Thursday, May 24, 2018

(Complete) Shrug Training for the Bench Press

This stuff was referred to earlier in this article:

Back in the fifties, the common questions among weight men were "How much can you curl?" or "How much can you press?" meaning military-style overhead. The bench press had none of the popularity that it has now that it has become a standard of measuring another's strength.

Physical strength, that is. Mental strength, well, we have a few sorta somewhat believable methods of measuring that. Moral strength? Good luck with measuring that, Sir or Ma'am! It's hard enough just determining what morality even is anymore, isn't it. Right. Wrong. Good. Evil. Are "things" and behaviors we put under our little moral microscope good or evil or some of each in varying degrees at different moments in the fluidity of life depending on the convenient whims of us human types? Snakes, bats, and rats are nasty bad things, that we've determined for certain. Bugs that bite too. And I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say people who eat their own children generally don't vacillate much between those markers of good and evil. But you never know. First, attend Timmy and Tammy's Christmas Concert, then, it's a winter wonderland drive back home in the snow and the two tykes are prepped and placed in the oven at 350 for five hours. All's well again, and no matter the sound of roaring silence heard every second night just before the sun fully sets: when the never-ending, ever-expanding and contracting movement of life, no matter how much you wish it would end or at least put itself on pause for a breath screams the indecipherable in your head and then, the sun sets again and all's well. Morning does come. Bacon, eggs, pancakes with organic syrup of some sort and another needle in the bum before heading off to the gym. Bank statement tally, the holiness of capital gained, ambitions realized, sweet smell of success, trrrrrruck running swell, bliss of the banal unquestioned, all these things we never speak of except in the mirror every third week of May. Oh My God! Is it the fourth week of May already? Even though it may not really exist it sure does fly, eh.

Okay, enough already, no one's reading this for that. Speakin' of reading, here's a book I'm liking:
"My Impending Death - or - The Fool's Soliloquy" by Michael Laser (2015). Check it out.

Yes! Check It Out. With Dr. Steve Brule.
The appropriate symbols he then continued to type . . .

I would still vote for the clean and jerk as a fine indicator of combined strength and athletic ability, but doubt I'd get much support from powerlifters. Some weightlifters and others put down powerlifting, saying it's all brute strength requiring no technique. How wrong they are. Let's get back to bench press training and styles and discuss the "Lateral Arch" and the concept of the "Shrug Hold." 

For years magazine articles about the bench concentrated on lockout problems, hand and arm positions, "finding the right groove" and so forth. Less has been written about the initial drive off the chest than any other stage of the lift. Use of bench shirts has of course modified this equation somewhat; many shirts deliver considerable help getting the bar started off the chest and some super-duper shirts turn the lift into something resembling a partial press lockout. 

Watching top lifters can be revealing. At least two schools of thought about the role of the shoulder girdle in bench pressing are current in the gyms. One is the more traditional style familiar to most trainees, and the other is the exaggerated arching that is becoming very widespread, although not everyone is suited to it. Sivokon of Kazakhstan, who has won seven IPF men's open world championships and five bench press world championships the last time I counted, does not have an exaggerated lower back arch. Japan's benchers won both the men and women's team bench press titles at the world meet in 2001 and exemplify the use of extreme arches in both directions.

 Alexei Sivokon

 There have always been differences in technique and always will be because of the variety of body types and leverages among lifters. The more traditional school might call for lowering the bar to the "high point of the chest" and rotating the elbows out during the lift, while the new breed lowers to the upper abs and keeps the elbows in. We have all seen some lifters who mix the two and have read articles with contradictory opinions.

I do not pretend to be an authority on bench technique, but I do have some ideas for aiding the bench press, whatever the style used.

The Flare or "Roll" School

What is the first thing that happens when the lifter begins to press? Most would say arm or explosion in order to gain enough height to allow the elbows to rotate into position (if that is the technique used) to begin the follow-through to lockout. Well, look again. Powerlifting great Rickey Dale Crain and others have pointed out that the pectorals come into major play first in the bench press -- or should -- followed by anterior deltoids and triceps.

Not only is there pectoral contraction and arm drive, but also a spreading of the lats and a shoulder thrust upward. The bar can be raised several inches with this spread and roll technique alone. Thick, strong lats are important in this style of benching, especially while the bar is being lowered into position and in the initial thrust.

Not all lifters do this lat flare or roll, as it is variously called. Some do it on purpose, some don't know how to do it, and some do it without realizing it. Many of the best do use this technique. Record breaker Rick Weill wrote about it in PLUSA in the late '80s, for one, describing the use of the back spread and shoulder girdle movement as a timed and sequential part of the lift requiring considerable practice.


Chiropractor, lifter, and author Keith Wassung (Yeah, Baby!) has written about it in his column on the Cyberpump website.

Here's the essentials of that, by Keith Wassung:


* An often-overlooked component of the bench press is the use and development of the muscles of the back and in particular the lats. Very few lifters utilize the strength of the lats in their bench press and when they are able to incorporate lat contraction into their exercises, immediate increase is always achieved. Here is how you incorporate the lats into your bench press: Take an empty bar or even a wooden rod and assume the bench press position. Lower the bar to the chest and pause. Instead of driving the weight up with the arms, contract or flare the lats in an outward direction. If you have decent lat development, you should see the bar move several inches off the chest. This takes practice to utilize the lats in this manner, but be persistent and practice over and over with an empty bar, gradually adding weight as you get used to the movement. The eventual goal is to use the lats as sort of a cushion or coiled spring when lowering the bar and then contracting them strongly on the initial drive at the same time you are pressing with the arms. DO NOT walk into the gym tomorrow and attempt this with your max poundage if you do you will fail. I have worked with athletes who have increased their maximum bench press anywhere from 20-50lbs within 2 weeks as a result of using this technique. This also requires strong well-developed lats, which are developed by chins and rowing.*

Using the movements I call the Bench Shrug, the Shrug Dip, Spring Set Shrug and even the Lat Shrug can develop the spread and thrust. However, full range of motion rows and chins for the lats and other upper back muscles should not be neglected.

on the other hand . . . 

The Retraction School

As pointed out to me by USAPL lifter Collin Rhodes, there are two distinct arches in bench pressing. Everyone has seen the extreme bow or bridge that many lifters achieve in their lower back as they lie lenghwise on the bench. Collin is an example of this style.

Collin Rhodes

This raises the high point on the chest where the bar touches when lowered, and provides even a decline effect to the lift for some people.

The second, or "Lateral Arch" is formed as the shoulder blades are pinched together back against the bench throughout the lift, which also raises the chest. According to Rhodes, one should assume the lateral arch (pinched position) before the handoff and reset it after the handoff to make sure of maximum positioning. Otherwise, the lateral arch may flatten out during the eccentric part of the lift. Also, he attempts to "pull the bar apart" while lowering it, as if to stretch the bar out longer. The tension created is translated through the arms to the upper back and provides him with stored "extra energy" when he starts the bar back up.

This benching style uses no shoulder roll, except possibly toward the very finish of the lift. Rhodes states that he never uses the shoulder roll during the execution of the lift until he received the finishing rack command. He warns against translating the movement of the Bench Shrug into the actual bench press. He believes it is wrong to "shrug" the bar up during the completion of the press and that the shoulders should be kept in "the utmost rearward rotation possible throughout" the bench press movement.

Okay. How do we do that? What shrug training is possible to maximize lateral arch effectiveness and to maintain that pinched-together rear position? I had worked on nothing but my Texas book after my last training articles were published in 1993. When that manuscript was finished, I switched to literary fiction, and sent back only powerlifting contest reports from Asia and journalistic pieces about the Byzantine internal politics of the IPF. Frankly, I was burned out on training questions.

At Collin's prodding questions, I hit the gym and began tinkering with shrug techniques to apply to this "new" trend in benching.

