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One of the basic keys to continually gaining strength is to avoid injuries. Nothing, and I mean nothing, deters progress like a severe injury. Smaller problems can also be quite irritating, but in most cases you can work around them successfully until they’re healed. Most people, when they embark on a strength-training routine, worry about hurting their backs. In truth, however, the most frequently injured area is the shoulder girdle. Injuries occur in that area primarily for two reasons: 1) People overtrain it, and 2) they use faulty form on shoulder girdle exercises. The area I call the shoulder girdle includes the muscles of the chest, shoulders, arms and upper back – and of course, the corresponding attachments, tendons and ligaments as well as the skeletal structure. Note that I include the upper back, for the traps play a major role in strengthening and stabilizing this part of the body. Unfortunately, they’re often overlooked when people set out to build greater shoulder girdle strength. I use two methods to strengthen and stabilize the shoulder girdle. I advise trainees to limit the amount of work done on the area at each workout and to constantly vary the angle of movement. It’s a given that you should use good form on the exercises, but it has to be mentioned. The reason that so many beginners encounter some kind of shoulder girdle injury early in their careers is that they do far too much bench-pressing. The bench is, without a doubt, the pet lift for anyone who enters a weight room. It’s the measure of success in most programs and usually the lift on which athletic teams are tested. A great many programs concentrate on the bench press almost exclusively. I’ve had coaches tell me they’re wary of having their players do squats or any form of heavy pulling, as they consider those movements dangerous, while they think nothing of having their athletes spend an hour or more doing bench presses, with a few auxiliary exercises for the triceps and deltoids thrown in for good measure. It really should be the other way around, for the center of strength isn’t in the upper body but in the back, hips and legs. The people in charge of programs must understand that the shoulder girdle is really rather delicate. In comparison to the hips, it’s downright fragile, so it can’t take a huge workload, especially when athletes are in the formative stages of training. For those who specialize on the flat bench, the problem usually surfaces at the very crown of the shoulder, right where the delt ties in with the traps. The pain is an early-warning sign brought about by our old friend, disproportionate strength. Too much work for the front and not enough for the rear is usually the story. I’ve watched lifters bench for 45 minutes, then do some close grips and some skull crushers and top off the workout with some pushdowns on the lat machine. When I ask if they ever bother to work their traps, they become offended and reply that they do dumbbell shrugs twice a week. “And, they indignantly add “I know they work because I always get a good burn.” Hello! A burn has no place in strength training. I get a nice burn in my traps when I do 80 reps with a 10-pound dumbbell to warm up before my run, but in no way am I making them
stable shoulder girdle. for one exercise will always improve faster that the others due to individual differences in leverage. the situation can be corrected rather quickly simply by adding heavy shrugs or high pulls to the program. mostly by having you support heavy weights overhead. inclining and flat-benching huge weights. Oh. That’s a good thing because it ensures that all the various areas of your upper body are being strengthened at the same rateor close to the same rate. not teased. I’m talking heavy and dynamic – not the lift-your-shoulders-upand-hold-the-bar kind of shrugs but the explosive that keeps you sore for days. It’s natural to want to work your strong points and neglect your weaker ones. Or you may find that you’re very proficient in overhead pressing but have a terrible time getting your inclines to move. You’re in for a long haul of rehab. I know that’s true because I have a couple of hundred subjects who have used the program most successfully. The position is potentially harmful to the rotator cuff. What most people don’t recall is that before the bench press became the primary upper-body exercise there were few. and it’s totally unnecessary. Just do the exercise to the front. but they will move up steadily. especially when there’s added resistance. Do no exercise which places the barbell behind your neck. which greatly accentuate the problem. So you may find that your inclines improve much more rapidly than your flat bench. That imbalance is a common problem among football players and aspiring powerlifters who do a tremendous amount of work on the flat bench but rarely push the poundages up on their shrugs. everyone would be pressing. Happily. In fact.any stronger. The routine is also based on the make-haste-slowly concept. Jamming the bar off your chest on the bench. On the other hand. or vice versa. if any. That’s because the overhead press. perhaps they get a tad stronger. at best. like the hips. The important point is to improve on all the movements and to make certain that none fall too far behind. Another area in which many trainees have problems is the point where the pecs tie in with the biceps and the front delt. The traps do respond quickly. It becomes stressed because they give it far too much work and also because they use faulty form. even if it were super-strong. rebounding and bridging excessively all create a traumatic situation for that rather sensitive area. The worst part is. the consistent bombarding of flat benches neglects he area almost entirely – and that’s for starters. That’s natural. rotator cuff injuries. Without a doubt the most prevalent injury of the bench era involves the rotator cuff. Things get worse when uninformed lifters add such exercises as behind the neck pulldowns. it still wouldn’t hold up to the unholy pounding often given it. but . It isn’t designed to improve your flat bench per se. but once you’ve sufficiently irritated your rotator cuff. which was at one time the main upper-body movement. The shoulder joint isn’t designed to be placed in that position. you can ignore the advice for years. it’s too late. but they have to be abused. Otherwise. but it’s not nearly enough to balance my upper-body strength if I’m planning to handle any weight on the bench press. or surgery. Your poundages on the various lifts will not leap forward. although if you follow it for some time you’ll add many pounds to that movement. actually helps to strengthen the area known as the rotator cuff. Here’s a program that will help you develop a strong. It’s based on the concept of proportionate strength achieved by altering the angles of the various exercises.
