Bench Pressing: Don't Relax on the Bench!

There is much more to bench pressing than just lying on a bench and moving a weight up and down. If you don't care about getting stronger, or prefer to injure yourself while bench pressing, then sure, go ahead and simply lay down and start pressing. But if you would like to bench press safely and effectively, you need to learn to set up on the bench correctly. 

I come across many benchers who use too relaxed of a set up. The incorrect images in this post could be described as "casual", "lazy", or "slack". We want to have a "deliberate", "active", or "tight" set up. You may get by with a lazy set up for a while, but if you want to keep adding weight to the bar, you will need to put more effort into setting up.

It should feel like work before even un-racking the weight. You will be pushing your feet into the ground and your back into the bench. Your entire body will be tensed up. If you feel like you could stay in position for longer than the duration of your set, (usually 30-45 seconds) you aren't set very well.

Tension and Leg Drive

Most people consider the bench press to train the chest, shoulders, and triceps. While it is true that these muscles are the prime movers, there are many more muscle groups involved during the exercise. 

A good bench presser makes the bench press a full body lift. They are able to produce muscular tension throughout their entire body. This is what allows force to be transferred from the ground - through their body - and into the implement being moved. The first step to generating tension is by producing leg drive.

To create leg drive, simply push your feet into the ground and contract your glutes (as if you were going to push your hips up and off the bench). Once the hips are set, the torso can tighten, from which the arms can press off of. This must be maintained throughout the entire set. If you allow your feet to slip or lift off the ground, you have lost leg drive. This alone takes some practice and conditioning.

Think of bumper boats. When two boats collide, the force dissipates, and both objects move away from each other. When we are lifting weights, we want to be able to move a load with our body staying anchored in place. 

If you aren't tight enough, the force you are attempting to apply to the weight will dissipate throughout your slack body parts. Good leg drive is the first link in the chain to creating and maintaining total body tension.

A good indication that you aren't creating sufficient leg drive is that your feet are placed directly below or in front of your knees. They should be planted on the ground back toward your shoulders. Your knees should be bent at an angle less than 90 degrees. 

A good indication that you aren't creating sufficient leg drive is that your feet are placed directly below or in front of your knees. They should be planted on the ground back toward your shoulders. Your knees should be bent at an angle less than 90 degrees. 

The Back

The back plays a major role in any pressing movement. The back muscles will properly align the spine, set the shoulders, and help control the load eccentrically. In the case of any pressing done on a bench, the back muscles will also create a firm base to dig into the bench.

When setting up, your back shouldn't be relaxed. Pull your shoulder blades back and down (retract and depress). Arch your upper back as you do when puffing out your chest. Throughout the set you will be driving your tight back into the bench. 

Left: Chest is puffed out, shoulders are set back, and the angle of my knees suggests I am creating leg drive. Right: Chest flat, shoulders not set, no leg drive.

Left: Chest is puffed out, shoulders are set back, and the angle of my knees suggests I am creating leg drive. Right: Chest flat, shoulders not set, no leg drive.

I want you to remember what I said at the beginning of this article...a good set up should feel efforted. If you could just as easily grab your iPhone and flip through Instagram, you're not prepared to make bench pressing gains!

Pre Workout Nutrition

Protein and fat consumption is important in a well balanced diet, but when it comes to working out, carbohydrates are the most important macronutrient to keep in mind.

In order for you to have enough energy to workout, you need to have enough glycogen on reserve. I wrote about what glycogen is here. If you are running low on glycogen, you will feel low on energy throughout your workout.

Glycogen is just stored glucose. There are two primary ways your body accesses glucose...

1. By eating carbohydrate rich foods (the body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose).

2. Through the process of Gluconeogenesis, which is the body's ability to generate glucose from non-carbohydrate sources.

Your body would much rather be fed glucose than to have to create it on its own (through Gluconeogenesis). So this means, be sure to eat enough carbs to fuel your workout.

Everyone will have their own preference as to how they carb up and prepare for a workout. People have differing preferences of carb sources. People will also time their carbs different from others. As I usually say, find what works best for you.

Overall, I like to consume whole carb sources (such as fruits, rice, potatoes, oats, and vegetables,) and stay away from carbs that have been refined and processed (such as pasta, bread, cereal, protein and energy bars, and sugary foods/juices.)  

Keep in mind that I'm not a proponent or practitioner of eating 6+ small meals per day. On average, I eat 3 meals per day, and some days I eat as few as 1 meal per day.

I like to have a pretty emptied stomach when I work out. What I mean by this, is that I like to work out at least 2 hours after my last meal. 

This is what I consume for carbs on a typical training day...

Breakfast Carbs

Oats and a banana

Lunch Carbs

Sprouted bread, and a serving of a fruit and a vegetable (which varies from week to week).

Pre Workout

No carbs immediately pre workout. I rely on the glycogen stored up from the previous day's post workout eating, and from the current day's breakfast and lunch. What I do like to have immediately pre work out is some caffeine.

Post Workout Carbs

Chocolate milk and a banana

Evening Carbs

Potatoes, vegetables and fruit

As I wrote in "Post Workout Nutrition," most of my carbs are consumed after my workout for the day. After a work out is when your body is primed to absorb and store carbohydrates to be used for the next day.

If I were to suggest anything to you it would be this...

1. Eat clean, wholesome, and light foods most of the time, but especially before you work out for the day. Eating a huge and highly processed meal will put you right on the couch. 

2. Have a starchier carb source (potatoes, oats, rice) earlier in the day. This will satiate you and help get glycogen stored up and topped off.

