Why You Should Bench With Your Feet Flat

Why You Should Bench With Your Feet Flat

No matter which federation my athlete’s competes in, currently every single on benches with their feet flat. Are the scenarios where I may have someone bench on their toes? Yes, but in my opinion, keeping the feet flat on bench press is optimal as it allows the most stability and control when it comes to utilizing leg drive. Leg drive is one of the hardest skills to learn in powerlifting, and took me almost 4 years to really master. What most people do when first trying to learn how to incorporate leg drive is they find going up on their toes easier as it creates a constant tension with the legs that they otherwise cannot create. So heels up isn’t necessarily better for them, but it does make it easier to “feel” that tension everyone is telling them they need. When you tuck your legs under you and push the hips into extension it automatically increases the tension in the quads without you even cueing it to. And when that same person brings the feet out to just under their knees and stays flat footed, they lose that automatic tensioning and can no longer incorporate the quads as desired. There are 3 big reasons though that I find being on your toes is inferior to flatted footed.

1.) It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the less overall foot contact we have with the floor, the less stability we have, and that goes for any movement in any sport in any scenario. As can be seen in the first video here, Matt prior to working with me benched in a heel up position, and I initially described to him my thoughts that his bench press looked like he was laying on a stability ball. He was losing his ability to transfer force into the bar due to his body being unstable. Could he have maybe improved this with a slightly wider stance and tucking his feet under a bit more? Yes, but I consider that a band aid fix, or the easy fix, rather than the optimal fix. Feet flat with a stable base and leg drive creates not only horizontal stability but also lateral stability, and that is where heels up is lacking. Lateral stability is going to be much harder to achieve when on your toes versus with your feet flat.

2.) Another big reason people gravitate towards a heel up bench setup is it makes it easier to arch. But what they many times don’t understand is they are arching at all the wrong spots. Look at the second video (here) of Brandi. On the top she is on her toes, and the highest point of her “arch” is her belly button, which serves no purpose on the bench press. We need our sternum to be the highest point, as that is where we touch the bar. Our goal is to achieve that arch through the mid-back, not the low-back, as can be seen with both Matt and Brandi once they transitioned to a feet down position. This allowed an elevated rib cage that creates the highest point of the body as their sternum.

3.) When we tuck are feet under us, especially when we are on our toes, it creates an upward drive with the hips. Instead what we should be after is a backwards drive into our upper traps/upper back. A big misconception is that the leg drive helps to propel the bar up, and that is incorrect. The bar goes up because we drive our upper backs down into the bench creating the opposite reaction. What leg drive does is aids in the stability and tension to help increase the efficiency of force transfer to the bar. We want to use leg drive not to drive our hips up, but to drive our upper back down into the bench. Creating that backwards drive folds our upper traps into the bench to drive the upper back down. With your heels up and feet tucked under, this movement will not occur optimally. Rather having our feet flat and in vicinity of 75-90 degrees knee flexion helps to create this backwards drive that creates the mid back arch, elevating the rib cage, and driving the upper back down into the bench.

Now all these is easier said than done. As mentioned, when allowed people tend to gravitate towards a heels up setup as its an easy fix for inefficient leg drive. But when learned properly, I will argue that feet flat is going to be the more optimal bench setup for most lifters. I like to think of the feet as the throttle control of our bench press, and when we tuck our feet under and are on our toes, there is no control. But when our feet are flat we have a much better connection with the floor and our body to control our leg drive to create the best position, tension, and stability possible.

Tops Sets/Back Off Sets vs. Straight Sets, Which is Better?

Tops Sets/Back Off Sets vs. Straight Sets, Which is Better?

