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.
Last week during my training at the Primal Strength Gym, I noticed some things were off with my deadlift technique.
It was my first deadlift session since my Strongman competition and the weights felt abnormally heavy. It was clearly an “off day” for me and the ‘heaviness’ of the weights were causing me to lift with some bad technique.
One of the first things you lay eyes on when you enter the Primal Strength Gym is a wall of kegs. Once you take a closer look around, you’ll see a wide variety of odd objects like a circus dumbbell, sandbags, slosh pipes, tires, logs, grip tools and other unorthodox equipment.
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?
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: