The strength experiment, part 1: Presses

My last post was designed to be an introduction to this little strength experiment I did. I told you that I wanted to focus on four main movements: the press, the pull, the squat and the hip-hinge.

Today we’re going to talk about the press.

It seems that only until recently, there has been a decades-long devaluation of overhead pressing in favor of things like the bench press. You know, the whole, “How much ya bench?” question of meatheads everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, chest pressing is a good thing. But overhead pressing is better.

Personally, I suck at both. But I quickly learned why the standing overhead press in particular is so valuable. The act of pressing a weight over your head requires a lot of muscles working together: your shoulders, your upper back, your triceps and your core. Basically, almost your entire upper body.

Bench pressing is great, too, because it works those big muscles in your chest. But because you’re on a bench, the muscles are more isolated and the core doesn’t get much work. For that reason, I think the overhead press should be emphasized as much as any sort of chest press.

I also like to add some other exercises to support the muscles used in these movements. But they are secondary exercises and should never replace the main movements. Support exercises can isolate muscle groups and even improve postural alignment, something we’ll get into in a bit.

I divided these into two different workouts: A chest/triceps day, and a shoulders day. Here’s how it broke down:

Chest/triceps

Flat barbell bench press: 1×10, 1×8, 1×6 (escalating weight with each set); 3×8, close-grip barbell bench press (grip with hands about 18 inches apart).

Dumbbell incline press: 3×8 (escalating weight)

Single-arm cable press-down, 3×10

Cable push-down, 3×10

Dips, 3×10

Shoulders

Band pull-aparts, 3×10

Standing overhead barbell press, 3×8 (escalating weight)

Dumbbell lateral delt raises, 3×12 (escalating weight)

Dumbbell overhead presses, 3×8 (escalating weight)

Cable face pulls, 3×10 (escalating weight)

So, a couple of notes to explain all this: I added the close-grip bench as a way to work the triceps more. The cable exercises for the triceps are also there to help build the type of support I needed to do a good press. The dips are great for your chest and your triceps (though do your dips on a dip bar, not on a bench).

With the shoulders, I want to say that two of the most important exercises on there are the first and last ones mentioned. The band pull-aparts are there to activate (or warm up) the shoulders and upper back at the beginning. The face-pulls work the same muscles at the end. There is a good reason for this: Chest presses, plus all of the other daily activities that emphasize the anterior (front) side of your body (think typing at a computer, driving your car, or messing with your phone) tend to make our shoulders sink forward. This is how shoulder injuries start. You need to strengthen the muscles on the back side of your shoulders to open up your chest and pull those shoulders back to prevent injury and allow for better muscular development all around.

I cannot overemphasize how important this is, not only for shoulder-joint health, but also in overall athletic performance. To wit: If your shoulders are pulled back into a natural position, it opens up your chest. When your chest is opened up, you can take in larger volumes of air when you breathe. Think that might carry over into endurance activities? Yup. It does.

Lastly, it’s OK to only have one day a week dedicated to these splits. Your shoulders are getting a lot of work on the chest/tricep day, and your triceps are getting plenty of work on the shoulder days. If you want more work for your chest, incorporate some push-ups into your weekly routines a few days a week.

My chest/tricep workout is the second lift of the week, and the shoulder workout comes later in the week. With each workout, add in some core moves – three sets each of planks and dead bugs, two of my favorites. At the end of the session, I’d run anywhere from 2 to 3.5 miles at a solid pace, or if I’m really looking to gas out, do some 8x400s at race pace.

In the next installment, we’ll tackle leg day. Yup, we’ll be squatting. A bunch.

Bob Doucette

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