3. The closer to working out, consume more fruit. It's easily digestible so you won't feel full or bloated when it's time to workout. It also provides a fast acting source of energy to your body. 

Cardio: Part 2

In Part 1 I wrote that exercise that is typically referred to as "cardio" should actually be known as "aerobic exercise." It pretty much pisses me off when I hear someone say "I've gotta go do cardio." The main reason this type of thing bothers me is because the same people who say it are not after the health benefits of the "cardio". Instead, they think they need to be doing it to get more lean.

The truth is, there are superior ways to losing body fat other than jogging on a treadmill for 40 minutes. The truth is also that aerobic exercise does provide health benefits. So unless you are truly doing aerobic exercise for the health benefits, stop making it such a priority to do your "cardio".

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic

If you want to quickly understand the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, take a look at this, and this. And then associate aerobic with low intensity and high duration, and anaerobic with high intensity and short duration.

Aerobic Exercise

Forms of exercise that require immediate access to oxygenated blood. Examples are running, cycling, swimming, jumping rope, etc. The primary factor that will make an exercise aerobic is if it's done for a long time. And remember, in order for you to sustain any effort for a long time, the intensity will need to be fairly low. This low intensity does not require much muscular effort, so low-threshold motor units and Type I muscle fibers will be used to complete the task.

Benefits of Aerobic Exercise

  • improved oxygen uptake
  • improved cardiac output
  • improved stroke volume (heart learns to pump more blood)
  • improved circulation
  • improved endurance to working muscles
  • improved VO2 max
  • increased capillary density
  • increased mitochondrial size
  • decreased resting blood pressure
  • decreased resting heart rate
  • decreased breathing rate
  • decreased body fat

While I am mainly a proponent of anaerobic exercise, you can see that there are many benefits to be had from training aerobically (mainly benefits to the circulatory and respiratory system).

Anaerobic Exercise

High intensity and short lasting forms of exercise in which the body's demand for oxygen exceeds its available supply. Examples are sprinting, jumping, high intensity resistance training, interval training, plyometrics, many sports, etc. The high intensity of these types of exercise requires high muscular effort, so both low and high-threshold motor units, as well as both Type I and Type II muscle fibers will be used.

Benefits of Anaerobic Exercise

  • increased strength
  • increased speed
  • increased agility
  • increased vertical jump
  • improved functional flexibility
  • improved neuromuscular sensitivity
  • enhanced reflex response (ability to produce more force in less time)
  • more efficient motor unit recruitment
  • creation of new neuromuscular connections
  • utilization of all muscle fiber types (Henneman's Size Principle)
  • increased connective tissue strength to locally trained areas
  • improved bone density
  • increased hormonal sensitivity
  • faster clearing of lactic acid
  • heart becomes stronger
  • elevated metabolism
  • decreased body fat
  • increased muscle mass
  • no adverse effects to aerobic performance

The last benefit is worth repeating...

Anaerobic training will have no adverse effects to aerobic performance, but the opposite is not true. To unlock your anaerobic potential, you must train to a high enough intensity. Anaerobic exercise is (without doubt) the best way to achieve better physique and performance.

I will leave you with two things to consider....

1. Car Analogy


Much of body composition (ratio of lean mass to fat mass) comes down to energy expenditure. When done correctly, anaerobic exercise expends more energy than aerobic exercise.

Think of your car. What burns through fuel faster? Cruising for a long time at a steady pace? Or bursts of acceleration and deceleration? The answer is the latter.  

Now compare your car to your body. To be in control of your body composition, you will want to burn through more fuel, not conserve it. Cruising steady = aerobic. Accelerating and decelerating = anaerobic.

2. Which Would You Rather Look Like?

People that normally do long, light intensity cardio strive to look something like the subject on the left, yet train like the subject on the right. 

This is not meant to be a knock on the way the woman on the right looks. She is obviously in great shape and has the look that many people desire. But I do want you to understand that you'll never look like the woman on the left by going out for a jog every day in attempt to lose your muffin top.

The physique the sprinter displays comes as a result of countless sprint, jump, and heavy weight training sessions. The jogger likely does nothing in her training but jog, and some light, high rep "resistance training". The sprinter's training ensures she will never have a muffin top that she'll need to lose.

If you want to look like an athlete, you need to act like one. Move fast and apply high amounts of force. Then rest. Then repeat. And continue to repeat. Don't get caught mindlessly peddling away on the elliptical for an hour. 

This will be all for today, even though there is much more to say. Is there anything else you'd like me to touch on relating to this? Comment below!

Cardio: Part 1

You're obsessed with doing "cardio". 

You think that cardio must be done to get into, and remain in shape.

I think your infatuation with cardio is overrated.

And I think using the word cardio is your first mistake. 

When you use the word cardio, you actually refer to cardiovascular exercise. By definition, any activity that elevates the heart rate qualifies it as cardiovascular exercise. Cardiovascular exercise trains the heart.

Pull ups raise your heart rate. Squatting raises your heart rate. Even standing up out of bed, and walking to the coffee maker in the morning makes your heart rate go up. All of these activities require the heart to function. Therefore, you are doing cardio pretty much all day long.

But still, you attach "cardio" exclusively to the elliptical machine, recumbent bike, treadmill, etc.

If you enjoy using these types of machines at low intensities, that's fine. But you aren't doing cardio.

Your training tip for today is to understand that machines like ellipticals, bikes, treadmills, etc., are (mainly) used for: aerobic exercise, not cardio, if being technical. 

Coming up....

  • why am I being a snob about the confusion of cardio and aerobic exercise?
  • what is aerobic exercise?
  • what is anaerobic exercise?
  • which of these is most beneficial?