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?
Row variations, aside from pull-ups, are the most crucial movements to developing your back.
Two of the most common variations are barbell rows and dumbbell rows. While both are very effective, I will not usually prescribe bent over barbell rows in any of my training programs.
Deload week is one of those concepts that’s engrained into our heads as a way to force feed a recovery period into our training.
You’ll see it in a lot of prominent strength and muscle building routines, and while deloading does work, I will also tell you that the traditional deload is a complete waste of time.
Let me elaborate.
Traditional deloading typically looks like this:
- A planned week of rest (or light activity) following 3 weeks of intense training.
- Intensities ranging from 40-60% of your 1 rep max (RM) for the entire deload week.
- Lots of bodyweight training.
- Mobility and tissue work.
The traditional deload falls into the “recovery” phase. It is followed by the “supercompensation” phase, which I call the “rebound” phase where your body rebounds to come back from fatigue with a heightened level of performance.
The problem with the traditional deload doesn’t lie in its premise or concept as it relates to recovery. The guidelines for a deload are effective and have a time and place; but the problem lies in that it fails to take into account the specific needs and performance variances of the individual.
So Do You Really Need to Deload Every Four Weeks?
Of course not.
I’ve personally had intense training cycles last for upwards of 6-8 weeks before I saw any dip in performance. If I would have taken a prescribed deload week, I would have lost a week of heightened performance and gains.
Let me put it to you another way. One week of deload for every four weeks of training equates to 13 weeks off from training per year. That’s not a recipe for success.
Maybe there comes a point when you need to take a week off. That is up to you. For me, and most people I know/train, those times are few and far between. In fact, I usually feel worse after a week off and have to play catch up from taking the extra rest time.
With that being said, there are better ways to deload.
A Better Way to Deload
A much better way to approach your deload is through a concept called cybernetic periodization, a term coined by sports scientist Mel Siff.
Cybernetic periodization is essentially programming your deload days according to how the weights feel that certain day. Doing it this way allows you to account for the daily variances in your training as opposed to putting blanket guidelines on yourself.
For example, I had a girl come into the Primal Strength Gym about a month ago. We were talking and she was expressing disappointment that it was deload day.
As she was warming up, she realized that the weights felt light and her body was primed to perform. A prescribed arbitrary deload was not optimal for her progress that day. Instead of a deload, she kept pushing the weights higher and higher.
The result? She set a 10lb deadlift personal record.
Never sacrifice training performance and momentum for prescribed deload days. Ride the highs for as long as you can take them.
(Note: There is a difference between riding the highs and not being honest with the feedback your body is giving you (the key to using cybernetic periodization). Ignoring negative feedback from your body is a pathway to crashing and injury.)
#1: Autoregulatory Deload
In non-scientific terms, I call this the “play it by ear” deload. This deload is simple in concept, but it may take an advanced lifter to recognize when to apply it.
Essentially, you have no prescribed deload days. As with any program, your training volume and intensity will cycle but there are absolutely no planned deload days (not to be confused with days off in the training program).
Instead, you deload based solely on how your body feels on that given day. This takes honest self assessment and heightened body awareness but in my opinion, this is the best deload strategy you can use.
How do you put this into practice?
- Weights feel light and your body says it’s time for Hulk Smash?
- Push yourself to the extreme and aim for some PRs.
- Weights feel moderate and you have good energy?
- Push yourself above par but no need to max out.
- Weights feel sort of heavy and energy levels are so-so?
- Follow the program and meet your expectations, but don’t push yourself too hard. Technique above intensity.
- Weights feel like immovable lead and you feel like shit?
- Deload to 40-60% of your 1RM and back off the volume.
- Walk away after a thorough warm-up and self assessment. Give it a honest shot (some of my best days have actually come after starting sluggishly), but take the day off from the bar if need be and get some solid stretching and foam rolling in.
#2: Max Effort Deload
This one is similar to the “play it by ear” deload but it has a prescribed rest period while still utilizing cybernetic periodization.
Basically, you will plan to have two consecutive deload days within a 4-8 week training window (around week 6 is most common). They are not scheduled but you will base the deload days on how you feel in a given day.
