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Banish the Bench by Bill Starr From the title of this piece you might assume that I m anti-bench

press. That isn t the case. I include the bench in all my athletes strength routines and will featu re it in a future article. This discussion, however, is for people who can t do be nch presses because of a chest or shoulder injury. The problem may be due to a m ishap on the playing field or faulty bench press form. Shoulder injuries are ver y common in athletes who play contact sports. I ve had years where as many as 15% of my athletes were unable to do flat bench presses. This discussion is also for athletes who don t want to include flat bench presses in the routines or want to use them as an auxiliary rather than primary exercise . Olympic weightlifters, for example, typically shun flat benches because they t end to tighten their shoulders and make jerking and snatching more difficult. In addition, unless they re heavyweights, competitive lifters have to be in constant control of their bodyweight in order to make weight for their classes. They don t want to add pounds to their chest, since the pectorals contribute nothing towar d helping them elevate more weight overhead. Many basketball players avoid the e xercise because, they say, it restricts their range of motion for shooting and r ebounding. even if you don t fall into one of those categories, you may enjoy benc hes but have gone stale on them and want to change your routine around for a whi le. This program is built around three primary exercises: incline bench presses, dip s and some form of overhead lifting, such as military presses, push presses or j erks. It also includes useful auxiliary exercises. Since most people resort to this program because of an injury, it s wise to procee d with caution until you find out what you can and can t do. Start with military p resses and inclines done with dumbells. If you feel no pain with the dumbells, m ove on to the bar. Do free-hand dips no weight. Sometimes when athletes say that it hurts to do the inclines, I have them try a slightly different angle. Quite often they ll find an angle that doesn t give them any discomfort. If one of these exercises gives you pain, drop it and concentrate on the other t wo. If two of them hurt, drip them and put all your energy into the one that doe sn t. Eventually you ll be able to do all three, but don t foolishly pound away on any exercise that s doing you more harm than good. I ll start with the incline. It s my favorite upper-body exercise because it s a pure movement. By pure I mean it s extremely difficult to cheat while doing it. Cheatin g is another word for sloppy technique. Since incline presses have to be perform ed correctly, there s less stress on your shoulders and elbows, which reduces the risk of injury to those joints. What s more, when you do any exercise perfectly, y ou get better results than when you use sloppy form. When I see people in a fitness center doing inclines, it s usually as an auxiliary movement, after they ve done their flat benches. As a result, they use token weig hts. They don t know that in the late 1950 s and early 60 s the top strength athletes used the incline as their primary upper-body exercise. Greats such as Parry O Brie n, Dallas Long, Randy Matson, Al Oerter and Harold Connolly handled well over 40 0 pounds on the incline. Ken Patera used it to enhance his overhead press and en ded up with an amazing 507, which will forever stand as the American record in t he Olympic press. So id you decide to make the incline one of your core exercises, plan on leaning

