Jim Wendler knows a lot about moving heavy weights, and it appears TMUSCLE readers are digging what he's selling. For this month's installment of Blood and Chalk, Jim decided to change things up a bit and address just a few topics, but go much more in-depth.
We think this may be his best work yet, and we're not just saying that because Jim knows where we live.
For those who might have a question of your own for Jim, feel free to post in the discussion thread following this article. You never know, he just might answer your question. Although we can't promise he'll be polite.
TMUSCLE: What would be the absolute best assistance lifts for the bench press?
Let me start off by saying that the two most important things to improve your bench press are:
Although I'm a bit biased when it comes to programming (see my 5/3/1 Manual as an example of what I consider to be proper programming), just make sure you have a goal and a well thought out (and well mapped out) plan.
Now with the gaining weight issue — I'm expecting someone to hop onto the discussion thread to beak at me about some mythical lifter in an imaginary gym in North Dakota who benches 450 while weighing 135lbs or something ridiculous.
Even if this super-stud is anything more than a figment of your prepubescent imagination, never use the exception to prove the rule. (Please write that last statement on the waistband of your Fruit of the Looms and review daily.)
I can also imagine that the small but painfully vocal segment of 155-pound TMUSCLE readers are rolling their sunken eyes because they're afraid of losing their precious four-packs.
To all the calorie-phobes out there, here's a relevant (I promise) story for you: strength coach Will Heffernan was recently challenged to bench press 180 kilos, which for you Americans who've never bothered to venture beyond our borders is close to 400lbs. Six weeks prior, Will had benched 350lbs.
During the six weeks leading up to his 400lbs. attempt, Will trained his bench only two to three times, but simply ATE his way to achieve a bigger bench press.
Obviously, Will reached his goal (or I'd have been lying about the whole relevant story thing) but he is clearly not alone. If you want to get stronger, especially in the upper body lifts, you're going to have to gain some weight.
Remember what your primary goal is. Your goal is that you want to increase your bench press. You can't then go and put a bunch of limitations on your goal, or you'll simply end up sabotaging yourself.
Psychologically, you're just making it much easier to not reach your goal and have a great excuse already in place to fall back on. Simply put, you're afraid of success and want to fail. So if you want to man up and increase your bench, eat more and train smart.
Now as far as assistance lifts are concerned, you have to look at the bench press and see what muscles are involved in making you stronger. Primary muscles would be the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
Secondary muscles would be the lats, upper back, and biceps. Now since I'm a big fan of training efficiency, I always try to pick exercises that provide a lot of bang-for-the-buck.
Dips — Weighted and non-weighted. I have a raging man-crush on this exercise and feel like it is one of the better exercises I've ever done for my upper body. Also, I get an absolutely obnoxious pump when doing it, so it's great to use before you go out on Friday night.
Dumbbell Bench Press — not much to say about this one except PLEASE use a full range of motion with this. That's why you're using dumbbells.
Military Press — I think this is so important that I use it as a core lift in my own training (and the 5/3/1 program). Strong shoulders are paramount for a strong raw bench press. I always do them standing (that's how you pee, so that's how you press), with NO WIDER than a "thumbs width from smooth" grip, and a false grip. These are done to the front of the face.
Bradford Press — Begin by un-racking a barbell much like you would during a military press. Press the barbell so that it's a couple inches over your head. At this point, lower the barbell behind your head. It should now resemble a behind the neck press.
Press back up so that the bar is a couple inches over your head, and bring the bar back to the front military press position. This would constitute one rep. By not locking out the weight, you're putting the stress on your shoulders and keeping it off your triceps. This is best used for high reps (8-15). (See video at right.)
Weighted Pushups — You can do these while using Blast Straps, pushup handles, or just by placing your hands on the ground. Weighted pushups can be done a variety of ways: chains across the back/neck, bands in the hands/across the back, plates loaded on the back, or using a weighted vest (or a combination of the above).
One of the more popular variations of the weighted push-up looks something like this:
Perform three pushups with your bodyweight. Stay in the top push-up up position while your training partner loads two chains (zig-zag) across your shoulders and back. Perform three more pushups, hold the position again and add two more chains. Keep adding pairs of chains until you can't complete the reps.
