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It is of the utmost importance that I warn you about a particular exercise that is commonly used in strength and conditioning. Chances are, you’ve been unknowingly performing this highly dangerous exercise, blind and oblivious to all of its potential consequences. Hopefully it’s not too late for you, and hopefully you haven’t already created irreparable damages.
This exercise has…
Been shown in the literature to induce the highest compressive forces on the spine out of all exercises (see below for more detail)
Been shown in the literature to induce very high shear forces on the spine (see below for more detail)
Been known to make some lifters’ backs crack in the middle of a set
Been known to cause seizure-like convulsing mid-set
Been known to cause lifters to faint immediately after a set
Been known to cause vision-distortion and flickering light in the middle of the set
Been known to cause nausea or lead to vomiting after a set
Been known to cause nose-bleeding immediately after a set
Been known to cause petechiae/broken blood-vessels/rash breakouts in the eyes, face, and chest following a workout
Been known to lead to biceps tears if using a mixed grip
Been known to lead to spondylolysis, spondylolisthesis, and SI joint issues
Been known to lead to herniated discs and ligament strains
Been known to create strains in the hamstrings, adductors, erectors, and traps
Been known to lead to hip pain, especially if using a wide stance
Been known to bloody some lifters’ shins
Been known to cause rib dislocations
Been known to lead to massive delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) especially in the erector spinae
Been known to lead to incontinence mid-set
Would you like to know the name of this exercise?
It’s the deadlift!!!
*** This section in red is for the science Geeks like me. If compressive and shear forces don’t interest you, just skip this section. Studying spinal loading is a hobby of mine, I have 69 studies in my “spinal loading” folder, I summarized many of them in THIS T-Nation article, and I even visited spinal biomechanist Stu McGill in Canada to discuss the topic with him (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).
***Cholewicki et al. 1991showed that a 273 lb powerlifter deadlifting 608 lbs experienced 17,192 Newtons – which is 4,034 lbs – of compressive force on the spine.Granhed et al. 1987showed much higher compressive forces at 36,400 Newtons, but Cholewicki’s data is probably more accurate due to their usage of a more accurate moment arm for the spinal extensor musculature (5 cm compared to 6 cm).
***Either way, a 273 lb powerlifter pulling 608 lbs is not very impressive.Benedikt Magnussonweighs 379 lbs and set the deadlift world record at 1,016 lbs. This won’t be accurate since anthropometry and form affect compressive forces, but if we simply scale Cholewicki’s data with Benedikts, we see that the Benedikt’s system load (bodyweight plus barbell) is 1,395 lbs versus 882 lbs used in the study. Using the same proportions, we can broadly estimate that the compressive forces on Magnusson’s lumbar spine were approximately 27,191 Newtons, or 6,113 lbs.
***The reason why compressive load on the spine so far exceeds barbell load during the deadlift is because of core muscle contractions. When muscles that cross the spine contract, they pull together, and this compresses the spine. So any exercise that highly activates the core muscles will necessarily create high levels of compressive forces.
*** If you round your lumbar spine (spinal flexion) during the deadlift, it greatly increases the shear loading due to the changing orientation of the muscles and ligaments. Out of all exercises, it appears that the back squat induces the highest shear forces, followed by a football blocking maneuver, followed by various strongman exercises, followed by the deadlift. However, this information is not accurate due to technical reasons – mainly that there are more shear forces as you measure lower on the lumbar spine, especially at L5-S1, so the exercises aren’t fairly compared.
Here is Mangussson’s world record deadlift performance.
Magnusson seems to handle the crazy amount of spinal loading just fine, so what gives?
The deadlift is so effective as a total body strengthener precisely because it loads the entire body so efficiently. It hammers the calves, the hamstrings, the quads, the glutes, the erectors, the rhomboids, the traps, the rear delts, the lats, and the forearms. The lift involves a powerful hip hinging motion that allows for very heavy loading. This heavy loading doesn’t just strengthen the muscles; it causes bones and soft-tissue to grow stronger as well. Powerlifters have the highest bone mineral densities on the planet. If you progress gradually over time and periodize your training properly, your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone strengthen accordingly, allowing your body to tolerate the increasing loads.