on it and pushing the numbers up way up. Before you stack on the plates, howeve r, you must learn the correct technique. Proper form is essential on this lift, and you must spend adequate time mastering it if you ever want to elevate big nu mbers. If you try some of the tactics used for the flat bench, they backfire on you. Wh en lifters rebound the bar off their chest on the incline, it darts forward, and there s no way o them to bring it back into the correct line. Even the old standb y, bridging, doesn t help. What I once wrote about the incline still holds true: Yo u can squirm, you can jerk about and you can rebound the bar until you cough up blood, but you re never going to find an effective method of cheating on the incli ne. That s what I like about it. Your form has to be exact, and that s good because all the muscles and attachments get worked exactly as they should. As a result, gains come quickly and consiste ntly. The first time people do inclines, they invariably touch the bar too low on thei r chest, close to where they place it for a flat bench. That s incorrect. Touching the bar low will make it run forward, something you don t want. The bar should to uch high on your chest, just under your Adam s apple, where your collarbone meets your breastbone. The incline differs from the flat bench in that you drive the b ar upward in a perfectly straight line. I tell my lifters to imagine they re movin g the bar inside a Smith machine. Keep your elbows turned out during the incline. Never tuck them in close to your body as you do on the flat-bench press. Before you take the bar out of the rack , plant your feet firmly on the floor and squeeze yourself down into the bench. Become the bench (I know it s trite, but it might help you remember the point). I always insist that my athletes use a thumbs-around-the-bar grip rather than th e false grip that many use on the flat bench. The false grip is risky. The bar c an slip out of your hand in a heartbeat, and since the weight is directly over y our face, the consequences can be disastrous. Another reason the secure grip is better is that it enables you to guide the bar back to the correct groove if it starts to run forward. And heavy weights always want to run forward. With the fa lse grip there s absolutely nothing you can do once the bar moves away from your b ody. On the subject of safety: the incline is an exercise that requires a spotter. Th e spotter, by the way, isn t there to help you through your sticking point. He or she should only touch the bar once you ve failed and the help you rack the weight. If the spotter touches the bar before you ve locked it out, that rep was a failur e. The spotter s job is to assist you in reracking the bar. Often it s hard to see t he uprights because they re behind you, and you misjudge the distance. It causes t he bar to fly over the back of the bench or, worse, come crashing down on your f ace. So always ask someone to spot you. It doesn t have to be a particularly stron g person, since all he or she is really doing is helping you set the bar back in the uprights. The spotter can, of course, also assist you in taking the bar out of the rack. O nce you have it in your hand, push up against it to assure that you have complet e control of it. Lower the bar in a controlled manner to your chest. Don t allow i t to crash downward. Pull it into your chest, hesitate a brief moment, then driv e it upward forcefully in a straight line. The bar will almost touch your nose. The movement, both up and down, should be smooth, not herky-jerky. When you fini sh your final rep, have your spotter assist you in putting the bar back in the r ack. Make sure it s securely in the rack before you release your grip on it. Where you grip the bar depends to some extent on your shoulder width, but anothe

r important point is that you want to keep your forearms vertical throughout the exercise. if they re not vertical throughout, you re giving away some power. Many u se a very wide grip, saying that they want to work the outside of their chest mo re, but that s really stressful to the shoulder joints and doesn t let you use as mu ch weight. To find the grip width I recommend for most lifters, extend your thum bs on an Olympic bar so that they barely touch the smooth center. Vary the sets and reps each time you do inclines. At one workout do 5 sets of 5 with a back-off set of 8 or 10. The next time do 3 sets of 5 as warmups followed by 3 sets of heavy triples and then a back-off set. Then do 3 sets of 5 followe d by 3 sets of doubles or singles with a back-off set. The slight change will in volve the muscles and attachments in a slightly different manner, helping you to make consistent gains. Next on my list of beneficial shoulder girdle exercises is the dip. As with the incline, there was a time when this exercise was considered a pure strength move ment rather than an auxiliary one. Here again, there is no way to cheat when you r e doing dips. Olympic weightlifters include them in their programs to help incre ase their shoulder strength for pressing and jerking. Bodybuilders use them to b uild cannonball delts. Dips have always been one of my favorite upper-body exercises. I was influence b y the uncontested king of the dip, Marvin Eder. He was the first person I ever r ead about who really pushed the limits of the dip. He did reps with 300 pounds h anging from a weight belt. Add his 200 pounds of bodyweight and it was indeed an impressive feat of strength. Thanks to his amazing dipping prowess, Eder could bench 510 back when 400 pounds was considered remarkable. Another advocate of the dip was Pat Casey, the first man to bench press 600 poun ds, reaching 617 in 1965, Pat dipped twice a week, even though he weighed close to 300 pounds. The best dipper I ever coached was Steve Dussia, an Olympic lifter at the Univer sity of Hawaii. Steve competed in the 181-pound class and pushed his dips up to 200x5 and 250 for a single. In the process he moved his jerk to more than 350 an d developed deltoids that any bodybuilder would envy. In order to dip with any significant amount of weight, you need a dip belt. If y ou plan on using lots of weight, you ll also need an apparatus on which you can st ack 25-pound plates. It s a bar attached to a base plate with a hook at the top th at attaches easily to the dip belt. Some companies carry this equipment and it s w ell worth the investment if you re serious about doing dips. It s possible to do dip s by holding a dumbell between your knees. I was using up to 100 pounds, but aft er that it was to awkward. Before adding any resistance, start with freehand dips. Do as many as you can fo r 4 sets, and when you can do all 4 sets for 2-0 reps, you re ready for weighted d ips. Proceed cautiously; this is concentrated work. Start with 25 pounds and whe n you can do that for 8 reps move up. The dip is a natural, simple movement, but there is form involved. The lower you go, the more muscles you work, but if going low hurts your shoulders or elbows, stay above the pain. Even with a shorter stroke you re still going to work your f ront deltoids, your triceps and the pecs where they connect to your shoulders. You need to do these in rhythmic fashion. Don t slam into the deepest position. Th at can be very stressful to your shoulders and elbows. Lower yourself slowly, an d when you re as low as you want to go, drive out of the bottom forcefully. You wa nt to keep your body vertical, don t lean. And perhaps the most important form poi

nt for dips is, DON T SWING. If your lower body starts swinging around like it s a p endulum, you aren t going to be able to handle as much weight, and it can be traum atic to your shoulders. It you start swinging, stop and start over. When you re handling a heavy weight, the first rep is critical. If you do the firs t one in perfect form, the rest follow nicely, but if you start moving around on that initial rep, it will get worse as you continue. Most dip bars are fairly h igh, and getting into position with 100-plus pounds dangling off you is a chore. Here s what I recommend. Pull a bench up next to the dip bars. Grab the weight be tween your knees or some people prefer locking it behind their knees. Either way is fine, just so the weight is under control, which will keep it from swinging. Get in position on the dipping bars and step off the bench. The bench is also h andy once you complete the set because you can step back on it. That s much safer than having to lower yourself to the floor when you finish. As I suggested for the inclines, change the sets and reps each time you do dips. I use this formula: 4 sets of 8, 5 sets of 5 with a high-rep back-off set, 3 se ts of 5 followed by 2 or 3 sets of triples and a high-rep back-off set, and, fin ally, 3 sets of 5 followed by singles to limit and then a back-off set. I don t pu t a number of the back-off set. I have my athletes just do as many as they possi bly can with approximately 50 pounds less than they used for their final work se t. The back-off sets are instrumental in improving the dip. They increase the wo rkload and help the athletes hone their form. One final note on the dip. Always do 1 set of 20 with no weight as a warmup befo re strapping on the dip belt. Since I focused on pressing movements in other installments of this series, I wo n t go into detail on those exercises. If you haven t been doing any type of overhea d work, start with the military press. It will help establish a foundation from which you can go on to push presses and jerks if you like,. Change the way you d o the sets and reps on these, as described for the inclines and dips. Stick with 5 s, triples, doubles and singles, and forget about the 8 s. On push presses and je rks use 5 s as warmups, and then do no more than 3 reps on the heavier weights. If this is a new routine for you, do each of the exercises once a week. The incl ine fits best on the heavy day, the dips on the light day and the overhead work on the medium day. That adheres to the principle, since you ll use the most weight on the inclines, the least on the dips and something in between on the overhead exercises. Keep in mind that light in this case does not mean easy. You ll push t he numbers up every time you dip. The same goes for the overhead presses. Lean o n the top-end lifts ad try to improve them weekly. After doing the core exercises, you can add an auxiliary movement for your delto ids or triceps. My favorite triceps exercise for athletes if the straight-armed pullover. I like it because it s not as stressful to the elbows as many other tric eps movements, such as the skull crusher. Since you ve already stressed the elbows during the core exercises, it s easy to overwork them with a snappy movement. 2 s ets of 20 works well. Dumbell inclines and lateral and front raises performed wi th dumbells are also useful. I use the 40-rep rule for all the upper-body auxili ary movements, usually staying with 2x20 but sometimes switching to 3x15 for var iety. Before someone writes to tell me that 3x15 is more than 40, I know it is. But it s close enough to the rule to fit. If, for whatever reason, you lay off the flat bench and concentrate on these thr ee exercises, when you do start benching again, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that you can handle more weight than before. You ll also find great impro

vement on all upper-body exercises