With seeing many different styles of programming, particularly with what has been popularized in the USAPL through the Daily Undulating Periodization revolution in 2014 and the variations of DUP that have come from that, I have come to realize one thing I seem to differ on than most is my highly varying use of top sets and back off sets.  Now there are many people who do top sets then back off to straight sets, but what I feel I do different is how much variation I have within those back off sets. For instance, let’s say a typical straight set is programmed as 5×5. The main issue I have with just programming 5×5 is as we progress, the only variables that could be changed with that structure is either adding more sets, adjusting the reps, or adjusting the percentage it is programmed at. But what if we break that up. We could do 1×5 then back off to 4×5, 2×5 then back off to 3×5, and so on. There are numerous combinations of breaking up those sets and reps, but let’s take it even further. Let’s say we have top set of 1×5 and we back off for 2×5 and then back off again for another 2×5. The variations now become limitless due to the extent that we can back off, and from there, these are all variables that we can adjust and progress. Maybe we start by backing off 5% to the first 2×5 and then another 5% for another 2×5. Well a progression of that is just back off 4%, or maybe we do 2×5 for the top set and back off 5% to 1×5 and back off another 5% to 2×5. I could go on like this forever, but hopefully now you get the point. When we stray from the typical straight sets and become more creative with the way we structure the programming, the variables we become able to manipulate and progress become limitless. Now that I have you thinking, let’s really dive into the main points of why I believe high variation of top and back off sets is optimal over the typical programming of straight sets.

1.) One of the biggest issues I see with straight sets as mentioned is the limited variables we can adjust. I typically find those that program straight sets make the mistake of pushing volume or intensity too much, as its really the only variables they can manipulate. That is what happened in 2014-2015 with “The DUP”. Volume was pushed more and more with the thought that more was better…..and then everyone died. Too many times I think the answer still is to  push more volume, where instead if we are more creative with the structure of sets and reps, we can manipulate multiple factors without just ramping up volume and intensity. For instance lets say we had a program structure for the day of 1x5x200lbs. followed by back offs at 4x5x180lbs. without changing the weight, reps, sets, intensity, volume etc., we can progress this workout by adjusting how many top sets and back off sets we do. 2x5x200lbs. followed by 3x5x180lbs. is a more challenging workout than the prior. Maybe then we go 2x5x200lbs. followed by 1x5x190lbs. followed by 2x5x180lbs. Again, just slight manipulation of variables that achieves a differing training effect. We can even then take into account repetitions. So now we have 2x5x200lbs. followed by 1x4x200lbs. followed by 2x5x180lbs. As mentioned above, the possibilities are endless for the progression we can have within this structure, which is something straight sets cannot achieve.

2.) From an online coaching perspective, one of my biggest downfalls with straight sets is how the athlete performs with each proceeding set. Give one athlete 5×5 programmed around a 7 RPE, and by the last set they will be around a 7.5-8 RPE. Give another athlete that same program and by the final set it is a 9.5 RPE. Or maybe someone is having an off day. Fatigue is high and they are just not primed for peak performance. If I was there in person I could see that and make an adjustment on the fly. But with being an online coach, I need to build in these safety nets to make sure even on bad days the program can be performed effectively. So by programming preplanned back off sets I am structuring the workout to account for good and bad days.

3.) I look at programming these back off sets very much like @miketuchscherer popularized fatigue drops. For those who are not familiar with fatigue drops, what Mike popularized was a top set followed by back off sets programmed to a certain fatigue drop percentage. For instance, you may have a top set of 1×5 @ 8 RPE with a fatigue drop of 5%. What this means is you’d perform that top set of 5 and then back off 5% from whatever that weight was, let’s say 500lbs. You’d then perform that back off weight, in this case 475lbs., for sets of 5 until you once again reach an 8 RPE. What this means is that when you again reach a 8 RPE on sets of 5 at 475lbs. (5% drop), you have now fatigued your 1 RM, or projected 1 RM, by 5% that day. As mentioned above, every lifter is different. Take 2 lifters and perform the exact same amount of back off sets at a 5% fatigue drop and one lifter maybe does 2 sets while another does 4. That is the beauty of fatigue drops, it individualizes the program on the fly for the lifter based on their performance that day. Now coming back around to how I program, I don’t necessarily program in fatigue drops, but as I learn a lifter and their general tendencies I will program in a way that allows them to stay within the general RPE range I want them in for the day by having these programmed back off sets at certain percentages. As a very general standard, I find most people fatigue about 2% per set, but that is also very dependent on the relative and absolute intensity of those sets. But we do have to generalize, especially at first with new athletes. So how does this look when programmed out? Let’s say an athlete has a top set of 2×5 programmed around a 7-7.5 RPE followed by back offs for another 3×5. If I would like them to stay in that general RPE range of 7-7.5 for all sets, or at least not go too far over that, I will then program the 3×5 at a 8% back off. This accounts for about a 2% fatigue drop each set so that the first set of the day is around a 7-7.5 RPE and so is the last set of the day. Does it work out perfect like this every time, no. But it does gives us a framework to manage relative intensities and fatigue.

