Push

I have to get this off my chest:

I've been lifting weights almost three-quarters of my life. And I've never been able to bench-press worth a damn. My best-ever bench was 260 pounds, at a body weight of, I'd guess, 185 pounds. And I can't lift anything close to that now.

Excuses? I have a few. The bench press has never been a natural lift for me. My arms are too long and my torso too thin to offer any sort of biomechanical advantage. If I have a strength gene, it seems to have skipped a generation; I was always among the weakest boys in my peer group, until I started lifting weights at thirteen. (And even then, at best, I brought myself up to the median.) And sometime in my late teens, I smacked my sternum so hard in a sledding mishap (caught air going over an icy ridge, landed chest-first, smashed the wooden sled to smithereens, and possibly cracked my breastbone) that I was unable to do any heavy chest exercises without pain until my mid-twenties.

When I started lifting seriously heavy weights in my forties, I worked harder at the bench press than at any other lift. (As does almost every lifter.) And I still never got particularly good at it.

It shouldn't bother me. New Rule #6 tells me that the weight I lift is a tool to reach goals, not a goal in itself. And it's worth noting that I wrote New Rule #6. So why do I care?

The short answer is because the bench press is the default exercise in modern gym culture—it's the one we all do, and the one most of us, at some point, have "maxed out" on. Thus, almost every meathead, mook, and gym rat in every American health club has a pretty good idea of how much he can bench. Whether he's doing it subtly or obnoxiously, you know almost every guy in the gym is measuring himself against you every time you load a barbell in the bench-press station. An interesting question:

How did the bench press become the default exercise? It wasn't particularly popular until after World War II and seems to have gained its biggest momentum in the mid-1950s, when a Canadian Olympic weight lifter attributed his massive upper body to the bench press. Joe Weider, the bodybuilding guru, also pushed it in his magazines of that era. A 1957 article in Muscle Power magazine—one of the forerunners of Muscle & Fitness—declared the bench press "The Greatest Exercise of Them AH." This provoked howls of derision from the editors of rival muscle magazines, who disdained bodybuilding in general and Weider in particular.

When I started lifting, around 1970, the bench press was an afterthought. The standing military press was regarded as the true test of strength, since few of us had benches in the makeshift gyms in our basements and carports.

But with the rise of health clubs and organized strength programs for professional and college sports teams, the bench press became the king of the weight room. Pure Power magazine suggested four reasons why:

1. It's easy to learn and practice.

2. Beginners make quick gains.

3. It works muscles you can see in the mirror.

4. It's a legitimate, contested lift in the sport of powerlifting.

I think that's a good list, and I'd add just one elaboration: When you do a bench press, it's easy to figure out if you completed the lift or not. If you lower the barbell until it touches your chest and then lift it until your elbows are straight ("lockout"), it's good. Some guys will still cheat by lifting their buttocks off the bench or claiming a completed lift even though a spotter helped them. This class of lifter regards it as a done deal, as long as the spotter shouts "All you!" while he's helping you finish the lift. (I'll say more about spotting in Chapter 20.)

Contrast that with an exercise like the squat, in which there's no real health-club standard for what constitutes a legitimately completed repetition. I've seen guys strut around like King Kong after a squat with such a short range of motion that their knees barely bent and straightened. Most gym rats, I think, would be shocked to learn that a squat doesn't count in a powerlifting competition unless the lifter's thighs "break parallel." That means the crease where his thigh meets his torso has to be lower than his knee. If you ever see anyone squat that low in a health club, take a picture, because it's a rare sight indeed.

And, while the deadlift is the least ambiguous of all the powerlifts—you either lift it off the floor or you don't—it's even more rarely seen in health clubs than the below-parallel squat.

So that brings me back to my dilemma: How do I stop caring so much about an exercise at which I'll never be very good?

Here's my four-step program. (I would've made it twelve steps, but that just sounds too hard.)

1. The bench press, functionally, isn't a very important lift—certainly not any more important than any other pushing exercise. In real life, there's really no equivalent of lying on your back and pushing a heavy thing off your chest with both arms moving at exactly the same angle and speed. Therefore, I'll force myself to do a variety of pushing exercises, at a variety of angles, using dumbbells as well as the barbell.