As soon as you hit a “feel like shit” day that I mentioned earlier, your two day deload starts. In this two day window you will:
- Drop the intensity of your max effort barbell lifts to 40-60% of your 1RM
- Or drop the max effort barbell lifts entirely and focus solely on accessory work.
After those two days, you can ramp your training back up and start progressing as normal.
- A deload is effective and will work, but in a traditional sense, it is not optimal or necessary for training progress
- Deload needs to be based on individual needs and feelings, not prescribed programming
- Cybernetic periodization should be the main factor in deload programming
- There are two optimal ways to deload
- Autoregulatory Deload
- Max Effort Deload
- Deload programming requires honest self assessment and being in tune with your body
- DO NOT sacrifice performance and training momentum because a program says you have to deload
All the best Primal Nation,
As a strength coach, I do a lot of reading, not only in published articles and blog posts, but especially the comments sections.
I do this for a number of reasons, the most important being education. Part of that education is being in tune with the fitness market and where people are going wrong, which helps me better educate you and shield you from all of the bullshit.
If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that bro scientists, self-anointed “experts”, and gimmick pushers have completely polluted a lot of people’s perceptions and cemented their minds with false realities. Once this happens, it’s really difficult to change someone’s mind because a perception from a “trusted source” quickly becomes unwavering “truth”.
Don’t believe everything you hear. Challenge perception and seek truth through personal experience.
With that being said, let me give you some truths I’ve learned through blood, sweat, and tears in the iron game. Time to play a little game of perception versus reality.
(There are a lot of embedded links in this post that explain some concepts in detail; be sure to check them out if you need more explanation.)
Perception: Do not train muscle groups more than once a week.
Reality: Of all the training parameters (rest times, intensity, exercise selection, volume, etc.) I’ve played with over the years, training frequency has BY FAR been the most important to making gains. A recent personal example: Over the past 6 weeks, I’ve squatted, deadlifted, benched, and overhead pressed twice a week. Results? I’ve gained 20 pounds and added upwards of 20 pounds to some of my maxes.
Perception: Training for over an hour will wreck your hormones and make you catabolic.
Reality: If you want to get good at something, do you just practice for an hour? Didn’t think so. If you peruse my website, you will see me perpetuate this perception, but mostly that was a way of me trying to get people to eliminate too much time between sets and get people to focus. The reality is that you can train for several hours at a time (and will have to if you are making a lot of strength lifts that require more recovery time between sets) and be just fine.
Perception: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Reality: Depends on your goals. If you are trying to maximize fat loss, it’s not. Our hormonal cycles actually promote fat burning in the morning, so eating breakfast completely halts that. (If you’re trying to gain weight, just eat more later in the day.)
Perception: Eating carbs at night will make you fat.
Reality: Eating carbs all day and eclipsing your daily totals will make you fat. I eat the majority of my carbs at night (but stay within my daily allotment) and maintain 10%-12% bodyfat without a lot of high-intensity cardio.
Perception: Steady state cardio (jogging for example) is the best way to burn fat.
Reality: While your body does burn a higher percentage of fat at lower intensities (50% of calories from fat) versus higher intensities (35% of calories from fat), at higher intensities you burn far more calories overall, ultimately leading to more fat calories (in a much shorter amount of time).
For example, if I walk on the treadmill for an hour and burn 250 calories, I may have burned about 125 calories from fat. But let’s say I train Primal style and run several sets of hill sprints, followed by a high intensity finisher. In about 20 minutes, I could burn 500-600 calories, with 210 calories from fat. One-third of the time and far more fat burn…
Perception: You need to do a ton of cardio and ab work to get a six-pack.
Reality: Abs are made in the kitchen. Want to drop a few pounds? Eat below your maintenance levels. You can sit on your ass all day and lose weight by just cutting a few hundred calories off your daily intake. Use a few high-intensity cardio sessions a week to augment weight lifting and a muscle building diet.
Perception: After 4 weeks of intense training, you need a de-load week.
Reality: Your body will tell you when you need a de-load week, and that could not be for a couple of months. I’ve personally had hardcore training cycles last more than 2 months, making gains the whole time, before my performance dipped and I had to de-load.
Perception: You can’t train for hypertrophy and strength at the same time.
Reality: Yes you can. Training Primal style, we do it all the time. Supplement strength lifts with higher rep accessory work and you will make gains in both.
Perception: Body part splits are the most effective for building muscle.
Reality: Body part splits are great for making newbie gains, but are not as effective as full body or upper-lower split training. Remember what I said about frequency above? Training with a body part split completely eliminates that advantage. Don’t do it…train with an upper-lower split instead.
Perception: Females who lift weights will get huge.
Reality: Women lack the testosterone production to get big naturally. Want to get “toned”? What you are really saying is you want to lose body fat and gain muscle mass. How do you do that? Lift heavy weights.
Perception: Bodyweight training is not effective at building muscle and strength.
Reality: Bodyweight training is very effective if you know how to program it. This means learning the progressions and not sticking with standard variations. Check this out: Top 10 Bodyweight Exercises.
Perception: Muscle isolation is key to hypertrophy.
Reality: If your training volume for each muscle group is on point, isolation is not all that important. My arms are one of the most developed muscles on my body, and I don’t do any direct bicep work, but I work them indirectly all the time through row variations, pull-ups, and pressing. Remember what I said about frequency?
Perception: You need a ton of volume to gain muscle.
Reality: I’ve put on plenty of muscle doing sets of 6. The key is to lift heavy enough weights with an appropriate portion of volume. This means lifting heavy weights (70-85% of your one rep max) for sets of 6-8 for muscle gain. Lifting weights less than 70% of your 1-rep max (1RM) will not produce a significant training effect.
(There is a lot more to this and I’m admittedly oversimplifying the issue. Check out my “How To Series” for me details about which body parts respond well to higher volumes, etc.)
Perception: Circuits/intervals are great for building muscle.
Reality: Depends on a number of factors, but the key here is lifting heavy enough weights for those circuits, which means keeping your volume on the lower side. Sets of more than 12 (per exercise), because they have to be done with relatively low weight (less than 70% of your 1RM), really only train endurance.
Several recent studies have exposed this perception recently. A university study on the popular “Bodypump” class showed participants made no changes to their body composition (no fat loss and no muscle gain) over a 12-week period. Another American Council on Exercise (ACE) study showed P90X participants burned a lot of calories (similar to joggers actually) but had no muscle gain.
The old adage here is to train to your goals. If your main goal is to burn calories, increase endurance, and increase metabolic function/fat loss, circuits are certainly a good option. But if your main goal is to gain muscle, circuits should only be supplemental (short duration/high-intensity finishers) to traditional strength training. If you want to gain muscle, you have to get under the (heavy) bar. Period.
The problem lies in identifying how much is enough and how much is too much.
Training without enough volume will not induce strength or hypertrophy gains, and on the flip-side, too much training volume can lead to CNS fatigue and jeopardized recovery times. Training volume will also vary greatly depending on whether your goals are to gain mass or strength.
Primal policy for hypertrophy is to train predominantly in the 70%-85% of your 1 rep max for sets of no less than 6 reps (primarily 6-8 rep sets).
Total number of sets will vary but you should be aiming to train around 100 solid reps per muscle group per week. I emphasize per week because of my endorsement for higher training frequencies and upper lower splits (versus marathon training sessions and body part splits). I train the same muscle groups multiple days a week so my weekly training volume of 100 reps for each muscle group is split over the course of several sessions.
Each session does not have to be equal; for example on a upper-body day where I emphasize bench press, my training volume for chest will be on the higher side and I’ll round out my 100 reps for chest in a smaller workout a few days later.
I don’t have any solid recommendations for training volume when training for strength because strength gains are largely focused on training intensity.
If I’m trying to increase my deadlift max for example, I may not even eclipse 30 reps in a training week. But I’m also predominantly training with weights greater than 85% of my 1 rep max, so my capacity to handle more training volume is diminished.
Bottom line? Focus on intensity and not volume.
Troubleshooting Training Volume
While 100 reps per muscle group per week is a solid foundation to work from, like any other approach you will need to tweak your training volume as you go based on the gains (or lack thereof) you are making.