Rhodes and I traded emails throughout 2001 and he experimented in his training with the shrug variations we discussed to strengthen his lateral arch. He tried half-a-dozen or more movements but settled on the following.

1) Narrow Grip Chinning Bar Shrugs with 50-75 pounds on a belt for 3 sets of 6.

2) Williams Shrugs on a chest supported T-Bar rowing machine with a three- to four-count hold at the top of each rep. He uses five to six 45-lb plates on the plate holder for 2 sets of 6.

3) Cable Crossover Shrugs using crossover cables in the high setting, standing. Collin puts about 240 pounds on each side and leans back slightly, trying to emulate a position similar to that when lying on the bench. He rotates his scapulae back into the lateral arch position, holds, and repeats this shrug-and-hold pattern 3 sets of 8. There is no crossover motion on these, of course. The machine he uses is a double-pulley model, so that real poundage in use is somewhat less than stated.

4) Regular Standing DB Shrugs with a slight forward lean. 2 x 8 with a pair of 140 pounders, done one arm at a time. 

He also does Bench Shrugs, but more for stability than for raw strength, using about 500 for 3 x 6 reps. All the shrugs are done on his bench support work day (Friday), except for the Bench Shrug, which is done on his regular bench day (Monday).

Summing up, then, it would appear that the Bench Shrug would be of more use to "flare" or "roll" technique benchers, as it is similar to part of the actual lift. It may be used by lifters using the "lateral arch" as a strength and stability builder, but it should not be incorporated into that pressing style. Also, when I say "Don't bend at the elbows" with these movements, I should add that really means don't pull or push with the arms. Locking the elbows completely may be uncomfortable or even dangerous to the joint.

Chinning Bar Shrugs

Frankly, I am astonished that Collins or anyone else can do a "shrug" up toward a chinning bar using scapular rotation with a weight belt loaded to as much as 75 pounds, especially considering the difficulty many heavier people have doing regular chins with no weight. This is not an easy movement to learn for most people and I recommend -- nay, insist -- that the reader start out light on the overhead lat pulldown machine. Lean slightly back and pull toward the collarbones without bending the arms. I further suggest trying a "normal" grip spacing for openers and experimenting from there. I have long arms. A narrow grip makes the move more difficult for me.

This is another example of a shrug movement that has not been taken to its full potential by weight trainers.

Cable Crossover Machine Shrugs

The lifter stands in "crucifix" position between the uprights in the machine with the cables set in the high pulley position. Or, like Rhodes, he leans slightly to the rear, emulating the position taken on the bench during a competition lift when establishing a Lateral Arch, and shrugs the scapulae together without bending the arms. The contraction is held for three or four counts. An-a one, an-a two, an-a buckle my shoe. The weights are then returned to the starting position under control rather than just more or less released. 3 sets of 8 is a good working scheme. Please read Chapter Two of Kelso's Shrug Book for more on this.

I believe this movement, coupled with holds, will prove to be a winner. Chicken dinner. White meat. Sandwiches from leftovers. Quite dry at times.

Shrug Holds

Just what the word says and means. This can be applied in any contraction with any shrug variation. Hold the contraction for an extra count -- four may be optimum -- an-a three, an-a four, an-a drop them drawers -- before releasing into the negative part of the movement. This next statement is as unscientific as it can be, but I suspect these holds reach deep-seated muscle fibers that may not be completely worked in "normal" full-range exercise motions. I agree completely!

The Bench Shrug

Yes, I explained this exercise in Chapter Two of Kelso's Shrug Book, but I'll repeat myself here for your benefit.

Take the position on the bench. Hand spacing should be the same as regularly used for benching, or perhaps a finger width or two closer together. Lower the bar with straight arms toward your chest by dropping the shoulders down toward the bench and crunching the shoulder blades (scapulae) together.

Force the bar upward by spreading the scapulae out to the sides like a lat spread while raising the shoulders off the bench.