However, because the deadlift loads the body so effectively, it can lead to dozens of issues if performed incorrectly. For example, excessive lumbar rounding can cause disc herniations and excessive lumbar arching can damage the posterior elements of the spine. Hell, the deadlift can lead to issues even if performed perfectly, for example, bloody shins usually means you’re deadlifting properly, a biceps tear can occur just from using a mixed grip, even if a neutral spine is kept, compressive forces can cause issues with certain individuals, pushing it hard will inevitably lead to high levels of intraabdominal pressure (IAP) which can lead to fainting, flickering light, vision distortion, convulsing, nausea, vomiting, and/or petechiae, hip pain will likely ensue in lifters that pull sumo and have FAI or poor hip flexion mobility due to hip anatomy, and strains and severe DOMS can occur just from using high loads or effort.
At the last powerlifting meet I competed in, one lifter actually soiled himself on the platform when deadlifting – we all saw it because he wore a light green singlet. Luckily he had a separate singlet that he changed into immediately afterward.
The Deadlift: A Worldwide Respected Exercise
Despite all of these potential problems, the deadlift is still one of, if not the, most accepted, respected, and recommended exercises in strength & conditioning.
I deadlift every single week, as do all of my clients. It is highly functional (one could make a good argument that it’s the most functional exercise in existence) and leads to numerous improvements.
Straight to the Point
So what is my point in writing this article?
I’m definitely not trying to scare anyone, resort to fear-mongering, or create nocebo effects.
My point in writing this article is simple: to help the industry reconsider our persistent and relentless condemnation of exercises!
Check out these two articles I’ve written in the past:
I have a funny story to share. There’s this really strong powerlifter that commented on one of my YouTube videos once – it was a video promoting the back extension. He wrote something to the effect of “talk about spine destruction, what are you going to have people do next – sit ups?” I could tell he was fresh out of the blocks in reading the work of Stu McGill. So fine, the back extension and sit up lead to high levels of shear forces on the spine.
Guess what else does? Deadlifts, squats, kettlebell swings, hip thrusts, and sled pushes.
If you condemn back extensions or sit-ups for creating excessive compressive or shearing forces on the spine, you also have to condemn deadlifts, squats, kettlebell swings, sled pushes, Olympic lifts, hip thrusts, strongman exercises, and even certain core exercises like Pallof presses.
I wanted to reply to the individual and say, “good call dude, I should stop having people do back extensions and instead tell them to put on a squat suit and throw a thousand pounds on their backs like you.” But I decided to just ignore him as I could tell he wasn’t interested in learning anything from me. Apparently powerlifters don’t realize the hypocrisy in advising people not to do back extensions or sit ups when they are regularly engaging in just as dangerous of activities in their sport.
This is no more dangerous than a maximal squat or deadlift
Fitness experts can get very high-and-mighty. We love to judge others based on their exercise selection. We love to call others out for doing crunches or sit-ups, using machines, doing leg presses, kipping with their pull-ups, doing American kettlebell swings instead of hardstyle, or doing isolation lifts.
But any bro with a year of training experience, a college Anatomy & Physiology course under their belt, and a college Physics course under their belt could come up with myriad reasons to vilify any exercise.
We should be glad that people are in the gym and exercising rather than sitting on the couch watching television. That’s what’s most important. It’s okay to be passionate and vocal about exercise selection, as long as you’re reasonable, unbiased, and respectful. Let’s be careful about exercise condemnation, it’s a slippery slope. And when it comes to exercise selection, usually, the correct answer is, “it depends.” Factors such as individual anatomy and anthropometry, injury history, goals, logistics, preference, and periodization must all be considered.
