Overloading your bench press weight is an important step in building a bigger bench press. You are probably familiar with the two most common methods, Board Presses and Rack Presses (also called lockouts), but what are the differences between these two effective training approaches, and how do you program them into your training plan? Here are a few pointers to help you use them effectively.
Board presses are exactly as the name implies: lay a board or boards on your chest, lower the bar to the board(s) and press back up.
What are the advantages to board pressing?
- The Partial Range of Motion (ROM) allows you to overload the weight lifted. The more boards you use (typically between 1 and 3 boards), the more weight you can lift.
- Unlike Rack Presses, Board Presses mimic bench pressing lifting pattern. Board presses have an eccentric (descent) and concentric (ascent) component. This allows you to practice your proper bench press technique with board presses.
- Because board presses have an eccentric component, board presses take advantage of the body’s stretch reflex to give you more starting power at the beginning of the press.
- Regardless of the gym or bench you use, you will always have a specific starting point for board presses, based on how many boards you use.
How can you use board presses?
- Use as a primary exercise: Because board presses use basic bench pressing patterns, you can use board presses as a primary benching lift. You can use them to train the bench press at heavier weights than you use for full ROM bench presses.
- Train for heavier weight: Using more boards, train your bench press weights above your current one rep max (1RM). As your training progresses train that heavier weight with fewer boards until you can press it from your chest.
- Equipped/bench shirt training: If you’re an equipped bencher boards are a particularly useful tool. When using a new or very tight shirt, using boards helps you break the shirt in. As you are working up to a weight heavy enough to touch the chest, use a decreasing number of boards as the weight increases, bringing the bar closer to your chest.
Rack Presses (also called Bench Press Lockouts)
Rack Presses are performed in a power cage. Set a bench inside the cage and set the safety pins to the desired height and press the bar directly off the pins.
- Because you’re using a partial ROM, Rack Presses allow you to overload the weight pressed. Note that for low pin positions (at or below your natural sticking point) you may not be able to press as much weight as you could press in a full ROM bench press. This is because (at least on your first rep) you do not have the use of the stretch reflex to assist in starting the press. Second and subsequent reps are typically easier than the first because of assistance from the stretch reflex.
- Because you start Rack Presses from the safety pins there is no eccentric phase (of the first rep). You must start the first rep from a dead stop with no assistance from the body’s stretch reflex. This makes the first rep much more difficult than a board press, or full ROM bench press, and will build greater strength at that point.
- Because you’re training in the power cage, you need very little assistance to perform Rack Presses. You don’t need spotter assistance – if you fail you simply return the bar to the pins. You don’t need assistance to hold the boards in place as with board presses.
How can you use Rack Presses?
- Supplemental Lift: Because Rack Presses technique is not the same as bench press technique, they are used more effectively as a supplemental lift than in place of a full ROM bench press.
- Single rep sets/Dead Bench Presses: Performing all sets of Rack Presses with a single rep forces you to start each set and rep from a dead stop without the aid of a stretch reflex. This can help build starting strength at that point in your bench’s ROM.
- Train your sticking point: Setting the pins at the weak point in your bench press (typically the mid-point, where your pec strength declines and your triceps strength takes over) allows you to build strength at that point. Use them to overcome this weakness and lockout heavier weights.
- Overload the top-end lock out: Training the top two inches of your bench press with a weight far above your full ROM 1RM prepares your body and central nervous system to handle heavier weights. You will find that it gives you much greater control and strength when lifting your full ROM 1RM.
Other Partial ROM Presses
Properly programming these overloading techniques at the appropriate point in your program can help you bust through plateaus, and let’s be honest, piling on a whole bunch of plates for theses presses is just plain cool!
When I was training for my first meet after a layoff, I remember looking in the mirror to see my spotter (who shall remain unnamed because my wife hates it when I criticize her) playing on her smart phone. After being crushed down to the cage’s safety pins as if I were in a trash compactor I asked why she didn’t give me a hand.
“I thought you had it.”
Don’t take spotting for granted. Even if you keep your lifter from getting killed or maimed, you may still kill a good rep or set.
Just because a lifter stalls or stops doesn’t give you the right to take the lift away from them:
Even if it’s a PR attempt, it’s better to jump in than to bounce the bar of your lifter’s head:
So what is the right amount of assistance?
Generally speaking, you should give the minimum assistance needed to keep the bar moving. Let the lifter take over once past the sticking point to lock out if they can. Unless it is the lifters final set, and you are trying to completely spend them, don’t keep your lifter struggling and burn them out. Help them keep the bar moving at the normal rate they would press (for that weight). This will allow them to continue to lift productively for future sets.
Here are some spotting tips for specific types of training.
High rep and failure sets
If your lifter is completing a high rep set, push them to complete the full set. This means you’ll start to assist lightly as the bar begins to slow, and may be giving them significant help by the end of the set. The key is to keep the bar moving at a normal rate. Exception: if the lifter is going for a rep PR, don’t assist until they fail.
