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Horizontal Pulling

I don’t need to tell you how high profile the bench press is.  Along with exercises such as the squat and deadlift, it forms the basis of most strength training and bodybuilding programs.  And it wouldn’t be a bold statement to say that the bench press is the most popular upper body exercise in the world!   I believe the bench press deserves this status – it is a great lift!

If you share this appreciation of the bench, as there is as much chance of this as the Pope being Catholic, I know you are not going to be happy if at best you ability to bench is limited, and at worst you can never bench pain free again.  I want to save you from that destiny.  I don’t want to hear your pec just blew, or you have tendonitis in the long head of the bicep where it passes through the shoulder joint.

No, I don’t believe I am being Nostradamus-like about the bench – what I see is shoulder damaging training methods in proportions as epidemic as diabetes is amongst the kids of America,  as common as AIDs in some South African countries.

It is no surprise that so many are self-inflicting performance decrement and future pain, because of the flock mentality – ‘I see everyone else doing it, so I will copy’. It doesn’t help that many influential people in this industry reinforce these damaging habits.

Don’t misinterpret me – I want you to bench as much as you are determined to do. But if you want to optimize your bench, minimize chest, shoulder and arm injuries, you would benefit from learning how to negate the downsides of the bench press.  In essence, how to maintain muscle balance around the shoulder.

Whenever your move your arm, the end of the upper arm is controlled in the shoulder joint by the combined action of all the muscles that go over this joint. If the relationship of these muscles is altered, you immediately have injury potential – because the way the head of the humerus moves in the shoulder joint may be changed.  This integration or coordination of the muscles around the shoulder is complex and fine-tuned, and even a minor alteration can cause significant problems.

What kind of problems?  Changes in the function of the shoulder can contribute to non-specific shoulder pain, torn pecs, torn biceps, triceps and forearms, force reduction in pushing movements and so on.  I have no desire to create a lengthy list of downsides, as I wouldn’t want a knee jerk reaction and see the bench neglected – but I do have an obligation to tell it like it is.  And many chest and upper extremity injuries can be traced back to altered function in the shoulder joint. To take that one step further, the disproportionate volume given to bench pressing is invariably involved.

Keep in mind that you have two kinds of injuries – traumatic and chronic. The traumatic ones are the kind that hit you all of a sudden. In contact sport there is understandably traumatic injuries – especially when a person is struck unexpectedly by significant external forces.  I see no need for these in the controlled environment of the weight room, but they do occur.  Take a pec tear for example….Chronic injuries are more insidious.  We all have them in various forms. The first stage is when your function in impaired but at such a low level you don’t realize it.  The body is very fine-tuned and you can experience firing inhibition with even the slightest of problems.  At the next level in a chronic injury, you may notice a low level discomfort but most of the time you ignore it and hope it goes away. By this time the poundage’s may being affected but you apply the old ‘head in the sand’ technique (otherwise known as the ‘Ostrich maneuver’!) But the time most of us do anything about it the problem is so severe that we can no longer train (or at best train this body part), and the rehabilitation time and cost is significant.  Then we say “If only I had taken notice of this…”.  How do I know all this? I have much experience!

So to enjoy pain free benching for life….  I am going to share them with you some steps to negate the downsides of benching– to help you take your bench press as high as you can, to support your ability to bench for life, and to educate you on how to keep your shoulder joint healthy.

Alterations in shoulder function and therefore the variables to negate or control for this are affected by:

Tissue Length

Stability

Muscle balance

Tissue Length

Any exercise has potential to cause shortening of the connective tissue.  Bench is typically a cyclical movement (repetitive, through the same line of movement) and usually done in high volume (lots of sets, reps and days trained in the week).  Cyclical movements done in high volume represent high risk to any athlete, no matter what the sport or action.  To negate this I recommend stretching and massage – nothing radical about this. No, I don’t care how you stretch – obviously I have reached my conclusions on this matter – but have no insecurities about you reaching other conclusions.  All that really matters is that you get a result, a result that counteracts the shortening induced by this typically high volume, cyclical movement. 

Stability

The underlying theme here is the need to control the shoulder blade in all movements that involve  the shoulder.  Commonly recognized in therapy circles, totally ignorant in much of the strength training lay environments, and given only lip service by most strength coaches.  In essence, if the shoulder blade is not controlled, one of the risks is increased impingement of the head of the upper arm bone into the shoulder socket.  Stability drills have crept into strength training habits during the last five years, but are usually performed in poor form, with excessive load, in low volume (eg. 1-2 sets) and at the end of the workout.  Kind of like putting the condom on after the event.   End up with a Boris Becker like result – the damage will continue for a lot longer than the pleasure of the event!  Or as we say in Australia, this approach is like a ‘tit on a bull’.  In my T-mag writings I haven’t opened up on this area of information too much only because it is too much information too soon for many, and also because it is hard to teach.  I have covered it in some of my videos, cover it in my seminars, and lay it out in street language in the Get Buffed!™ II book.

Muscle balance

This concept is one of the simplest of the 3, or at least, on paper anyway, the most accepted.  It has been given written recognition in strength training literature for decades – the need to balance a pushing movement with a pulling movement.  But for some reason the practical application of the concept has been limited in filtering down.

There are a number of reasons for the lack of application of this concept.  In relation to the shoulder joint and the bench press. Literally interpreted, for every bench press, you would have an opposite movement eg. a rowing type movement.  For those who are familiar with my approach, I call a bench a horizontal pushing movement and a row a horizontal pulling movement.

Horizontal pulling movements, relative to benching or horizontal pushing movements,  are not done as often, in as high a volume, or at as high loads.  Here are some explanations that I have reach as to why.

