Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gettin sweaty - Warming up on pressing days

So if you've read 2 articles by me on here you know that my elbows are like that of a 97 year old man that spent most of his life punching trees and jackin it.  In other words, they hurt and ache quite a bit.  Especially on pressing days and the day after.

But over the last few months I have figured some things out that have helped me enough that I can now press semi heavy twice a week.

Before I start talking about warming up on pressing days I want to address the shoulder and elbow problems that veteran lifters deal with.  I will address some of the problems behind those pains and how I have worked around them to keep getting bigger and stronger.

I also hope younger lifters or guys new to lifting pay attention here and don't take this lightly.

Skull crushers - This used to be my most favorite exercise for triceps.  Now if I think about doing them my elbows hurt.  Some time back Matt Kroc tore his tricep doing them, and I've know several other guys that tore their triceps doing them.

Skullies put your elbows in a very precarious angle.  So when you have to overcome to inertia from the bottom, the stress is transferred directly to the joint, and that stress is also shared by the tendons of course.  You may be able to do these for years without pain, but for the majority of people they will eventually lead to elbow problems.  I used to scoff at "old guys" who told me this.  I feel like a fool now for doing so.  I could have saved a lot of wear and tear on my elbows by heeding that advice and dropping skulls in favor of more elbow friendly movements.  But I was young and knew more than they did, so I didn't.  And I paid for it, just like they said I would.

Wide Grip Benching - The fastest and best way to make sure you eventually wreck your shoulders is to keep on doing your benches wide.  I don't even mean ultra wide either.  I separated my shoulder in football twice, and now have permanent AC joint separation that cannot be fixed.  However even before then just a few years of benching with a wide grip kept my shoulders sore and hurting almost constantly.  I knew tons of other guys that had the same complaint.  Yet we kept on doing it.  It wasn't until a few years ago, that my bench crept back up to 400+ constantly and my shoulder pain went away.  The reason why is because I switched to a close grip and quit benching wide.  Now my shoulders never bother me, and I've had no pec issues either.  Because the pecs don't get overstretched with close grips, the chances of injuring or tearing the pectoral is also significantly reduced.  And just personal preference I am not as impressed with some guy gripping the bar out damn near the collars to do a belly bench as I am with someone like Konstantinov's who does a clean close grip with 50 pounds less.

Yes you will bench less at first, and you may not have the same ceiling for strength that you had if you stay wide grip.  But it's better to shave 10 pounds off your bench, and be able to bench injury free on a consistent basis, than bench more every once in a while but struggle to stay healthy.

Biceps - One thing I've never understood about some powerlifters is the complete neglecting of biceps work. The secondary function of the biceps is to help stabilize the elbow and shoulder when you press.  That seems pretty important.  I hate training biceps, and always have.  I neglected training them because of that, not because I didn't think they weren't important.  I believe that the lack of training for my biceps probably played a part in my elbow issues as well.  Remember that you always need balance, and if you are always pressing heavy, that elbow extension needs some elbow flexion to balance everything back out.

Warming up for benching and pressing of various types -

The first thing I do when I walk into the gym for a bench or pressing session, is make my way to the dumbbell rack and pick up a light pair of DB's like the 20's and start doing supinated db curls.  I make sure to really turn my pinkie over as far as possible.  This will help to stretch out the forearm and get everything warmed up in there.

After that I sit down, and do palms up wrist curls with my wrists on my knees.  The important factor I learned here is, you want to go very slow and deliberate on the negative portion of the movement.  After a set of 12-15, I turn my hands over and do palms down wrist curls.  Again, I make sure to go very slow on the negative.  This was the difference in my elbow pain getting better.  I had been doing all sorts of forearm work to help my elbow problems, but it did not get better until I was told by a PT to go slow on the negative.  This made a dramatic difference in just a few weeks.

After this I will grab a 5 pound plate and do regular ol l-flyes for my cuff.  Usually 20-30 reps per side.  Then I will go over to the pushdown machine and get a rope and do 20 or so reps with it to get my elbows warm.

I repeat this 3 or 4 times before I do my first set of empty bar benching or inclines.  I used to have to do a lot of rotator cuff stretching before I benched or inclined but since I bench with a close grip only now, I have been able to eliminate that and have had no shoulder pain.