When doing heavy sets, generally speaking a lifter should only complete one rep once you need a spotter’s help. Unless they’re working on a PR, don’t make them come to a full stop before assisting. Again, keep the bar moving at a normal rate so they have something left in the tank to complete the training session. I realize some lifters don’t want any help before failing (heard a guy a few weeks ago tell his spotter ‘touch the bar and I’ll kill you’), but it’s not worth killing the volume remaining in the training session to complete that one rep unassisted.
Note: I do make an exception to the ‘don’t keep your lifter struggling’ rule. If I have one of those lifters who wants to do 8 reps after they hit failure I let them struggle as long as it takes to completely burn them out before helping them rerack the weight. It’s not my set.
Setting a new PR
Setting PRs come with their own rules, whether it’s a one rep max (1RM) or a rep PR. If your lifter is setting a 1RM PR, don’t touch the bar unless they hit failure and the bar comes to a complete stop or begins to descend. Since the lifter is at their maximum weight, you need to be ready because they can get into trouble very quickly. Stay under the bar to protect your lifter if they fail. If they do fail on the attempt they may be spent, and the weight will be heavy – be ready to take the bar away. Give as much assistance as needed to get the bar back to the rack.
If the lifter is setting a rep PR, don’t touch the bar until they hit failure. You don’t necessarily have to take the bar away from them, you can help them get additional reps. Depending on how spent they are at that point, how heavy the bar is and your ability to assist them you may past the failure point.
If the bar weight is beyond your ability to assist on your own, add side spotters to assist in the event the lifter fails with a very heavy weight. Our team has threshold weights for benching and squatting where we automatically add side spotters, and I recommend this approach.
When side spotting:
– Keep your hands under the bar and ready to catch in case of a sudden failure, but don’t touch the bar. If the lifter needs assistance let the back spotter provide it.
– If the back spotter needs your help, don’t yank the bar up suddenly. Both side spotters need to bring the bar up evenly or you could injure your lifter.
– Once the lift is complete, even on successful lifts guide the bar back to the rack without lifting more than just what’s necessary to re-rack.
As a spotter, your job is more than just keeping a lifter from failing. A good spotter helps the lifter get the most out of their lifting sessions.
When I started lifting weights at 18 years old, I had no idea what I was doing. When I first strolled into the gym on Lackland Air Force Base, I may have been steping into a different dimension on some SciFi channel show (although at that time where I grew up in the sticks, we did not get the SciFi channel, we got what was known as ‘Channel 12’).
What does this have to do with strength training? For the past 26 years I’ve observed what successful lifters have done, tested it, adopted what works, and dropped what hasn’t. I’m not a West Side lifter, but if you know anything about powerlifting, you know that WSB is an authority on power and strength training. I have adopted a number of Louis Simmons’ teachings into my programming. This article addresses my application of Dynamic Training.
Why add Dynamic Training to your program?
Watch someone bench pressing, or think back to your last bench session. When you warmed up at 135lbs you pressed the bar up with 135lbs of force. When you got to your working sets at 315lbs (or whatever your working sets were), you applied 315lbs of force. You recruited the muscles you needed to lift the weight on the bar, you hit your lifts, and you had a successful training session, right?
Maybe, but what did you leave on the table?
To answer that question, I have another question. (You can’t answer a question with a question! Yes I can, it’s my article…). What is Power? For the purposes of benching more weight (or squatting, pulling, etc.) power is a product of strength and speed. If your training consists of only applying enough force to overcome the weight on the bar, you are training for strength. You are not training for power.
Ok, I’m starting to get it, how do I apply it?
I’m glad you asked or quite frankly this article would be a huge waste. This is where dynamic training comes in. The concept behind dynamic training is to move the bar as fast as possible regardless of the weight. If you can bench 300lbs in .5 seconds, you should move 150lbs in .25 seconds or less.
How you work dynamic training into your program is dependent on your program’s structure, but it can be quite simple:
- Select an unrelated workout 2-3 days before or after your heavy session for that lift. For example, dynamic bench sessions can be done at the end of your heavy squat session, 2 days after your heavy bench session.
- Start with a weight around 50-60% of that lift’s 1RM. If your best bench is 405lbs, start with 205lbs (I know you’re going to use 225lbs, aren’t you).
- Keep the rep range low, 2-3 reps. Sets should short enough so that you finish before you begin to tire, and the bar speed slows. Concentrate on moving the bar as fast as possible, try to move the bar faster with each subsequent repetition.
- Use between 6-10 sets, depending on how many sets you can complete before you begin to fatigue and the bar speed slows.
- After mastering dynamic training at the lower weights, begin increasing the weight in later sets of your dynamic session. Work on moving the bar explosively with heavy weights as well as lighter weight.
Dynamic training results
- You will train yourself to drive the bar up with all of your strength regardless of the weight. You will be able to rapidly activate all available muscle fibers. Even at your heaviest weights you will move the bar more explosively.
- Because you are training your lifts more frequently, you will practice lifting technique at lighter weights that you can naturally complete with better form. Your proficiency in the lifts will improve.
- You will lift more weight.
Wrap up and Results
When training for the 2013 USA Powerlifting Nationals I added dynamic benches to my back training sessions. I started with a modest 225lbs for 9×3. After several months of training I hit a high on my dynamic bench of 7×2@405, lifted a personal record (PR) raw bench in the gym, and a huge equipped PR of 562lb bench in competition. Dynamic training works.