4.) Does this mean I never do straight sets? No. The fact is that is another form of progression. Let’s say someone benches 2 days a week. Maybe on the primary day where I want to push harder and induce more fatigue I use straight sets, but then on the secondary day I manage top sets and back off sets to lower fatigue to then be primed for the next primary bench day. All of this can even be applied to accessory work, and I very much do that as well. All too often accessory work isn’t taken seriously by the lifter, but is it really being taken seriously by the coach as well? Are they actually putting the same thought into programming the accessories that they do with the main lifts? The fact is accessory movements produce adaptations and induce fatigue, so if we want to optimally progress performance we can do so through creative structuring of accessory work as well. I would say this more so applies to higher fatigue inducing accessories though. Am I getting crazy with my programming for bicep curls? Probably not. But for things like belt squats, dips, leg press, dumbbell bench press, and other high demand compound accessory movements, there is very much a place for top sets and back off sets to help manage fatigue and drive progress through multiple variables.

To help provide some examples, I provided multiple screenshots below to get an idea of how all this comes to fruition, and hopefully this gave you some insight into the limitless variables programming can offer!

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Rogue Combo Rack Review

I was fortunate enough to be in the market for a new comp rack right as Rogue released their new IPF approved combo rack. I had previously owned a Texas Strength Systems rack that I really liked and only have great things to say about that piece of equipment. But with the launch price actually being slightly less than the TSS rack after shipping, I felt I had to jump on it, and I am very happy I did (there was special launch price of $2,000 for the Rogue comp rack, but it has now increased to $2,500)! The Rogue combo rack came right on time based on their 12 week lead time. It was easy to assemble and the directions were fairly clear, probably took us about 2 1/2 hours to put it together. You do need a decent amount of tools to put it together (different size sockets and allen wrenches) but fortunately I had all of the tools I needed already available at the gym. But let’s get to what you are here for, and that is an honest review of the pros and cons:

Pros

1.) The absolute first thing you will notice compared to other comparable combo racks is that this thing is a tank! It weighs about double compared to any of the other combo racks, and that’s one of the main reasons I bought it. For gym use, I have zero doubt this thing is going to take a beating for years with no problem. Maybe my favorite thing about this rack it has maybe moved 2 inches in 1 week of use. Compared to my TSS rack that almost needed to be adjusted back every set, the Rogue rack doesn’t move. Now this is solved if you just bolt down other comparable combo racks, but I prefer not to and the Rogue rack makes this possible. When you rack the weight, half rack the does not come up off the floor, but stays firmly planted. It feels almost more like lifting out of an open power rack than a combo rack at times because of its sturdiness.

2.) The bench is a fat pad, enough said. It is IPF legal at 32cm wide (32.5cm is max width, competitors are all at 30cm) and provides immediate improved stability over any other combo rack you may have benched out of. This is the one combo rack I would say actually gives a competitive advantage due to the bench. This was also a big reason I bought it, as the athlete’s I had at the Arnold that got to use it absolutely loved benching out of it.

3.) The safety arms are easier to adjust and remove than any other rack. As can be seen below, the safeties are attached through hand adjustable screwed in knobs, so no tools are need to remove. And for adjusting height, rather than a pin it has a spring load pull-pin that is very nice. Also the safety arms I feel like can actually act as safety arms! Most of the other combo rack’s safety arms are fairly basic and only meant for emergencies, whereas these arms look like they could actually withstand a beating.