One slip spells disaster with a capital D. If your wrists are either outside or inside your elbows. scientists taught us that it takes three to four months to break a habit in a teenager and at least five months to alter the behavior of an adult. I think it’s a bad idea to try to do it anyway. That’s the reason it’s so much easier for me to teach women to bench-press correctly. There are other ways to develop the outer pecs. so I’ll try to present more details on the proper performance of the core exercises. The bench press is the most risky exercise of all. The reason is simple but often overlooked. Unfortunately. The reason is simple: The bar is over your face. That applies to flat benches. For those who have difficulty breaking the habit. and it reduces the power generated by the chest. most people have been taught incorrectly. or. start taping your wrists. That will help to keep them straight and remind you not to cock them during the lift. and they aren’t so caught up in the numbers as men. That’s fine for advanced trainees but not for beginners. they make faster progress initially and also have fewer problems. don’t cock your wrists or allow them to twist during the exercise. This has two negatives. In response to a number of letters from readers. shoulders and arms. Learn to grip the bar firmly with your thumbs around it. I’ll be more specific concerning the technique for the various exercises I discuss. A solid grip will allow you to control the weight and guide it in the proper groove much better than a false grip. which is a common practice. I’m referring to the bench press. they’re encouraged to forgo strict technique in order to move larger numbers. And it’s totally unnecessary. For the bench press let’s start with the grip. The rule of thumb for any pressing movement is the same: Always keep your elbows directly under your wrists. It puts an undue stress on the very small. They often have no prior instruction. lifters usually argue that they want to develop the outer part of their pecs. I know that many big benchers recommend the false grip. you’re giving away power laterally. It’s been my observation that those who use a very wide grip are more prone to bridging and rebounding than those who use a closer grip. inclines and overhead presses. So they try bridging and rebounding and sure enough. They’re also on the sure road to problems. with the incline close behind. One final note on wide-grip bench presses. if they’ve been taught good form. In other words. . they’ve shucked it in the quest for bigger numbers. susceptible wrist joint. So if any of the basic exercises falls too far behind. It seems I assume a bit too much. they can bench more weight. and to be frank. for it’s potentially very dangerous. The problem usually occurs with a grip that’s too wide. When I comment on this. Proper technique is at the heart of this program. but it’s foolish for anyone else to use that method. Long ago.that will only open the weakest-link box. It only aggravates the shoulder joints. Keep your arms perfectly straight throughout any pressing movement. As a result. you must alter your program to give it more priority and move it up. Many start out doing the lift correctly but once they start training with their peers. Stay with the high and middle portions of the chest and you’ll have fewer problems later on.
It’s not like scuba diving without any gear. use the following method. but I discourage touching lower. it will enable you to make long-range progress and deep you from the bad habit of rebounding the bar. your rib cage is forced to relax. When you breath in or out. That’s ideal for almost everyone. It will take a bit of practice for you to master the technique of guiding the bar upward. Most have been taught to breathe in and out during the lift itself. If you breath while lowering the bar to your chest or before it passes the sticking point on the way up. is very fundamental. I’m frequently asked about breathing. Setting the bar that high means it will travel extremely close to your face. and that keeps you from maintaining a solid foundation. just below the Adam’s apple. When using heavy weights – and that’s a relative term – you must hold your breath through the exertion. That varies from individual to individual. you can secure a solid muscular foundation. at the point where the breastbone meets the clavicles. The line on the incline is quite different from that of the flat bench. for it makes it very difficult to keep your elbows under your wrists. you’re going to use less weight than if you hold your breath throughout the full range of movement. the rule holds. Extend your thumbs on the Olympic bar so that they just touch the smooth center. which is fine. Some prefer touching a bit higher on the chest. It doesn’t have to remain there for long. but if you take a deep breath and hold it while lowering the bar and pressing it to arm’s length. inclines or overheads merely for the so-called toning of your muscles. since the entire lift only takes a matter of seconds. so they can stay right under your wrists throughout the lift. always with your elbows under your wrists. When I visit an unfamiliar gym I’m always totally amazed that everyone does the incline incorrectly. So the flat bench will find you lowering the bar to the place on your chest where the breastbone ends and then guiding it slightly backward to arm’s length. but it’s a god guideline for most people. The exception to the rule is the standing press. If you’re doing benches. but you’ll quickly discover that it gives you a great deal of control – much more than if you merely vaulted the bar upward and prayed. Take your breath when the bar is handed to you overhead and hold your breath throughout the full range of motion. The reason. I’d guess that 90 percent of the people I train have been taught to breathe incorrectly – and it’s a tough habit to break. Another basic rule for all beginners and anyone else who really wants to improve his or her shoulder power is to learn to pause with the bar on your chest. That requires you to keep your elbows down and close to your body. that’s perfectly okay. The bar has to be set high on the chest. which adversely affects the amount of weight they can use.If you’re in doubt about just where to grip the bar. They all set the bar for too low on their chests. Where should the bar touch your chest? For the flat bench. since arm length plays a part in the exercise. That’s fine as long as you take yet another breath while the bar travels upward. right at the point where your breastbone ends. which is very wrong. the incline must travel upward in a perfectly straight line. as if you were performing it on a Smith machine. This is no big deal. For seated presses. but it you’re doing them to gain strength. it’s detrimental. . again. Most people find that they do better by taking a breath just before they press the bar and then another once it’s locked overhead. before it passes the critical sticking point. but if you get the habit of doing it from the very beginning. Unlike the line of the flat bench. They’re trying to do the movement the way they do flat benches.
Now comes the question – Which is better. By learning proper form on the incline most people are able to add a quick 20 pounds to the lift. Their idea of pressing looks to me like a gymnastic event. Don’t look up.In fact. Once the bar passes your head. and it also places the back in a stressful position. You want to guide it to the exact starting position you want.I guarantee that you’ll instantly handle more weight than you ever did before. It may take some time to learn to really explode the bar upward but with practice you will. There’s one additional point: When you position yourself for any pressing exercise. pause briefly. you can bring your power up from your feet. it’s impossible to tighten the rest of your body – legs. Holding the weight . In other words. then lean into the bar. about shoulder width apart and planted very firmly. You can’t do it once the bar’s in motion. Sometimes I’m not even sure what exercise people trying to do. hips. It takes away the power base. On this movement as well you should position the bar high on your chest at the start. through your body and into your shoulder girdle and complete – but you can only do it if you established that solid base to begin with. That’s no longer the case. guide it back a bit so that it sits over the back of your skull when it’s locked out. Those are the three core exercises that strengthen and stabilize the shoulder girdle. The dip is a borderline exercise because it’s an auxiliary movement in the early stages of training but becomes a primary one later on. Most people understand the importance of securing a solid foundation for the overhead press but often miss the necessity of doing the same thing for flat benches. then drive it forcefully to arm’s length. out of control. Lock yourself into it. Another typical question I get involves speed of movement. don’t let the bar slam down on your chest. and each works the body a bit differently. That’s wrong for a couple of reasons. The same idea applies to seated presses but not to such a great extent. and it should nearly touch your chin when you drive it upward. Look directly forward. thus making it a better overall strength movement. so most folks knew how to do it correctly. The standing press requires more balance and control of the barbell. Don’t merely lie on a flat bench or incline. You should lower the bar in a controlled manner. The biggest mistake in form that people make is that for some reason they place one foot behind the other when they press. Your feet should be on a line. If your feet aren’t locked into the floor. it should nearly touch your chin at the start. Build a more solid foundation by becoming part of the equipment. standing or seated presses? They’re both useful. As with the other pressing movements you should keep your wrists locked and your elbows under them. If you plant your feet solidly and the bar hesitates at a sticking point. keep in mind that weightlifting starts in your feet. There was a time when the overhead press was the number one core lift for shoulder development. If you do two things – plant your feet solidly and grind yourself into the bench before taking a weight. primarily because you handle less weight on that exercise. without making any changes in your technique. inclines and even seated overhead presses. back and shoulders – and they must all be tight in order to handle any amount of weight in an overhead press.