At this point, have your training partner take off two chains and continue doing three reps until you finish with your bodyweight.
Now for your upper back and lats, you have to understand the difference between raw benching and shirt benching. When you bench with a bench shirt, the bar is brought out to you farther and the bar touches much lower. When using a shirt you must have strong (and big) lats first, and upper back second. This is because the bar is more "in the lats" than upper back when using equipment.
Now with raw benching, you must have a very strong, stable and large upper back. This is because the bar will touch higher and you should be using a narrower grip — you must be "riding" high on your upper back for optimal support and strength. You don't want to flatten out.
While face pulls and rear raises are good exercises, their limited loading potential makes them more akin to rehab and structural integrity.
For my sake, please don't be that guy trying to max out on the face pull or perform rear delt raises with the 80lb bells, complete with super bent arms and the momentum of a swinging Richard. Please, just don't.
For benching, I've found the rowing variations for building the upper back to be optimal. While I love pull-ups and chin-ups (I always do these, no matter what) it's rowing for your bench that will make a big difference. The key is to row HIGH to your body, with your elbows slightly out. Don't row to your stomach. I recommend using the bent over row, dumbbell row, and TC's personal favorite, the T-bar (thong) row.
For biceps — Do barbell curls. Nothing revolutionary here; just be like Tiger and do them.
To sum up — Get stupid strong up front, and big and stabile in rear.
TM: If you had to choose between the free squat and the box squat, what would you choose?
My no BS, non-PC answer is this: free squats will trump anything in the weight room for sports. The recovery time is slower than box squats, but that should tell you something- it's a harder movement and requires more muscle, coordination, strength, etc.
This is easily seen by leg (quad and hamstring) and glute development of a free squatter vs. a box squatter. Box squatters usually have comparatively poor leg development. Some people will argue that you can make up for it with lunges, step-ups, or something similar. But all this tells me is that you could kill two birds with one stone simply by squatting without a box. (Remember training economy? You should, it's important).
Also, remember that teaching a free squat and having athletes do it correctly isn't as hard as you're probably making it. They DO NOT have to be 100% correct with their form; I'm not even close to what most people will say is perfect squat form, but I still get a lot out of it.
I believe that it's easier to teach box squats, but most of the problems that people have squatting (besides being scared or whatever) stems from lacking the proper mobility. To me, training for sports is two things: 1) Having the mobility to get into the proper position for sporting performance, and 2) Having the strength to maintain the position or move from the position.
That's really it. If someone can perform a free squat correctly, or at least fairly correct, that tells me that they're probably mobile enough to do most anything on the court, ice, or field. (Not always, mind you, but it's a good indicator.) So perhaps those guys who absolutely suck at free squats need their training to address the other problems that they're having.
I also think that three to four workouts to "find" their squat form is fine. You can use these weeks for some lower volume/less intensity work and have them build from there.
But I'm not entirely convinced that one needs to throw away the box squat either as it does have great applications, especially for those with knee problems. And some people are just awful free squatters...AWFUL. For these people, the box is fine.
Just remember that you have to treat the box squat as a separate exercise. Many lifters make the mistake of getting good at box squats, thinking that there is a carryover to free squats; it's only when they go out to free squat and shit themselves miserably that they realize that the carryover is limited at best.
That brings me to something that I've learned the hard way- the box squat transfers better to a geared free squat than to a raw free squat. I've seen this in my own training and countless others. Remember, a squat suit will stop you in the hole, much like a box would. And the suit/briefs will rocket you out of the hole, too.
So getting back to whether to choose a free squat or a box squat, the real question you have to ask is this: is it important to be good at the free squat, or is it just important that you (or your athletes) perform a squatting movement of some type i.e. box, free, Zercher, belt, etc?
You have to determine that for yourself, but in a perfect world, the free squat would be the number one squatting exercise for me.
TM: If you had to pick one piece of equipment to target the posterior chain, what would you choose?
I'm assuming you mean between the 45-degree back raise, glute-ham raise and Reverse Hyperextension. All three of these pieces are very good and all have their place in a lifter's arsenal. Of course, some might be better for you than others. Here are some of the pros and cons of each.