4.) A couple nice little touches is things like having a rubber bottom to the lever arms so that it stays in place when racked. Also the J-Cups, surrounding uprights, and safety arms are all protected by heavy duty plastic so you aren’t scraping up the rack. Again, this thing is a tank and I have zero doubt will stand up over time with its durability. On the inside bottom of the uprights there is a tiny screw so that the uprights always track correctly up and down. These seems small, but as my old rack developed wear and tear we found it catching on the inside when we adjusted it.

5.) It looks beautiful. Put this next to any other rack and your eyes will no doubt gravitate towards the Rogue combo rack. Maybe this is just personal preference, but I do believe it even looks better in person than pictures online give it justice.

6.) To rattle off some smaller but noticeable Pros:

-More adjustments for rack height than I think any other rack.

-The bench fits in very snug. Other racks it was fairly important to also tighten down the screws after placing the rack in, but with the Rogue rack that really isn’t even needed.

-There a bunch of hand adjustable knob screws that allow you to customize settings quickly.

-The rollers are firmly in place. With the TSS rack it seemed like every other day I had to tighten that. With the Rogue combo rack I doubt I will ever have to tighten those.

7.) It is a combo rack, so you can add any Pros a combo rack offers here. This is obvious, but the main reason anyone buys a piece of equipment like this is due to the adjustability and versatility. This isn’t a comparative advantage over other combo racks, but it is the reason I bought this rack over another power rack.

Cons

1.) If there is one thing I am not a fan of its is the lever arms and pin adjustments. As can be seen in pictures below, the numbers are on the backside of the arms versus the inside and at times it is deceiving which hole you are placing the pin in. For gym use this isn’t a big issue, but I direct meets and this very well could slow down the spotters and loaders at times. To go along with this, due the size of the lever jack, you have to set a pin 3 holes above or below to be able to make adjustments. And maybe even more annoying is that the lever jack then only reaches up to 6 holes away. If there is a short and taller lifter both using the rack, it takes two pin adjustments to get to the new rack height.

2.) The bench is HEAVY. It for sure is not the easiest to move and is very possibly not moveable by some smaller lifters. I don’t really think there is a way around this, as if it includes a fat pad and that extra reinforcement it is going to be heavy, but it doesn’t mean I like having to move it.

3.) The go along with point 2, the whole rack is HEAVY, which is a product of point #1 in the Pros. As mentioned above it has only moved a little bit over the past week of heavy use which is great, but to move it back can take a couple people.

4.) It is wider than any other combo rack. I am putting this on the cons list only because of what many have talked about from the Arnold, but I actually have zero issue with it and actually think it is a pro, so this can go either way. At the Arnold a lot of talk about the new rack circled around many people hitting it during walkouts. People weren’t used to a combo rack this wide and had issues banging into during their walkouts (pictures shown below with the room between the uprights and the plates). I can say that in the past 2 weeks our members have not had any issues with this. The argument I’d have is if you are hitting any rack during a walkout, that you may need to work on the control of your walkout. This rack forces you to have a proper straight back walkout, versus a fast and swaying walkout, so I actually find that advantageous in training. I’d much rather have to train out of this and have more room come competition time when using other racks versus the opposite. There were also issues at the Arnold of people hitting the safeties on bench. There isn’t much room on each side between the outside of the safeties and the plates, but this again has not been an issue yet for any of our lifters. If you are off center and crooked it might be, but if all is even this should not be an issue.

5.) To rattle off some smaller but noticeable Cons:

-I would have liked if the pins had a tad more of a taper to them. I really liked the new TSS pins as the taper made it really easy to take them in and out. The Rogue ones aren’t bad, but it would be a plus if they had more of taper to them.

-This is nit picky, but some of the other rack’s benches can easily be set up against a power rack and used. The Rogue one when set up outside of the rack has a bit of decline to it, so it can’t be used other than inside the rack.