The more experienced a lifter you are, the more adept your body will be at handling higher-training volumes. If you are not gaining size with 100 reps per week, bump those numbers up to 120 and re-evaluate your progress.
You may also need to implement more training volume depending on the body part as well. Arms and calves for example respond well to higher training volumes, whereas larger muscles (like legs) take longer to recover and don’t necessarily need more reps for growth.
For some ideas on how to implement more training volume into your programming, check out this post:
All the best,
In my previous post, I talked about the four most important components to building a training program.
To recap, those components are:
- Your Goals
- Volume-Intensity Relationship
- Training Frequency
- Exercise Selection
I finished that post remarking that there is no such thing as a perfect program and that all training programs are flawed to a certain degree. While a program might yield results for a period of time, inherently our bodies adapt and our progress stalls. This is where the 25% rule comes into play.
Athletes and lifters have a tendency to entirely scrap a program when their progress stalls, rather than taking a sensible step back to examine the current state of their training and identifying what to manipulate. In other words, 75% of what you’re doing may be adequate, but you need to tweak 25% of it to induce gains.
The key as a lifter is to identify that 25%, make an adjustment, and keep everything else the same. This will keep you from program hopping, which is one of the worst mistakes you can make in your training.
If your goals are the thing you decide to tweak, it is important to know you don’t need to change your overall goals.
Maybe your goal is to add 50 pounds to your squat and you’ve been unsuccessful. You don’t need to change that goal, but you should add in some mini-goals that will help you achieve the big one. Maybe you have weak hamstrings and glutes that are hindering your squat, so your immediate goals should be to strengthen those while keeping your overall squat goal the same.
This is fairly straightforward to manipulate. Maybe you need more or less volume, more or less intensity, or more or less of both. This variable is also very goal dependent.
Again, easy to manipulate. You either train more or your train less. If you need to train more, maybe you consider multiple small workouts a day instead of one marathon session. There are lots of options to tweak this variable.
This can take some specialization and a good diagnosis of your lack of progress. This will also be largely goal dependent variable.
If you are trying to gain mass in certain parts of your body, or strengthen certain parts of your body to improve some of your big compound lifts, you may need to perform more isolation movements. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are trying to become more explosive, you may need to do more compound lifts and plyometrics.
Most of the time, sweeping changes to your training program are not necessary to make the gains you are seeking.
Keep the adjustments subtle and apply the 25% rule. Manipulate one of the four critical training components at a time and continually monitor your progress. You will make far more progress using this approach than making major changes each training cycle.
Keep on keepin’ on…
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.
#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:
#3: Training Frequency
This is how often you train, and more specifically, how often you are stimulating your various muscle groups.
Depending on how you break-down your training sessions, your training frequency may vary but typically you should be training at least 3 or 4 days a week.
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:
- Your Goals
- Volume-Intensity Relationship
- Training Frequency
- Exercise Selection
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…
Two of the “most internet-searched” body-parts in terms of developing hypertrophy are calves and biceps. Not hard to believe that the average gym goer is not too enthused about the size of his/her calves or arms.
The problem is that search results will probably spit out hundreds of different bicep or calf specialization programs that are based on adding more volume to your already crammed and lengthy training schedule. I’d bet most of those programs are inferior to simply doing a series of isometric holds (when comparing results to actual training time).
Before I dive into a discussion on isometric holds, let me give some preface to why I recommend these above a lot of other training methods.
I always tell people to train to their goals and to mimic what other greats in their field do.
Want to be maximally strong, for example? Copy some of the strongman greats like Derek Poundstone or Mariusz Pudzianowski.
Want to be explosive? Train like an NFL linebacker.
Want to be a powerlifter with huge bench, squat, and dead numbers? Copy someone like Jim Wendler.
So what if you want killer calves and huge biceps? You need to train like athletes that have amazing muscular development in those areas. In my opinion, there is no better place to look than dancers and gymnasts.
What are dancers and gymnasts doing in their training that lead to so much development in their calves and biceps? Lots and lots of time under tension using isometric holds.