There are 5 primary ways to perform a compound exercise:
In a manner that best targets a particular muscle
In a manner that allows for the greatest load to be lifted at the moment (acutely)
In a manner that allows for the greatest load to be lifted in the long run (longitudinally)
In a manner that best distributes the stress amongst the various joints and is generally the safest
In a manner that will best transfer to a particular sport
Some might claim that “in a manner that makes the body look its best when photographed” is a 6th way, but I’m not going to allow this.
In the video below, I go through some important considerations with regards to squatting and deadlifting mechanics, and I would like for my readers to watch this. I originally filmed this for my Get Glutesgirls, which is why I began with “Hey Ladies.” Then I decided to post it on my YouTube channel. Sorry to any bros who are watching, I don’t mean to offend!
In this brief article I’m going to share with you 3 simple hacks that will drastically improve your bench press.
Do NOT Pinch Your Shoulder Blades Together (as hard as possible)
I know this flies in the face of pretty much everything you’ve ever been told about the bench press so bear with me and allow me to explain.
Pinching your shoulder blades together (forcefully retracting your scapulae) is a cue meant to help you do a number of things, including:
Put the shoulders in a safer position
Reduce the lifts range of motion (ROM)
Utilize the right muscle groups (notably the lats) for a stronger, safer press
I’d note, pinching your scaps together isn’t always wrong. It’s actually a great cue to use with beginner lifters who are still in the early stages of training, developing kinesthetic awareness, and mastering technique.
As you progress into more of an intermediate/advanced lifter, however, pinching your scaps together as hard as possible will become counterproductive.
A number of reasons but, notably, full retraction of the scapulae isn’t necessary for lat recruitment.
In fact, I’ve found fully retracting the scapulae makes it harder to use the lats properly which inhibits bench performance.
On the other hand, forcefully depressing the scapulae is necessary for lat recruitment.
So what should you do?
Rather than forcefully retract your scaps, focus on emphasizing scapular depression (put your shoulder blades in your back pockets) throughout the entire lift. At the same time, you should slightly retract your shoulder blades butdo not actively pinch them togetheras that takes the focus away from scapular depression and subsequent lat recruitment.
Your Takeaway:pinching your shoulder blades together as hard as possible is NOT necessary for optimal bench performance and may inhibit your strength. Instead, focus on scapular depression (put your shoulder blades in your back pockets) with slight scapular retraction. This technique will help to recruit your lats and maintain the best position throughout the entire lift.
Pause on Your Chest
Where do you usually fail when you bench press?
On your chest?
Maybe a couple inches above?
That’s totally normal and where most lifters tend to get stuck. Some develop sticking points near lockout but those instances are few and far between.
If you’re weak off your chest and need to develop more starting strength, incorporating the pause bench press into your training program is a smart move.
How Do You Pause Bench Press?
Un-rack the bar.
Lower it to your chest.
Pause for the prescribed time period.
Press it back up.
Seriously, it’s that simple. Don’t overcomplicate it.
How Long Should You Pause For?
I opt for anywhere between 2-4 seconds.
Keep in mind, I don’t mean count as fast as you possibly can and pretend to pause for 2-seconds when you really just bounce the bar off your chest.
I mean pause on your chest for 2-4 full seconds.
How Do You Program the Pause Bench Press?
Use it as your 1st or 2nd exercise of the day on upper body strength training days.
You can use a variety of set/rep schemes (I’ll give you a few of my favorites below) but make sure to do it near the beginning of your training session so you’re fresh and able to maintain perfect form.
As for set/rep schemes, it all depends on your goal but a few of my favorites are:
For hypertrophy/volume: 3-5 sets of 8 reps with a 2-sec pause on your chest
For strength/hypertrophy:3-5 sets of 5 reps with a 3-sec pause on your chest
For strength: 3-5 sets of 2-3 reps with a 2-sec pause on your chest
I’d note, there isn’t a single “best” set/rep scheme. Rather, the “best” one depends entirely on your needs, goals, and preferences at any given time.
Of course, an intelligent combination of all set/rep schemes (rather than solely focusing on a single one) over a period of time will yield the best results in overall strength, hypertrophy, and performance.