2. There's no reason to do the bench press first every time I use it in a workout. Yes, doing it first guarantees I'll perform better in that lift than any other in the program. But it also means I'll care about it more than any other. So, until I break my bench-press addiction, I'll make sure I do other lifts first, and use them to fulfill New Rule #5 ("The goal of each workout is to set a record"). That way I'll never have to worry about breaking my personal records in the bench press.

3. I will not watch other guys bench-press and compare myself to them. Unless their form is really bad, in which case I'll allow myself to feel smug and superior, but for reasons unrelated to pure strength.

4. I will not, under any circumstances, ask anyone how much he can bench. And if I think anyone is measuring himself against me, here's what I'll do: I'll load a bar with

405 pounds, then go to the bathroom. I'll come back ten minutes later, write down a number in my training log, and strip the weight off the bar. Unless the other guy has been watching the station nonstop for the entire ten minutes, he'll have no idea if I actually lifted the weight or not, and not knowing will drive him nuts.

THE MUSCLES

So far, I've used all my words in this chapter on the bench press, even though a pushing exercise can be anything from a shoulder press to a dip, with the bench press somewhere in the middle.

They all use the same muscles, with some variations based on particular regions of individual muscle groups.

Let's start with the chest: Its biggest muscle, the clam-shaped pectoralis major, has upper (clavicular) and middle (sternocostal) portions. There's also a lower part of the pectoralis, which is mildly interesting because its fibers originate from connective tissue at the top of the abdominal muscles. Functionally, it works along with the other portions of the muscle.

Every bodybuilder can tell you that if you want to hit the upper chest, you do presses on an inclined bench (which puts your shoulders higher than your hips). And if you want to hit that lower portion, the part that attaches to the abdominals, you do presses on a declined bench, so your shoulders are lower than your hips.

A 1995 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research challenged this belief. Turns out, the way to activate the upper chest is to use a narrow grip, with your thumbs twelve to eighteen inches apart. And a decline press didn't work the lower chest any harder than a flat-bench press.

Maybe all this matters for a serious bodybuilder. Regular gym rats? I'd be surprised if anyone could prove that a steady routine of, say, incline or decline bench presses would produce results measurably different from those obtained from using heavy weights on a flat bench.

I do strongly believe in changing angles and grip width throughout a program, but it's not because of my concern for some fibers an inch or two north of some other fibers. It's to give your shoulders a break. Constant pressing at the same angle, month after month and year after year, will probably wear down the connective tissues in your shoulder joints as quickly as it builds the muscles surrounding those joints.

I think it's very helpful to a long-haul lifter to think of muscles in terms of the joints they're responsible for moving. And almost all the "push" muscles work on the shoulder joint. Technically, I should add, there's more than one shoulder joint; I'm referring here to the "glenohumeral joint," the ball-and-socket junction where the top of the arm bone rolls around in a groove at the edge of the scapula.

Bodybuilders regard their "shoulders" as physiologically separate from their "pecs," but in reality the difference is one of surprisingly small degrees.

The "front shoulder," for example, is the portion of the deltoid muscle that. .. well, it's on the front. (Give the bodybuilders props for keeping it simple.) That part of the muscle is involved in all forms of bench presses—less on the decline press, somewhat more on the incline press—as well as in dips. It's also heavily involved in shoulder presses. And some bodybuilders do all those exercises, plus special dumbbell exercises for that particular portion of the deltoid. All that work, for a sliver of muscle that's only a few inches long and, at most, an inch wide.

There's more to the deltoid: The middle portion gets worked in any exercise in which you raise your arms to the side or over your head, as in shoulder presses and lateral raises. The rear part helps pull your arms backward, which I'll get into in the next chapter. My point is that you can work the front and middle portions perfectly well with a couple of pushing exercises, one vertical (military press) and one horizontal (bench press). And you'll take care of the rear shoulders with standard pulling exercises.

The other visible and important pushing muscle is the triceps. It's a three-headed muscle that straightens your elbow when it's bent. One part of it—the long head— crosses the shoulder joint, and thus it helps out on some pulling exercises. But don't lose any sleep over that bit of muscle trivia. Your triceps will grow perfectly well without any fancy delineation of function, doing one exercise for the long head, another for the medial head (a flat, thick portion down by your elbow), and still another for the lateral head (the part on the outside of your upper arm that forms the horseshoe shape with the long head). Dips and bench presses work all three heads.

