Dare to be weak
Featured Weightlifting Equipment: flat bench press, barbell, dumbbell, weight plates, Olympic barbell, squat rack
As related last week, I had discovered an undetected Achilles heel. My left arm overhead pressing power lagged behind my right arm by a quantifiable 37%. In addition, my overall overhead pressing ability was way down in relation to my flat bench press. My smelly little orthodoxy, that benching retained overhead pressing strength, had been shattered into a million tiny pieces. Obviously flat benching helps retain some pressing strength - but in my case more like 50% than the 70% I had assumed.
My beginner's mind saw a way in which to make lemons into lemonade. I constructed a remedial shoulder strengthening regimen designed to increase both two-arm overhead barbell pressing power and dumbbell pressing power. I would use dumbbells to zero in on the left shoulder and apply some super specific remedial training.
After every set of barbell presses, I would perform a set of seated lat pulldowns to the front. It took me 4-5 sets to finish the barbell presses. I would start with the 45-pound bar and perform a perfect 10-rep set without any poundage ego. I would jump to 65 x 10, then 85 x 10 and 105 x 10 From here on up I jumped five pounds. On a good day I might get to 135 x 10. Other days 115 would feel like a house. Regardless, I gave all I had, be it diminished or enhanced.
I super-setted, alternated, presses with pulldowns; I sought to mirror image the press technique with the pulldown technique. I started every set of pulldowns totally relaxed, letting the poundage stretch the hell out of me. I would relax and then reengage to begin a methodical, power pull, from compete stretch and relaxation to complete ultra-hard contraction. The sequence was, push-pull-rest, push-pull-rest….here is how I wove overhead pressing into my weekly resistance training matrix…
leg tri-set - Ultra-deep high rep high bar back squat after warm-ups, end with a periodized 10-rep set
Leg curl - after each set of squats, 8 slo-mo reps
Calf raises - after each set of leg curls, rep to failure
Bench press - after warm-up, one touch-and-go set 10 reps
Wide-grip bench press - reduce poundage, wide grip paused, one set 10 reps
Narrow-grip bench press - reduce poundage, touch and go, one set 10 reps
Barbell row - after every bench set, identical bench grip and reps
Deadlift - after warmup, one periodized set of 5-10 reps
Curls (different exercises) - 3-4 sets, 8-10 reps
Triceps (different exercises) - -4 sets, 8-10 reps (super-set with triceps)
Barbell overhead press - after warmup, one top set of 10 reps
Lat pulldown to the front - one set of 10 after every press set, press grip
Dumbbell overhead press - 4-5 sets moving up each set by five pounds
Lat pulldown behind neck, wide grip - after each DB press set, light, precise
My initial ‘jump-in weight' in the two-armed barbell press was the empty 45-pound barbell. I began by trying to make 45-pounds as heavy as possible. Somewhere along the way I had developed a "soft" overhead press lockout. I had inadvertently stopped my upward press reps a good four inches shy of complete lockout. Not locking a press out makes an overhead press easier, much easier. It is twice as hard to fully lock out each rep.
In the quest to make 45-pounds as heavy as possible, I slowed the rep speed and used a "deliberate" negative wherein I "pulled" the bar downward with tension. I also developed what I called a "hyper" lock. With ridiculously light weight; I felt safe to exaggerate: after locking out the press rep and before lowering, I would rotate the delts inward while simultaneously raising the shoulders upward.
This "upward shrug" combined with the delt rotation caused the delts and triceps to contract to the point of bursting. I combined the upward shrug (the hyper lockout) with a slowed eccentric lowering. I began each rep anew using a purposefully slowed, non-explosive, concentric push. After ten reps precision reps using just 45-pounds I created a lactic acid tidal wave: I knew I was onto something.
My rational brain said, ‘you now have a toehold with 45-pounds: you have done 10 perfect hyper-reps; now add a measly 10 pounds worth of weight plates per session for as long as you can, then drop to adding 5-pounds per session. To me this was a motivating goal. Ten sessions and I'd be pressing 100x10, past strict. Indeed, that seemed a quest worthy of pursuit.
The pressing techniques were exacting and excruciating; technique trumped every other consideration; every rep had to be perfection - or the rep didn't count or the set was over. Ten rep sets were murderous: the extra extension at the top of each rep caused delts to flex to the point of cramping. Yet it felt so right to work this neglected top zone of the movement in this way: I was doing something counter to my alpha male raised-by-wolves natural inclination: I would dare to be weak.
Each session I would add to my payload in the barbell overhead press and the dumbbell presses. You earn the right to move up. Since the poundage was so pee-wee, I was able to train more often. On average I was doing this routine about every five days. The pulldowns, done between overhead press sets, were all about feel and precision. By giving the overhead press its own day, I could devote complete attention to this glaring weakness, my Achilles heel, an undiscovered chink in my armor. Specialization was needed.
I felt very comfortable pressing overhead with the empty Olympic barbell. So I began my remedial with a tiny poundage. I would face a squat rack, step forward, dip under, step back with the barbell in front squat position and posture up. The optimal overhead barbell press is done with the leg spread in a shoulder-width stance. Flex the legs and especially the glutes hard. You don't shoot a canon out of a canoe and you need a rock solid press platform. The lower body stays flexed up and hard during the entire press set.
At the launch of the first press rep, the abs, back, shoulders, chest and arms are tensed maximally. Assume a slight layback press position: tilt the torso rearward just enough for the bar to clear the chin and nose as it is shot straight overhead. Push up and back to full and complete lockout.
Dumbbell presses were done after the barbell press - why the second position for the exercise that zeroes in on the problem with great specificity? If the dumbbell press was done first, it would fatigue the shoulders, most particularly the weak left, to such a degree as to make performing a second position barbell press ludicrous - if the dumbbell press, done first, degrade barbell pressing to such a degree that the BB press is reduced by 50% - is it even worth doing? I think not: let me start strong with both arms, then let me separate the limbs for their fair share of abuse…
This shoulder is a work in progress and I'll keep mining this vein till the physical progress runs dry. This routine has already passed the audition and gets placed in the arrow quiver of proven-effective workout regimens, ready and available for use in the future. My beginner mind gets fired up when a plan comes together and this remedial shoulder success, not done but way better, makes me hungry for more. I still get fired up when I succeed; success is the wellspring of motivation. Beginner's mind is born out of a continual sense of wonderment.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.