Your Takeaway: If you want to get better at benching you’d be wise to add the pause bench press into your training repertoire. Not only will it directly target the most common sticking point, it also improves starting strength and forces you to slow down and focus on using perfect form.
Train the Bench Press with High(er) Volume – Use Clusters!
I never used to train above 5-reps per set.
I mean…everyone knows 1-5 reps is where “max strength” is built so if you want to get stronger you need to stay in that rep range, right?
Over the years I’ve found venturing into the higher repetition ranges (6-8…sometimes even 10’s) is extremely beneficial for jacking up your bench press.
Don’t get me wrong, heavy sets of 1-5 reps are obviously important and hold major significance within your program, but neglecting higher repetition ranges and overall volume will destroy your progress.
How do you train your bench press with higher volume?
There are numerous effective methods and below I’ve provided my personal all-time favorite.
Cluster sets are a quick and simple – not easy – way to accrue a huge amount of volume at a relatively high training intensity.
A cluster involves performing several “mini sets” in order to complete 1 “full set.”
To illustrate, let’s look at a normal set/rep scheme (3 x 6) and break it into a cluster.
Using 3 x 6 as the example, we know each set is comprised of 6 total reps. But instead of performing all 6-reps in a row, a cluster would involve performing smaller sets of 1, 2, or 3 reps until you complete all 6.
To illustrate, below are 3 sample clusters:
3 x 1-1-1-1-1-1
3 x 2-2-2
3 x 3-3
*Rest 10-15 seconds between each cluster. Rest 2-4 minutes between each set.
See how it works?
The total number of repetitions per cluster varies, but every cluster still comes out to a total of 3 sets of 6 repetitions.
Need a visual?
Here’s a video of me performing a 2-2-2 bench press cluster
Why are clusters beneficial?
They’re a quick and effective way to increase the total volume of your training session.
More importantly, performing fewer repetitions per set allows you to accomplish two important things:
You can handle more weight. Needless to say, fewer reps per set will allow you to handle heavier loads which facilitates more repetitions at a higher percentage of your 1-repetition maximum (1RM).
You ingrain perfect form.Performing fewer reps per set allows you to focus on using perfect technique without fatiguing as you would during a standard high-rep set. Of course, practicing perform form at a relatively high training intensity and volume will drastically improve the skill set (because it is a skill) of using perfect form under maximal loads.
Want a Sample 4-Week Cycle of Bench Press Clusters?
Below is a sample 4-week cycle of one of my favorite bench press cluster progressions.
Replace your main bench press movement with this cluster cycle for the next 4-weeks then re-test your max to see how much you’ve improved.
Week 1: 4 x 2-2-2 (as heavy as possible while maintaining perfect form)
Week 2: 3 x 2-2-2 (as heavy as possible while maintaining perform form)
Week 3: 4 x 2-1-1 (as heavy as possible while maintaining perform form)
Week 4: 3 x 2-2-2 (moderate difficulty – not too hard)
Week 5: Re-test your 1-5RM
Remember, cluster sets are extremely effective but brutally difficult. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Right about here is where I’m supposed to conclude the article with a clever ending and maybe even a catchy tag line.
I hope you enjoyed the information provided in this article and that it helps you bench press more than everyone else in your gym.
Because…well…that’s the goal, isn’t it?
Jordan Syatt is a strength training and nutritional consultant. He is an IPA World Record Powerlifter featured in publications such as Schwarzenegger.com, T-Nation.com, Muscle & Fitness, and Men’s Fitness Magazines. He is Precision Nutrition and Westside Barbell Certified, has a B.S. in Health & Behavior Science, and is the owner of www.syattfitness.com. Jordan does extensive work with online training and nutrition consultations and specializes in strength gain, athletic performance, and general health. Fitness aside, Jordan is an avid traveler, self-proclaimed nerd, and is unashamed of his obsession with the Harry Potter series. Here are links to Jordan’s: