When I first opened the Primal Strength Gym, I was the only one who trained for Strongman. At my last Strongman Sunday event, around 8 months after I officially opened Primal, we had more than 15 people come and train.
After this upcoming Saturday, I will have had 9 people from Primal compete within the past two weeks, with 5 of those competing for the first time.
It has been a cool experience watching the sport grow amongst my gym members, and the general awareness my gym has created across the city of Charlottesville.
But there are two things that seem to peak the curiosity of my followers.
Go into any gym across the world, and one of the most prevalent lifts you will see is the bench press. It’s one of the first lifts most people learn and a staple for a ton of mass and strength building programs.
But to get bigger and stronger, do you really need to bench press?
As a strength coach, I take the “strength” in strength and conditioning seriously, regardless of what your involvement in the iron game is.
Before you say “No Tank, I don’t need to actually be strong to reach my goals”, try to name a me circumstance where “stronger is not better”.
Even if you’re not a traditional strength athlete but rather a bodybuilder or bikini competitor, the stronger you are, the better your body will perform in the weight room and eventually look on stage. There is no way around that argument…
Regardless of whether you’re a bodybuilder, powerlifter, football player, or a gym rat, you should be backing up your looks with your performance. In other words, looking jacked but lifting like a pussy ain’t cool. It’s false advertising and nobody likes a fraud.
But what numbers should you be aiming for?
Strong can be a very subjective word depending on perspective and your audience. To Uncle Rico you might look like the next coming of Dan John but to Dan John you may look like, well, Uncle Rico…
So let me break it down for you. Here is a list of my strength standards for both men and women. These strength standards begin with above average performance. (Being average sucks so no need to know what it means to be “okay”).
These strength standards would be accepted in most serious strength circles as a fair and accurate measuring stick.
Good: 2 x bodyweight
Elite: 2.75 x bodyweight
Good: 2 x bodyweight
Elite: 2.5 x bodyweight
Good: 1.5 x bodyweight
Elite: 2 x bodyweight
Good: 1.5 x bodyweight
Elite: 2 x bodyweight
Good: 1.25 x bodyweight
Elite: 2 x bodyweight
Good: .75 x bodyweight
Elite: 1 x bodyweight
So what does “good” and “elite” really mean?
Being in the “good” category means that most average people would consider your lifts strong and that it would take a decent amount of training to get to those numbers. I would call someone in the “good” category an intermediate lifter.
Kudos to being here but if you have been lifting for a number of years, you should be building off of this level and aiming to progress above these benchmarks.
“Elite” means you are stronger than 95% of the population. If you consider yourself as someone who takes strength and conditioning seriously, this is the category you should be aiming to get into. Not everyone will get there but it never hurts to have a goal.
(One caveat: While being in this category makes you stronger than 95% of the average Joes out there, this does not mean you are elite by any standard when comparing yourself to other athletes and/or powerlifters/strongmen.)
It’s not “strength training” unless you’re getting strong.
Knowing how you measure up is key to monitoring your progress and setting goals for yourself, so use these strength standards as a measuring stick for your training.
Not everyone will sniff the “elite” category, but everyone should be able to enter and exceed the “good” category. If getting stronger is your passion, build off of being “good” and work towards being “elite”.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll notice I don’t put a ton of lifting programs up on my site.
That will probably change in the near future but for now there are many reasons that I don’t. The overarching reason is because I pride myself on educating lifters so they can think for themselves, not just follow a program blindly. The fitness community is inundated with thousands of lifting programs that people can follow, but ask the average user to develop their own program and describe the inner workings of their training and they likely can’t.
“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”
I’d much rather teach you how to do your own programming so you can sustain yourself over a lifetime, rather than trying to find the next greatest thing after the end of an 8-week cycle.
So in designing your own lifting program, what are the major factors that you need to develop it around?
#1: Your Goals
Far too often when I talk to someone about lifting, they don’t have a clear definition of what their end game is. When embarking in lifting programs, you need to train to both your short-term and long-term goals.
Do you want to add on mass? Or do you want to gain total body strength? Maybe your goal is lift specific and you want to add 25 pounds to your bench press?
You need to have your end game in mind. If you want to add mass, doing programs meant for powerlifters may not add a lot of hypertrophy, and inversely, if you want to get stronger, high-volume bodybuilding style programs probably won’t get you there.
To induce a training effect you have to stimulate your body with enough volume under heavy enough loads.
Training to your goals will take care of a lot of this dynamic. Strength seekers will favor less volume with more intensity and the mass seeker will probably favor more volume with lighter intensities.
Knowing the relationship between volume and intensity is paramount and may take some manipulating to make the gains you are looking for. Throughout the course of your training life, you will come across periods where your body needs more volume to induce growth, whereas other times you may need to add weight to the bar to boost your gains. Unfortunately there is no magic recipe for this. This comes down to your knowledge as a lifter, understanding what your body is telling you, and your ability to manipulate your programming to what your body needs.
For some general guidelines on volume and intensity check these out:
Your training frequency will also be dictated by the volume-intensity relationship as higher-volume or intensity sessions may require more time in between training sessions. Rule of thumb for Primal lifters is that you allow for 48 hours rest in between muscle groups.
#4: Exercise Selection
This is a big one for me. I’m a firm believer in recruiting more muscle to build more muscle, so I favor a lot of compound lifts. However, you must be careful when using a lot of compound movements and ensure that you are getting proper recovery and not over-training your nervous system.
There are four major components of program design:
These are the only things you need to think about when designing a lifting program.
Any time I write a program for Primal, I am building it around these components. So as you progress in your lifting career, these are the things you need to think of in order to give yourself the proper programming to make both short and long-term gains.
As a parting thought, I want to finish by saying that there is no such thing as a perfect program. It just doesn’t exist.
Something may work for a while, but your body will adapt and your gains will stall. This doesn’t mean the program is garbage, it just means that you need to manipulate a portion of the program to reach your desired end state. This is what I call the 25% rule. To read more about the 25% rule, stay tuned for my next post…
Outside of all of the major lifts, overhead pressing typically takes a back seat to movements like the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
To me, this is a shame because as a strength athlete, pressing heavy weight over your head is one of the best indicators of relative and maximal strength. Unfortunately the overhead press is almost always an athletes weakest lift.
The overhead press may be the most difficult of the four major lifts to increase in terms of adding significant weight to the bar (in comparison to squats for example), so don’t get discouraged if you aren’t making big jumps. Adding 20 pounds to your overhead press can be a significant increase. Check out these 4 strategies to boost your performance.
#1: Cuing the Overhead Press
Full Body Tension: This is one of the biggest technical errors I see on the lift. Lifters tend to naturally have a lot of upper body tension when overhead pressing, but not enough tension in their lower body. When pressing, you need to focus on contracting your quads, glutes, and abs. More tension = more muscle recruitment = more strength.
Grip Width: Start with a shoulder width grip. Your shoulders will thank you. Plus, having a grip similar to what you use on bench press will translate to the overhead press and make you more efficient.
Try Using a False Grip: This may not work for everyone, but it’s worth trying to see if it helps you. A false grip is essentially not having your thumb wrapped around the bar. The theory is that this will allow the bar to stay close to your body and save wear and tear on your shoulders and wrists. I am personally not comfortable with a false grip on anything but pull-ups, but many reputable trainers recommend it for the overhead press. It comes down to your comfort level.
Engage Your Biceps: On the eccentric portion of the lift (lowering the bar), focus on activating your biceps to take the stress off of your shoulders and triceps and distribute the load more evenly across your upper body. To do this, think about doing a hammer curl towards your face and ears. Might seem a bit strange, but take the time to master this skill and your overhead press will probably increase immediately.
Head Through: Getting your “head through” the bar will allow you to press heavier weight and nail the lockout. As the bar passes above your head, focus on pushing your head through the “window” created by your arms.
#2: Ditch the Bar
Sometimes to improve a lift, you need to include some variation. For the overhead press, instead of always using a standard bar, incorporate some different tools into your training. At Primal Strength Gym, we use things like fat bars, kegs, logs, and sandbags. If you don’t have access to those, you can switch to dumbbell pressing once a week instead of the bar. Dumbbells will activate more stabilizer muscles and allow you to even use one-arm variations.
#3: Supplement With Incline Bench Press
A big overhead press requires strong shoulders and upper chest.
My main assistance lift for training the overhead press is mid-high volume incline pressing with varying tempos. The intention here is to build mass on your frame, hence working with reps in the 6-12 range with moderate intensities.
(A technically sound overhead press requires the bar to rest on your shoulders and upper chest in between reps, as opposed to using brute strength and your arms to support the bar. The more upper body mass you have to “rest the bar” and save your strength, the stronger your overhead press will be.)
Make sure you use the same grip width on the incline bench as you do for you overhead press to make sure it carries over into all of your pressing.
#4: Other Assistance Work
Other than incline bench press, you need to develop your shoulders, traps, and triceps to assist you in the press.