Powerlifters usually do some dedicated exercises that isolate and strengthen their triceps, using heavy barbells and dumbbells. And, given how important triceps are to bench-press performance, you can't blame them. But for the rest of us, it's hard to imagine a few sets of triceps-isolating exercises done on cable machines or with light dumbbells truly adding much size to the arms of someone who's already doing two or three pushing exercises.

FUNCTIONAL IMPORTANCE

Pushing exercises train your body to . . . wait for it. .. push things. And lift things overhead. And throw things. And maybe punch out the occasional obnoxious drunk. (Although you'll still need to incorporate lunging and twisting movements to make the lesson stick.)

TECHNIQUE

On a bench press of any sort, the action is simple: You hold the weight with straight arms above your chest at the start, lower it to your chest, then push straight up to the starting position.

You'll still find some disagreement on a few particulars. Powerlifters, for example, believe that the barbell should come down to the lower chest, which allows the upper arms to get as close as possible to the torso. That creates a stronger platform from which to push the weight off your chest. Serious powerlifters also strive for a higher platform; that's why they employ a nearly parabolic back arch. The goal is to lift the lower chest as high as possible off the bench, thus shortening the distance the bar has to travel to complete a lift.

But even powerlifters disagree about the path the bar should travel. Some recommend a "J lift," in which the bar comes off the chest and up toward the head, then straight up from there. But others, primarily Louie Simmons and the Westside Barbell lifters, believe the bar should go straight up off the lower chest to lockout.

The Westside guys say the shorter the distance the bar has to travel, the better, and that a J lift increases that distance. Other lifters note that the J allows the bar to keep moving, even if part of the movement is horizontal instead of vertical, which can help get the bar through a "sticking point," the place where hopes of a personal-record lift die.

I'll let them fight it out. I think most of us use a combination—straight-up lifts on incline bench presses and shoulder presses, mildly J-shaped lifts on our heaviest barbell flat-bench presses. My advice: Do what your shoulders want to do. You probably won't notice a J-shape on heavy bench presses anyway; your focus is on completing the lift any way possible, and your body will decide if it needs to "J," or if a simple "I" will suffice.

There is some mild controversy about whether to lower a barbell all the way to your chest on the bench press, or even below that if you're using dumbbells. The idea that the full-range-of-motion bench press means death to healthy shoulders used to have near-fanatical believers a few years back. (Their peak was probably the mid-1990s.) It was part of a quasi-religious ideology that weight lifting was inherently dangerous and that the only way to do it safely was to limit the range of motion of most exercises.

But today, I think, the opposite belief is taking hold. As Alwyn has explained it to me, real life forces your joints to go through their full ranges of motion. And it's at those extremes that injuries live. If you go into the gym and teach your body to be strong at select angles, then you aren't doing anything to help your body protect itself at those extreme places. That doesn't mean you have to extend your range of motion on the exercises in this book. But we think it's unnecessary, at best, to shorten them beyond what we show here. At worst, it's foolish.

There are caveats, of course; if you're injured and your physical therapist or doctor prescribes a short range of motion near the injury, listen to him or her. Some serious powerlifters use partial ranges of motion with heavier weights than they could

Counterfeit Body Parts

Successful bodybuilders have muscles on top of muscles, lumps and grooves and stria-tlons in places where most of us don't even have places. But even with all that going for them, they like to believe they have muscles that don't exist.

One of these is the "inner chest." The idea is that, because it looks cool when pectoral muscles rise like stuffed pitas off the breastbone, there must be special exercises to make this happen.

There aren't. The most cursory glance at an anatomical chart shows that the fibers of the pectoral muscles extend horizontally from the sternum. Thus, the angle of pull can only go one way. Bodybuilders understand this when they do exercises like dumbbell flies, in which they raise and lower weights along the exact line of the muscle fibers. But somehow, many of them believe that it's possible to activate parts of those fibers along a completely different line.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that the pectoral muscles feel more strained around the sternum on exercises like the dip. That's because they are more strained, especially if your muscles are tight and you aren't used to doing dips. But the strain isn't a sign that parts of the fibers are working harder than others and thus will create more growth in that specific spot. You feel a tug because those fibers aren't used to the range of motion and are on the verge of tearing away from the breastbone.

Which won't help your inner chest at all.

use through the full range. That prepares their nervous systems for the shock of using heavier weights. And, of course, bodybuilders do all kinds of exercises in limited ranges of motion, sometimes intentionally. I'm sure they have their reasons .. . other than "too much time on their hands," I mean.

THE EXERCISES

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