Useful Bench Cues For Leg Drive And Strength Off The Chest

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I’ve recently had an epiphany in regards to my Bench technique, specifically in the areas of leg drive and force off the chest. Now I know what you’re maybe thinking (and what I’m definitely thinking), leg drive has been done to death. That’s true. Maybe you won’t find anything new here that you can’t find in the countless YouTube videos on the subject. But because there’s always the chance that the way I phrase a cue or describe a technique might cause a similar epiphany in someone else I think it’s worth putting on paper once more.

I think Leg Drive is a shortened description of what I personally think is referring to full body tension when benching. The common visual conception we have of leg drive is the visible movement of the body back toward the uprights as the lifter drives the bar off their chest. This is an on or off form of leg drive where the lifter has to consciously engage their quads to assist in pressing the weight.

This is a form of leg drive I’ve utilized in the past. I think it can be useful but in my opinion the better form of leg drive is one where the lifter is imparting constant backward force via tension in the legs throughout the entire movement. There are many ways to accomplish this. The prerequisite here is that you should already be moderately tight after performing your setup. If you’re too loose you’re going to be able to effectively transfer force to the bar.

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The first cue you can use to initiate this form of tightness is “load the legs” or “load the quads”. This involves allowing the weight to settle into the legs after unracking. This should feel like your quads are engaged in the same way that unracking a squat should feel your upper back tight and engaged. This has the effect of making your hold body rigid and immobile, perfect for imparting force to the bar. This might take a second or two after unracking the bar for the load to distribute onto the legs. Once you understand how “load the legs” should feel you can use the cue “Settle” to remind yourself to allow the weight to distribute onto the lower body.

The second method is more of a modification to your setup rather than an active cue. As I mentioned above, you should already be very tight after performing your Bench setup. To help with leg drive, one technique is to throw your feet back behind your hips so that you’re on your tippy toes while lying on the bench. Next, walk your feet forward until you’re almost flat on the floor but there is still some space between your heel and the floor. Your heel should be pulled upwards by the tension in your lower body without you having to keep it elevated at all. Now, when you unrack think “Heels down” and allow the weight of the bar to force your heels hard into the ground. This will have the effect of getting your lower body extremely tight. A combination of these two cues can definitely up your leg drive game.

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The last cue I want to talk about involves the moment you drive the bar off of your chest. I’ve always had issues with strength off the chest. I’ve never felt comfortable or confident in the bottom position. Recently I’ve come to realize I haven’t been actively engaging my chest in the Bench. This might sound kind of ridiculous, of course the chest is always engaged to some extent. But I’ve found I can actively contract my chest to get better strength of the chest.

The cue I’ve used to accomplish this is “Push with chest”. The way to think about this is that you should feel your chest engage in a similar fashion to how it feels when you perform a Pectoral fly. You should think about squeezing your pecs together, creating a peak with them to force the bar off of your chest. You can see this a lot in very good benchers. At the top of the lift the pecs will look very similar to how they might in the last bit of ROM in a fly.

These are a few cues I’ve used to improve how my Bench Press feels and performs. Remember that cues are always individual. These might not work for you and might even be counter-productive in some circumstances. But they might also be just what you need to get that next five pounds.

Why Linear Periodization is simple yet effective, Ed Coan did Westside? And spitting out thoughts after high rep deadlifts

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Most training programs are similar. This is not an opinion, it’s a definite fact. They are all similar in the ways that matter. This is also not a new assertion, it’s something that all Strength/Powerlifting coaches know extrinsically or intrinsically. There are some great articles on this topic such as Juggernaut’s There is only one type of Periodization. The reason for this is that all programs need to follow a few core principles to have some modicum of success among lifters. Principles like overload, specificity, and fatigue management need to be utilized at least to some degree for the program to be useful and produce results.

All of these methods and programs are just new and different combinations of these variables. Most start out as experiments that their creators initially ran and produced training epiphanies (big PRs). This is another reason why some people get disillusioned after a while in regards to talking about training. The saying “there’s nothing new under the sun” is true in some regards. It’s highly unlikely that there will ever be a successful training program that is not just another manipulation of these variables in new, and maybe, interesting ways.

Training Epiphanies

I write all this to preface a discussion of situations where we try an new training style and suddenly we have a training epiphany. These situations don’t usually occur because there’s some special sauce in the program that worked for you, the proverbial key that unlocks your potential. What happened is that the program offered you what you needed to progress without requiring too much. The largest part of this is that the volume the program calls for is like the third bear’s oatmeal, just right. Another aspect is whether or not the program jives with your personality. I put this second, though, as the volume will be the major determining factor as to whether you’re making progress. For most, nothing is more motivating than fast continuous progress.