Z Presses: This movement involves sitting on the ground in a squat rack and pressing the bar from the safety pins. It takes your lower body out of the movement entirely, and forces you to press the weight with high core tension and maximal shoulder and tricep recruitment.
Swiss Bar Floor Presses: Using this specialty bar with your floor press, you put the focus on your triceps to build pressing power. Close grip bench can be used as well if you don’t have a swiss bar.
Face Pulls: A lot of people focus so much on their front delts that they forget about their rear delts. High rep sets work well for me here, so think of working with sets of 8-20.
Plate Raises: Strictly to develop your shoulders, this is meant to be a high-rep movement with 25 or 45 pound plates.
Lateral Raises: Another shoulder builder, this dumbbell movement should be used with light to moderate weight and high-reps.
Upright Rows: This is my favorite trap builder (other than deads and farmers carries) because it uses a higher range of motion than shrugs and engages your biceps and shoulders as well.
Dips: To be strong in any pressing movement, you need to have strong triceps. Dips are one of my staples because they save wear and tear on your elbows and use your shoulders as stabilizers. If dips cause you pain, you may substitute the french press.
Your assistance work should be done multiple times a week, giving those muscle groups about 48 hours of rest in between training sessions. Focus on an 8-12 rep range for at least 4 sets using intensities of 70%-85% of your one rep max. (Add weight to the bar each set/linear periodization)
The four takeaways:
Use different tools other than the bar
Make incline bench a focus
Perform assistance work for your shoulders, traps, and triceps multiple times a week
For more “How To Style” articles, check out the Primal archives here:
Contrast training is one of the most effective ways to increase your strength levels, power output, muscle mass, metabolic function for fat loss, and overall performance levels.
I first read about contrast training in Yuri Verkhoshansky’s Supertraining, but I have seen it employed elsewhere for a variety of different training goals and applications.
The concept is simple. Taking an example from Verkhoshansky and something we’ve probably all done in our lives, imagine picking up a can that was half full of liquid when our mind thought it was full. Typically what happens is we move the can with much more force than we intended and make a big mess. Our nervous system was primed based on past performance and therefore muscle capability was enhanced.
Now apply this to strength training. There are two different ways I use contrasts in my training. I use contrasting movements (an explosive movement after a heavy lift) and I use contrasting tempos (lighter loads with explosive, faster tempo than normal).
Using either of these, think of the above water example. Working in explosive movements/tempos after a strength movement recruits more motor units and produces more force. The benefits are straightforward. The more muscle you recruit, the more explosive, strong, and powerful you are. Contrast training also increases the amount of work you are doing giving you a greater metabolic boost than normal training. And obviously, the more muscle you recruit, the more hypertrophy you can induce (although you may want to up your reps slightly for a hypertrophy focus).
Putting Contrast Training Into Practice
Ok, so you get the concept, but how do you actually implement it? As mentioned before, I use contrast training in two different ways.
#1 Contrasting Movements
Start with a 5-8 rep set of a heavy lift and pair it with an unloaded explosive movement with the same rep scheme. For example, a heavy set of squats followed by a set of box jumps; or a heavy set of bench followed by a set of plyo push-ups; or a heavy sled drag followed by an all-out sprint.
Your unloaded contrasting movement should be done with maximal effort. Rest times in between your heavy lift and contrast movement can vary and is goal dependent. If you goal is maximal strength, rest for 3 minutes. If your goal is for increased athletic performance or fat loss, rest for 30 seconds or no rest at all. For hypertrophy, split the difference somewhere in between.
Four to five sets (of each movement) will do the trick. Use the lower end of the rep scheme for maximal strength, and the upper end for hypertrophy and fat loss. You don’t need to use contrast movements every training session, as I don’t recommend training maximally for extended periods of time, but continuously keep it as part of your training toolkit.
#2 Contrasting Tempos
For this, you are doing the same movement (bench, squat, deadlift, etc.) for three sets, but varying the tempo in which your perform it. You start with a set of slow tempo emphasizing the eccentric movement of the lift, then perform a set faster than normal, and then perform a normal one. Here is an example:
Set 1: Using a moderate weight (70-80% of your 1 rep max), you use a very slow tempo (about 5 seconds on the negative portion of the lift) and then pause near the bottom of the lift for 2-3 seconds. For squats the pause would be at roughly parallel, for bench, the bar just above your chest, etc. The idea here is that you keep full body tension. After the pause, you perform the concentric part of the lift normally. This set is done for 2-3 reps, and then you rest for 2 minutes.
Set 2: This set is done with lighter weight (60-70%) but done explosively. You control the eccentric portion, but explode from the bottom applying as much force as you can. This set is for 3-5 reps, and then rest for 60 seconds.
Set 3: This set is done with the heaviest weight (80-85%) using normal tempo (2 seconds down, no pause, 2 seconds up). This set is for 4-6 reps and then you rest 3 minutes.
You perform this series of sets (all 3) 2-3 times, giving you a total of 6-9 sets.
After your last set, try to end your training with the tempo that is most conducive to your goals. For example, if you are a strength athlete always end your training with the heaviest set. If you’re a an athlete and are trying to develop explosiveness, then add in an extra set of set #2 at the end of the series. For hypertrophy, end the series with an extra set of #1.
Training Smarter, Not Harder
Use contrast training to help boost your performance, but know how to tailor them to your goals based on the recommendations I gave above. These are easy to integrate into any strength training program, so use them to your advantage and break through your plateaus. But as with anything else, do not overuse them to the point that they lose their effectiveness.
The only two training splits I recommend are either full body or an upper lower split.
Body part splits and bodybuilding style training has its place for supplemental programming, but it’s ill-suited (as a primary focus) for the average gym rat or athlete who wants to get both strong and huge. Training full body or with an upper lower split recruits far more muscle, allows you to train much more frequently than body part splits, and will build both size and strength concurrently.
If you want a more detailed look into why I advocate against body part splits for the average gym rat, read this: Ditch the Body Part Split
I favor an upper lower split personally because I think it has a few advantages over full body training, but I’ll give you examples of both just so you can decide for yourself what suits your needs and schedule more.
For a full body split, it’s pretty straightforward. You train your entire body each training session so no movement is off limits.
The disadvantage to full body training is that your training sessions will typically be longer than normal and your recovery times increased. You may also be hard pressed to fit everything you’d like to do in a single training session.
As a general rule, no matter what the split, I train my biggest/heaviest lifts first and follow that with assistance work and specialty training such as plyometrics and explosive movements. Several days a week, I will end with 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio.
Here is an example full body training plan:
Big Lift (Bench, squat, overhead press, deadlift)
Assistance (row variations, tricep and bicep work, hamstring and posterior chain movements, floor presses, squat variations, single-leg exercises, etc.)
More Assistance (different movement from your 1st assistance exercise)
Bodyweight or Explosive Movement (push-up and pull-up variations, dips, kettlebell cleans and snatches, barbell hang cleans, heavy push presses, plyometrics)
Core Work and/or Conditioning (sprints, hanging leg raises, medicine ball throws, kettlebell swings, battle rope, weighted crunches, farmers carries)
* For some of your explosive work, if it’s really taxing, you may perform that as your second movement to reduce the possibility of technical errors and injury, as well as increase the actual training effect of the exercise. *
Training hard with a full body approach, you only need to train 3 days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday for example), with some light to moderate active recovery sessions on your off days.
Upper Lower Split
Upper lower splits are a progression from full body training and are what I typically use in my own training and with my clients. Your training sessions are split into upper body days and lower body days.
The upper lower split is more flexible than a full body split and allows you to hit your entire upper/lower body within a reasonable time frame (a typical training session would be about an hour). It also allows you to train more frequently, several times a week for both your upper and lower body.
Sticking with some of the considerations I laid out above (heaviest lift first, etc.) an upper lower split would look something like this.
Big Lift (bench, or overhead press)
Upper Body Assistance
Upper Body Assistance
Bodyweight or Explosive Movement
Core Work and/or Conditioning
Big Lift (squat, deadlift)
Lower Body Assistance
Lower Body Assistance
Bodyweight or Explosive Movement
Core Work and/or Conditioning
For an upper lower split, I take a 2 days on 1 day off approach. A sample schedule would be something like this:
Monday – Upper
Tuesday – Lower
Wednesday – Off Day/Active Recovery
Thursday – Upper
Friday – Lower
Saturday – Off Day/Active Recovery
Sunday – Off Day/Active Recovery
If you are looking for some set and rep guidelines for both full body and upper lower split programs, check out these two articles:
If you want an 8 week program centered around an upper lower split, check out Uncaging Your Primal Strength. You can download it from my programs page. It comes complete with an exercise list, rep and set guidelines, and built-in printable training worksheets.
Since its release, people from all over the world have been crushing the program, breaking strength plateaus, building muscle mass, and shredding body fat.
If you want something even more dynamic and personalized, check out my online coaching portal: Primal Online Coaching.
By investing in online coaching, you will get 8 weeks of personalized programming, video critiques of your lifts, and a lot of interaction with me. Why not invest in the same training that is producing the nationally ranked athletes and record holders from the Primal Strength Gym?