Use pectoral contraction to roll the shoulders up and in toward the sternum. Keep the arms straight at all times during the movement. The bar will travel only three or four inches either way. Not only will your initial drive be improved by raising the bar this way but control when lowering the bar to begin the bench press will increase.

Do not use a bench shirt with this exercise. You may find yourself having to readjust it after every rep. Also, there is no reason to do a big lower back arch or bridge with this movement. It would restrict the spread and contraction.

Always have spotters within spitting distance when doing the bench shrug. It's performed with straight arms and can easily move off line. Power racks work great when lifting alone. Just set the pins slightly below the point of bar travel (with scapulae fully retracted together back toward the bench), lock out, and begin. Start out with a weight that can be benched 8-10 reps until you have learned the movement and then add poundage over time.

Oh yeah, the power rack is absolutely your best friend if you train alone. Two days ago I was doing neck presses and work/playing on getting that thing Larry Scott mentioned in a V-Dip article a couple posts earlier going in with 'em. "Pry the elbows forward and at the same time pull the elbows together using the pulling power of the pecs rather than the pushing power of the triceps." When you use a false grip and place your hands so that the bar is across your palms in more of a diagonal fashion it's easier to get the motion you're after. Of course, the false grip can be iffy, especially if you's is-are concentrating on other things going on during the lift than holding the bar. You wanna think and feel it in terms of the muscles you're focusing on, not the weight, not the bar, not the weight on the bar in this case. Focusing on the muscles you're after contracting deliciously, delightfully, fuck you if you don't like itfully, as if there wasn't even a bar being moved. Just that contraction and that muscle working, right zoned in on that. So, if you ever are doing what I just described there, which I highly doubt, try to make your grip on the bar with that false grip/diagonal bar on the palm placement a strong given that isn't ever relaxed, he interjected.

Yes, you could do a "lockout shrug" by setting the pins a notch or so higher; that would mean starting the movement with the scapulae slightly spread.

It's common for a lifter to eventually handle several reps in the bench shrug with the same wieght that should read weight as his best single bench press, or even more. I suspect that lifters who approach competition record levels will find 90% of their best single max the limit, but this will vary. I am talking about doing these without a bench shirt and see no reason to use one. In fact a shirt may make the bar difficult to reposition at the start of each rep, he repeated.

Ken Leistner reported good results similar to those I mentioned in The Steel Tip, Feb. 1986, where he suggested adding two sets of bench shrugs at the end of a bench press workout. I concur, my good man. Some lifters, after implementing these bench shrugs, have reported a gain of twenty pounds on their bench after one month.

This had two causes: added shoulder girdle strength and control, coupled with learning to use the upward shrug and roll during the initial drive. However, if you do not use the "roll" and opt for the "lateral arch" this movement will still greatly strengthen the shoulder girdle for whatever purpose. 

It's possible to do this movement on incline or decline benches but it's trickier to control and limited in range.  

Olympic lifters may want to try it on the incline as a support move for the clean and jerk.   

Weightlifters have been using scapular rotation as an exercise with the bar locked out overhead since the early 1930s, according to the late Chester Teegarden. I hope he gets here soon because we were all expecting him earlier.  Lowering and raising the bar in this manner greatly strengthens the shoulder girdle, but I advise starting light and working up. I'd advise caution when using a snatch grip overhead, but lifters have done it that way for decades and many still do.

The Shrug Dip

These dips are the direct negative of the regular standing shrug. These should be done immediately following parallel bar dips or decline benches. The lifter assumes the position for dips but raises and lowers the body on straight arms by allowing the shoulders to rise toward the ears and then lifting the body forcing the shoulders down using pectoral, latissimus, and serratus contractions. The use of a heavily loaded weight belt is a must if Shrug Dips are intended as an assistance exercise for the bench press.

Bodybuilders can use these, too (or any of the variations). I mentioned elsewhere (Chapter Two of Kelso's Shrug Book) that former Mr. America Bob Gajda and his Chicago gang called these Monkey Dips. They are a favorite with the Iron Jungle club members who posed for some of the photos in my shrug book.

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