You've been on this great new shoulder and chest routine for six weeks. It's been working wonders. You see all kinds of new delt and pec growth. Man, are you pleeezed!
Then . . . whap!
You wreck a shoulder. Hell's bells. Now you can't bench. Not even the empty bar. You can't afford to lose any of that hard-won, wonderful muscle . . .
So, what now?
I was in the Williams College weight room, waiting for the area designated for lifting off the floor to clear out so I could do some power cleans. I had just finished working with a group of young athletes from the Top Gun Lacrosse Camp and now it was time to do some training. The person using the area finished off his set of upright rows, then started unloading the bar and put it in the middle of the rubber mat before someone else decided it was the perfect spot to do some curls.
Before I had a chance to do my first set, a well built young man approached me, saying, "Excuse me. I noticed you working with those kids from the lacrosse camp. I asked the guy at the desk about you and he said you were the coach at John Hopkins. I've read some of your articles and our coach in high school used your Big Three program.
Could I ask you a few questions?"
"Sure," I replied, for flattery works wonders. And I had to be available until the gym closed at 5:30 anyway. "What do you want to know?'
He introduced himself and told me briefly his problem. His name was Kyle. He lived in Williamstown but went to college in Boston. He played hockey for Boston College and had been training with weights since high school. "But now," he said languidly, "I'm really down about my shoulder and chest training."
He sighed and replied, "About two months ago, a bunch of us were playing volleyball and I dove for a ball. I jammed my right shoulder. it hurt, but I kept on playing. I though I had just bruised it but the next day I couldn't bench much at all. I mean, not even the empty bar. I went to the doctor and he said to rest it. So I did for a few weeks, but when I tried to come back and use a light weight, it still killed me. I've quit doing them altogether," he added forlornly.
I wasn't sure whether he wanted me to give him a rehab program for his bad shoulder of suggest some alternatives. I decided to start with alternatives. "The bench press is not the only good shoulder and chest exercise, you know."
"I know this," he grumbled, "but I still hate not being able to bench like I used to. I go into the school gym and and see guys I used to out-bench by 100 pounds and now they're doing more than I can. I guess it makes me mad more than anything."
"That's understandable. Any athlete hates injuries more than sin. There are two ways you can go. I can show you some rehab exercises for your bad shoulder or I can outline a program that doesn't include the bench press. A program that will enable you to build a great deal of strength in your shoulder girdle."
"I've got two months before fall practice starts. Would that be enough time to build my shoulders back up?"
"Sure, plenty of time."
"What exercises are you talking about?"
"Exercises that will not irritate your bad shoulder. Can you do inclines?"
"I'm not sure. I've never tried them since I was hurt."
"How about overhead presses or dips?"
"I know I can overhead press but I've been afraid to try dips."
"Alright. The first step is to find out just what you can do. Try some inclines. Just use an empty bar and do a set very slowly. I need to find out what movements irritate your bad shoulder."
"He did a few reps on the incline and said, "These feel fine. They don't bother my shoulder at all."
"That's good. You can use it as one of your primary shoulder exercises."
"You like the incline, don't you? I see you showing all the kids."
I nodded, saying, I really think the incline is a much better shoulder exercise than the bench press. Especially for athletes. The incline works all the muscle groups that make up the shoulder girdle: high portion of the chest, all three heads of the deltoids as well as the three parts of the triceps. These muscles are the ones involved in the acts of throwing, catching, blocking, tackling. Since these muscle groups help secure the shoulder joint, they are especially valuable to the athlete, who is, like yourself, engaged in a contact sport. Strong muscles help prevent injuries."
I've seen people do inclines, but never as a strength movement. They usually do it for fairly high reps after their benches."
"This is true, but before the bench press became the test of shoulder strength, the incline and the other two lifts I'm going to see if you can do, the overhead press and the dip, were the exercises used to test overall shoulder power. Some of the top strength athletes in the late 1950's and early 60's, like Parry O'brien, Dallas Long, Randy Matson Al Oerter and Harold Connolly could handle enormous weight in the incline and every one of these athletes had massive shoulder development. Mid-400 inclines were not all that rare."
