Bench Kings – Learn from the Pros

In high school weight rooms around the world, the bench press reigns supreme.  While the squat and deadlift have great athletic carry-over, the bench press has earned a spot as the definitive gauge of upper body strength.

Even though the bench seems like a deceptively simple “push a bar off your chest” exercise, BP specialists could spend weekends palavering about methods to improve their press.

I got on the phone with a half-dozen of the best benchers in the biz, picked their brains (they were surprisingly generous in sharing their secrets), and was rewarded with some useful tricks and techniques to help anyone go from benching a weight that weenies might use for curls to driving up a bar that rattles a bit.

Here’s our all-star line-up:

A.J. Roberts, one of the great lifters from Westside Barbell, is chasing after a 2800-lb total (with current lifts of a 1035 squat, 820 bench, and 760 deadlift). In just two years at Westside, he has seen his total climb by almost two hundred pounds, and his big bench is a large part of that.

Ryan Celli is a dangerously strong 198-pounder with an all-time record raw total of 1840. His best raw single lifts (not all at the same meet) include a 625 squat, 534 bench, and 685 pull. His single-ply total of one ton is comprised of a 705 squat, 622 bench, and 672 deadlift, built over his two decades of competition.

Having held the all-time world record total of 2605 (in the 275 class), Scott Yard has posted a 1050 squat, an 840 bench, and a 720 deadlift. Switching over to raw meets, he has boasts an equally impressive 750 squat, 505 bench, and 755 deadlift.

Travis Bell is another Westsider with a raw bench in the gym of 540 lbs (at a body weight around 250) and an amazing contest-equipped bench of 770 (weighing in at 258).

Vinnie Dizenzo considers himself a strength athlete cast in the old school definition of the term. His lifts of a 605-lb raw bench (as a super-heavy), shirted benches of 820 (in the 308-pound class) and 730 (at 242), a strict overhead press in competition of 405, and an 800-pound trapbar deadlift in competition validate this beyond dispute.

APF and WABDL lifter Adrian Larsen has numerous state, national, and world records to his credit and recently has benched an imposing 710 pounds (weighing 259).

If there were a United Nations of strength, these men would be the Warrior Kings of the bench press. The sum of their applied knowledge distilled here can help you make the leap to a higher level of bench press prowess.

Adrian Larsen – APF and WABDL lifter with a 710lbs bench to his name

TAKING STOCK

Anyone that has put in some time in the gym knows that genetics play a huge part in how strong you can get, and when we are talking about on specific lift, body mechanics and leverage are a major part of that. As Travis Bell shares, “I am five foot nine, have short arms, and I’m pretty thick, so my range-of-motion is a lot less than a lot of the full-power guys that have exceptional deadlifts.”

Adrian Larsen goes on to say, “I would have to rank my mechanics for the bench as definitely a ten. I do have some disadvantages. I was born with a dislocated hip so I can’t put my feet down on the ground. That is a huge disadvantage. I just put my feet straight out, but as far as how my body is built, I am pretty barrel-chested, and I can bench as wide as legal. I think I was built to be a big bencher.”

For those without the typical bencher’s build, the advice from our panel was universally echoed. Scott Yard says it best: “I’m 5’8” and have short arms, so my body mechanics are good for benching. When someone asks me how to increase their bench, I tell them to gain twenty pounds. That’s a sure-fire way to make your bench move.”

Ryan Celli concurs, “Someone with long arms is going to have to build up their arms to make them thicker and add some mass to their frame.” For the full meet lifters, of course, arm length has its pros and cons. “I don’t have excellent mechanics for any of the lifts,” says A.J. Roberts. “I just have good mechanics for all of them. I have good leverages for everything, which equals a good total.”

“As an adult, I have been as light as 190 pounds and as heavy as 329,” says Vinnie Dizenzo. “The leverages that I have now, I created for myself.” This speaks to the concept that you never know what you are capable of until you try. “Don’t use your body leverages as a cop out. When I look at a guy like Garry Frank, who is incredibly tall with very long arms but is still capable of benching huge numbers, it’s a reminder that people can overcome anything.”

“Mechanics help you to an extent,” Scott Yard adds, “but it comes down to how hard you are prepared to work to get better.”

Ryan Celli – Big Bencher

SETTING UP THE BENCH

The quickest way to increase your bench press is simply to start doing it right. Proper form, based on your specific needs, allows you to exert maximal strength while moving the bar a minimal distance. “Once guys get really strong using poor technique, it’s really hard to change that,” says Travis Bell. “It’s good to get really sound technique in the beginning stages, although it might slow the initial speed of your progress. Ryan Celli is a prime example of the payoff to this. If you watch ANY of his lifts, they are picture perfect. His strength is a production of that technique added to his training ethics.”

As Ryan Celli says, “For every lift, you have to start from your feet up”, but there is some variability in how lifters do this.

“There are two ways to set your feet. One is tucked up underneath you, which you see a lot of guys do. I used to do this, but what I found was that it was pretty unstable,” says A.J. Roberts. “If you get to rocking from side to side, it’s hard to keep your balance, so I have my feet out in front of me, basically creating a solid base with my feet. The whole part of the press starts with a foot drive, pushing the heels into the ground. Once you have that solid base, you shouldn’t be able to move anything. You should be rigid.”

Roberts goes on to say, “You have to create what I call a platform shelf that you bench off of. When you bench press, you need to squeeze your shoulders together and make sure your upper back is completely on the bench, otherwise you get a lot of shoulder rotation, so you can move your shoulders up and down. What that is going to do is make you lose force through the shoulder when you press the bar. If you have them pinched under you, giving you a solid base with no movement in your shoulders, there is no place for that force to go but through the bar.”

“You want a slight arch in your lower back,” Roberts continues. “Everyone is different as far as how much arch they can get. It really depends on how you are benching, if it is really beneficial. You really want to arch your mid to upper back if you can, but it takes a lot of practice.”

Scott Yard adds, “I have a very simple setup. Bench-only guys can afford the expense of a setup with an arch that is eight inches off the bench and having their feet back real far, but when it comes to full power, you can’t do that. I use more of a conservative bench setup because I still have to pull three deadlifts.”

