Archive for June, 2012

Make the Bench Press a Whole Lot Easier

Arguably the most popular strength exercise, especially amongst high school boys, is the bench press.  Go to any commercial gym during the summer and the bench will be the most used piece of equipment for the next three months.

With its more frequent use so comes the increasing number of technically terrible sets and reps.  It is not uncommon to see a kid load up a bar with more weight than they can handle, receive a poor handoff from their spotter and after a bounce off their chest with shaky arms and tap dancing feet, try and press the weight back up.  I once saw a young guy get pinned with 95lbs and after his three spotters pulled the weight off him they were all so embarrassed they ran away never to perform another set that evening.

Now there are tons of articles about bench pressing out and about on the internet; I even received two this past week in my inbox from popular trainers; however most of the articles talk about how to increase your bench press giving minimal attention to technique.  You can throw as much weight as you want on the bar, try wave loading cycles, use bands and chains and even do heavy eccentric work but without the technical basics you won’t get anywhere but a trip to the hospital with a jacked shoulder or torn tendon.

In this article I am going to focus only on the set up and technique of bench pressing.  Build a solid foundation around these principles and then the numbers will follow.

These technical principals are not restricted to just the bench press; utilize them for your dumbbell pressing and chest flyes as well.

Set it up Right

Before you can press any weight off your body it is important that you are set up properly.  When you lay down on the bench, I prefer that your eyes should be directly in-line with the bar you are about to press.  Many try to line their chest up with the bar but after it is unracked in this position you may hit the rack when you press if your head is too far behind the bar.

Your feet should be rooted into the ground.  Read that last sentence again.  Not tap dancing around or, heaven forbid, on the bench to keep your back flat, They should be firmly on the ground and ready to help support the lift and add pressing power.

Hand spacing is a matter of personal preference.  Some like a narrow grip because they can generate more power and some like a wide grip because the bar has to travel a smaller distance.  Both have their pros and cons.  I say find a zone where you can be the most powerful and maintain proper technique.  You can get a rough idea about where this is by standing up and placing your arms in a position where you would push someone who weighs 100lbs. more than you.  This is most likely the spot where you feel the most powerful and should work well for bench pressing.

One more note about the hands, I would prefer you use a true grip where your thumbs are wrapped around the handle.  I find this to be a safer position, minimizing the chance the bar comes down on your neck; also you will be able to grip the bar more and activate more muscle for strength.  Save the false (thumbless) grip for the professional powerlifters who choose to use it.

Pinch Those Shoulder Blades   

One of the most common complaints I hear about bench pressing is when people say the movement hurts their shoulder.  After watching their technique it is easy to see why; their shoulders are not stable and flopping around while performing the movement.

The fix is pretty simple: pinch the shoulder blades together.  Pinch them to the point where they are not only touching each other but where they are also contacting the bench itself.  The set up itself is not difficult to achieve, however it is maintaining this position that gets challenging.

Practice only with weight and within repetitions where you can maintain this position.   You may have to initially use a lighter weight than you are used to but mastering this technique will not only make you a stronger presser down the road, it will also save your shoulders in the process.

The pinch also allows the elbows to stay closer to the body which, when practiced, makes your press stronger and safer than having the elbows pointed perpendicular to the body.  If the weight is too heavy for you there will be a tendency to lose the proper shoulder position and the elbows will flare outward to press the weight back up.

Do not worry about the increased arch in the lower back; this is a positive result, especially when protected properly.  The next section will tell you exactly how to do so.

Put the Squeeze On

Not a day goes by that I don’t tell my athletes in the gym to “keep their butts tight.”  I am firm believer that the butt protects the low back. By keeping the glutes clenched not only will you keep your hips stable, therefore protecting your low back, but it also creates more tension to move heavier weight.

As far as grip on the bar is concerned, one of the best ways to activate more muscles and move more weight is to create tension.  Grip the bar strong, as if you are going to crush it, when you bench press.  The wrapped thumb around the bar is a good way to apply maximal tension on the bar for bigger, safer presses.

Compress the Spring

It is not uncommon for many novice pressers to focus solely on the concentric (upward) portion of the lift.  They usually do one of two things: literally drop the weight too fast towards the chest and try and press it up or shorten the range of motion so much that they don’t get the weight anywhere near the chest so they can get it back to the top position.

I tell all of my athletes to think about lifting in two directions.  In the bench press you want to set up properly and use your back muscles to pull the bar towards the chest.  This creates tension in the pressing muscles which is like a loaded spring that can be used to drive the weight back to the top.

Press in a Straight Line

Once you are all set up it is time to press.  Pressing in a straight line is important for a good lift.  It is common for someone to press back towards the head as if to rack the weight however when you press the bar back you lose your proper set up and it can be disastrous for your shoulders.

Get your set up, have a spotter help you with the bar placement, pick a line or focus point above you and press within that straight line. When the lift is complete, have the spotter help you rack the weight.

There you have some tips to help your set up for successful bench pressing.  Check the video below for visual demonstrations of techniques described above.


Sandbag Training Basics

One may think that sandbag exercises are reserved for only athletes competing in strongman competitions.  This does not have to be the case, in fact, sandbag training benefits not only the seasoned strongman athlete but can be an equally effective training tool for athletes of all ability levels.

Benefits of Sandbag Training:

Sandbag training offers several benefits in strength and conditioning programs including:

  • Easy and cost effective to make
  • Can be used by both beginner and advanced athletes
  • Challenges the stability of the athlete in ways traditional weight training typically does not
  • Excellent to use in both traditional strength training and in conditioning circuit sets


In this article I am going to show you how to incorporate basic sandbag training into a strength and conditioning program.

Sandbag Construction:

Sandbags are very economical when compared to other strength training equipment.  Go to your local surplus store and purchase a heavy duty duffle bag.  You will also need some trash compactor bags, duct tape, and sand all of which you could get at the local hardware store.  Fill a few trash compactor bags with 15-20lbs of sand, tape them up so they are compact, place them in the duffel bag and then you are ready to begin your training.

Basic Sandbag Exercises:

Sandbags offer up a nice variation to traditional exercises.  I use sandbag training to build lower body power, strength, and stability by using squat and lunge variations.  You can perform either of these movements in place of a barbell by placing the sandbag on the back; however I tend to have my athletes hold the sandbag in front of their bodies in the crux of their arms which is known as the Zercher position.  This position takes the pressure of the weight off of the spine and challenges the core muscles by forcing the athlete to keep the body upright while the weight of the sandbag tries to pull them forward.

To perform the squat:  keep your chest up, eyes forward, break at the hips and sit back into the squat.  When you get a stretch in the hips and leg muscles, squeeze your leg muscles, drive your feet through the floor and stand up strong until the hips are underneath you.

The sandbag Zercher Lunge can be done in either a static position, forward or reverse direction.  Whether you are staying still or stepping forward or backward you want an approximate 90 degree bend in your hips and knees, even weight distribution between legs and balanced between sides.  Focus on stability through strong core and hips.

Dynamic Sandbag Exercises:

Sandbags are great for the variations on the standard movements, however they are more fun when used dynamically for power production or for conditioning.

Sandbag Shouldering relies on grip strength, leg drive, core stability and explosive hip and leg power.  Simply place your sandbag vertically and straddle it, get a good grip, flatten the back and drive from your legs moving the sandbag close to the body and up to one of your shoulders.  Drop the sandbag back to the floor and repeat to the opposite shoulder.

To add the upper body into the dynamic mix, look no further than the Sandbag Thrusters also known as the squat to press movement.  This exercise teaches the body how to generate power and transfer the power beginning from the legs through the upper body.  Position the sandbag close to your chest and get your hands under the bag.  Upon completing the squat you are going to use the hip drive momentum to press the sandbag overhead.  Drop the bag back to the chest and repeat the squat-to- press motion.

Another full body movement I often use in our conditioning circuits is the Sandbag Burpees.  Start with the sandbag on the ground, use your legs and get the sandbag to your chest in an explosive fashion.  Drop the sandbag to the floor and follow it with your body into a pushup position.  Explode out of the pushup position and repeat.

Sandbag Circuit

Like I mentioned earlier in the article, sandbag training can be used as strength exercises within a program or they can be used to increase an athlete’s aerobic capacity by utilizing them in a conditioning circuit.  This is an example of a sandbag conditioning circuit guaranteed to get the heart rate up.  Each exercise should be done for 30-45 seconds and rest 15-20 seconds in between.


Work Interval

Rest Interval

Sandbag Zercher Squat



Sandbag Shoulder(Alternating Sides)



Sandbag Zercher Lunge



Sandbag Thruster



Sandbag Burpees



Perform this whole circuit two to three times with a three minute rest between rounds.


Adding some sandbag training into a carefully structured strength and conditioning program will enhance core strength, increase stability and optimize power production, making the athlete ready to take on all the rigors of their sport.  Give these movements a try and see how you feel.

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Aj’s Core Complex

Aj shares one of his core complex circuits. This is not your typical core training. There are no crunches, sit ups or even planks. His circuit involves a kettlebell and a barbell. Check out his video and see if you are up for the challenge.


Thursday, June 28th, 2012 Kettlebell Training, Videos No Comments


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