There are many ways to come at anything in life. In the bench press, for example, one perfectly valid approach would be the isolated-muscle, almost bodybuilder type of style, maybe even using machines to focus on building hypertrophy through the chest, triceps, etc.
My life always seems to involve thinking everything through, for better or for worse, so that’s the approach I will discuss: full-body tension, and full intent.
Defining Tension Through Exploring Its Opposite
I’ll confess, being relaxed in general has always been a challenge for me.
My go-to move in the past has often been to just leave stressful situations, either physically or mentally, and to spend time stewing, turning in circles and chasing my tail mentally. This isn’t ideal — and on the physical level, it actually creates chronically tense muscles very quickly. (See my previous post on “relaxed effort”.)
Alternatively, I have tended to flare up and strike out (yes, hi, former boxer…). This is a reactive approach, not a pro-active one, and again isn’t ideal.
A better approach, as I discover the more that I am able to put it in into effect, is to be both fully present and relaxed. This makes life flow better in general, and it saves a lot of mental energy for better things—like lifting!
The Good Kind of Tension
So if we look at the other side of the coin, then, tension wouldn’t be about turning in circles, but rather a fully “on” and directed kind of tension.
Have you watched Forged in Fire? You know at the end, where they perform a stress test on the weapon? This shows if the lines are true and if the weapon, albeit an inanimate object, has good tension.
For our skeletal muscles, given that they don’t actually entirely know yet how they even contract (after all, it is called the sliding filament theory), I figure we can use whatever image we want. For myself, when I turn on my true lines, I visualize a huge switch bringing that old-school electrical hum throughout the whole body.
So we are looking for full intent, every molecule, both while in training and in competition – and to continue with the electricity metaphor, in competition, we can chase bigger numbers by turning up the volume rather than by changing the frequency.
From One of the Best
Spending some time on a plane last week let me listen to a great podcast, with Tim Ferriss interviewing Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel, Chairman of StrongFirst, is one of those select few who is usually referred to by their first name only, and if you don’t yet know his work, well, you should.
His analogy for strength production is that of a four-cylinder car that only fires well on two or three of its cylinders. You can either choose to upgrade the engine to six cylinders, or you can improve the actual motor function to make sure that all of its existing cylinders fire well.
Pavel’s big three focus areas to increase strength are: grip, glutes, and abs.
The grip strength is for the irradiation effect, i.e. one muscle contracts, and neighbouring ones contract more strongly also.
He also cites abs and glutes to gain increased intra-abdominal pressure and therefore stability.
Abs for Bench Press?
For the deadlift and the squat, abs are absolutely necessary to maintain a neutral spine against resistance. In bench, however, especially when using any arch to use the safeties properly, we are in the exact opposite of the strong “hollow hold” position. Can the abs still make a significant contribution?
In addition to t-spine mobility, I would suggest that a strong back, from which to “load the spring” and then press, is probably more important than strong abs for the bench press. Given that we can’t do a full 360-degree diaphragm brace for the bench, this points to more back contribution as well. At the same time, abs will strongly play into full-body tension and true lines, so let’s call them “won’t hurt, somewhat help.”
All About that Base
Finally, the glutes. As always, they’re critical! For the back line (glutes and back), some hypertrophy will help increase stability even on a static, less neurological level. The glutes are also a huge part of leg drive in the bench. Alan Thrall does an amazing job of explaining it in this video.
The Nuts and Bolts
So, in practical terms:
- Go back to part one, and honestly evaluate your weak links.
- Check your full-body tension by recruiting a friend to poke and shove you during setup (and/or by filming yourself) to check any energy leaks in your true lines. During the bench, this will be both at the top of your setup, when they can shove your legs around (don’t let them!), and once you have actively rowed the bar into your chest as you pause before the press.
- Give it your full attention. No going through the motions. Leading back expert Stu McGill talks about full neurological drive on the pull-up, such as here.
- Again, from Pavel: keep everything tense “from the neck down.” For me, this means my setup is changing somewhat. Now my order is: grip first, then feet, zip it all together between the two with the electric hum of “true lines, fully on,” get the air in your lungs (higher up for bench than for squat or deadlift), and then it’s go time.
Questions? Comments? Feedback? Please get hold of me.