I could see that he was impressed, so I pushed my point. "One aspect of the incline that I really like, especially for any athlete, is that there is no effective way to cheat on the lift. I've seen lifters squirm around so much doing a bench press that it looks more like a gymnastic event than an exercise. Some jerk the bar around like it's electrified. Others bounce the bar off their chests so violently that I expect to see them cough up blood. I've seen some bridge so high off the bench that I'm certain they're going to strain their backs during the lift."
Kyle laughed. "I know what you mean. We have one guy at school that rebounds the bar off his chest, then bridges it on up. He's been using the exact same weight for three years."
"Chances are pretty good that he'll be using that same weight for the next three years. This is one reason the incline works so well. If a lifter tries to bounce the bar off his chest or bridge, these cheating movements not only don't help, but they adversely affect the lift. So, the incline has to be done very correctly and because of this, the athlete ends up working the exact muscle groups he wants to work and no others. As a result, strength gains come much more rapidly."
"I really don't care how much I can incline. I do care how much I can bench press though," he said staunchly. "We're only tested on the bench press."
"Your attitude might change about the incline after you've done them for a couple of months and feel the benefits. An added bonus to keep in mind is that if you work hard on the incline and move it up forty or fifty pounds over the next few months, the strength you've gained will convert very directly to your bench press. And in the process, you'll find that these exercises will help rehab your bad shoulder most effectively."
He frowned and asked most incredulously, "You mean my bench press will get strong from doing inclines?"
"I mean exactly that. I had a number of lacrosse players at school who were unable to do benches, usually due to some sort of injury. They worked very hard on their incline for a few months, then tested their shoulder strength on the bench to see if they had, as I told them, gotten stronger. Every one of them added no less than 20 pounds to their bench without doing a single repetition on the flat bench."
"Alright, I'm willing to give them a try. Since I've never really done these, except with dumbbells, guide me through a few sets."
I looked to see if my pulling station was still there. It wasn't. Two older men were doing a bentover roe, er, row and my narrative, um, bar had been stripped of its, dang it, fourth wall. "I'll do some with you," I said, loading the bar to 95 pounds. "This is one exercise that requires a spotter. It may appear to be a safe movement, but the problems occur when the lifter tries to replace the weight back in the uprights. Often, he fails to put the bar in the uprights correctly and it either goes falling backwards or it comes crashing down on him. I've also seen lifters throw the weight back so forcefully that it comes rebounding out of the uprights. With the bar directly over the lifter's head, it can be very dangerous, so have someone help you take the bar from the uprights and also to replace it. I'll hand it to you on the count of three."
His first reps were rough. The bar waved around like it was trying to get away from him. I took the bar from him and put it back in the uprights. "It might help to see the correct form" I got on the bench, ignored the sounds of a roe v male threeway nearby, had him hand me the weight and did a few reps while saying, "When you take the weight from your spotter make sure you have complete control of it. Slowly lower the bar to your chest, letting it touch very high on your chest, right where your breast bone meets your collarbones. Always make sure you touch your chest on every rep for many more muscles are brought into play when this is done. Keep your elbows turned outward during the entire lift. The elbows never tuck in close to your body as they do during a bench press. The bar should go up in a perfectly straight line. When the weight gets heavy, the bar will try to go forward, but you must control it and maintain a straight line of movement. Pretend you're in a Smith machine and are moving the bar perfectly straight. The movement both up and down should be very smooth with no herky-jerky motions. When you've finished your last rep, tell your spotter and have him assist you in placing the bar back in the uprights safely."
He did three more sets, working up to 155 for 5 quite easily. On each subsequent set his form improved considerably. "Very good," I said. "You're a fast learner."
"I try to hit my nose with the bar going up and that helps. I can do more."
I know you can but I want you to save some energy for the other exercises I'm going to show you. Let's go find out if you can do dips."
He gingerly lowered himself between the dip bars. After six reps, he stopped and said, "I can feel them, but they really don't hurt me. Nothing like the flat bench hurts me. These are good for shoulders too?"
"Absolutely. Once more, I'll go back to a few years ago before the bench press came into such prominence as a shoulder girdle exercise. Many of the top strength athletes, including Olympic lifters, used the dip to increase their shoulder strength and some used a great deal of weight. Like the incline, there is no effective way to cheat on the dip. It is a pure shoulder exercise."
"How much weight did they use?"
"Marvin Eder was the uncontested king of this exercise. He could do reps with 300 pounds hanging from him and, due to his dipping power, was able to bench press 510 while weighing but 200 pounds. Another advocate of the dip was Pat Casey, the first man to bench press 600. He did 617 in 1965 and dipped twice a week, even though he weighed in the high 200's."
"I don't think I can use any weight on these."
"You don't have to. In fact even if you weren't nursing a bad shoulder, you shouldn't add any weight for a few weeks. Spend some time learning proper form and establishing a base. Start out by doing four sets of as many reps as you can do. When you can do 4 x 20 then you can start adding some weight. Use 25 pounds and drop the reps back to 8 or 10."
He set himself up for another set, then asked, "How low should I go?"
"As low as you can without irritating your shoulder. If going real low hurts, cut them off a bit. You're still going to be working your frontal deltoids, your chest where it ties in with your shoulders, and your triceps. Do these rhythmically, don't drop to the bottom position. Lower yourself slowly and when you are as low as you want to go, drive forcefully to the top."
"What if there isn't a dip belt in the gym?"
"You can work fairly heavy using dumbbells. Hold one snugly between your knees and lift your lower legs backwards to secure them." I grabbed a 40 pounder and demonstrated what I wanted him to do. "Most people can manage up to a 100 pound dumbbell in this fashion but anything heavier becomes awkward. At that stage, I suggest you invest in a dip belt."
"I've seen guys doing those at school and they sometimes start swinging around. It looked dangerous."
"You're right, it is. This is one precaution you must take when you do weighted dips. Do not allow the weight to move around for this puts a great stress on the shoulders. If the shoulders happen to be fatigued, or like in your case, recovering from an injury, you can hurt yourself badly."
"What can I do to stop the swinging motion?"
"I've found that if I pull a bench up next to the dip bars, fix the weights firmly between my legs, then ease myself onto the bars, I stay in control. If I set up correctly for my first rep, I'm generally fine, but if I get raggedy on that first rep, things get progressively worse and I start moving like a pendulum. The best thing to do if you start swinging a lot is to stop, reset and start the set over."
"Some of the guys like to put the weight behind their legs."
"This works. Whatever is comfortable. I prefer gripping the weight between my knees, but behind the knees is alright if it helps to maintain control. Having the bench close is also helpful once you've finished the set because you really don't want to drop the weights all the way to the floor when you're tired. You can simply step back on the bench and place the weights on it."
"I gotcha. Earlier you mentioned overhead presses. Anything special I need to know about those?"
"Are you doing them standing, seated, with dumbbells or a bar?"
"I've been doing them seated, with a bar. I used to do behind the necks, but I can't do them at all since my injury. Which is better?"
"They're all useful. Seated is probably better for most people for these don't require as much technique as that standing press. And there's less risk of hurting your lower back on the seated press. I would forget the behind the neck presses entirely. I've seen more shoulder injuries from this exercise than any other. It just puts too much strain on the shoulders. Some people do them and benefit, but I really believe that pressing the weight in front of the shoulders is much better for more weight can be used in the front than it can in the back and it is much safer. If a person feels like he has to do some behind the necks for whatever reason, he should do them with a very light weight and keep the reps in the 12-15 range."
"Are dumbbells any good?"
"Very good for variety. Whenever you use dumbbells, you have to control the weight more than if you use a bar and this brings in some newer muscle groups. They are especially good for light days."
"Watch my form on my seated press."
His form was perfect and I told him so. Then he said, "Show me the proper way to do standing presses. I've always wanted to learn how to do those. There's a gym off campus that has pictures of
. . . pressing these huge weights. I have never seen such shoulders as they have."
"That's quite a group. They were all world record holders in the Press and you're right, they all had shoulders that could fill any doorway. They all built those shoulders by pressing. Ernie did a few bench presses, but all the rest did was the press."
"Show me. I want shoulders like that."
"I can't guarantee you'll look like March, but I will show you."
We walked to the squat rack and loaded the bar to 95 pounds. "Take the bar out of the rack and step back a bit so you won't hit it. Your feet should be at shoulder width. Your grip should be just outside your shoulders. Lift your frontal deltoids up and rest the bar across them. You don't want the bar to rest on your collarbones. Keep your wrists perfectly straight and elbows slightly down. Your entire body should be tight before you press, from your feet up through your legs, hips, back and shoulders. Press the weight from your body like were pressing from a solid rack. Drive the bar straight upward, right past the tip of your nose. Keep your chin tucked to your body, you never want to look up at the bar for this will cause you to lean backward."