A.J. Roberts goes on, “Once you have that set, the next is bar placement in your hand. You want to have it low in your hand, basically in a straight line, with your wrist as straight as possible. Thumb is always wrapped, otherwise you don’t activate all of the muscles you can, especially the bicep muscles. You want the forearm to be straight up, straight down. Basically, you bring the bar out and lower the bar down onto your lats. It’s kind of hard to explain but [in regards to] your wrists, you will notice that if you squeeze your pinkies, you elbows turn inwards, and that’s the position you are going to bench from.”

“Your grip should be the absolute widest you can go,” Travis Bell adds. “I very rarely have anyone use any less than index-on-the-rings, and the few individuals that had to were guys with very narrow shoulders. If some guys could just learn to go with the wider grip and then tuck their elbows a little bit more, forcing your shoulder to stay in tight, it will decrease your range of motion by two or three inches, and that can easily be the difference between making a lift and not finishing one.”

Vincent Dizenzo – Benching 605lbs RAW

PUTTING TOGETHER YOUR TRAINING PLAN

The amount of variability the lifters used in their training surprised me, probably driven primarily by their personality type. Some prefer a solidly constructed template while others (particularly Ryan Celli) train in a less organized manner. With two of the six (Travis Bell and A.J. Roberts) as members of Westside Barbell, most of the readers of this are very familiar with Louie Simmons’ proven techniques. Scott Yard and Adrian Larsen follow many of the WSB concepts but seem to find that they do better if they limit the amount of dynamic work. Vinnie Dizenzo has used a number of different protocols in the past but currently follows a block periodization plan.

“My bench workouts have run the gamut,” Dizenzo says. “I’ve done Westside. I’ve done block periodization. I’ve done Metal Militia. I think any program with a little science or thought behind it works if you implement it and follow it properly. I don’t rethink programs. If I decide I’m going to do Wendler’s 5/3/1, I do 5/3/1. If you think you know more about lifting than the people that have poured years of knowledge into these programs, then you are fooling yourself.”

“I train simple and based on feel,” Ryan Celli says. “I do my own thing, a combination of everything I have learned. I do speed squats and use bands and chains, which is sort of Westside, but it’s all modified to fit what works for me. I do more bodybuilding type stuff than the average powerlifter. I think it works all the stabilizing muscles and keeps everything in balance. I want to look like I lift too.”

For A.J. Roberts and Travis Bell though, they worship at the Westside altar as disciples of a church that has canonized more saints of power than any other gym in the world. As the man that most people in powerlifting consider their messiah (especially after the reverse hyper has rescued you from severe back pain), Louie Simmons has developed a system with four primary workouts each week divided evenly between squat/dead and bench sessions, with one session of each devoted to max effort (heavy near-limit poundages) and one devoted to dynamic training (lighter weights explosively pushed for speed).

AJ Roberts with his mentor Louie Simmons

A recent adjustment to the Westside protocol that is followed by both Bell and Roberts is greater variety in the max effort exercise. “We found that because of the level we are at, it keeps shocking the body and works better,” says A.J. Roberts. “Usually we rotate between full-range, a partial-range, and then a shirted bench. For example, week one might be hanging reverse blue band bench press. Week two might be a floor press, and during week three we would be in our shirts, pressing against bands or against chains.”

“A lot of the Westside techniques are individualized,” says Travis Bell. “On our max effort movement, we will hit a five-pound PR and then usually hit a second pressing movement, whether that is a couple of down set with the same setup and a little bit lighter weight, or we’ll do some shoulder pressing work. Then we will proceed on to our triceps work, which is usually something like Tate presses or rolling dumbbell extensions, or JM presses with different bars or with kettlebells hanging from them, perhaps using the football bar. We usually do two triceps exercises of four to six sets and six to eight reps. Then we move on to upper back and delt work with some rear delts. We usually do a rowing movement and then a pulldown movement and then something like band pull-aparts or reverse pec deck.”

“The whole thing takes 45 minutes to an hour,” Roberts says. “On shirted day it takes a little longer, but on other days we go pretty fast, back to back.”

Roberts continues, “On dynamic day, we start out with a speed movement; typically its 40-50% of our raw bench press and done with resistance, mini-bands, or chains. We rotate bars each week too, so we use a fat bar, skinny bar, football bar. For example, we might do a regular bar with mini-bands doubled on it and do nine sets of three there and go on to something high-rep, like an incline bench press. We finish up with a triceps compound exercise, which is three exercises together. We call it crazy eights. We use an ez-curl bar and do eight extensions, eight rollbacks, and eight close-grip presses. Then I do a little extra back work — some pulldowns and some shrugs.”

“For our dynamic effort day,” Travis Bell says, “Louie has had me cycling between eight sets of three and then seven to eight sets of five reps. We have been doing triples for so many years, we needed a change. We concern ourselves more with the speed that we are using to move the bar, not the weight, because we want to train that explosive response while keeping good form.”

Vinnie Dizenzo, however, has been training using a block periodization program. “I like the amount of volume. It has two bench days. Even though I am 41, I want to get bigger and more muscular, and I think the volume from block periodization will do that for me.”

When asked to describe it, Dizenzo says, “You train in blocks and it’s based on percentages, working off of Prilepin’s chart. The beginning month you do high volume, so the weight is going to be lower, with you doing a lot of sets, a lot of reps, and a lot of assistance work. Then you deload for a week to give your body a little bit of a break. Then you gradually train a bit more specifically to your competition lift. The volume will decrease as the weight gradually goes up. The assistance work is more tailored to the completion lifts you will be doing. You do a second deload week, and then for the last block you do very high percentages, near your max, for fewer sets and reps and very little assistance work. At the final stage, you just do assistance work that specifically assists you with recuperation from the heavy training.”

Vincent Dizenzo – Gearing up for a big bench

Showing the individuality of the athletes, Ryan Celli says, “I train heavy most of the time. I tease a lot of the guys about doing the deload thing. Everyone is deloading all the time, but I just go by feel. If I feel strong, I go heavy. I don’t know if that’s always the right thing to do.”

Celli does eight to ten sets of bench press, going almost entirely by feel. “After benching I will do one or two chest exercises, something at an incline, whether it’s a barbell, dumbbell or log, and then some kind of isolation exercise for the chest, like cable crossover, pec deck, and flyes.  Then we do shoulder work, which for me is just one movement for three to five sets, something overhead. Seated dumbbell presses are maybe 90% of my shoulder work. I do triceps also that day, which by that point don’t need too much. I will do at least one exercise, maybe two. For the first I might do five sets of something, for the second exercise I might do two sets.

“I’m not big on speed work on the bench,” Celli adds. “I might only do it once every three months for variety. It aggravates my elbows, even with band tension. For someone benching raw, I don’t see the benefit from it. If they are going to bench a second day, I think they would be better off doing three sets of eight with 50% of their max just to get the volume and some blood in there while working on their technique.”

Adrian Larsen has come to the same conclusion. “I am a firm believer in NOT doing a dynamic workout every week. I feel it’s really hard on your joints, so doing that every ten days to two weeks is preferable. I do feel quite a bit stronger on my max effort day following a dynamic session, but I think it’s very important to give yourself the time off. I also think people go too heavy on their dynamic days. I have yet to get injured since I made that adjustment. If you work out as hard as powerlifters work out, you need that rest.”

“My first day of the week will be my max effort day,” Larsen explains. “Two days from then, I will either do my dynamic day or a shoulder/back training day, and those two will just alternate. I change my assistance exercises every three weeks and do somewhere between four to seven movements after I’m done benching. Some of my regular choices include grip work, floor presses, JM presses, Tates, incline pressing, dumbbell pressing for reps, shoulder lockouts.”

Scott Yard follows a similar basic approach. “I only train twice a week because I tore my biceps tendon seven months ago, and that has limited the movements I can do. I had to modify things. I use a basic periodization because working with sub-maximal weights for higher reps allows me to train without tearing my body up. I believe in ‘train a little, rest a lot.’”

The average workout for Yard takes about fifty minutes and would start out with flat bench. “I don’t believe in a ton of warmup sets. I work up to one top set. It may be 425 for a set of six. I then switch to triceps. I might do a strict dumbbell triceps extension for a few sets, then do some lat pulldowns, and then finish up with shoulder work, which is front, side, and rear raises. For the assistance work I do three sets of about eight reps.”

FIND A MENTOR

Looking at the lifts accomplished by these champions, all applying similar methods in different ways, makes it obvious that in order to build a big bench, you must both become a student of powerlifting as well as find out exactly what works for you.

The next step for you is to find people in your area who you can learn from. “When I started to become a bench specialist, I was commuting about an average of eight hours a week to train with Bill Crawford and Glen Chabot,” says Vinnie Dizenzo. “If you are serious, find a coach.”

Adrian Larsen agrees, but adds a caveat, “Typically when people go in and start training with other lifters, they try to keep up. Work within your abilities and make goals for yourself.”

Scott Yard tells a similar tale. “I sought out the best people in the area. When I first started squatting, I would drive two hours to train with a guy that was a 1100-pound squatter, and it made my squat go up about two hundred pounds. You have to surround yourself with big, strong people that know what they are doing.”

WRAP UP

Take these lessons from Ryan Celli, Travis Bell, Scott Yard, A.J. Roberts, Adrian Larsen, and Vinnie Dizenzo and apply them to your bench training. See if you can build a bench press that has younger lifters asking you how you became a king of the bench!

Written by Steve Colescott

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Bench Kings – Learn from the Pros discussion thread.

About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.

He is currently a staff writer for WannaBeBig.com and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.

With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.

One of CrossFit’s Finest – An Interview with Chris Spealler

CrossFit is fast becoming a household name.  CrossFit.com defines the modality as strength and conditioning program whose specialty is not specializing in any one form of fitness. 

CrossFit creates an athlete who is proficient across the spectrum of physical expression with the idea being that real life situations demand this form of generalized conditioning.  As such, CrossFit is the training style of choice for many police departments, military personnel, and martial artists not to mention just about anyone who simply wants to be in the best shape of their lives. 

Chris Spealler is one of CrossFit’s finest.  He owns CrossFit Park City in Park City, Utah.  He is also a top competitor in the annual CrossFit Games with three top 10 finishes to his credit (to include 3rd at the 2010 Games!). 

The balance of this article will be an interview with Chris which will provide more details about him personally and delve deeper into the phenomenon that is CrossFit.   

Chris Mason: Chris, for many of our readers this article will be their first encounter with CrossFit.  So far they know you are a prime example of a CrossFit athlete.  Can you provide us a brief bio on yourself? Perhaps some personal information and how you found CrossFit? 

Chris Spealler: Ok, to start, I’m 31 years old and married with a four and a half month old baby boy.  Our other baby is our black lab.  We live in a small town just outside of Park City, Utah.  I am a CrossFit affiliate (gym) owner and I also work for CrossFit Headquarters as a head trainer.  As already stated, I am an active CrossFit Games competitor.   

Outside of my CrossFit life I love skiing and mountain biking.  When I am not traveling on the weekends my family and I attend Capital Church.   

My athletic background is pretty expansive and diverse.  I have been active in sports for as long as I can recall.  My parents were active in sports throughout their youth and they instilled a love for athletics in my sister and me from a very early age.  I think they had a healthy way of going about encouraging us to be athletic.  They provided us a great deal of freedom in choosing the sports we wanted to participate in, but they had a rule that we had to stick with a sport for at least one season once chosen.  This taught us how to stick with something and thus was a valuable lesson in personal stability.

I stumbled into wresting in the 1st grade and stuck with it as my main sport until graduating college.  Up until junior high I tried many a sport to include track, lacrosse, and even golf.  Once I was in junior high I decided to wrestle year round and it become my sole sporting activity.  I excelled in wrestling and was recruited by Lock Haven University, a Division 1 wrestling school.  

Upon graduation from Lock Haven I had some opportunities to pursue wrestling further, but decided not to.  I soon began to yearn for a new competitive outlet and along came CrossFit.  A buddy of mine who was in the Marines at the time introduced me to it.  Like the proverbial duck to water I instantly took to it.  It has been a wonderful gift to me.  It embodies all of the attributes that I cherish in fitness.  It also allows me to express my athletic blessings in a way that both promote personal growth and allows me to help others.  

Chris Mason: Chris, you mentioned how your parents guided you and your sister in athletics.  Do you and your wife plan to do something similar with your son?   

Chris Spealler: Yes, I firmly believe that athletics can provide so much beyond just the physicality aspect.  With children, athletics are especially important because they not only provide them the exercise they need (especially in today’s videogame age), they can also foster such life skills as teamwork, learning to be coachable, and being responsible for and accountable to others.   

Chris Mason:  As mentioned above, this article will be the first time many readers are exposed to CrossFit.  Can you give them an overview of it?  Perhaps describe some of the workouts of the day (WODs)?    

Chris Spealler: Absolutely, and I think a great way to get started is to clear up some common misconceptions about CrossFit.  The most frequent concerns I hear are that you need to get in great shape prior to trying CrossFit, that CrossFit is dangerous, and that CrossFitters don’t care about technique.  None of these are even remotely accurate!  The idea that one needs to be in great condition to CrossFit is one that particularly gets my goad.  In fact, it is one of the basic tenets of CrossFit that training is scaled to the needs of the individual and that said needs do no vary in kind, but only in degree.  In other words, your grandparents may have the same training needs as a top level Olympic athlete. 

We all need a huge base of general physical preparedness (GPP).  GPP provides all around physical ability (strength, endurance, flexibility etc.) which translates to virtually any physical activity.  Grandparents need it to stay out of a nursing home and Olympic athletes need it to gleam the most from their sport specific training. 

CrossFit is GPP on a grand scale.  This results in workouts that are constantly varied and focused toward ‘functional’ movements.  Workouts range from as short as two minutes to as long as an hour.  The movements practiced, loading schemes, and repetition (rep) ranges are always changing.  This brings me to another knock I hear about CrossFit which is that we are good at many things, but great at nothing.  We don’t see that as a negative, rather it is what we are all about.  We feel that real life punishes the specialist and rewards those with generalized physical abilities.  Real life situations demand a combination of strength, endurance, coordination, and mental toughness.  CrossFit develops all of these attributes to a degree rarely seen elsewhere in the fitness world. 

To be clear, we don’t knock specialists, in fact we respect them to such a degree that we try to bring the best of the best in each specific area of fitness into the CrossFit world to help make us better at their chosen specialty.  We have recruited the best running, Olympic lifting, and powerlifting coaches to educate our trainers and to learn the ‘secrets’ of each discipline.  As I said, it’s all about being really good at a wide spectrum of physical activities.   

I used the term ‘functional’ above.  It is a term which is pervasive in today’s fitness world yet defined differently at nearly every turn.  In CrossFit the term refers to being able to better execute natural physical movements such as running, jumping, punching, kicking, throwing, and so on.  We all have to squat down to sit or deadlift an object from the ground as part of our daily life so we incorporate those movements (the squat and deadlift) into our training.  Conversely, we never have to use weight machines in real life so we don’t use them in training. 

Unlike bodybuilders, we don’t use single joint movements knowing that the functional movements (like squats, deadlifts, and chins) provide a systemic response which equates to a more efficient and functional manner of training.  We train functionally to be super-functional (if you will) outside of the gym. 

Most CrossFit workouts are couplets (2 exercises) or triplets (3 exercises) of exercises blended together in various combinations.  Below are just a few of our workouts of the day (WODs) as examples:   

1) Fran 

21-15-9 (21 reps followed by 15 reps followed by 9 reps of each movement) 

  • Thrusters (barbell starts on chest and you go into a full squat and then come back up and press the barbell overhead – as one fluid motion with the rising of the body) 
  • Pull-ups (kipping is allowed because it provides us with a higher power output = greater intensity) 

2) IsaGrace 

  • Snatches (barbell is pulled from the floor to a fully locked-out overhead position in one motion) 30 reps
  • Clean and Jerks (barbell is pulled from the floor to the shoulders, then essentially thrown with body momentum to an overhead position) 30 reps 

* Men’s prescribed weight is 135 lbs 

Helen 

3 rounds: 

  • Run 400 meters
  • 21 Kettlebell Swings (swing a kettlebell from between one’s legs to the overhead position)
  • 12 Pull-ups 

Linda 

  • 10,9,8,7… down to 1 rep 
  • 1.5 x bodyweight deadlift
  • 1 x bodyweight bench press
  • 3/4 bodyweight squat clean (barbell is pulled from the floor to the shoulders via dropping underneath of it as you pull it upwards and then catching it at the shoulders – ending in the bottom of a front squat position)  

Each of the above workouts is done for time with the goal being to finish the prescribed exercises and reps in as short a timeframe as possible.  Training in this fashion accomplishes our goal of building an individual with all around physical prowess.  It provides for increased work capacity over broad time and modal domains (our CrossFit ‘mission statement’). 

Chris Spealler competing in the 2010 Crossfit Games

Chris Mason:  You mentioned WODs above.  Can you give us some of the other most frequently used CrossFit specific verbiage? 

Chris Spealler: In the same vein as WODs, CrossFitters will often use the terms ‘prescribed’ or ‘rx’d’.  As the words imply, the terms are used to indicate a workout is to be completed as written.   

‘Scaling’ is a term we use to describe altering the loads (and sometimes other parameters) for people of varying levels of fitness so that they can all reap the maximum benefit from their CrossFit training.  So, for example, a beginner might perform the IsaGrace described above with 60 lbs instead of the prescribed 135 lbs.   

‘Kipping’ is another term used quite often.  It refers to a specific style of pull-up.  It is derived from gymnastics and involves a significant amount of body English to help propel one to the top of a chin.  It is more of a whole body movement than a traditional strict chin (which we do as well).  It allows the trainee to get more done in a given period of time thus increasing power output, intensity, and results.   

‘Met-con’ is yet another common term in CrossFit.  It stands for metabolic conditioning which is a form of training whose purpose is to improve the body’s efficiency at storing and delivering of energy for activity.  These workouts have the dual benefit of improving both strength and aerobic capacity.  In fact, while the workouts are absolutely nothing like standard aerobic training they can confer aerobic benefits that rival those of the best traditional programs.  The majority of CrossFit training would qualify as met-con.   

Chris Mason: Chris, you have placed well at the CrossFit Games more than once, but have yet to win.  Watching you this year you really dominated many of the events with absolute strength seeming to be your only limiting factor.  What, if anything, do you plan to do to address that (or do you even agree with the observation)? 

Chris Spealler: Absolute strength has always been a relative weakness for me especially in comparison to the larger athletes.  I am going to incorporate a heavily Westside Barbell influenced program for a 6 week block.  I will follow that with a 5-3-1 program for my back squat with additional accessory work for my posterior chain.  Heavier met-cons will be included along with Olympic lifts of varying rep ranges.  Each of these changes should all work towards improving my 1 rep max (1RM) strength.   

I will, of course, continue with my more standard CrossFit training and use the above to attack my weaknesses and make me a more well rounded athlete for next year’s games. 

Chris Mason: That sounds like a solid plan!  Have you considered adding a bit of body weight?  I think 6-10 lbs of lean muscle would make all the difference and turn you into even more of a machine than you already are. 

Chris Spealler: I feel the idea that increased body weight equals increased strength is a trap that too many people fall prey to.  This is especially true for CrossFitters as we need to keep our strength to weight ratio high so that the body weight and running components of our program are not compromised by excess bulk. 

My goal is to just get silly strong!

Chris Mason: I totally agree and should have clarified my point.  Demonstrable strength is a component of several factors, but the two that are controllable are myofibrillar hypertrophy and neural efficiency.  What you mention above would be focusing on the neural aspect which is definitely a solid plan, but not optimal.  

My thoughts when asking the question were that 6-10 lbs (and perhaps that was a bit high, maybe it should have been 3-6 lbs) of lean muscle in the form of myofibrillar hypertrophy (the myofibrils are the contractile – force producing – elements of the muscle cells) combined with low repetition training to force neural adaptation would be the optimal approach.

Everyone is different, but especially in a seasoned trainee like yourself there gets to be a point where you essentially tap-out your strength progress at a given body weight. 

If the weight gained were kept to 5 lbs or less and in doing so you got significantly stronger I don’t think your body weight abilities would suffer.  The end game being the absolute gains you can make in maximal strength would be greater with the addition of some lean muscle tissue, and if said muscular gain is kept to a minimum you should be able to enjoy the best of both worlds (jacked up 1RM strength and no decline in your body weight abilities).

Chris Spealler: What you have described is absolutely my goal, but in my experience one more easily stated than done.  I feel like I have run the gamut in terms of trying different training styles and techniques to build my absolute strength.  I’ve done everything from 5×5 linear progression training, to maxing out, to 5-3-1, and now to Westside conjugate training.

I have actually added 3-4 lbs since the games, but that is a function of a decrease in my total training volume (no 2-a-days right now).  It is always easier for me to keep weight on when my overall volume is down.

I will never be one to keep pace with the biggest guys on 1RM lifts.  Even if I were to add 10% to my maxes (which is a lot for an experienced athlete) I would still be considerably off what the strongest guys can do.  I instead focus on moving heavier loads with my met-con training thus allowing me to have the strength endurance to keep up with the bigger guys in CrossFit competition.

In the end, I don’t know if there is a magic formula for that big 1RM and an extreme level of strength and aerobic endurance, but I am always open to suggestions.

Chris Mason: Chris, maybe we can speak about this privately?  I have some thoughts on what you could do to add that 10% or more, but need to know more information.   Perhaps fodder for a future article ?

Continuing with the topic of body weight, can you speak a bit about diet for CrossFit generally, and your specific dietary regimen? 

Chris Spealler: CrossFit basically has two approaches to nutrition.  The first is the simplest.  It establishes some basic dietary guidelines which are geared towards mitigating insulin release (i.e. a form of carbohydrate control).  In a nutshell, eat meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no refined sugars. 

This approach helps people to get away from the high carbohydrate (carb), low fat diets which are responsible for many of the health issues we see today (obesity, age onset diabetes etc.). 

If people then want to take things to the next level we recommend the Zone Diet combined with consuming the right foods (as listed above).  This helps to establish control over portions being consumed and thus to tailor consumption to goals.

My personal experience with the zone was underwhelming in the sense I saw no real performance improvement.  The experience did, however, teach my some things of interest.  I learned that I need to eat more often throughout the day and felt better when consuming a good mix of macronutrients at each meal. I also learned that I have a sensitivity to most cereal grains (breads, pasta, rice etc.) and felt much better when avoiding them.

Beyond diet, I have begun supplementing with fish oil (morning and evening) and have been using Progenex’s Recovery as a post-workout shake.  I have seen a huge difference in recovery with the addition of these two supplements. 

Chris Mason: Chris, it seems like the Paleo Diet is also quite big in the CrossFit community.  What are your thoughts?

Chris Spealler: That’s a good question.  Interestingly, many people assume that what we recommend for beginners (meats and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch etc.) is the Paleo Diet.  While it shares some similarities with the Paleo Diet, it is most certainly not Paleo.  The Paleo Diet is much more exacting, things like no salt, no dairy, no gluten, and so on.  These specifications make a strict Paleo Diet quite difficult for most people to adhere to. 

I believe the individual should find what works best for them.  There is so much individuality in how we respond to dietary intake that it is imperative people experiment for themselves.  Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are some basic dietary guidelines which are nearly universal in applicability (such as those we teach beginners), but it is within those general guidelines where I believe the individual tinkering should occur.

Chris Mason: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.  Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?

Chris Spealler: Thanks for the opportunity to allow me to share a bit about myself and CrossFit.  I just want to encourage people to give CrossFit a shot.  It’s an amazing program with an even more impressive community.  The vast majority of people involved are passionate, humble, and accepting.  Don’t assume you aren’t fit enough for it, or that it’s too hard.  The program is completely scaleable and that is one of its major strengths.

The CrossFit definition of fitness may be a compromise, but I personally believe it is the best compromise one can make.  Being a specialist is not a bad thing, but specialists never get to experience the feeling of knowing you are a well rounded athlete ready to tackle virtually any physical challenge that may come your way in life.  It is a good feeling, trust me!

Written by Chris Mason

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – One of CrossFit’s finest – An Interview with Chris Spealler discussion thread.

About Chris Mason

 

Chris Mason is an author, trainer, and nutritionist. He has published articles in Iron Man, Athlete, Planet Muscle, and Powerlifting USA magazines as well as several online websites including Crossfit.com.

In addition, he has worked with top flight professional strength athletes on both their nutritional and training regimens. Chris is also the co-founder of AtLarge Nutrition. He is actively involved in all aspects of the business to include product formulation.

BodyBuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes Vol. 4 – Nitty-Gritty Cardio

Sure, you can always pick up unsolicited advice from your local locker room guru, but what are the chances of it actually being good advice? Unfortunately, the odds aren’t in your favor.

That’s why we gave renowned nutritionist and successful bodybuilder Shelby Starnes his own column to answer your training and dieting questions. You see, unlike the big guy at your gym, Shelby has worked with hundreds of athletes who are looking for the same thing as you: a ripped, muscular physique.

In this installment, Shelby tackles every cardio question you could possibly come up with to get leaner and increase your work capacity.

Read it, learn it, and apply it…and then print out a copy and give it to your locker room guru.

A Note from Shelby

Articles on cardio are never terribly glamorous. I’m sure we’d all rather talk about our new training routine, our crazy new preworkout supplement, or Jessica Albas amazing lips. However, glamorous or not, cardiovascular activity is a very potent tool for change in our physiques—not just cosmetically, but also in terms of health, recovery, and improved conditioning. 

In this article, I’ll address some of your most pertinent questions as to the nitty-gritty of cardiovascular activity – the what, how, when, and why. However, I have to warn you: cardio alone will not get you in shape if your diet sucks, unless you’re just one of those metabolic freaks who eats whatever you want and always has six-pack abdominal definition.

We normal folks have to pay diligent attention to all aspects of the bodybuilding lifestyle – diet, training, supplementation, and cardio – to achieve the results we desire. So with that warning out of the way, let’s get started.

Wait. You Mean I Can’t Have A Doughnut Beforehand?

Q: What’s the reasoning behind doing cardio on an empty stomach in the mornings?

Shelby: The argument for AM fasted cardio is that in the morning, after an overnight fast, your body is slightly glycogen-depleted and insulin levels are low, so fat will be the primary fuel source for cardio (at least for low to moderate intensity cardio).

The argument for “anytime” cardio is that the aforementioned variables don’t really matter; fat loss is simply a matter of calories in vs. calories out, and doing cardio later in the day will produce the same results given that the diet is the same.

In my experience though (and the experience of hundreds of my clients over the years), AM fasted cardio is superior, not only for the reasons mentioned above, but for the following as well:

  • Morning cardio is a great way to start your day because it releases endorphins that make you feel better both physically and mentally.
  • Getting it done first thing makes it less likely that you’ll skip it later. 
  • Morning cardio (especially high intensity activity) raises your metabolism for hours afterwards, so you’re not just burning calories while you’re on the machine but while you’re resting, too.

If you absolutely can’t get your cardio done in the morning, the next best time to do it would be post-workout (but prior to your post-workout meal), because this is another time when your body is glycogen-depleted. Make sure you bring your post-workout meal to the gym, however, so you can immediately replenish after the cardio is complete.

Some might worry about potential muscle loss when doing fasted cardio, but if your total diet is in line, then the chances of catabolism are very low. If the human body was so fragile that it lost muscle from doing some physical activity before eating, we never would have survived as a species.

Take Two and Call Me in the Morning

Q: Do you recommend taking any supplements prior to cardio sessions?

Shelby: Yes. To maximize the use of fatty acids for fuel during your cardio sessions, take a thermogenic fat-burner about 30 minutes beforehand. This will not only help liberate fatty acids to be used as fuel, it will also help to “wake you up” and get moving, and in addition, will help suppress appetite…not a bad combination while trying to lose fat! You can also take these before your weight-training workouts to accomplish the same things.

Do Very Low Carb Diets and High-Intensity Cardio Mix?

Q: I’m using a very low carb diet (trace carbs only) right now to shed some pounds I’ve picked up over the last few months. I love doing really high intensity cardio like Prowler sprints and other interval training, but I’ve heard this might not be a good idea while on a low carb diet. Why?

Shelby: Because glycogen levels are kept so low on a diet like that, cardio intensity should not be high. High intensity cardio uses glycogen as its main fuel source, and when glycogen levels are low, amino acids (i.e., your body’s muscle tissue) will be used to make glycogen via a process known as gluconeogenesis. Therefore, to keep catabolism at bay, always keep cardio at a low intensity (under 130 beats per minute). 

To make up for the lower intensity, you’ll typically need to increase the duration. Start off with 30 minutes per day, seven days per week, and gradually work up from there. When your weight loss plateaus, add another ten minutes daily.

The same applies to training. Because glycogen levels will not be very high (save for the day or two following your refeed), it would be wise to keep overall volume low. Forty-five minutes is a perfect workout length for a very low carb diet.

It would also be wise to keep the reps per set under ten on this diet, as lower rep training conserves strength and is also the least glycogen-demanding. 

There’s Always a Catch

Q: Would sled pulling combined with hill sprints be an efficient way to up my conditioning while burning fat?

Shelby: Definitely, but remember that diet will be the biggest factor in achieving your fat loss goals, not cardio.

Ever notice how all those people on the treadmills in your gym always look the same? They may be burning a couple hundred calories here and there, but I guarantee they are more than making up for it with less than stellar diets.  One bagel per day and their cardio efforts quickly go “down the tubes.”

Does Size Matter?

Q: Do your cardio recommendations vary much based on an individual’s size, or is that not really relevant?

Shelby: To a certain extent it does play a role. Larger individuals (in terms of body weight) will burn much more calories doing the same activity as compared to a smaller individual.  If a 250-pound man walks for 30 minutes at three miles per hour, he will burn a lot more calories than a 150-pound man walking the same 30 minutes at the same speed because his increased size and musculature requires more calories to do the same amount of work. Think of it like vehicle size: it takes more gas to power a bigger car over the same distance as compared to a smaller car.

On the other hand, larger individuals usually have more total fat to lose than smaller individuals, but because smaller folks usually get less “bang for their buck” from cardio, I usually prefer to push their calories lower (via diet) rather than have them do copious amounts of cardio.  It really varies from individual to individual though, as we all have very different metabolisms and hormonal profiles regardless of our scale weight.

Go Till You Drop?

Q: How much cardio is too much cardio?

Shelby: I’ve had clients do up to 20 hours of cardio per week, but most of them usually max out at around ten hours. Obviously, it’s very important to keep diet in check when performing this much cardio because you can risk losing muscle.  Other factors that play a role include an individual’s metabolism, how much fat they have to lose, and what sort of timeline they’re dealing with. 

Also, remember to keep cardio intensity in check. When I say I’ve had someone do up to 20 hours of cardio per week, that was all low to moderate intensity activity. If you’re using high intensity cardio, 20 hours would certainly be far too much. I’m sure I’m sounding like a broken record by now, but it’s true; every situation is different, so start off slow, monitor your results regularly, and adjust as needed to keep progressing towards your goals.

The Balance Game: Weights and Cardio

Q: How do you recommend balancing cardio and lifting when the goal is strength and muscle gain?

Shelby: Assuming that my clients are relatively lean, the max I’ll have my guys (and gals) do is 3-4 sessions per week, about 30 minutes each, mostly at moderate intensity, with maybe one high intensity interval training session per week. I prefer that they do their cardio on off days from training, or at least separated from training by 6-8 hours.

These few weekly sessions are usually enough to keep their conditioning in check and also provide benefit in the form of active recovery from their main training sessions. 

A sample weekly setup might look something like this:

Day Activity
Monday Squat training, no cardio
Tuesday Rest day, low to moderate intensity cardio (restoration, fat burning)
Wednesday Bench training, no cardio
Thursday Rest day, high intensity interval cardio (conditioning, fat burning)
Friday Deadlift training, no cardio
Saturday Rest day, low to moderate intensity cardio (restoration, fat burning)
Sunday Accessory work, low to moderate intensity cardio (restoration, fat burning)

 
If we find that this amount isn’t enough to keep their body fat in check, then I would likely tweak their diets before making any adjustments to their cardio.  I don’t like “wasting” a lot of energy in the offseason on cardio. In general, my advice is to spend your energy on your chosen endeavor (powerlifting, bodybuilding, etc.) and let your diet keep you lean.
 
If someone is doing very extensive training for their sport (in the form of multiple training sessions per day, for five or more days per week), I will likely lower the cardiovascular activity even further. As with anything though, it all depends on the specific client and the situation.

Written by Shelby Starnes

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – BodyBuilding Principles with Shelby Starnes, Vol. 4 – Nitty-Gritty Cardio discussion thread.

About Shelby Starnes

Shelby is a successful National-level Bodybuilder & Powerlifter and has helped hundreds of athletes get into the greatest shape of their lifes.

  • 2010 NPC Jr Nationals – 5th place – Light Heavyweight
  • 2009 NPC Central States Championships – 1st place Middleweight and Overall
  • B.A. in Psychology with Departmental Honors – estimated completion May, 2008
  • 2nd place 198-lb class – 2004 APF Michigan State Powerlifting Championships
  • Overall Novice Champion – Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005
  • 2nd place open middleweight- Motor City Bodybuilding Championships, 2005 (nationally qualified)
  • 5th place middleweight – NPC Junior Nationals, 2006

Whether you are a competitive bodybuilder looking for pre contest/off season assistance or simply just striving to achieve a specific physique, Shelby is available to set up custom diet and training programs to suit your goals.

For more information on his diet and training programs and prices, see here.

The No-Gym Warrior Workout Program

I remember it like it was yesterday. Mr. Johnson was my carpentry class teacher in high school. He stood a little above six feet and weighed around 210 pounds. He wasn’t bodybuilder big, but he was definitely jacked: lean, muscular, and strong as an ox.

He would perform random feats of strength during class such as balancing on his hands while holding a full plank, walking on his hands, and stopping to pump out some handstand pushups, and even busting out sets of 1-arm pushups.

I was in his class just around the time I had discovered strength training. I was amazed at Mr. Johnson’s strength, muscularity, and leanness, and I just had to find out his secret. When I asked him, he smiled and said, “bodyweight training.”  On top of that, he also informed me that he had never set foot in a gym.

Just how the hell was that possible?

No Gym? No Problem

Just because you don’t have access to a gym doesn’t mean you can’t build a badass body. Whether the economy has you pinching pennies, your closest gym is 45 minutes away, or you’re just strapped for time, this program will get you the results you’re looking for.

Who is This Program For?

  • Those who can’t afford a gym membership
  • Those whose nearest gym is too far away
  • Those who are very limited on time
  • Those who have been lifting but are bored and want to try something new
  • Trainees who want to give their bodies a break from the wear and tear of the weights
  • High school athletes who want to train but have no equipment or no car
  • Regular gym goers who want to strip some body fat for the beach

This program offers you an at-home or on-the-road option for increasing strength, muscle mass, anaerobic conditioning, and fat loss without a gym. Although more advanced lifters shouldn’t shy away, this program is better suited for those who have less than one dedicated year of training.

While training with bodyweight is great—just ask Mr. Johnson—there are a few items I’d like to touch on about this program. First, you will get great results, but we have to be realistic, too. Will you get stronger? Hell yeah. Will you get as strong as a powerlifter? Absolutely not.

