Back in the fifties, the common questions among weight men were "How much can you curl?" or "How much can you press?" meaning military-style overhead. The bench press had none of the popularity that it has now that it has become a standard of measuring another's strength.
Physical strength, that is. Mental strength, well, we have a few sorta somewhat believable methods of measuring that. Moral strength? Good luck with measuring that, Sir or Ma'am! It's hard enough just determining what morality even is anymore, isn't it. Right. Wrong. Good. Evil. Are "things" and behaviors we put under our little moral microscope good or evil or some of each in varying degrees at different moments in the fluidity of life depending on the convenient whims of us human types? Snakes, bats, and rats are nasty bad things, that we've determined for certain. Bugs that bite too. And I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say people who eat their own children generally don't vacillate much between those markers of good and evil. But you never know. First, attend Timmy and Tammy's Christmas Concert, then, it's a winter wonderland drive back home in the snow and the two tykes are prepped and placed in the oven at 350 for five hours. All's well again, and no matter the sound of roaring silence heard every second night just before the sun fully sets: when the never-ending, ever-expanding and contracting movement of life, no matter how much you wish it would end or at least put itself on pause for a breath screams the indecipherable in your head and then, the sun sets again and all's well. Morning does come. Bacon, eggs, pancakes with organic syrup of some sort and another needle in the bum before heading off to the gym. Bank statement tally, the holiness of capital gained, ambitions realized, sweet smell of success, trrrrrruck running swell, bliss of the banal unquestioned, all these things we never speak of except in the mirror every third week of May. Oh My God! Is it the fourth week of May already? Even though it may not really exist it sure does fly, eh.
Okay, enough already, no one's reading this for that. Speakin' of reading, here's a book I'm liking:
"My Impending Death - or - The Fool's Soliloquy" by Michael Laser (2015). Check it out.
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I would still vote for the clean and jerk as a fine indicator of combined strength and athletic ability, but doubt I'd get much support from powerlifters. Some weightlifters and others put down powerlifting, saying it's all brute strength requiring no technique. How wrong they are. Let's get back to bench press training and styles and discuss the "Lateral Arch" and the concept of the "Shrug Hold."
For years magazine articles about the bench concentrated on lockout problems, hand and arm positions, "finding the right groove" and so forth. Less has been written about the initial drive off the chest than any other stage of the lift. Use of bench shirts has of course modified this equation somewhat; many shirts deliver considerable help getting the bar started off the chest and some super-duper shirts turn the lift into something resembling a partial press lockout.
Watching top lifters can be revealing. At least two schools of thought about the role of the shoulder girdle in bench pressing are current in the gyms. One is the more traditional style familiar to most trainees, and the other is the exaggerated arching that is becoming very widespread, although not everyone is suited to it. Sivokon of Kazakhstan, who has won seven IPF men's open world championships and five bench press world championships the last time I counted, does not have an exaggerated lower back arch. Japan's benchers won both the men and women's team bench press titles at the world meet in 2001 and exemplify the use of extreme arches in both directions.
I do not pretend to be an authority on bench technique, but I do have some ideas for aiding the bench press, whatever the style used.
The Flare or "Roll" School
What is the first thing that happens when the lifter begins to press? Most would say arm or explosion in order to gain enough height to allow the elbows to rotate into position (if that is the technique used) to begin the follow-through to lockout. Well, look again. Powerlifting great Rickey Dale Crain and others have pointed out that the pectorals come into major play first in the bench press -- or should -- followed by anterior deltoids and triceps.
Not only is there pectoral contraction and arm drive, but also a spreading of the lats and a shoulder thrust upward. The bar can be raised several inches with this spread and roll technique alone. Thick, strong lats are important in this style of benching, especially while the bar is being lowered into position and in the initial thrust.
Not all lifters do this lat flare or roll, as it is variously called. Some do it on purpose, some don't know how to do it, and some do it without realizing it. Many of the best do use this technique. Record breaker Rick Weill wrote about it in PLUSA in the late '80s, for one, describing the use of the back spread and shoulder girdle movement as a timed and sequential part of the lift requiring considerable practice.
Chiropractor, lifter, and author Keith Wassung (Yeah, Baby!) has written about it in his column on the Cyberpump website.
Here's the essentials of that, by Keith Wassung:
USE OF THE LATS IN BENCH PRESSING
* An often-overlooked component of the bench press is the use and development of the muscles of the back and in particular the lats. Very few lifters utilize the strength of the lats in their bench press and when they are able to incorporate lat contraction into their exercises, immediate increase is always achieved. Here is how you incorporate the lats into your bench press: Take an empty bar or even a wooden rod and assume the bench press position. Lower the bar to the chest and pause. Instead of driving the weight up with the arms, contract or flare the lats in an outward direction. If you have decent lat development, you should see the bar move several inches off the chest. This takes practice to utilize the lats in this manner, but be persistent and practice over and over with an empty bar, gradually adding weight as you get used to the movement. The eventual goal is to use the lats as sort of a cushion or coiled spring when lowering the bar and then contracting them strongly on the initial drive at the same time you are pressing with the arms. DO NOT walk into the gym tomorrow and attempt this with your max poundage if you do you will fail. I have worked with athletes who have increased their maximum bench press anywhere from 20-50lbs within 2 weeks as a result of using this technique. This also requires strong well-developed lats, which are developed by chins and rowing.*
Using the movements I call the Bench Shrug, the Shrug Dip, Spring Set Shrug and even the Lat Shrug can develop the spread and thrust. However, full range of motion rows and chins for the lats and other upper back muscles should not be neglected.
on the other hand . . .
The Retraction School
As pointed out to me by USAPL lifter Collin Rhodes, there are two distinct arches in bench pressing. Everyone has seen the extreme bow or bridge that many lifters achieve in their lower back as they lie lenghwise on the bench. Collin is an example of this style.
This raises the high point on the chest where the bar touches when lowered, and provides even a decline effect to the lift for some people.
The second, or "Lateral Arch" is formed as the shoulder blades are pinched together back against the bench throughout the lift, which also raises the chest. According to Rhodes, one should assume the lateral arch (pinched position) before the handoff and reset it after the handoff to make sure of maximum positioning. Otherwise, the lateral arch may flatten out during the eccentric part of the lift. Also, he attempts to "pull the bar apart" while lowering it, as if to stretch the bar out longer. The tension created is translated through the arms to the upper back and provides him with stored "extra energy" when he start the bar back up. Note: An elder lifter guy who set a real sweet batch of West Coast area records once saw I had a few pairs of those Fat Grip deals, and recommended that I use them when working on squeezing and pulling apart the bar. Looking back now, he wasn't all that much older than I am now. Oh oh. He even had me using them on a piece of broomstick while sitting in a chair, bringing it to my chest real slow and then EXPLODING after a short pause there. Older guy, for sure, but I was sure surprised back then when he sat there and did this with nothing in his hands. Still real fast when he exploded after that pause. Come to think of it, there might be something to building explosive power off the chest in some kinda boxing practice I suppose. And if, when you're much, much older later on down the line and grinding out 185 for a single and some asshat makes light of ya, why, you'll still have the explosive power to take out a few of his teeth with an unexpected cheap shot. "Bench this, motherfucker." Accidentally, of course, 'cause you're so old you thought he was someone else who never paid back the money you loaned 'em decades ago, eh. Anyhow, it's an idea you might find some use for at some point. The way-back-when guys and the length of time they kept the bar down there on their chest, and some of 'em with it sunk in there like crazy. I wonder what videos of today's benchers will look like to lifters four or five decades from now.
Anyhow, I'll get to the rest of this later.
I mean, to be continued . . .