Personally, I’ve never had an issue doing enough work. Some coaches/lifters say that most people don’t work hard enough in their training. I’ve never had this problem. I know explicitly that this is true because for the past several years in training I’ve had several spates of injury which I attribute to developing levels of fatigue greater than I was able to dissipate using the normal fatigue management tools (deload weeks and the like) that are often prescribed. This will become important later when I describe my experiments with vanilla linear periodization.

Program Hoppin’

I’ve recently been on a spate of experimentation, literally trying new types of training with every few training cycles. This is useful in that you get to try and bunch of different training styles but not so good in that you might not be giving a style enough time to work. This is all known to me. I understand all the caveats of working this way but I’ve been program hopping nonetheless. I feel this is fine if you make the conscious decision to do so. Otherwise, I do agree with the concensus that it’s probably more harmful than helpful in the long run.

This time around my experiment has led me to trying vanilla linear periodization. I’ll need to set the context as well so that you understand all of the conditions affecting this experiment. Both my squat and Bench were kind of out of commission for the experiment. My right hip has been bugging me since before my last meet. I ended up going to a PT with slightly useful results. In addition I overestimated my ability to handle volume in the Bench (as compared to the past) and ended up overtaxing my pectoral tendons. Comparatively, I was able to Deadlift just fine.

My Deadlift hasn’t moved too much in the past several years. There are a few reasons for this. Most importantly is that I was so focused on trying to keep my form perfect (namely keeping my back neutral) that I was self-limiting my progress. If I were to compare my body structure to a high-level lifter it would probably be Chad Wesley Smith. We’re relatively upright when squatting but when it comes to deadlifting our relatively longer torso makes it tougher to stay neutral.

Recently I’ve made the choice to push ahead with the attempt of performing my deadlift with as good form as I can but to not limit myself by trying to make my form perfect. I actually believe this is overall a better approach. My reas0ning is that if you tend to round on max effort attempts then it’s better for your body to be somewhat adapted to that position. If you pull perfectly in training and then round during competition I’m betting that you’re more likely to get hurt. But if you pull generally the same in both you’re more likely to maintain back health.

Bell Bottoms are Back

Enter linear periodization. Most of us have some sense of how linear periodization works. We’ve seen videos on Ed Coan’s training, heard him on the PowerCast talking about how he would starts with sets of 10 then 8 then 5s and finally 3s and 2s. It’s always seemed deceptively simple and it’s been very easy to dismiss this training method. We’re not Ed Coan (at least most of us). We can’t expect to see the same results he did! On top of that we’ve had lots of new periodization styles come into vogue, Block and Concurrent, which claim to make up for the drawbacks present in Linear Periodization.

One of the main supposed drawbacks to Linear Periodization is maintenance of abilities. Linear Periodization develops abilities separately and therefore you can lose some of these abilities over time. I have an issue with this assertion. This may be true for other sports where the abilities aren’t so sticky, they might start to wither away if not maintained. In Powerlifting, however, the initial ability that is developed is muscular hypertrophy. This is a very sticky attribute. You can maintain a hell of a lot of muscle just by lifting weight of sufficient intensity. It doesn’t have to be anywhere near the same amount of volume utilized when you built that muscle. Take some time off of lifting and continue eating the same amount of food. That muscle is going to stick around for a long time.

And so a Powerlifter using linear periodization is providing enough stimulus to maintain muscle throughout the entire training program. She might not continue to build muscle after she leaves the hypertrophic period but I think saying that Powerlifters should utilize Block and Concurrent because they need to maintain abilities is a red herring. Those periodization styles might be useful for other reasons but I think we can say that Powerlifters, as long as they’re doing a modicum of training and not heavily dieting, don’t need to worry about muscle maintenance.

One major advantage to linear periodization is that it’s exceedingly simple to layout. All of the major questions are answered. Fatigue management? Your fatigue is naturally going to dissipate (assuming you layout the program correctly) as your volume drops and intensity increases. Rep ranges? Pre-determined, or at least they can easily be. You start with 10s drop to 8s then 5s, 3s, and 2s. Peaking? Built-in, that’s what those 3s and 2s will do. Total volume load? This will be determined by the number of sets and exercises you do but keeping the exercises constant will mean you simply need to modulate the number of sets. Here’s an example training program for an athlete working towards a 300 pound squat:

190×10
200×10

210×8
220×8

230×5
240×5
250×5

260×3
270×3

280×2
290×2

300×1

Need to modulate volume? Add sets as needed. I wanted to spend a little extra time talking about one aspect of programming: phasic structure aka phase potentiation. In all my training I’ve done up to this point I’ve never physically felt the effect of the previous phase. I never spent a period of time performing hypertrophic training and felt that I was more prepared for a strength phase. This was an entirely new aspect of training for me that I encountered with linear periodization. After the high reps, transitioning to a lower more strength focused training felt easy, like I was physically ready for this style of training. The same when moving on to triples and doubles. It was an eye opening experience and made me feel like I had been missing something during my previous training cycles. Why was this such a different experience than previous? My guess is that I had successfully dropped the level of fatigue I was carrying and I was able to realize the gains I made in the previous phases.