This is more of a pet peeve than a tip, really. Watching poor form drives me crazy, particularly when a bencher completely ignores half their muscle mass when benching: legs hanging limply off the bench, feet dancing around as the reps get tough, feet up in the air during the press.
Ok, that last example actually has a useful function. However if you’re 5’9”, weigh 155lbs, and are pressing 135lbs with your feet in the air, you’re wasting your time. Learn to bench properly first, add some muscle, build some strength, and then start playing with isolation techniques.
Failing to involve your lower body in the lift is a common error. How exactly do you involve your lower body in the lift? Leg Drive!
What does leg drive do for you?
Driving through your feet creates muscle tension from your toes all the way up to your traps. It helps you maintain stability throughout the lift, and helps you maintain your back arch and keep your chest up. Put together, these lead to a bigger bench.
How do you incorporate leg drive into your bench?
- Plant your feet flat on the floor. You may have to try different foot positions to find what works for you, but start with your feet underneath your hips.
- Keep your shoulders firmly planted on the bench (you may need to chalk them so they don’t slide on the bench), drive though the balls of your feet and push your hips toward your shoulders. This will push your torso up into a tight arch.
- Continue pushing through your legs maintaining the drive throughout the full range of your bench press. Your entire lower body should be tight, from the balls of your feet through your thighs.
- If your legs are too short to plant them firmly on the floor and drive hard, try placing a plate underneath them as you bench.
If you are maintaining proper leg drive and tension, the only noticeable motion in your bench is the bar moving up and down. Your feet, legs, hips, abdomen, and chest should remain stable and motionless.
The sumo deadlift is much more than a conventional deadlift with a wide stance. When setup properly you may find that the sumo deadlift allows you to get more leg drive into your pulls, and reduces tension on your lower back given the more upright starting position. Sumo deadlifts also can favor certain body mechanics (longer femurs, shorter arms) and strengths (dominant hip strength).
To leverage the sumo’s advantages, you need to set up properly for your sumo pull.
- Foot Position:
- You are going to take a very wide stance for sumo deadlifts. Although there are not set starting points for sumo as for conventional pulls, try starting with your shins at the rings on the bar and move in or out from there, depending on the length of your legs.
- Point your toes outward sharply. As your knees should track in the direction of your toes, with a wide stance you want your toes pointed out.
- Keep the bar very close, within an inch of your shins.
- Create a solid base. When the lift is completed, your legs angled outward form the base of a solid pyramid.
- Since you do have a wide stance and there can be significant lateral force on your feet, you will want to make sure that you perform sumo deadlifts on a non-skid surface, and that your shoes are clean and free of any materials that may make them slip.
- Hand Position:
- In most cases your sumo hand position should be identical to your conventional hand position. Your arms should hang straight down to the bar giving you the maximum distance between your shoulders to the bar. This creates an advantageous starting position by further reducing the the lift’s range of motion (ROM). It also reduces non-productive lateral forces created by taking a wider than shoulder width grip.
- Grip: Your grip will be the same for sumo deadlifts as for conventional deadlifts
- Double overhand grip – Grip the bar with both hands pronated (overhand). This is the toughest way to grip the bar. As the bar weight increases, the bar will begin to roll out of your hands. It can, however, further lengthen your arm span shortening the deadlift ROM.
- Alternating over/under grip – Grip the bar with one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand). Which hand you use is your preference, but generally speaking it’s more effective gripping with your dominant hand pronated. Using the over-under grip prevents the bar from rolling out of your grip.
- Hook grip – Grip the bar with both hands pronated. Instead of wrapping your thumbs around the bar, lie them along the bar and wrap your fingers around your thumbs. This is a very effective grip, locking the bar in and preventing it from rolling or slipping out of your grip, but it can be exceptionally painful.
- Setting up for the pull: I promote a three step setup for sumo deadlifts, as I do for conventional deadlifts. This allows you to tighten up before the pull and create muscle tension that will help with your pulls.
- Hinge at the hips to reach down and grab the bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades downward to tighten your back. Think about tucking them into your back pockets. Take a deep breath into your lungs and abdomen, and force it downward to create a very tight and stable core.
- Bring your hips down and chest up. Drive your knees out so you can push your hips forward toward the bar – try and drop your sack on the bar [a reference I stole from Dave Tate]. When you are set for the pull, your torso should be more erect than for a conventional pull, allowing you to drive straight up.
- Notice from the videos below that you will drop your hips much lower than you do for conventional deadlifts.
- Drive the bar straight up to lock out. Shove your knees out, and push against the outside edge of your shoes.
- Sumo deadlifts are notorious for coming off the floor very slowly. Don’t get discouraged and quit on the lift if it is stubborn off the floor. Keep pulling and you’ll find the lockouts to be stronger.
The deadlift is a technical lift whether you pull conventional or sumo. To be successful pay as much attention to your setup as you do to your weight, sets, and reps. Simple corrections to your setup and technique can add a lot of additional lbs to the bar.