So my recommendation? This is my favorite combo rack currently on the market. I have a couple things I would have changed, but I’ll take the cons of the Rogue combo rack over the cons of its competitors. And the pros definitely outweigh the cons. This is the best rack for durability in a gym with heavy use, and maybe the biggest bonus is the benefits of the fat pad on bench press. If I was buying this solely for meet directing I may go another route due to the size and increased difficulty to transport, but that would be the only scenario where I would choose another rack over this one. The price has now increased to $2500, but that still is the 2nd lowest of any other IPF approved rack I believe, and for that price you are getting your money’s worth for sure!

 

Off-Season Programming For Wide Grip Benchers

Off-Season Programming For Wide Grip Benchers

The rise of the wide grip bench press is upon us, and for those that follow me and most of my lifters, you’ll probably notice I am very much a part of that movement. I tend to bias towards a wider competition bench press grip, probably in large part because I coach mainly mid to low weight class lifters. Just because of general chest circumstance and range of motion demands, mid to low weight class lifters tend see a good increase in their bench press strength from a wider grip. But what is all too common is for a lifter to switch to a wider grip, see a bump in their strength, to yet again plateau. And to put it simply, the reason for this is the wider grip bench press may create a stronger and more efficient movement pattern in terms competitive powerlifting, but it doesn’t tend to optimally build the pressing muscles long term. Add in that a larger arch usually accompanies this wider grip, and now that extremely reduced range of motion becomes even less effective for the overall development of the pressing musculature. So how do I combat this? Let’s look at the main differences I take in off-season programming for wide grip benchers:

1.) Further away from a meet the number one thing I will do in many cases is program close grip variants as an athlete’s primary bench press day, and maybe even multiple times a week. Now when I say close grip though, this is not old school bodybuilder hands inside shoulder width close grip. Rather close grip would be somewhere in the range of 2-4 finger widths in from the normal competition grip, dependent on just how wide they typically are. For most I program this as “pinkies 1 finger inside the knurl marker” or “pinkies just inside the knurl marker”. To add to this, based on the athlete and situation, I typically will also prioritize feet up bench as a primary or secondary variation to coincide. The closer grip plus the feet up bench will drastically alter their range of motion and place higher demands on the pressing musculature that the wider competition bench press does not. For accessory work, during this time I really like to hammer dumbbell bench press, both flat and incline. I find that the dumbbell bench press has a close proximity to the pectoral demands of a wider grip bench, yet can be done with a significantly increased range of motion.

2.) If you poll a diverse group of wider grip bench pressers, I would not be surprised to find that most would say that they do not see much transfer to their wide grip bench press from incline and overhead barbell pressing variations. But poll the opposite in close grip bench pressers, and I think they will tell you the exact opposite. I believe the reason for this is the difference in shoulder abduction angles in the close vs. wide grip bench and the demands placed on the anterior deltoid. With a closer grip bench press, due to the decreased shoulder abduction, greater emphasis will be placed on the anterior deltoid. So what I am getting at is that the incline bench press, due to its demands on the anterior deltoid, tends to be a really good exercise for close grip benchers but not wide grip benchers in my experience. BUT, if we are taking prolonged periods of our off-season to push the strength of our close grip bench press, this would also be the perfect time in my opinion to also prioritize some variation of incline pressing, as this is when I believe a wide grip bench presser can see the benefits from it.

