By: Josh Henkin It seems that most articles written today are trying to improve your bench press. It makes sense though, what other exercise is more of a measure of your gym success (excuse the sarcasm)? However, if you want real success in the gym, whether it be increasing strength, losing bodyfat, or gaining muscle, you will also have to be proficient in other exercises like pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, and other complex movements. Although no one ever asks what how much you pull-up, these exercises are crucial for development of major muscle groups. Yes, improving some of these other lifts can actually improve your bench, but becoming obsessed with the bench press is a classic gym mistake. Here are what I see are the top five weak links for most people.
1. Weak Upper Back: Now this may seem an odd weakness since many individuals will have a back day in their program. However, many times this only consists of doing some lat pulldowns and very sloppy rowing movements. If this was not a true weakness in many people, you wouldn’t see horribly hunched shoulders or nearly as many rotator cuff injuries. What should you do? If you have a severe imbalance between the chest and back then you may need as much as eight weeks of no benching movements. This layoff may greatly improve your bench so don’t be scared to stop benching for this time. If the problem still persists, or you are just beginning to realize a problem developing, then you might want to use a 2:1 ratio of pulling to horizontal pushing movements. What exercises are good? Basically anything that requires pulling a weight towards your body (most rowing movements, or pulldowns), or pulling your body towards an object (modified pull-ups, and chin-up variations). Let me say this, a pull-down and chin-ups are not the same! I am always disappointed in the lack of chin-up strength that most display. There are many ways of progressing to perform chin-ups. The grip to start with is semi-supinated (palms facing each other). Using this grip you can start to progress toward doing your first chin-up. You can perform an assisted chin-up by having a spotter hold your ankles assisting you through the concentric and eccentric phases. You may even want someone to spot you through the concentric (raising phase) and just try to lower yourself for a 5-second count. The second option is perform negatives. Negatives are performed by stepping upon something to get you above the bar and then lowering yourself for five seconds. You may choose to do this for a total 15-20 repetitions using as many sets as needed to accomplish these repetitions.
2. Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO): This muscle is one of the four that make up the quadriceps. So, you do lots of leg extensions and leg presses you say? Sorry, even though the VMO is worked in these movements, I never find it adequate in developing VMO strength. How do I know? Simply watching someone squat can tell a lot, you can see flexibility problems and strength imbalances. It is very common to see the knees buckle as someone descends into the squat position. Yes, this can be caused by other problems, but that is why I perform several tests to confirm this initial finding. The knee will also tend to buckle on several other exercises such as step-ups, or split squats. So, what is the big deal of not having a strong VMO? There has been plenty of research to show that one of the primary purposes of the VMO is to maintain proper tracking of the patella. When there is an imbalance between the VMO and the vastus lateralis (the outer head of the quadriceps) the patella is moved out of place causing a great deal of pain within the knee. This is usually seen as a chronic problem, meaning, it will be a problem that slowly develops and the pain will not be immediate. A lack of VMO strength could also potentially be the reason of an ACL injury.
The Remedy Perform progressions such as step-up and split squat variations. Once you have developed the proper strength from these progression you may perform full squats. One of the many reasons full squats are extremely beneficial is their ability to develop the VMO. Going to the full squat position places the VMO is a fully stretched position under a load. World Renown Strength Coach, Charles Poliquin, has often spoke of his ability to cure knee problems of athletes just by utilizing full squats and their variations.
3. Lower Abdominals: Crunches, crunches, and crunches are usually the exercise of choice for most abdominal programs. There is nothing wrong with using crunches, but they do not develop lower abdominal strength. Lower abdominal strength is the ability of the external obliques and the rectus abdominis to rotate the pelvis back, or maintain proper pelvis positioning during leg movements. The main contributors are the external obliques. These muscles are the biggest of the abdominals and have a direct insertion into the hip. By this connection they can rotate the pelvis back as to flatten out the lower back. This is important so during movement these muscle keep the pelvis from being pulled forward by the powerful hip flexors. An imbalance between the hip flexors and the lower abdominals can cause a lower back injury because excessive strain on the lumbar spine and its musculature. This could also limit one’s strength in lifts like deadlifts, squats and Olympic lifts. To improve lower abdominal strength you can use a basic pelvic tilt. By lying on the ground with the knees bent, slide your hands under the natural curve of the low back. From here try to just use the external obliques to apply pressure to your hands. You don’t need to crush your hands just applying some pressure is a good start. As long as you don’t use the glutes, the legs, or try to crunch into the motion you are going to make some great progress in making yourself stronger and less likely to suffer injury.
4. Posterior Chain: Posterior ChainThis includes the hamstrings, glutes, and low back. By examining a lot of programs, even those of professional teams, you see an overwhelming imbalance between exercises that emphasize the quadriceps and those of the posterior chain. This generally leads to an imbalance of what is known as ham to quad ratio. Physiotherapist recommend a 66 ham to quad ratio, meaning the hamstrings will produce 66% of the force of the quadriceps. Even though this is considered “normal” those that wish to be elite speed athletes should actually have a ham to quad ratio of over 100! So, the hamstrings would actually be stronger than the quadriceps. These muscles play a big role in allowing athletes to be explosive, jump higher and run like speed demons. For those that are recreational lifters, these muscles are crucial for stabilization knee and sacroiliac joint. Both important for preventing pain in the knee and the low back. Leg curls are adequate in solving this problem. Hip extension movements such as dead-lifts, good-mornings and glute-ham raises can provide a huge boost to improving the posterior chain strength. This will also lead to an impressive development of the hamstrings, glutes and low back. Simply looking at elite sprinters can prove this point. Olympic movements develop the power of the posterior chain, most helpful are the snatch and clean movements. These are movements that can be learned from a qualified weightlifting coach. USA Weightlifting does a good job certifying coaches to properly instruct these lifts.
5. External Rotators Of The Shoulder: Massive ShouldersThe small muscles that make up the rotator cuff are very important in developing high levels of upper body strength. The lift is always limited by the weakest link. So, if the rotator cuff is weak in relation to the internal shoulder rotators (pecs and lats) the body will try to protect the shoulder by shutting off the muscles of the surrounding joint. An easy way of knowing if you may be prone to an imbalance is posture. If your shoulders are rounded forward you are likely to have such an imbalance. If you push a lot more than you pull, again you are probably a prime candidate. Even if you are not a cave man, you may want to throw in external rotator exercises because you will be pleasantly surprised by the increase in your bench press. Especially if you have never worked these muscles before you may see a large increase in any pushing movement. You can find great exercises in books like The Poliquin Principles, or the 15 Minute Rotator Cuff Workout. Employing tools such as Swiss Balls and Bands can provide a unique way of training shoulder stability. Now, don’t forget to do those pulling exercises! When you are trying to address these weaknesses only select two at a time. Anymore will make it difficult to improve in your workouts. There are other weak links, but like I said, these are the most common I encounter. So, if you improve your weak links I guarantee you will not only be stronger, but you will reach your goals much faster!