Part 1 of my overloading series discusses strategies for overloading volume in your training to increase the number of total reps lifted in your program. In this session, we’ll discuss overloading weight, and increase the amount of weight you move in a given lift. The goal is to train your musculature, supporting structure, and CNS to move weights above your current 1 rep max (1RM). This will prepare you to move heavier and heavier loads.
The first strategy, negatives, is the simplest. Load up the bar with more than you can lift and get to work. This approach focuses on the eccentric portion of the lift. With a spotter’s help if necessary, unrack the weight and bring it down slowly maintaining complete control of the weight throughout the range of motion (ROM). Once you’ve bottomed out the lift, your spotter helps you lift it back up. Tips on negatives:
- Keep the weight at a heavy, near-max to maximum effort. Try 80-105% as a starting point.
- Repetitions should be kept relatively low range – 3-5 reps.
- Your spotter should keep his hands on the bar throughout full ROM for each rep. During the eccentric, your spotter should stay with the weight and help guide the bar down if necessary. Once you complete the eccentric your spotter will help you bring the bar back up to the starting position. Your spotter should be lifting a significant amount of the bar weight so the bar comes up quickly.
Note: Your strength will be depleted after performing the negative eccentric and you shouldn’t expect to lift as much as you can fresh. Make sure your spotter is capable of handling the weight you’re lifting.
- The negative eccentric should move as slowly as you can maintain control of the weight. At near-max weight, start with half the speed of a normal rep and adjust from there.
- To add effectiveness and train your sticking point, as you tire on later sets/reps try and come to a complete stop at the sticking point and hold the bar there.
- If the weight is more than your spotter can easily handle adequately during the concentric lift, consider having side spotters assist as well.
There are a number of strategies to perform partial repetitions. Used properly, partial reps can be used effectively to overload with more weight than you would normally use. This will carry over to greater weight for the full ROM as well.
Board presses: Board presses are a strategy that allows you to overload the weight on your bench press. Have a (second) spotter hold a set of boards on your chest. Bring the bar down to the boards and press. Boards typically range from 1 board to 3 boards. Use proper bench press technique throughout the limited ROM.
A couple of strategies for using boards to increase your bench press 1RM include:
- Start with a slight personal record (PR) and press to 3 boards for sets of 3-5 reps. In subsequent bench training sessions, remove 1 board per session and reduce the reps you complete per set. By the end of the mini-cycle you should press the new PR from your chest for singles.
- Start with a significant PR and press to 3 boards. Rep range will be lower with the heavier weight. In subsequent weeks reduce the weight and remove a board. By the end of the mini-cycle you should again press a new PR from your chest for singles.
Pin Presses: Pin presses are similar to board presses in that they limit the ROM on your bench press and allow you to overload the weight used. They also allow you to perform the lift without assistance from spotters. They are limited, however, in the number pin settings you can use depending on the configuration of your squat cage.
Set up a flat bench in the squat cage. Set the safety pins so that when you lie on the bench the bar will not come all the way to your chest. Because of the limitation in settings of the safety pins, I generally use pin presses as a supplemental lift, not as a primary. Some strategies you can use with your pin presses:
- Set the pins at the midway point in your bench. Lift for a slight rep PR with a low rep range.
- Set the pins at the top end of your bench and practice lockouts at a significant PR weight. Pause at the top for a static hold (4-10 seconds).
Pin Squats: Similar to pin presses, pin squats allow you to limit the ROM for the squat, and overload your squat training. As with pin presses, pin squats shouldn’t be considered a primary squat exercise, you should not train to squat above parallel. When squatting, don’t anticipate the pins. Squat with normal squat technique until you hit the pins. Let the bar come to a complete stop on the pins and then drive straight back up.
Rack Pulls: Rack pulls are the ‘pin’ lifts for deadlifts. Typically you perform them in the squat cage, but you can also do them by placing blocks under the weights. Typical pin height can range from slightly below to slightly above the knee.
Although rack pulls shorten the ROM of the deadlift, when starting at or below the knee you may find that removing the initial leg drive from the pull can make them even more difficult than full ROM deadlifts.
It is important to maintain proper deadlift form when performing rack pulls. Grip the bar, rock back bringing your hips down and chest up before starting the pull.
Static hold is a strategy to allow you to handle significantly more weight than your 1RM. You don’t perform any of the lifts ROM. You unrack it, lock it out, hold for 5-10 seconds, then rerack. The strategy is to train your body and CNS to handle greater workloads.
Squat walkouts: Walkouts train you to handle weights significantly above your squat 1RM. Load the bar with 105-110% of your 1RM. Unrack and walk out the weight using perfect squat setup technique. Lock the bar out and hold for 5-10 seconds, then rerack. I usually add walkouts toward the end of a heavy training cycle.
Adding weight overloading strategies to your training program can train your body and CNS to handle heavier loads. Build them into your training programs wisely to spur strength gains.
- Handling near-max to max weight loads can take a toll on the body and CNS. Learn when to back off the workload to limit overtraining.
- Use limited ROM lifts sparingly as primary lifts. Don’t train your lifting patterns to limit your ROM when performing the full lifts.
- The goal is to overload the weight you are lifting; if you haven’t used weight overloading strategies learn what your limits are. Start conservatively and build the weight up.
- Learn and perfect proper technique for your primary lifts before implementing overloading strategies that modify the lift.
Overloading your training volume: the strategies discussed here are designed to push you past your limits in total volume for a particular lift. Simply put, the purpose is to help you get more total reps in a workout than you typically would for a given lift and weight. These strategies take the intensity level of your training up a notch.
You don’t have to train to failure on every set of every lift, or even in your primary lifts in every session to make progress. For most of my training I use Prilepin’s Table to plan my primary lift’s weight, sets and reps. On my supplemental and assistance lifts I generally target a training range that ends within 1-3 reps of failure. You can make consistent gains stopping just short of failure; however taking your sets for a particular lift to failure can increase the intensity of your workout.
The rest of the strategies in this article will help you take your sets past your failure point. This will force your body to recruit more muscle fibers than would normally be used for the given lift, and help you get stronger and bigger. That is the goal, right?
Having your spotter help you complete additional reps at the end of the set is the simplest way to increase your training volume. Just because your spotter helps you with some reps does not diminish the effectiveness of the set. Quite the contrary, the increased volume past failure can make for a highly effective training session.
The strategy is simple. Take the set to failure and continue lifting for additional reps using assistance from your spotter. For a given set target 2-3 forced reps at most per set. More than that and your spotter will end up lifting the weight for you, and will likely not be pleased.
Your spotter should give you just enough assistance to get past the sticking point enabling you to complete the rep unassisted. If you are at complete failure and cannot lock out the lift, your spotter should give you enough assistance to keep the bar moving at near your normal tempo for that lift, but should not take the weight away from you. You should be forced to press with all of your remaining strength as the spotter helps you lock out the lift. Maintain strict lifting technique and continue driving. Let your spotter give you just the boost you need to complete the reps.
Total Rep Sets:
In terms of complexity, the total rep sets scheme is also relatively simple. If you cannot complete the target reps in your lifting sets, simply add sets until you hit your target reps for the lift. For example, at 70% of my max on a given lift, using Prilepin’s Table I typically plan to complete 5×4 reps. If I miss some reps I continue lifting until I complete all 20 reps (example, 4, 4, 3, 3, 3, 2, 1).
I typically only use this approach for my primary lifts. Supplemental and assistance work can be greatly affected by the primary lift’s volume and intensity. If I have to adjust weight or reps on supplemental lifts in an individual session I usually don’t sweat it too much.
Cluster sets can help you get more reps per set than you typically could in a particular set. Complete the target reps for the set, rack the weight, pause, and then continue to failure. Using the 70% example above, each set would go something like this:
- Complete 4 reps
- Rack the weight, pause 10 seconds
- Unrack and continue lifting to failure
If the number of reps you get in the second part of the cluster is equal to or greater than the target reps in the primary component the weight is too light. In the 70% example your target range would be 4 reps in the primary part and 2-3 reps in the second portion of the lift.
I saved the best for last. And by best I mean horrific.
For best results use 2 spotters for drop sets, and leave collars off (if you can do so safely). The key to drop set pain is rapid weight changes between drops. To perform drop sets:
- Unrack the weight and lift until failure
- Rack the weight
- Spotters quickly change the plates dropping to the next weight
- Without resting unrack again and continue lifting to failure
- Repeat the process until you hit the target number of subsets
A few tips to maximize the effectiveness of your drop sets:
- Plan out your sets ahead and either load the bar with plates that can be easily stripped (for example if you’re squatting, you can easily drop a 45lb/20kg plate with each drop), or have the weights handy for your spotters if they must swap plates on and off
- A good range is 3-5 subsets in a given drop set
- Drop sets are most effective when your first weight is heavy enough to complete a reasonable number of reps – not less than 5 and not more than 8
Drop sets are exceptionally intense. Don’t try to use this strategy on all sets in a given lift. One or two drop sets is likely to do enough damage for the day.
Volume overloading will take you to failure and beyond. For safety and to maximize their effectiveness it is very important that you have a trusted spotter assisting you.
These strategies are a great way to crank up your training intensity. Use them in moderation, limit them to one lift in a session and don’t use more than one strategy in that session. Very high intensity strategies like drop sets shouldn’t be used for all sets in a session.
Try plugging volume overloading into your training program and crank up your training intensity.
- authored by Katja Lariola
So I happened to say the magic words “What in my opinion makes women squat with a bad form is BodyPump” to my coach and that led me to write about the very topic… Be careful with what you say around him, people! But let me introduce myself before I get all excited and start saying things I will later regret. That tends to happen when I get excited – this article itself is a proof of that, haha. I’m kidding. I enjoy writing and I was very honored to be asked to write for Brute Force Strength! Though I really did not see it coming when I said what I said…
Who Am I?
In addition to being Ken’s Finnish trainee with nothing to say and a sense of humor of high quality (haha), I work as a Personal Trainer in a commercial gym chain. Being a powerlifter and a commercial gym PT is not the most typical combo, at least not in Finland, but I like teaching the main lifts to “ordinary” people, help them with their goals, and make their training effective, simple and safe. And I help them get stronger if that’s what they want, of course.
Of all the lifts, I love squats the most. It’s maybe not my best lift in kgs (or lbs) but it’s what I enjoy the most. Squatting makes me feel strong and empowered! If I were asked to choose one thing to do at the gym, it would be squats. Consequently, as a PT, I make almost everybody squat… Wanna build muscles? Let’s squat! Wanna lose weight? Let’s squat! Wanna get stronger? Let’s squat! Wanna improve your mobility? Let’s squat! Wanna do functional training? Let’s squat! Wanna improve your overall health? I’m sure you can guess the answer to that… Ok, Ok, I have had clients who have wanted, for example, to bench press with me. We haven’t squatted… And the type, intensity and volume of the exercise vary, too, of course.
The typical member I meet at the gym is a woman, 30-50 years old, no experience at the gym but loves group fitness classes. Oh boy they love their classes! Not that there’s anything wrong with that but typically they think that they don’t need resistance training for anything because of them. Yes, they have almost all done strength training when I ask them (I believe everybody needs some strength training and you can learn Finnish and read an article I wrote about it recently in my own blog – Life Worth Lifting)… They have taken BodyPump classes.
These women I work with have learned to squat in BodyPump classes, too. Or should I say they have not learned to squat in the BodyPump classes? Many of them say they have experienced knee pain. When I see them squat, their technique is bad. However, I believe Ken is working on an article about knee pain, so I won’t go there more profoundly. But I would go as far as to say that it’s because of BodyPump that their squats look terrible. They have taught themselves a wrong way to do it there.
Before going any further, I should probably explain what BodyPump is. Many of you have probably heard the term and have a general idea but to make sure we’re talking about the same thing, I will tell you about the concept. When we get to the critique part, and we will get there, you will notice that most of it could be said about any type of group fitness class and about any technical lift, or about just not having squatted ever. The problems are not unique to squat or to Bodypump. But BodyPump has been what I have come across the most.
Before continuing, I also want to add that I don’t intend to bash BodyPump. I will question some things they say about BodyPump’s benefits but I do think it can be fun (if you like that sort of things, I don’t) and it’s a way to get people moving – and that’s a huge thing nowadays when the rate of obesity and other health problems is alarming! For that I’m grateful.
What Is BodyPump?
According to the Les Mills site (http://www.lesmills.com/), BodyPump is a weight-based group-fitness program. Classes are 60 minutes long and contain eight separate muscle-group specific songs or tracks: warm up, squats, chest, back, triceps, biceps, lunges, shoulders, core and cool down. BodyPump classes use both compound and isolation-based exercises and in addition to squats, deadlifts and presses are used. Participants choose their weights based on the exercise and their personal goals but they are performed using plates, barbells, dumbbells and an aerobic step. The classes are exactly the same all over the world, wherever you go the program is the same and not modified by the instructor. The focus is on muscle endurance using several repetitions.
And what are the claims I mentioned they make on their site? I know, this might seem like I’m getting sidetracked and more about BodyPump itself than squats and BodyPump. However, this is an article about BodyPump, too, and I do want to say a few words about that. I’m sure you BodyPumpers out there think when reading this that maybe I won’t learn to squat but I will get the other benefits… Nope, you won’t. So let me tell you what the claims are and how they are not working.
“Build strength, get lean & toned, work all major muscles. Get lifting with BODYPUMP™ and you’ll tone and shape your entire body, without adding bulky muscles. This full-body workout will burn calories, increase core strength and improve bone health. This program is based on THE REP EFFECT. THE REP EFFECT throws traditional thinking about lifting heavy weights on its head. It is a proven formula that exhausts muscles using light weights, while performing high repetitions – this is the secret to developing lean, athletic muscle. Choreography in each area is specifically targeted so you’ll burn fat, burn more calories and achieve more meaningful fat loss and muscle fatigue to build strength without building bulk. In a typical BODYPUMP™ class you’ll perform 800 reps in a single group workout. That’s more than four times the amount a person can achieve when training alone.”
I did promise to question them, didn’t I? Yes, you will burn calories and work all your muscles, that is true. But lifting heavy weights with proper technique would be more effective for building strength! Or have you heard of a strength athlete using only the rep effect? As they said, focus is on muscle endurance. And that is probably why I don’t find it fun – with my attention span SO MANY REPS is boring… But fortunately we are all different! Lifting heavy weights is more effective for shaping your body, increasing core strength and improving bone health (I won’t go there now, otherwise this will become too long of an article, but as I said before: you can learn Finnish and read about in my own blog – it’s all in the Why Everybody Needs Strength article).
Getting lean, on the other hand, is mainly about your diet. If you want to lose fat, you need to pay attention to what you put in your mouth. It’s as simple as that, although finding the best diet for you might not be a simple task. Develop lean, athletic muscles and not adding bulky muscles? Let’s get this straight: all muscles are lean. That’s what they are: muscle, not fat. If you look bulky, however, it’s often about fat on top of the muscles, not the muscles themselves, or about your how you see yourself. Unfortunately it is not uncommon to have a distorted body image.