Before I bench or incline I do a lot of reps with the empty bar (even tho this isn't always noted in my training log because it looks boring).  But several sets of 20-50 are done to get everything lubed up (heh).

So the routine now generally looks like this -

Db Supinated Curls - 3x15-20
L-Flyes - 3x20-30
Palms down wrist curls - 3x12-15
Palms up wrist curls - 3 x12-15
Rope Pushdowns - 3x15-20

Empty Bar Pressing - 3-4 x 20-50

A quick overview of warming up, and staying injury free are.....

  • Move your grip in for pressing.  This will save your shoulders and pecs.  
  • Do bicep and forearm work and be serious about it.  Your elbows will thank you for it.
  • Do cuff work but keep it light and deliberate.  


  1. I'm new,

    1. How close should my hands be to be considered close grip. I'm 5'11" and a buck '75 at 10% fat, so normal build.

    2. Should I grip the bar at the same place when military pressing?

  2. I go about a full thumb length out from the inside smooth of the bar. I've never measured it actually.

  3. Really glad you wrote this, Paul. After years of pain-free pressing, shoulder aches are starting to creep in. Good info/reminders here.

  4. great article .. what is a good way to stretch the pecs , mine get super sore after benching even when i use a close grip

  5. Soreness is fine. I don't really think about stretching the pecs since, as I noted, since I bench with a close grip I don't really get tight in there. You could do the door frame stretch.

  6. Really glad you brought up Konstantinov-- I saw a video of him benching a while ago and converted to a closer-grip style. Felt great. That's the only style I'd recommend if I were teaching someone the bench press.

  7. That's the style I teach everyone as well.

  8. People get so wound up about knees (Don't run! Don't squat below parallel!! Your knees will disintegrate!!!), but you never hear much about the shoulders. This is one of my pet peeves. Happy (ranting) days!

    Personally I've paid attention b/c mine are a weak point. They crack and crunch (rotator cuff problem), and after fearing a bicep tendon injury through doing negative chins combined with too much rowing, I read up about that, and how easily you can fuck yourself up in that area. (In fact I read a good article on t-nation about cutting back on overhead presses and focusing more on raises -- didn't bookmark it though, annoyingly.) Anyway, I just don't get it. Why the obsession with knees when there are guys messing up their shoulders left right and centre? People won't squat below parallel but they'll happily do a behind the head shoulder press without a squatter? Stop hating your shoulders!!

    Anyways, useful tip on benching. It feels like it's my front delt that fails when I bench, so perhaps close grip benching is a solution. Tbh though I tend to just favour DBs.

  9. I think the reason there is a focus on knees rather than shoulders is because your knees carry you around. You can still get around with bad shoulders, but once the knees go then our very simple act of walking becomes a chore. Luckily, I have never had a single knee injury or problem despite 13 years of football and 20 years of martial arts. I'm not sure how I've avoided that.

  10. Good timing, I just recently added skull crushers at the very end of my "push" day workout, what alternatives would you recommend to those?
    What's annoying is between 2 gyms I go to there are 3 different barbell types all with different ring placements so its hard to judge grip based on that.

  11. To replace skullies I'd try pjr pullovers, overhead rope extensions, and seated ez curl bar french press. None of these have the history of wrecking elbows like skulls.

    However if you're doing heavy close grips and dips, the truth is you should be fine.

  12. Good stuff.
    I have been doing db curls in my warm up from pressing for 1 year or so and it really feels better.
    How about "triceps deads"? These are skulls where you pause the plates/dbs on the ground each rep. Skull crushers bothered my elbows from day 1 with 20lbs, but i have never had problems doing this variation.

  13. Can't endorse those either man. I do think they are less harmful because you deload the weight on the floor rather than putting on the brakes with the elbows, but I still think extensions at that angle are bad all together.

  14. Paul,

    Was your elbow pain inside the elbow or outside? I seem to get a little bit on each side, which I find odd...

    I started doing slow wrist/reverse wrist curls and bicep curls, but the pain outside my elbow hurts when doing bicep curls.