There are certain principles that you must follow in order to build strength and muscle. Consider these principles as the foundation for your training.
Hopefully this all sounds familiar because I’ve mentioned these before in other posts, but now I’m making it easy on you by putting them all together in one place. These are all actionable principles that you can incorporate into your training and lifestyle immediately.
The burden is on you, so spare yourself with the excuses, take action, and get it done. If you do, I can guarantee you that you will get results. I give you the knowledge, but you have to put in the work!
#1: Focus on Compound Exercises
Ditch the isolation work and swap it out for more compound exercises like squats, bench and overhead presses, deadlifts, row variations, pull-ups, and farmers carries. To build more muscle, you need to recruit more muscle, and by doing isolation work you are reducing the amount of muscle you could be stimulating.
#2: Lift Heavy
For me, lifting heavy always trumps volume. Keep your intensity within the 70-85% of your 1 rep max at a minimum. I’d take heavier sets of 6-8 over medium sets of 10-20 any day. Muscle is built best in —> this range <—. By lifting in this rep and intensity range, you will ensure that you are building both strength and muscle.
It’s the number 1 muscle building exercise of all-time. You should be deadlifting at least once a week. This is the one exercise where your reps may stay relatively low most of the time. Sets of 5 or less will do the trick, and keep stacking weight on the bar.
Gym strength doesn’t necessarily translate to the real world. Once a week throw in some odd-object lifts like kegs, stones, sandbags, or even a yoke. Strongman training is stressful on your central nervous system, so don’t overdo it, but this will help bridge the gap between gym strength and being ‘functional’.
The old saying goes “You can’t out-train a bad diet”. You can be a total-ass kicker in the gym but if your diet sucks, you will not build muscle. Count your calories and macro-nutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats) and make sure you are getting what you need to make all that hard work in the gym pay off.
Explosiveness is key for generating force and strength. Without it, you will never meet your potential at the big lifts like bench press or deadlifts. While most gym rats focus on gaining size and developing strength via training heavy, developing explosive power to augment your raw strength can be your competitive edge.
There are a number of ways to develop explosiveness, and here is what I would recommend.
#1: Up Your Tempo
This one is probably the most obvious, but if you take a look around the gym, I’m willing to guess that less than 20% of the average Joes are doing it. The problem is people read too much junk on the internet and lift with 4/2/1 tempos or spend an ungodly amount of time on each rep trying to maximize time under tension. For most barbell lifts, you should be doing them as fast as you can and with explosion (controllably, not like a damn maniac). This means a 2/0/2 tempo at most. Move the bar with some authority.
If you start doing all of your reps with some explosiveness, it is inevitable that over time you will become more explosive.
#2: Do Speed Work
This is a classic remedy for when you get stuck at a strength plateau and you need to be able to apply more force and accelerate the bar in order to put up bigger numbers.
Some of you may ask, isn’t speed work just upping your tempo? Yes and no. When I spoke about upping your tempo above, I’m assuming that you can increase the tempo of your current working sets (in that 70-85% of 1 rep max zone I talk about here). If you can grind out a working set of 5 reps on the bench with a slow tempo, I’m betting that you can do the same, if not more, with a higher tempo.
But with speed work, you are reducing the weight you can handle greatly to about 50-75% of your 1 rep max and banging out sets of 5-8 as explosively as possible. Working with the lighter weights, you will be able to up your tempo more controllably, and while it may seem easy, you are priming your body for improved neurological efficiency.
#3: Learn the Olympic Lifts
There is nothing better for athletes than learning the explosive lifts. While squats, deadlifts, and overhead press remain my go to gym lifts and mass builders, the olympic lifts are some of the most explosive lifts you can do. While they are highly technical and can be hard to learn, for someone trying to develop explosive power they can be essential.
I attended an olympic lifting seminar a while back taught by the head football strength and conditioning coach from the Virginia Military Institute, and he spoke of how he has his athletes olympic lift several times a week.
At the very least you should learn how to clean and press, which is something I’m required to do a lot training for Strongman. If you could only do one upper body exercise for the rest of your life, this would be it.
#4: Embrace Plyometrics
Back when my vertical jump was at its highest, so were my squat and bench numbers. I was jumping twice a week and developed explosiveness that directly translated to my performance in the weight room.
Jumping for height and distance is all you need to do once or twice a week. Nothing fancy, but it needs to be part of your training. Not only will this help with explosion, but it’s a great conditioning tool as well. Vertical jumps, box jumps, hurdle jumps, and broad jumps are all you need here.