Your strength gains will be classified more as “relative strength” versus “maximum strength.” Relative strength is how strong you are in relation to your bodyweight and is very important in most athletics and sports such as mixed martial arts and wrestling.

This program will also induce hypertrophy (muscle growth). You can pack on a substantial amount of muscle mass from bodyweight training alone (though beginners and intermediate trainees will obviously have more potential for growth).

However, there is a point at which the body will need more external resistance stimulus to continue to grow. To solve this problem, I’ve outlined how to progressively overload the exercises to get the full benefit.

Progressive Overload: The Key to Muscle and Strength

Dr. Mel Siff perfectly summed up the principle behind progressive overload when he said, “…strength and all other components of fitness increase if training becomes more demanding”.

Although increasing the number of reps and the length of timed sets on this program will take address this principle at first, there comes a point where the load needs to be increased.

For most exercises (squats, jumps, pushes, pulls, core exercises, and all variations), a weighted vest will provide the next step of progression. You can purchase these items online from companies such as Perform Better or Power Systems.

For the MacGyver In Us All

A more cost-effective approach is to make your own weight vest. It’s really quite simple: take a heavy-duty backpack and load it up with sand or pea gravel.

I recommend putting the sand in a heavy-duty garbage bag, sealing it, and then placing it in another bag. Once the load is double-bagged and sealed, place it in the backpack. You can use multiple bags to increase or decrease the weight of your vest as necessary. The backpack can be worn on the back or front of the body since each will create its own unique physical demand.

Another method for increasing load on some exercises (like squats) is holding a heavy object. Objects can include (but aren’t limited to) large rocks, sandbags, sand, or lead-filled PVC pipe and cement bags.

Get creative here! Look for heavy objects around your house. Depending on the object, it can be held in a “goblet” or “Zercher” position. (If you have any of these items they can also be used in the “Odd Object Clean & Press” for “Workout A. Exercise: B1”).

Sandbag being held in a Zercher position

Get Creative – Load up with heavy objects around your house/garden

Hip thrusters and glute bridges can be made more difficult by switching to one-leg variations of each. Simply perform the movement with one leg held off the floor with the thigh parallel to the working leg.
The No-Gym Warrior Workout Program

Perform each workout once per week with at least one day of rest between each. Pairings (A1, A2, etc.) are supersets and should be performed without rest. Rest intervals are one minute unless otherwise noted.

Workout A:

Exercise Sets Reps
A. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat 4 10-20 (each leg)
B1. Jackknife Pushup

OR

B1. Odd Object Clean & Press

3 10-20
B2. Glute Bridge (with feet elevated) 3 10-20
C1. Chinups 3 AMAP
C2. Prone Cobra 3 30 seconds – 1 minute hold
D. Burpees 3-10 rounds (with 30 secs rest) 30 seconds

.

Workout B:

Exercise Sets Reps
A1. Prisoner Squat Jump 4 8-20
A2. Towel Iso Scarecrows 3 45-90 seconds(hold 15-30 seconds each position)
B1. Explosive Crossover Pushup (with pause) 4 8-20
B2. Hip Thrusters 4 10-20
C1. Close-Grip Pushup

OR

C1. Dips

3 10-20
C2. Hand Walk Outs 3 8-15(all the way out and back in is 1 rep)
D. Hill Sprints

OR

D. Tuck Jumps

8-12 (walk down hill for rest)3-8 rounds (with 30 secs rest) Sprint up large hill (50-100 yards)

30 seconds

Workout C:

Exercise Sets Reps
A1. Split Squat Jumps 4 8-12
A2. Prisoner Squats (with pause) 4 15-20
B1. Plyometric Pushup (with pause) 3 8-20
B2. Decline Pushup

OR

B2. Bench Dips

3 10-20
C1. Pullups 3 AMAP
C2. Squat to Y-Stand 3 10-15
D1. Reverse Crunches 3 10-15
D2. 3-Point Plank 4 45s-1 minute(alternate feet)

.

A Few Notes

Rep Ranges Rep ranges and time ranges are fairly broad. Start at your current fitness level. Continue to progress by increasing your reps or time on sets over time.

Pause Sets On the “with pause” sets, simply pause for five seconds in the down position.

Dips Perform bench dips only if you have healthy shoulders. If you feel any pain or discomfort in your shoulders while doing these then stop.

PullupsMost everyone has somewhere to perform pullups. A couple places to look are your garage or low tree limbs. If all else fails, you can pick up a pullup bar at your local sporting goods store for twenty bucks.

Pull Ups Outside Rule!

Wrapping It Up

You don’t need a fancy air-conditioned gym to get results. All you need is your body and a few simple items. One of the main advantages of this program is that you can perform it almost anywhere: outside, in your home or garage, traveling, or at the park.

And, to make things as easy as possible for you, I’m going to leave you with pictures that demonstrate the exercises mentioned above.

So no more excuses! Forget about the gym and get to work building that badass body!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The No-Gym Warrior Workout Program discussion thread.

Exercise Database

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Jackknife Pushup

Glute Bridge

Lying YTI

Burpees

Scapular Pushup

Cross Over Push Up (with Pause)

Hip Thruster

Close Grip Pushups

Hand Walk Outs

Hill Sprints

Tuck Jump

Split Squat Jumps

Prisoner Squat (with pause)

Plyo Pushup

Decline Pushup

Towel Iso Scarecrows

Squat to Y-Stand

Reverse Crunches

3-Point Plank (3PP)

Written by Chase Karnes, BS, NSCA-CPT, CSCS

About Chase Karnes

Chase Karnes graduated from Murray State University with a degree in Exercise Science. He is a NSCA certified personal trainer and strength coach located in Western Kentucky.

Through Argonauts Fitness, Chase has worked in the exercise and nutrition arena for half a decade. He has hands-on experience working with strength and physique athletes along with athletic and general populations. Chase is also a competitive athlete himself competing in NPC Bodybuilding, Powerlifting (1330 Raw Total), and NAS Strongman competitions. He has worked or consulted with clients from over 6 states.

Chase can be contacted for personal and group training, program design, nutrition consultation and speaking engagements through his website www.chasekarnes.com or Argonauts Fitness