Coan & Simmons

Another aspect of my experiment, that I also stole from Mr. Coan, was periodization of accessory/supplemental lifts. If you’re unfamiliar, Ed would periodize his close-variant accessory lifts with the same pattern as his competition movement. This contrasts a lot with the current trend in Powerlifting programming which is to periodize accessory, and especially the supplemental, muscular focused movements, with higher reps than with the competition movements. This makes sense in that higher reps facilitate higher volumes which helps to develop the musculature. However, in the same way that the competitive movements benefit from higher intensity lower volume work, the supplemental movements can as well.

No, Ed Coan didn’t really do Westside. However, the clickbait title indicates the similarities between these two programming styles. Strength is specific to joint angles. Said differently, you build strength in the range of motion in which you train it. You wouldn’t expect that quarter squats with 110% of your Squat to make an enormous impact on Squats to depth outside of an overload effect. By performing supplemental lifts at a higher intensity you can develop strength in a similar ROM to that of the competitive movements. This is an area where Ed and Louie Simmons can agree.

The Devil Don’t Pull Off the Floor

One last topic I wanted to touch on is High-rep Deadlifts. I think high rep deadlifts are probably one of the most difficult things you can do training wise. There’s nothing like taking a full-body lift and doing it one after the other until you’re sucking air and not thinking straight any longer. I decided to experiment with touch-and-go deadlifts as they seem to make the exercise slightly more bearable. I was farily successful in utilizing them. I now perform it such that there’s not even really a touch, a slight touch if anything, and I keep tension throughout the whole set. Similar in a way to how Jesse Norris performs his deficit deadlifts.

I’m not concerned about it affecting my strength off the floor. I go back to off-the-floor style once I hit the fives phase and I have no problem performing as usual. I think when you’re so far on one side of the specificity curve that touch and go or off the floor is not going to make much of a difference in the end. Certainly as the weight gets higher and the exercise becomes more specific then how you begin the movement will matter more. But I don’t think performing high rep sets in a touch and go fashion is going to ultimately harm the lifter.

My linear periodization experiment was a success given the context I described at the beginning of this post. I was able to hit a 525 Deadlift which was an 18 pound PR. I also ended up with a 165 pound Press after not seriously training the lift for years. Before I took time off squatting I finished with a 400×2 double which was a good result having previously taken time off the lift.

My wife and I are leaving soon for a trip to visit friends and family back home in Pennsylvania. Upon return I intend to launch into a full power program utilizing linear periodization. I’m also intending to experiment with a once a week frequency on all movements. I know for a fact this works well for my deadlift and I’m interested to see how it works for my squat and bench as well.

Exercise Selection Exercise

Here’s an idea for a strategy to help develop your exercise selection.

Draw a table (or use Excel, if you’re inclined) with the three competition lifts across the top as columns. Under the lifts write down the aspects of these lifts that are important to the execution of that lift. These should be specific to YOU. Yours might look like:

Squat Bench Press Deadlift
Quad Hypertrophy Pectoral Hypertrophy Upper-Back Hypertrophy

 

Circle aspects that reoccur across lifts. Then use this table when selecting exercise for your next cycle. Pay special attention to those aspects that you’ve circled.

EVERYONE Rounds Their Lower Back

A while back I wrote a post entitled “The Deadlift is not a back exercise, unless you pull rounded”. In that post I argued that if you keep a neutral spine the deadlift is more of a hip exercise, in terms of muscle groups worked through a ROM, versus a back exercise. This changes if you round your lower back as to finish and lockout you need to extend the lower back. This finish is quite visible on most deadlifts. And this leads me to a bit of a rant, EVERYONE rounds their lower back but no one wants to admit it.

Okay, not everyone rounds 100% of the time. But most do, and most do when the weight gets heavy enough. I have no problem with that. But what does bother me is when people say the opposite. It’s like rounding the lower back is such a No No that no one admits it. Instead you’ll hear them say things like, “my lower back is flat, however I’m intentionally rounding my upper back.” Watch these people and you’ll find their rounding their lower back as well. I’ve only seen one individual who can simultaneously round the upper back while keeping his lower straight, Jordan Feigenbaum, and even then I’m skeptical.

My point in all of this is just to be honest. To yourself and to those who might watch your instagram videos. Call a spade a spade. Don’t lead people on incorrectly as to your back neutrality.