Reverse Hyperextension — This machine is the brainchild of Louie Simmons of the world famous Westside Barbell. Louie has had numerous back problems from a lifetime of extreme lifting. After several injuries, Louie took it upon himself to rehab himself and the idea for the Reverse Hyperextension was born.
With this in mind, the Reverse Hyper is probably best suited for those that need to rehab a bad back, can't do standard back exercises (such as deadlifts or good mornings), but still want to maintain a strong and healthy back. I like to use higher reps with this exercise as I think it's great to force blood into the muscle, but beware- the high reps will pump up your lower back and make you squirm on the ground from the outrageous pump.
Combine this piece, the glute ham raise, and belt squat and you have the perfect lower body exercises for in-season athletes and those with bad backs, shoulders, or anything injured above the waist. This is the most expensive piece of equipment of the three but it can also really help someone with a bad back — and you can't put a price on that.
45 Degree Back Raise — This piece is probably the best for beginners and it's easier to load than a standard back raise. The problem with most 45-degree back raises is that they suck! The second you put a bar on your back the thing will tip over. If you can find one that is built with some heft and nice pair of balls (like the one we sell at EliteFTS) then you're in luck.
Getting in and out of our Pro 45 degree back raise is easy and you can perform multiple reps with heavy weight (185lbs) without the machine moving. Performing back raises on this (with a barbell) is about the same as doing a strict good morning; you will get incredible hamstring and low back work.
Glute Ham Raise — Of all the pieces on this list, this is probably the one I've done the most. Having strong hamstrings is paramount for any athlete or lifter and the GHR fits the bill perfectly. Besides performing the glute ham raise, you can also perform back raises.
Now the loading is going to be a little more difficult than the 45 degree back raise, but you can still wear a weight vest, hold dumbbells, or hold a barbell across the back (you'll need a training partner for the latter). Of course, you can also perform weighted sit-ups on the GHR, which was a staple of my arsenal when I was a competitive powerlifter.
The good thing with each of these pieces is that you're not going to make a bad decision. If I had to pick between the three, I'd choose a glute ham raise with a split pad. GHR's are a great exercise, you can perform back raises comfortably with a split pad and do weighted sit-ups. You just can't go wrong.
TM: My mom just gave me a set of pots and pans for Christmas. Jim, I don't even cook! So I'm planning on returning them and getting something that might help with my training. Any ideas?
First of all, you don't need pots and pans. You need a pot and a pan. The pan is to cook (many) grilled cheese sandwiches. Grilled cheese fucking rules and should be eaten three to four times a day as I've found a direct correlation between being awesome and the uninhibited consumption of grilled cheese.
As for the pot, you need that to cook and sterilize your Fina. That should be a given.
So make sure you have a pan big enough to cook 2-3 grilled cheese at once and a pot big enough to house a massive bottle of Fina.
Now take the rest of the shit back to Macy's or wherever you buy pots and pans and pocket the money. Now if you want to use the money to assist your training, we must first examine what can help you achieve your goals.
1. Brains — can't really buy this. Sorry Corky.
2. Balls — can't buy this either, unless you're into tea bagging.
3. Grilled cheese ingredients — you think I'm joking about this? I don't joke. Ever.
4. BIOTEST® GROW!™ Bioactive Whey Protein. Apparently it costs about the same as as the cheap stuff that Wal-Mart sells, which is nice unless you're the type of guy who likes to fart in crowded elevators. But until they make a grilled cheese flavor I will refrain from plugging the product too enthusiastically.
5. My 5/3/1 Manual. Sure, it's only 20 bucks, but you can probably spend 8 hours searching articles online and piece the program together yourself. I mean, really, fuck that Wendler guy. What has he ever done for you, anyway?
The Bradford Press.
The 45-Degree Back Extension.
Definitely not demonstrated by Jim Wendler.
The Glute Ham Raise, top position, as demonstrated by Jim Wendler.
The Reverse Hyper, starting and end position.
The classic dip.
The Reverse Hyperextension.
The Box Squat.
The box squat is much easier to teach. Seriously. That's why they do it.
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