When should the change take place? I use this guideline: You should perform the dip as an auxiliary exercise until you can do more than one set of 20 reps without added resistance. Build mass in your chest and you have to maintain it. They shouldn’t be as irritating. That’s good. alternating them regularly. Once you go to four days a week. since you’ll be using considerably less weight than if you handled a barbell. If you do have a bad lower back. and more is even better. As in forever. What’s more. and I mean that quite literally. biceps and deltoids and in some cases the pecs. by the way. it’s vital for the stability of the entire shoulder girdle that you work your traps hard twice a week. If either form of overhead pressing tends to cause problems in your lower back. you can do them every week as a core exercise and possibly a second time as an auxiliary movement. as indicated in the program shown below. if you ever do. switch to seated dumbbell presses. especially in the earlier stages. Your weekly program should have at least two exercises that hit the traps directly. I mentioned earlier that dips are an auxiliary exercise initially but will eventually become one of the core shoulder girdle exercises. but unless the overhead press really bothers you I suggest you do both. It doesn’t just go away if you stop training. remains one of the best combination exercises in the book. I also believe it’s useful to do some auxiliary movements for the various smaller muscles – the triceps. power cleans and power snatches all fill the bill. At that point it’s time to start doing weighted dips. Whatever you choose. such as those in your back and legs. which is the case in a great many modern training facilities. much of the downward pressure is dispersed through your hips and legs. but I’m not a big fan of doing lots of specialized work for the chest. which may not be a good thing. but when you’re sitting on a bench that pressure is driven into your lower back. One advantage of the overhead press is that it really doesn’t require any equipment other than a barbell and some plates. do. you can alternate them with overhead presses. On the other hand.overhead also builds strength in your upper back and hips in a way no other exercise can. as most other muscles. When you press while standing. So any extra work I do . doing them every other week. So even if a rack isn’t available. the standing press is much more difficult to master than the seated version. you can still clean the bar and press it – which. It hangs around. snatch and clean-grip high pulls. Shrugs. The one that gets you the sorest is the one you should do more often. you’re still placing it under stress even though you’re seated. Most people find that they can use more weight on the seated press than the standing press. for I think it’s a huge mistake to overtrain your pecs. When it was one of the Olympic lifts. In those cases the seated press is better than the standing variety. That may occur because lifters have a habit of lying back too much to complete the lift of because they have a chronically bad back that won’t tolerate any stress. overhead pressing can irritate the lower back. If you’re still on a three-days-a-week routine. Mondays and Fridays are best as that leaves Wednesdays for some lower back work. Overhead presses are particularly useful in developing the rotator cuff. weightlifters often did presses four times a week – not only to get stronger on the lift but to perfect their technique.