He did his first rep easily and used correct form, but when he locked out, it wobbled and he had to step back.
"This tell you that you drove the bar too far backward. If you have to step forward, it means you drove the bar too far forward. You want it to move in a straight line. Hold your lockout a bit longer. The act of supporting a heavy weight directly overhead works many muscles in your back and shoulders that are not normally worked. Don't allow the bar to crash back to your chest. Lower it slowly and under control."
Holding the bar overhead, he asked, "When should I breathe?"
"The rhythm of breathing generally comes naturally, but for now, inhale and exhale at the start and again at the lockout. Hold your breath while you're pressing until it gets heavy, then you should learn to breathed just as soon as it passes through the sticking point at the top of your head."
He finished his set, replaced the bar, then said, "I felt myself leaning back on my last rep. Is there anything I can do to prevent me from leaning back? I don't think that's so good for my lower back."
"You can try moving your feet a bit closer. Some bring their heels together so they won't lay back too much. If you find that you're still laying back, I suggest that you switch to the dumbbells. There's no possible way for you to lay back when using them."
"I like this idea. How should I work them into a program? I plan to work out three times a week."
"Incorporate the heavy, light and medium system.
Intro to basic Bill Starr layouts and heavy, light, medium here:
Make the inclines your heavy day exercise, the dips your light day and overhead presses your medium day."
"But you said I should work them all hard. Are you saying I should only use light weight for my dips?"
"No, the heavy, light and medium concept does not mean that you can take it easy on the light and medium days, but rather indicates the amount of weight you're going to handle on the three different exercises. For example, you should, seeing how much you benched before the injury, be able to do 250 for reps in the incline fairly quickly. If you work hard on the other two lifts, you should be somewhere around 125 for reps in the dip and 200 in the overhead press. The relative differences in the weights used is what makes them heavy, light and medium days.
"I follow, 250 is heavier than 125 and so on."
"Right. The lifts dictate the sequence. Being a light day does not mean that you get to work any easier for you will still be going 100% on your dips and overhead presses."
"What about sets and reps for each exercise?"
"Until you learn the form for the incline and overhead, stay with the basic 5 sets of 5 reps. I've already told you how to work into the dips. Do them without any added weight until you can do 4 sets of 20. Once you feel confident in your form, start changing the set and rep sequence every week."
"One workout, for any of the three lifts, do 3 sets of 5 as warmups, then do 3 sets of 3, going just as heavy as you can on the last set. The following week, do 3 sets of 5 followed by 3-4 sets of 2 reps. The next week, go back to the 5 x 5 again. About once a month, work up and hit a max single. Any time you do the 3s, 2s, or singles, throw in a couple of back-off sets of 8 to increase your workload.
"The lower reps using heavy weight will strengthen the attachments; ligaments and tendons, while the higher reps will hit the muscles more. The variety will keep your body off balance and this is necessary for continuous progress."
"Question. Should I do all three lifts in the same set and rep sequence the same week or should I mix them around?"
"Whatever works best for you. Some like to do heavy doubles on all three of the lifts in the same week, while others feel they make better gains by doing triples on the incline, fives on the dips and singles on the press in successive workouts. A bit of trial and error is in order before you'll come up with the best formula for you."
"Should I do anything else for my shoulders?"
"If you work these three exercises hard you will not want to do much more for your shoulders in the way of heavy work, but you can do some extra work with lighter weights. After you've done your primary shoulder exercise, you can do 2-3 sets of: front raises with dumbbells, lateral raises with dumbbells, and upright rows. Keep the reps high, 12-15. The high reps will force you to use a lighter weight and this will keep you from overtraining."
"I think I know how to do all those. I think your pulling station has cleared out."
I looked and saw he was right. I hurried over to it and set up my bar once again. Kyle said, "I have some things about diet I want to ask you, but I'll do it while you lift. You look like you're in a hurry."
"I don't want to be late for the gourmet salmon roe dinner at camp," I replied and did my first power clean.
Enjoy Your Lifting!