Isometric holds do two things:
- Recruits the largest motor units for maximum contraction
- Forces you to have mind-muscle connection by increasing the neural drive between your brain and muscle
- Most full range of motion reps on a given movement only take a few seconds to complete, limiting the amount of time under tension. However, with isometric holds, tension durations last up to 10 seconds.
There are three things to consider when doing isometric holds:
#1: Do Them As Separate Workouts
Since isometric holds recruit your largest motor units, you need to perform them when you are at your freshest and free from fatigue. This means you need to do them on separate days from your normal workouts, or at least 4-6 hours apart from your typical training.
#2: 10-Second Holds for 5 Sets
In Verkhoshansky’s Supertraining, he promoted up to 10 minute sessions of isometrics. What I recommend is working up to 5 sets of 10-second holds in various positions (focusing on different muscle groups), not to eclipse 10 minutes total in duration for an entire isometric workout. You may have to start out with 2-3 sets of 4-6 second holds, but over time work up to 5 sets of 10 second holds.
#3: Progression is Frequency
Do not surpass 10 second isometric holds. It’s not necessary and if you’re doing them properly, you’ll find that more than 10 seconds may be too much for your CNS. Instead, to progress, train isometric holds more frequently. Think back to my dancer and gymnast example. They train isometric holds daily, so as you progress, think about training holds 4-6 times per week in addition to your normal strength training.
The following is a list of holds based guaranteed to boost the muscular development of some of your lagging body parts:
Calves: Single Leg Calf Raise Held at Peak Contraction
This one is simple. Standing barefoot on one leg, spread your toes as wide as possible. Push through the ground as hard as possible, creating an intense contraction in your calf muscle. Keep your leg straight and maintain maximum contraction throughout the hold. Avoid using anything to hold your balance. You would alternate legs for each calf.
Biceps: Single-Arm Hang
For the single-arm hang, you start by hanging from a pull-up bar with an underhand grip and your pinky fingers touching each other. Pull yourself up so that your arms are at 90 degrees. Quickly release one arm and with your free hand, grab your opposite wrist. Maintain this position for the duration of the hold, keeping peak contraction in your forearms, biceps and upper back. Alternate this move with each arm.
Triceps: Dip Peak Contraction
Start in the top position of a dip on parallel bars. Push your palms down into the bar to remove any shoulder shrug and contract your triceps as intensely as possible to lock out your elbow joints. You may add weight to this drill with a weight belt if you master the move with your bodyweight.
Chest: Push-Up Isometric Hold
This is one of my favorite isometric holds. Start by getting in the top position of a pushup, arms just wider than shoulder width and elbows just short of lockout. Brace your entire body as you would during a push-up rep and, without picking your hands up off of the ground, attempt to pull your hands together. Your hands won’t move but your pecs will be intensely activated and at peak contraction. Hold this position for the duration of the hold.
Start with a dumbbell or some other weight in each of your hands. Lift your arms up (palms down) and out to your sides until they are parallel with the ground. Maintain this position for the duration of the hold without shrugging your shoulders.
Hamstrings: 10-20 degree Glut Ham Raise
On a glute ham raise machine, shift your body forward with no hip hinge (your body should be in a straight line from your neck to your knees). You will not need to go very far forward (10-20 degrees probably) before your hamstrings start firing intensely. Maintain this position for the duration of the hold.
If you don’t have a glute ham raise machine, find another piece of equipment that you can hook your heels into. Lat pulldowns work, or if you have a partner to hold you down, that would work as well. Use this picture as reference for the setup of the hold.
- You can stimulate muscle growth with isometric holds.
- There are 3 rules to isometric holds:
- Use them as separate workouts
- Do up to 5 sets of 10 second holds
- Progression for isometric holds is increasing training frequency.
- Review the isometric holds exercise list for muscular group specific movements.
So before you embark on a body part specialization program that will add a lot of training time to your schedule, try using isometric holds. Have your doubts? Take a look at a few gymnasts or ballerinas and see how isometric holds contribute to their muscular development…
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.
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.)
For tempo, I like using incline bench presses with a 1-2 second pause on the bottom part of the lift, then exploding the bar off my chest. This will develop the explosiveness you need to overhead press big weight.
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:
- Cue Yourself
- 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
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All the best,