely close, but they could approach a 500 lbs deadlift. Now we are moving some weight. Now we are using a much larger muscle grouping. Now I feel like we can talk about strength. I will yield that in a power lifting meet the bench press remains a keystone, but would like to point out the guys with the best 3 lift totals have deadlifts and squats significantly higher than their bench. Often in an average gym (like a Gold’s for example) I see guys that can bench 225 and can’t fully squat that; something to think about.

2) It Lacks Functionality

When are you ever going to need that exact motion under load in real life? I know we have all heard the story about the guy who benched three days a week and then a tractor fell on him and he bench pressed it off, I have heard that same tale. Really I want you to think about it, think long and hard, when was the last time outside of a gym setting that you took a wide hand placement, palms out, shoulder blades pinched, and stomach out and pressed? Was it in a sport? Perhaps a fight? Maybe you were doing chores around the yard? Chances are you didn’t come up with a real world situation that you mimic the bench press.

Any real push is going to involve your legs if you are standing and if you truly are pinned you are going to try to hip thrust, bridge and wiggle your way free. I am a firm believer in being as strong as possible from every angle possible. I have long held this belief but my good friend Bud Jeffries has really helped foster this idea over the years. This is one of the reasons I will still get on a bench (though super rare) but it is by no means the only method for building pressing strength off your back. My personal favorite it to take a sandbag that weighs the same as your body weight, maybe a little heavier (the one I use is 40lbs heavier than me) lay on your back and with the bag starting on your chest, wrestle yourself free. Try it!

3) Lack of Productivity

Years ago when I worked at a gym, there was this magical time of year when school would let out for the summer and the high school boys would show up in packs to prove their worth and bend some metal. Well so I thought.

I guess things had changed since I was in high school. A couple times a week groups of 5-6 guys would gather around a bench and three hours later they all had done 4-5 sets of 3 to 5. I am not making this up. They maybe got some crunches in too. Seriously that is all they got done.

This certainly was not going to make them a better athlete at any sport. They sat around and chatted and occasionally someone would lift. I spent my summers in high school and between college terms absolutely crushing it, often hours at a time and a few times a day so I could get faster, stronger and out work my competition; none of this idle standing around a bench for hours then leaving. It wasn’t just the young bucks either.

I observed that on International Bench Press Day, also known as Monday that the office jocks just sort of laid and sat around on the bench press for a couple hours before heading home. Try at least super setting or something, anything just get shit done while you are there.

4) You reach your limit quickly

Again, my audience for this piece is the average gym patron; you have a job and you are trying to be the best version of yourself you can be (I am trying to get a little more out of you on top of that). That being said, if you bust your ass, maybe, just maybe you are a 300+ pound bench presser. You damn sure aren’t a 400+ presser (there may be a few that read this, but you are not average Joe), more likely you are a 225-275lbs bench presser at best. That is not a lot of weight. There just seems to be a plateau with the bench that most guys get to and the investment into the lift for a couple extra pounds just isn’t worth the reward.

Nothing else in life would you put so much effort and energy into for such little return. Think about it, how long have you been at 225 but can’t even sniff 245? It’s only 20lbs a tiny little 10 pound plate on each side. Yet, time and time again I have seen guys after a certain point never increase their bench week in and week out. Try something else, try something new, challenge yourself, break the norm and step outside your comfort zone. I think ultimately that is what the bench represents, comfort. We all know it, we all identify with it, we have all done it. Most of us cut our teeth on the bench in dad’s garage or basement, even if just for nostalgia to take me back to those early years of lifting I will still get under a bar. I just don’t put my worth as a lifter or a whole lot of stock in the lift.

5) You are already Anteriorly rotated, you don’t need any more help

So far I have made four pretty good points about why not to do the bench press (or at least do it less). So far I have made four points that regardless of my strengths in rhetoric anyone can disagree with, nothing wrong with that. However this fifth and final point you are just going to have to agree with because this is more fact and less opinion. If you live in the western hemisphere, specifically the United States, it is almost certain that you are anteriorly rotated with the muscles on the front of your body being constantly shortened. This means that your shoulders are rolled forward, your upper back tense and forward, your hip flexors always tight and never fully elongated.

We SIT, way too much as a modern society. We get in the car we drive to work (avg. 25.4 minutes, just one way), we get to the office and sit (avg. American work day 9.4 hours), back in that car again, maybe to the gym where many of us sit on machines, then home for some dinner and TV (average 5 hours/day). All this sitting comes with heavy consequences we have become stuck in this rolled forward posture. So, why would I want to add to dysfunction by doing an exercise such as the bench press which anteriorly rotates us further? Nearly every shoulder injury I have seen in my studio has been from a person with a history of heavy bench pressing over a lifetime. All of them were anteriorly rotated and had very poor external rotation of the shoulders. Often the injury would manifest itself in the form of a bicep tear because that was the eventual weakest link. I have seen it over and over again, I don’t mind helping these people regain their mobility and function of their shoulders but I would rather them come in just to have a good time. Like I mentioned they all have the same two common factors, anterior rotation (stuck in that position), and a lot of bench pressing.

So what do I do instead, you ask?

Before you guys start sending me hate mail and threatening to crucify me, it is my job as a Movement coach to make you ask questions, ask yourself “Why do I still bench press with dogmatic pursuit?” If you don’t have a great answer then perhaps this article is for you. If you decide that a Monday without benching is like a day without oxygen, well maybe re-read this article in a week.

If you are hell bent on developing your chest try these 5 exercises instead:

  • Weighted crawls
  • Push up variations
  • Weighted dips/ring dips
  • Ballistic medicine ball passes
  • Sprints (you ever seen a sprinter with tiny pecs?)

13 March, 2021

Toughness: An Acquired Trait

 When asked to characterize toughness, people will give you a lot of answers. Is a football player tougher than a baseball player? Or is a father of two physically challenged children tougher than both? What is toughness? We won't waste time trying to define it. We can instinctually discern toughness within others. However, how does one acquire this trait, if possible?

In truth, toughness is not an genetic predisposition but rather a learned characteristic. The events in your life, the way you treat others and are treated by others, your lifestyle, your economic well being and your interests - these are all relevant variables in how "tough" your character may or may not be.

There are several common characteristics that psychologists observe in individuals who are respected and regarded as being "tough".

Performance psychologist James E. Loehr, author of the book "The New Toughness Training For Sports" (Penguin, 1994) notes one specific characteristic of tough individuals. They don't back away from problems, they seek them out and solve them. These kinds of individuals exist in all arenas of society - whether it be a highly decorated military officer, a top level athlete or the emergency room doctor. They don't wait for things to happen to them. They go straight for the jugular. The reason why: you don't improve on yourself when you work within your normal capacities. These individuals make themselves tougher - whether intellectually, physically or emotionally - by constantly seeking out things that will enhance these areas of their character. For example, you don't get stronger by AVOIDING hard work in the gym. You must constantly push yourself further and further. You grunt and strain and make faces like someone is giving you a gravel enema. Every-time you do, the performance you must give to deal with that stress is pushed higher. Therefore, higher effort levels are necessitated. You can't experience any kind of growth - whether that be personal or career - until you have deliberately put yourself into stressful situations that make you better at what you do. This is one aspect that psychologists say make up "tough" characters. Nietzsche was definitely onto something when he said "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger". (Nietzsche, if alive today, would be a HIT'er. <G>)

Another key point that they show - especially with people whose occupations are extremely competitive - is that tough people seek out tough competition. They don't choose puny opponents - they pick enemies whom they know will force them to step up their game. Whether on the basketball courts or the boardroom, tough individuals know that they must keep themselves sharp by taking on sharp challengers.

Tough individuals also know the importance of choosing the right friends. Rarely, you will find a tough individual who partners up with someone who brings out the worst of their character. I suppose that is why myself and my training partner click so well. Neither of us are willing to back down from each other and we always bring out the best in each when working out. Some people will argue that "toughness comes from within yourself, not from external sources" and this is 100% true - but a well chosen partner in your efforts can enhance your inner toughness all the more.

A practice which seems to be common to many top level athletes is visualization of goals. Visualizing yourself with the traits that you wish to posses seems to automatically program your subconcious to achieve those goals. I will honestly admit that I know nothing about how this exactly works - but I do know that it DOES work, from personal experience. I use visualization daily - especially during workouts when psyching myself up and during the football season before practice and games. I can remember one instance where an individual in the gym challenged the fact that I was doing more on the Hammer Leg Press than anyone who had ever worked there. Being 16 years old, 5'10" and 200 lbs. , this was obviously a hard pill for him to swallow. I didn't argue or complain, I just said that I was willing to show him (because I felt as though he was accusing me of being a liar). He stood behind me, I undid my shoes (it's a ritual of mine to do the Hammer Leg Press in bare feet as I feel this transfers power better than if it was dissipated through thick shoes) started breathing heavily and closed my eyes. I envisioned my legs being giant, mechanized, iron pistons, just pushing back and forth relentlessly. I didn't even realize it but the weight was already up and pumping away. I didn't even know where I was, and I couldn't hear anything around me - the only thing I saw was that image of the pistons in my mind. Back and forth, back and forth, mechanical and unstoppable. I finally grunted out the last rep with all of my energy possible, my legs shaking from the fatigue. The weight came down slowly. The man who had challenged me stood in disbelief, said nothing and walked away. I had just done 830 lbs. on the Hammer Leg Press for 9 reps - about a 100 lbs. more than I or anyone else in the gym (regardless of age or size) had ever done for the same number of reps. I still didn't realize the full implication of what I had accomplished. I just sat there, sucking wind, and didn't think anything. Only later that night I realized that I broke through a personal strength record strength record by over 100 lbs., not even thinking about how difficult it would be, in addition to the fact that someone who was challenging my integrity was standing by and just waiting for me to fail miserably. Such is the power of visualization.

Another aspect that psychologists note in tough people is the fact that they are always firmly focused on their goals. No matter what external factors (excuses, delays, forces working against them etc.) they come up against, they are always going to "finish the job". They also are willing to finish the job even when they don't like it. To achieve their goals, a lot of the people interviewed by the psychologists said that an effective technique is to ask yourself what you want (your goal) and then ask yourself how you can go from your present state to achieving your goal. This seems to plot things out very clearly for these people. Common sense dictates that it's much easier to get somewhere once you know how you're going to get there.

In his book, Loehr also recommends that your workouts are structured around intervals of intense activity followed by sufficient recovery periods. This simulates the stresses in life - that periods of high stress are often accompanied by periods of low stress. Structuring workouts in patterns similar to those in life makes you that much stronger against the stress of life. You become accustomed to certain behavioural patterns and deal with stress easier.

Toughness is also a function of your character. Stand up for yourself. Tough athletes and people NEVER blame others when something goes wrong or when they make a mistake. They accept the blame on themselves and move on, then thinking of ways how they can correct the problem. They realize that when wasting time pointing fingers, making excuses and trying to protect one's ego, nothing is done to resolve the problem. Blaming others makes yourself look weak, untrustworthy and spineless. Being able to stand up and say "Yes, I made a mistake" is consistenly found to be one of the most highly respected traits in others. Toughness also refers to the strength of your character. Cheating, lying, stealing - these are all examples of where one's character was not strong enough to deal with temptations. This again, makes you appear weaker.

Toughness is certainly not something that is dispensed at birth - but something you have to consistantly cultivate throughout your life.

06 February, 2021

Crossfit Nonsense

By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” – Robert Frost

In the last decade there has probably not been a bigger boon to orthopedic specialists practices than the advent of crossfit. We at Stronger Athletes have long been opponents of ballistic type movements, i.e., plyometrics, olympic lifts and similar for their application on athletes, especially high school athletes.

Along comes crossfit and combines both of those things and adds additional nuttiness such as doing high skill lifts of which those that actually know what they are doing with them (Olympic Weightlifters) never go over a handful or reps, because as the reps go up, the skill goes down. A leg press doesn't require high skill, a power clean does. So as the set continues, form breaks down, later to be followed by the body, maybe not today, tomorrow or next week, but surely in time.

The other bit of nuttiness the crossfitters love to do in addition to high reps is do them as fast as possible by limiting the time.

Thankfully the yap that runs crossfit showed his true colors a few months back and hopefully that will lead to some cessation of this ridiculous training modality. As the sponsors pulled out and the boxes closed up – sadly partially due to Covid and not as a public service for the bettement of mankind, there will be fewer injured over time.

Surely there are safer ways to pursue health and fitness. You only have one body. Treat it well. Your grandkids won't give a care if you were a stud at crossfit if you can't carry them or keep up with them at the zoo or amusement park because your back and shoulders are shot.