3.) So we have prioritized close grip bench pressing, feet up bench press, dumbbell bench press, and incline press variants during our off-season, now what? As we move closer to competition or strength focus blocks, I would now shift gears to prioritizing our wider competition grip as our primary and/or secondary day variant and become more competition specific. That seems fairly obvious, but there is one other thing I tend to do that I think helps to continue the transfer of the off-season training into our comp specific phases, and that is to prioritize dips as our main pressing accessories during this period. Dips continue to place a high emphasis on the triceps and anterior deltoids, more so than dumbbell bench pressing in my opinion, so I find this helps to maintain, if not increase, the gains that were seen from the off-season close grip prioritization. You may say why not do dips during the off-season? I at times very much do, as well as I might have someone dumbbell bench pressing close to competition rather that dips. I don’t think there is a right answer to this and is all just circumstantial, but if I had to argue one way or the other, this would be my route. And the main experiential evidence I have for this opinion is that more is not always better. When we prioritize close grip, feet up, and incline pressing during the off-season, I find that just adding more to that same focus has its diminishing returns. So rather than adding more into that same pile, I would prefer to save dips for these more competition specific blocks so that we have a novel stimulus to possibly create new adaptations.

The above is not a perfect blueprint for wide grip bench pressing success, but rather a generalization of what I have found that works and challenges the rational of just competition bench press year round. The only thing I will say for fact is that if you fall into the category of plateauing after an initial boost in strength from wide grip, it is time to rethink your highly comp specific wide grip bench pressing approach.

What Is The Optimal Training Block Length?

What Is The Optimal Training Block Length?

Maybe one of the more underrated reasons why I find many of my new athletes start seeing the progress that they do is from optimizing their training block length. The typical 4 week training block has been around forever and seems to be the gold standard for what everyone should do. Maybe this is due to old school beliefs, maybe due to the popularity of 5/3/1 and Juggernaut 2.0, maybe because it is close to 1 month, or maybe its just the easiest way to set up a billing cycles for online coaching. But whatever the reason, not everyone fits into the 4 week mold. If anything I would say I have very few athletes who do, and would be leaving progress on the table by cutting their training blocks short. So to answer the posed question of “What is the optimal training block length?”, it is whatever length that peaks an athlete’s performance. After reading through this post, I’d highly recommend searching “Making Sense of Bondarchuk: Athlete Adaptation Profiles” and read through that multiple times. I don’t know if there is an article I’ve read that has had as much of an impact on my coaching as that one did. Because from that article it really gave me a sense of how to optimize training block length for individual athletes, and let’s look at what goes into that:

The number 1 priority is peaking an athlete’s performance. This is the point at which the athlete’s performance has been optimized, and in the case of how I track training, their projected 1RMs have peaked. If you look at the second picture, you will see two separate athlete’s 1RM projections through their training blocks. On the bottom we have¬†@posten.lifts, and we have found he peaks the 5th week. As can be seen, there is consistent progression week to week in his projected 1RMs with week 5 being the highest. From experience, I know that if we go a 6th week Patrick’s performance will decrease, so due to this we have 5 weeks of training followed by a 1 week deload. On the top we have a different scenario, where with¬†@lstomasiello we experimented with a 4 week training block, but what we found is come the 4th week his performance dropped off. He peaked week 3, but then his performance declined while fatigue rose in week 4. So for Lorenzo, we now have a good idea that in week 3 he peaks, so the 4th week we now deload. This is actually a fairly easy system to implement. All you need is some type of test set for squat, bench, and deadlift, track the projected 1RMs, and find when the athlete’s performance is peaked. To do so I create a more open ended style training block so that we do not have constraints on how many weeks it can go. We track these projected 1RMs and wait until we see that drop off, then deload. Then moving forward we continue to test this theory. We set up training blocks based on what we believe is the optimal length, and then continue to track this same data to make sure progress is following similar trends. Occasionally I may add another week to retest this block length and see if anything has changed to where we may reconsider how long each block will last.

Now if you read the article I stated above, you will notice not all athlete’s progress week to week is linear. While I have found is most of my athlete’s follow the linear model, but I definitely have some that follow a different pattern. For instance, Matt tends to have a slight progression weeks 1 and 2, but then his performance dips week 3, before then progressing again in week 4 and peaking week 5. So it is very important to take the data from multiple training blocks on end to gather enough information to have the best predicted training block length.

Knowing your optimal training block length can be a big factor in optimizing your progress and individualizing your program to best suit your needs. Do not fall for the typical 4 weeks is best model, but rather test and retest to see when you peak and optimize your performance.