The straight-arm pullover strengthens the long head of the triceps. If you can only do six the first time. Most athletes shouldn’t do any triceps exercise that entails jamming their elbows through full. they really do influence your pressing power. and I really believe that when you push the poundages on the straight-arm pullover it will have more effect on all your pressing exercises than any other triceps movement. which is totally unnecessary. Dips are also useful for developing the triceps. Eventually. It’s better to be safe that sorry. The best advice I can provide for chins is to use a full range of motion and do them smoothly. only where you build to. It doesn’t matter where you begin. Bodybuilders can often get away with doing those movements because they don’t subject their elbows to further dynamic motions while playing a sport. you’ll still receive benefits from performing dips. Many people find that they can’t go very low because they lack the necessary flexibility in their elbows of shoulders. Then go for eight and so forth. In the past many Olympic lifters did dips to help their overhead press. Other athletes are constantly subjecting their elbows to snappy. In . Once you’ve reached the stage where you can add weight. Still. Even if you can’t go deep. and don’t twist or jerk your body. The exercise also involves the high chest and lats. the main reason I prefer straight-arm pullovers over most other triceps exercises is that they place less stress on the elbows. They’re an excellent combination movement. That includes exercises such as skull crushers and French presses. do straight-arm pullovers or pushdowns on the lat machine. You can maintain the upper chest more easily. Chins involve the lats and delts in a positive manner. and sometimes people become discouraged when they find they can only do five or six – or fewer. which makes it an excellent movement. I also believe you need to establish the base of at least 20 reps to ensure that your shoulder girdle is adequately prepared for the stress before you use any additional weight. You will eventually be able to handle more resistance if you do the dips in a controlled manner with a smooth up-and-down motion. in my opinion. Don’t rebound or jam out of he bottom position.for my chest hits the upper portion rather than the lower or the middle portions. Chins. for the two exercises hit a lot of the same muscles. Dips aren’t always easy to do. I’m often asked. are the very best biceps exercise for beginners. and I think you need to include as many as possible in your program. That’s typically the case for older trainees. ballistic motions. For the triceps I like straight-arm pullovers and pushdowns. which is a critical part of that group and a difficult one to stimulate. The secret to improving on the dip is to slowly but consistently add a rep or two. you’ll get 20 and be able to add resistance. rapid flexion. There are two important form points to remember on dips. and it isn’t at all necessary. It’s been my observation that dips really don’t push up the other pressing exercises to any extent until you can add resistance. so you get more for your money. and doing that after a hard weight session heightens the risk of injury to the elbows. Instead. but I consider them more of a deltoid builder. How low should I go on the dip? As low as you can. however. try to move it to seven the next week. Even so. Rebounding out of the bottom obviously puts a great deal of dynamic stress on your elbows and shoulders. and it will continue to enhance your overall physique.
One other auxiliary movement I use once lifters shift to a four-days-a-week routine is the close-grip bench press. The increase usually comes on the first set. What do I mean by that? Because I adhere to the 40-rep rule on most auxiliary exercises except for chins and dips. That’s okay too. If the core exercise has been strenuous. since many did a lot of short-range movements for their biceps and eventually became so inflexible that they couldn’t straighten their arms. that’s a total of 21 reps. for they play a part in securing the shoulder girdle. If you’re able to perform six. Don’t use abbreviated motions for it will tend to shorten your range of motion over time. It’s too much load except for advanced lifters. In the process. One auxiliary exercise for the shoulder girdle that I’ve always liked is incline dumbbell presses. Always make sure you fully extend your arm on each rep. Start with a rather wide grip and move it in slightly on each set. make sure you extend your arms completely on each rep. so you only add one to the total number you do at each workout. not the smaller ones. not counting those you do for the upper back. Some people cannot do chins – for a variety of reasons – or they simply prefer curls. since those numbers are much easier to deal with when working . I don’t like doing barbell inclines on the same day as flat benches. the next time you do chins you need to get a total of 22 reps. so the weight is self-limiting. If you do incline dumbbell presses you increase the workload safely because you use high reps. start by doing as many as you can and increase the number at each workout. he’ll add two tons to his workload without unduly stressing his shoulder girdle. The important thing is that you work your biceps directly at least once a week. five and four the first time you try them. The standard guideline for sets and reps in strength development is four to six sets of four to six reps. six. So. I’ve had athletes who needed to do a certain number start with six and end up doing 29. There’s one critical form point. That obviously applies to the larger bodyparts. I’ve always used the mean. then one auxiliary exercise is plenty. It’s more difficult to increase your reps on chins than it is on dips. as on a heavy bench day. Unless you’re an advanced lifter use one core exercise and no more than two auxiliary exercises per workout. They fit in perfectly after heavy flat benches.other words. That gives them a bit more variety. You can also use it in a three-day routine be substituting it for the pushdowns every other week. and don’t jerk about. five sets of five. The formula works if you do it consistently and never cheat on the numbers. Also. but in some cases it comes later because you’re more warmed up and also more determined. when you’re fresh. especially for athletes. As with dips. before allowing lifters to move to four days a week. That means a 300pound bencher will have his work cut out for him handling 50-pound dumbbells. I typically have my lifters do two sets of 20. however. One set of eight is sufficient. The adage about weightlifters becoming muscle-bound does have some basis in fact. On the light and medium days you can add two – but not two that hit the same muscle groups. Use lower reps on your closegrip benches so you can maintain perfect form. I have them start adding a back-off set on the core exercises to increase the total workload.