 

Frequency of horizontal pulling relative to horizontal pushing :

Powerlifters/weightlifters don’t do it – this is true and false.  Powerlifters don’t need to do rowing movements as often as they bench because they deadlift.  What has this got to do with it?  It is little recognized, but deadlifting (at least with scapula positioning awareness) is one of the best ways to negate the downsides of the bench.  But powerlifters have had a traditional awareness of the value of rowing.  Remember this, if you are not deadlifting as frequently as the average powerlifter (all year round, basically), you need to do more frequent horizontal pulling than the average powerlifter.  And Olympic lifters don’t bench much so this is not so much of an issue. Anyway, the do cleans, snatches, and variations of these almost daily.

You can’t see the results – can’t argue with this.  Unless you are in the change rooms at the local Sears, you aren’t going to see your upper back much.   Out of sight, out of mind. Until the injuries appear.  By then, the decade of unbalanced training may never be overcome….

Pulling is pulling – there is this misdirected belief that chin ups or similar (vertical pulling) are the same as horizontal pulling, and work equally to provide the push-pull ratio with benching.  What a load of trash!  In fact the two most common major muscle shortenings around the shoulder are tight chest and tight lats!!!  In fairness, I think people only reach this conclusion as a defense after they realize that there are significant limitations in their program design. Hey, bit the bullet and get over with it – if not for your own sake, for the sake of the people you influence.  After all, which upper body exercises dominate in priority in many strength programs? Bench and chins. Great exercises, but when do you see rowing prioritized?  It’s got to be done if you want balance! 

 

Volume of horizontal pulling relative to horizontal pushing :

You can’t see and feel the results – as explained above, you can’t see that upper back as often!  And you just don’t get that sensation from blowing up the rowing muscles as you do when you are on the bench. You can’t stair in the mirror at your bulging upper back.  Now when you bench, you can squeeze those pecs together during the rest periods and imagine what it would like to be this huge all the time!  So got to keep that pump!  Now for inclines, then dips, then flyes, then cable crossovers…oh no, where’s that pump gone?!  To match this you would be doing bar row, cable row, db rows, prone flyes and so on.  Just isn’t as sexy!

And most will come back to do a bench variation again in the training week (…got to do that, I’m losing my pump!)  But do these same people come back and train their horizontal pulls a second time in the week……

 

Load (intensity) of horizontal pulling relative to horizontal pushing :

How much can you row?  Haven’t heard that question before? Short of being in international rowing and kayaking circles, you probably never will.  But people write articles titled ‘How much can you bench?’ .  (I recall getting on the US team bus in Mexico with the Australian national roller hockey team once.  The Yanks were buffed and I hardly sat down when their biggest guy came up with ‘How much can you bench?’.  It’s as cultural an act in strength training as a dog sniffing another dog’s bum…)

Think about it – if you are not rowing as much as you are benching, wouldn’t that (at least in the rough literal sense) suggest a muscle imbalance? 

The lack of popularity of deadlifts and cleans : A decade ago, the word deadlift meant the bent-knee, pick it up off the ground type lift.  Seems that since Dragomir Circosilan (the US head weightlifting coach) had his team doing more flat backed, stiff legged deadlift, the general strength training community over-reacted.  No more bent-knee deadlifts. Now when I teach deadlifting in seminars and talk about bending knees, I get strange looks from people!  The stiff legged deadlift has its place, but doesn’t provide the upper back loading that a conventional deadlift does for the upper back. In fact, the deadlift (and clean, clean variations) are one of the rare moments you can expose your upper back (in retraction of the shoulder blades) to loads equal to or exceeding your bench loads!  And the clean hasn’t been popular for years in most gyms.  Unless you call the odd Muscle & Fantasy article about it (because they are running out of new things to write about, and it allows a new range of gym wear to be modeled) as reflecting popularity.  For most, it provides token entertainment.

So what can you do to avoid the downside of benching?  The following guidelines apply to muscle balance, and revolve around the key areas of sequencing, volume and intensity.  They are based on the assumption that you start in a neutral, balanced condition, which we both know is pretty rare.

Balance by sequence

For every time a horizontal pushing movement comes first on day 1, a horizontal pulling movement needs to come first on day 1.  Not within the one program obviously, but over time.  This rule is diminished only by the presence of year round deadlifting, cleans/snatches, or clean/snatch variations (off the ground) – provided they are executed with scapula awareness i.e. attempts to keep the shoulder blades close to the spine and in that position throughout the lift.

Balance by volume

For every rep or set of horizontal pushing, you need to do a rep or set of horizontal pulling. Again, the only way this rule is diminished in application is by the presence of deadlifting, cleans/snatches or variations of these (again mainly off the mid-shin start position).

Weak side Rule

If you know your horizontal pushing exceeds your horizontal pulling strength, cap your load in horizontal pushing to no more than that of the horizontal pulling limits.

Now what if you present with a shoulder position other than balance and neutral?  To reverse this, you would need to show a prioritization of horizontal pulling. That is :

i.  do horizontal pulling earlier in the program more often than horizontal pushing

ii. do a higher volume of horizontal pulling than pulling

In extreme cases, and there was an example of this at the Feb 2001 T-Mag No-Holds-Barred seminar in Florida, I would say – ‘don’t bench for a long, long time’.  How long? How long will it take to return your tissue length and shoulder joint positioning back to something that resembled neutral?  What ever time it takes!

Of course you can reject my thoughts on this matter.  Time will be the judge. Are you playing with fire in the way you train the tissues around the shoulder joint? Is this a risk you want to take?  Hindsight brings much wisdom – but you can get smart before the injury/s occur if you want….

 

© Ian King and King Sports International, Inc. This article is not to be reproduced in part of whole in any format without written permission of the author.

 

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