The shape of your muscles is genetically determined, too. They have a certain origin and a certain insertion. You might be able to affect their length a bit but you can’t change those facts or grow longer bones. So you can’t get significantly longer muscles with a certain type of exercise. Not Yoga, not BodyPump. Furthermore, quantity does not override quality. Doing 800 reps or four times the amount you can do on your own is somewhat pointless in my opinion. Do quality workouts aimed at your goal, and if training alone is a problem, get yourself a good trainer.
Why Does BodyPump Make Women Squat with a Bad Form?
As I said in the beginning, the problems are not BodyPump-specific or exercise-specific and they are not gender-specific, either. It just reflects my experiences: I have met many women who have done BodyPump classes and do not know how to squat.
The main problem is that there are so many people in the class. If you have 50 people doing the class and the squat song lasts 5 minutes, you cannot possibly teach everyone how to squat or go correct their form. The instructor is supposed to show the participants what to do, too, and as far as I know, getting off the stage is limited in the BodyPump concept. So basically what you can do is try to get an eye contact and tell the participant to keep their heels on the ground (or whatever it is you want to tell them). All the instructors do not have enough knowledge to correct people, either, but that can be said about trainers and coaches, too. And there are good instructors, too!
As the lifts are performed to music, some reps are really fast. When you squat to every beat (fortunately you don’t do that throughout the whole song), the movement might not be controlled anymore. You are just going up and down and sweating and hoping for the track to end. Technique is not what you have in mind anymore and quite likely your core will get loose, too.
Furthermore, when a trainer/coach works with people and sees them lift, they can spot weaknesses that need to be addressed. It might be related to muscle strength and they might have to work on posterior chain or core (although squatting is a good cure for that, too: you can get better at squatting by squatting). In BodyPump classes it is not possible because of the concept: the instructor is not allowed to change anything. In group fitness classes in general it is not possible because of the amount of people. You cannot address one person’s individual issues while the 49 remaining participants have different needs.
Sometimes the attitude is also a bit towards “thank god these weights are so light that participants won’t really hurt themselves”. And in a class like this, where you can’t teach and correct, the weights do need to be light and in that sense I think the rep effect is a good one to use. Though bad form even with light weights can lead to injuries or at least to back or knee pain. In addition to that, once you learn to do something, it is difficult to change the pattern. So trying out heavier weights at the gym with that form might lead to an injury even if it doesn’t happen in the class. This can be said about anyone who doesn’t know what they are doing, though, whether they have taken any group fitness classes in their life or not.
What Are the Most Common Problems I Have Encountered?
And to finish this short and compact article off, I’ll summarize briefly (yeah right) the most common squat problems I have encountered. However, this is not a comprehensive list; it doesn’t cover all the problems and certainly doesn’t apply to everyone. It doesn’t give definite answers, either. They are not the only ways to start correcting. So even though I will name a few things I often do with my clients, it’s not all we do. It always depends on the person and their problems and weaknesses, and they are often more complicated. We probably need to fix more than just one thing. And I won’t even go to muscular weaknesses or mobility issues! So this is just a quick overview and I will only talk about basic technical aspects.
First, when we get to squatting with a barbell, I need to teach people how to unrack and rack. That’s not where we usually start, though; many of them cannot handle the 20kg bar yet, so we use lighter bars/ kettlebells/ dumbbells or do bodyweight or assisted squats. But when we get there, if I let them just try it out without showing them first, they quite often lift the bar from the rack with their hands, press it up and then put it down to their shoulders. Similarly, racking starts with a version of a behind the neck press. That’s what they have done in BodyPump classes with those light weights. There are no racks or squat cages there. However, it can get dangerous with heavier weights! And as legs are stronger than arms, especially when it comes to women, you cannot even use a heavy enough weight for really working your legs if you need to press it up first. But that is a more advanced problem, when the squatting technique is good enough for adding more weight. Myself I cannot press overhead even half of the weight I can squat.
The second problem is the placement of the bar. It is often on their neck, pressing the spine and vertebrae. Maybe that wasn’t a problem with lighter weights, but having heavy weights on your spine will hurt you for sure. The next issue is that people believe the right stance is a narrow one, toes pointed directly forward. While it may work for some, many of the people I have squatted with have not had the mobility for that. So when I tell them to widen their stance a bit and turn their toes a bit outwards, I hear the ‘this is not how they told us to do it in the BodyPump classes!’ comment. The surprise is even bigger when I tell them to push their knees out. However, when I ask them ‘Did it hurt your knees now?’, the answer is usually ‘No’. And that is a surprised ‘No’, too!
It is also common to lift heels up from the floor and lean forward, or to be afraid of going low, even if strength and mobility would allow that. The range of motion is very short. What I have found effective is doing front squats and box squats. Front squats are kind of self-corrective and prevent leaning to a certain extent. It is easier to find the pattern with front than back squats. When people shift their weight forward, box squats help, too, as people need to hit the box behind them. If it is about a mental block, about being afraid of falling down onto the floor, or about not finding the depth, box squats are beneficial again. The box is there to catch you, though it’s rarely needed, and tell you the correct depth. These are not the only reasons to use box squats or front squats, so if you see people doing them, don’t expect they have above mentioned problems. They are effective exercises on their own, too.
So, in a nutshell, what I wanted to say with this article is that if you don’t know how to squat but squat anyways, you won’t get the benefits and may injure yourself. While BodyPump can get you up from the couch, it is not the best way to strength train, tone, get leaner or build muscle. And it is definitely not the best place to learn to lift! Quite the opposite, if you do it wrong, the instructor cannot really correct you. They cannot help you to address your weaknesses. You will quite likely learn it wrong. That is why in my opinion BodyPump makes women squat with a bad form.
It’s like the old question ‘How many times a week should I train?’ If your way of training is bad, the less you do it the better. Learn to lift and definitely learn to squat but do it with a good PT or coach! Then, when you know what you are doing, you can do BodyPump every now and then if you want to work on endurance.
In addition to being a Personal Trainer, Katja is an up and coming Elite Raw Powerlifter in Finland. She holds regional records and has won the Southern Finland Regional Championships. She has placed 4th in Finnish National Championships.
You all will love today’s tip. It result in larger ego muscles, a huge upper body, and most importantly, when these results cause people to ask ‘how much do you bench’, you actually can say ‘a lot’ (I don’t , however, recommend using that exact reply to customs agents…or other law enforcement agencies, they generally aren’t amused…so I’ve heard).
I call this the non-bench training to train your bench.
I generally don’t follow workouts you find in the literature. I don’t believe in one size fits all workouts, and feel a lot of them are posted to sell magazines or web site views. I also generally don’t believe in ‘workouts’. Notable exceptions are some of the proven strength training program templates you find out there and, of course, BWOW. That painfully long introduction is to say this isn’t going to be a workout plan. It is meant to tell you what to train to build a bigger bench.
Pectorals do not build a big bench. Your pectorals are simply one piece of the puzzle. A powerful bencher has learned how to turn their entire body into a bench pressing machine. Your pecs help you drive the bar off the chest, but they do not do it alone. If you do not have a powerful back, your press off the chest will be weak. Did I mention that if you do not have a powerful back, your press off the chest WILL be weak? A powerful back gives you stability at the chest. Working jointly with your biceps, it allows you to control the bar as you bring the bar to your chest. Pressing with a strong back is like pressing off a granite slab, it helps you thrust the bar explosively off your chest. A strong back is also responsible for a huge upper body, and the classic v-taper.
Strong pectorals do not help you with a strong lock out. Your pecs can help you press the bar, but as we discussed in Big Bench Tip #1, finishing the bench is about locking your elbows, not pressing the bar up. A strong lockout is created with powerful triceps. What is the sticking point in your bench? It’s the point where your pecs begin to weaken, and your triceps must begin to take over the lift. Your triceps play a major role in half of your bench press. They also play a major role in over half of your arm size…
How do you put this knowledge into action? A good training program balances upper body pushing with upper body pulling. You should have as many pulling sets in your weekly program as you do pressing sets. Given it is a smaller muscle group, your triceps don’t (necessarily) warrant as many weekly sets as pushing or pulling, but they do warrant more than the finishing isolation exercise on chest day (and they really should never be insulted with tricep kickbacks). Include at least 3-4 sets of a compound lift for the triceps, and then finish them off with the isolation exercises.
Including the right non-bench bench press training in your program will build an impressive bench press as well as an attention getting, balanced upper body build.
This tip is quite honestly the easiest way there is to add weight to your bench. It’s a relatively simple technique tweak, and doesn’t require any increase in strength (although a BWOW circuit will help considerably).
Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you bench.
How can squeezing my shoulder blades together increase your bench press?
Whenever I’m helping someone new with the bench press, the first thing I watch is the shoulders. Most untrained benchers don’t pay attention to their shoulders as they bench. They simply press the bar up haphazardly. Their shoulders remain loose throughout the lift and they often raise them off the bench with each rep. Even those who keep their shoulders on the bench for the easy reps begin lifting them as they tire to push the bar up.
Squeezing your shoulder blades together tightly keeps your shoulders on the bench and reduces the range of motion of the press. If a movement does not add to the power of your lift, or does not make you bigger or stronger it should be eliminated. The thing to realize is that the bench press is complete when your elbows lock, it does not matter how high you press the bar. Lifting your shoulders off the bench to raise the bar higher is wasted motion. It wastes energy and distracts you from completing the lift. Instead of pressing the bar up, concentrate on locking your elbows. This prevents you from lifting your shoulders and helps you engage your triceps decisively to finish the lift.
How do you maintain tight shoulders throughout your bench?
Plant your shoulders on the bench. Find your hand and foot position, and drive your CHEST UP. Once you have your lifting position on the bench, squeeze your shoulder blades together and continue squeezing them throughout the full lift. Imagine you are trying to pinch a quarter between your shoulder blades, squeeze it and don’t let it go until your set is complete. As you lock your bench out, concentrate on locking your elbows, don’t press the bar up.
Practice this technique from your first warm-up to your heaviest set. Done correctly, it can add weight to the bar in your next bench session.