twos or even singles. So one week you might do the standard five sets of five. do weighted dips instead of overhead presses at alternate Wednesday workouts. I do believe that singles have a place in a program. tendons and ligaments much more than the higher reps. for I always stick with high reps on the auxiliary movements. Notes . I’m only speaking of the core exercises now. regardless of your level of proficiency. ** Once you can do 20 dips without resistance. Singles help to raise mental limits and point out form errors more readily than high reps. By constantly working different angles with the suggested exercises you’ll greatly help to stabilize the shoulder girdle – and a strong shoulder girdle is a happy shoulder girdle. *** Once you start using weighted dips on Wednesday. then the next you do three sets of five followed by two heavier sets of threes. Shoulder Girdle Routine Three-Days-a-Week Program Monday (heavy day) Bench Presses* – varies Incline Dumbbell Presses – 2 x 20 Wednesday (light day) Overhead Presses* – varies or Dips** – 4 x failure Friday (medium day) Incline Barbell Presses* – varies Pushdowns – 2 x 20 Dips*** – 4 x failure or Seated Dumbell Presses – 4 x 10 *Alter your sets and reps each week.with groups of people. use seated dumbbell presses on Friday. doubles or singles. I also understand that there’s value in doing lower reps on certain days and higher reps on others. but you shouldn’t have a steady diet of low reps for you’ll overly tax those attachments. One week do five sets of five. The lower reps hit the attachments. And yes. If your form is good there’s really no reason that you shouldn’t test your strength on the various core exercises every so often – assuming that you’ve been doing them long enough to build a firm base. the next do a warmup of three sets of five followed by three sets of heavier triples.
One week do five sets of five. *** Use heavy doubles. Four-Days-a-Week Program Monday (heavy day) Bench Presses* – varies Incline Dumbbell Presses – 2 x 20 Tuesday (light day) Weighted Dips** – varies Overhead Presses** – varies Wednesday (medium day) Incline Barbell Presses* – varies Straight-Arm Pullovers – 2 x 20 Chins – 4 x failure or curls – 2 x 20 Friday (medium day) Bench Presses*** – 4 x 8. Do one exercise or the other until you’ve been training for some time and feel you can handle both on the same day. If you dip heavy. Doing cleans of high-pulls on Monday and shrugs on Friday works well. You may want to stick with a three-day routine indefinitely. whichever exercise gets you the sorest is the one you should do more frequently. Notes . as that leaves Wednesday for some specific lower-back work. ** Alter your sets and reps each week. **** In choosing the close-grip benches or the pulldowns. If you press heavy. use dumbbells on the overhead presses and keep your reps relatively high – 10s and 12s. the next do four sets of eight or three sets of five followed by two triples. After a month start adding one back-off set on all the core exercises. here’s the way to put it together. 2 x 2 Dips (no resistance) – 4 x failure Close-Grip Bench Presses – 3-4 x 12 or pushdowns**** – 2 x 20 * Use the same varying set and rep scheme as described for the three-day program. do your dips without resistance and run the reps as high as you can.Be sure to include two upper-back exercises in your program each week. plus one back-off set of eight. One set of eight reps will help increase the workload. but if you do want to graduate to a four-day program. No back-off set.
It can be a light movement. . It’s an even better idea to add one other upperback exercise on Tuesday.Continue to do trap work at least twice a week. such as snatches or snatch-grip high pulls.
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