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Fundamental Exercises: Bench Press February 2, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Fitness, Strength.
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Simply stated, the bench press is probably the best upper exercise you could possibly do. That’s not to say it’s the only one you should do, but your unlikely to find a better test of upper body strength. If you’ve been in a gym you’ll have noticed that most of the weight lifting equipment is dedicated to this lift. That’s not an accident. The bench press primarily works the pectoralis major, the deltoids and the triceps, effectively targeting half of the major muscles in the upper body. Besides it’s exercise benefits, there’s something appealing about being able to press more weight than anyone else in the gym, and it’s a well established fact that guys love showing off the benefits of this lift, namely a big chest and arms. Unfortunately for some people, weight takes precedent over safety. Not everyone performs this lift with proper technique, which you’d think would be important when lifting a few hundred pounds over your face. So, without further ado, lets jump right into proper bench press technique.

Step 1: Lay down on the bench with you feet planted firmly on the floor. Your butt and your shoulders should be in contact with the board. Depending on which muscle groups you want to emphasize your grip could vary, but a good basic grip is to have you hands slightly more than shoulder width apart. I do not recommend using a false grip, having the thumb besides the fingers rather than over them, due to the risk of the bar slipping from your grasp. Use at you own risk.

Step 2: Raise the bar from the rack, this may require help depending on the weight you are lifting, and bring it to a pause above you. Ensure that your ready to continue, then proceed with the lift.

Step 3: In a slow controlled motion bring the bar down, bringing it to a stop just barely touching your chest at the bottom of the lift. The bar should be positioned so that it more or less lines up with the nipples. Do not bounce the bar off your chest. Not only is this bad for your chest, as if that needs to be sad, but it also lessens the amount of work your muscles need to do in order to get the bar back up. You’re here to get a workout dammit, don’t cheat!

Step 4: After the bar touches your chest, push the weight back up, again in a smooth and controlled manner. If you want a harder workout, pause for a second when the bar touches your chest. It will make it harder to get the bar back up. Raise the bar up until your elbows are locked out. Repeat for as many reps as you want.

I want to stress one point I made at the top of the article. The bench press is a great lift, but it is not, I repeat not, the only lift. To many times I have walked into a gym to see a guy with a massive chest and triceps, but with skinny little legs and no back. There is more to fitness then the bench press. Remember that.

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Periodization February 2, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Fitness.
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Not being able to work out sucks. For the last month and a half I have been lying around, unable to work out due to the fact that I’ve been healing from surgery. I realize that I need to take it easy and let my body concentrate on healing, but I can’t stop thinking about all the progress I made wasting away. My strength, speed, endurance, all are atrophying for lack of use. Now I am finally healed and am able to start working again. On the downside, it is a long, slow road to get back to where I was. The good thing is that with a blank slate to work with, I’ve finally decided to start using a technique known as periodization during my work out. What is periodization? Why thank you for asking.

Periodization refers to dividing up your workout into separate periods, usually a few weeks in length, in which certain aspects of fitness are emphasized, with the goal of incrementally building up fitness in preparation for an event, usually a competition. It is most often used in resistance training methods, which is what I will be using it for and which is what I will be discussing. Periodization is useful because it helps to ensure that an athlete won’t overtrain, which can have harmful consequences and decreases performance, and because it helps to target various aspects of muscular fitness (strength, strength-speed, strength-endurance…) For the purposes of this article and my workout, I will be using a four period program in which I will be attempting to increase my levels of muscular strength and power. Depending on what you want to achieve (strength, speed, endurance) the specifics of your workout may differ.

The first period lasts approximately four weeks and is dedicated to hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is simply a big word for muscle growth. During this first period the goal is to build a solid base of muscular strength before moving on to the harder and more specialized workouts in the later periods. I like to use basic, functional exercises for this portion, such as squats, deadlifts, bench press and pull-ups. I’m not saying those are the only ones you should do, there just my personal favorites. The important thing to remember during this stage is to have a high volume and a low intensity to your exercises. Volume is defined as sets times reps while intensity refers to the amount of weight your lifting. As such, a high volume would include a large amount of sets (3-5) and reps (10-12), while a low intensity would mean a relatively low weight (70% of max.)

The second period will last about four weeks and focuses on strength. Strength is defined as the ability of a muscle to produce a force. The higher amount of force that the muscle needs to produce (i.e. the weight of the bar) the greater the gains in strength for the muscle. What this means is that this period will have a lower volume, 2-3 sets and 6-8 reps, and a higher intensity, 70-80% of your max. As far as exercises, continue using functional ones like the ones listed above and be sure not to switch out one exercise for another. Switching exercises can be dangerous, because the new exercise might target muscles that haven’t been worked up to that point and lack a good foundation of hypertrophy. This will increases your risk of an injury.

The third period takes about three weeks and will focus on power. For those of you who don’t know, power and strength are two very different things. As noted above, strength is simply how much force you can produce. Power is defined as how much force is produced times the distance traveled divided by the time it took. In simpler terms, power is defined as strength times speed. This period will utilize even lower volume, 2-3 sets and 3-5 reps, and higher intensity, 85-90%. In addition, at this point a change in exercises in order. I know, I know I just said not to do that, but in this case it’s necessary. Many of the exercises that I, and most likely you, have been previously using are not well suited for developing power. As such, for this period I recommend switching to lifts that do, namely the Olympic lifts. Power cleans, the clean and jerk and the snatch are all well suited for this period, so feel free to use any of them.

The final period lasts about two weeks and is devoted to maxing out. At this point, athletes are close to the date of their competition and are looking to peak, so the goal is to squeeze whatever is left out of them in preparation. Since most of us aren’t athletes we won’t have an event to worry about, but we can still use this time for the same reason, taking our bodies to the limit. You’ve probably already guessed this, but you will be using less volume, 1-3 sets and 1-3 reps, and a high intensity, >90%. Push yourself as hard as you can.

Technically there are only four periods to this workout, but there is one more that needs to be addressed; the rest period. After pushing yourself to the limit, your body is going to need some time to recuperate. Take a week off, maybe two depending on how you feel, and let yourself heal. Since you’ll be in pretty good shape at this point your unlikely to lose any of the muscle mass you just gained. So take a break, you’ve earned it.

After going through all this you might be thinking, “Well what do I do know?” You could simply seek to maintain the gains, or you could start the process all over again. Maybe this time you’ll shoot for more weight, or maybe you’ll shift your focus and concentrate on another aspect of you fitness. Use you imagination, there’s always a new mountain to climb.