Thursday, May 28, 2009


Reprinted with permission of Hardgainer, Vol. 8, No. 5 (March-April 1997)

A few weeks ago, I had a trainee named Tom come by for a consultation and workout. Tom has been lifting for about seven years, is 25 years old 5-8 tall and about 180 lbs. Tom stated that his best bench press (with a regular-diameter bar) was about 305 lbs, but his squat was not much more than that.

We went through our first workout and Tom worked real hard, but I noticed that he had a severe strength imbalance bewteen his upper and lower body. His upper-body pushing and pulling strength was also “out of whack.” He could get 8 reps in the bench press with 215 lbs using a 3-inch diamter bar, but had a hard time handling 140 in the Hammer Iso-Lateral Row. He could get 150 for 8 reps in the military press but could not chin himself more than 3 times. To balance his strength and development, Tom needed to put more emphasis on his lower body, and on his upper-body pulling movements.

It was obvious that Tom had spent a great deal of his training time on his back doing bench presses. He had good development of his chest and front detls, but had far less development in his legs, hips, rear delts, and upper back. It was all a matter of thinking. Tom never put an emphasis on working his legs or upper-body pulling movements. As long as his bench press and military press were going up, Tom was happy. (He always did his curls, too.) Tom’s ego was not attached to working legs or upper-body pulling like it was to upper-body pushing exercises. Pulling exercises had second class status in Tom’s mind, and he would just go through the motions with them and get them in when he could. After our session Tom realized that for the last seven years he had been consistently training only about half of his muscles. He demonstrated that he could train hard when he put his mind to it, but he needed to change his thinking and apply himself to his entire body.

Program Design

When designing training programs, always start with the major lower-body work. This separates the men from the boys. Nothing puts the spotlight on a phony quicker (and makes me laugh harder) than someone with a big upper body and an undeveloped lower body. They are in every gym.

Whenever I meet someone who claims to train hard, I can usually tell by their lower-body development if they are telling the truth. Major lower-body exercises, i.e., the squat, deadlift and leg press, are the most demanding of all exercises. Anyone who does not put a primary importance on them gets no respect from me. Squats, leg presses and deadlifts are the top priority and should set the foundation for your balanced training program. Once this is done, then you can get the upper-body pushing and pulling in balance.

Some advocates of abbreviated training are designing training programs that are not balanced. Of course it is better to do “less” than “too much,” but it is even better to do the right amount of exercise using a balanced program. Most coaches, myself included, put a high value on the three big basic exercises—squat, deadlift and bench press. The proble, is that many people overlook several other equally important exercises. Their program design usually has a poor balance between pushing and pulling—usually not enough pulling. I have read many articles where the authors have gone to great lengths to describe in detail the upper-body pushing part of a program, and then they add something like, “Throw in a rowing motion to round out the program.” That, for many, takes care of the pulling part of a training program.

Some exercises, such as the bench press, are directly connected to the ego of many individuals. This is okay so long as you don’t get carried away. The bench press is an important exercise, but it is no more important than the Hammer Iso-Lateral Row (or your horizontal pulling movement of choice). Pulldowns or chins are no less important than overhead presses. Don’t get hung up on any one particular exercise. You should strive for balanced strength and muscular development. But I am not advocating the de-emphasis of the bench press or any other major movement—they are all equally important.

I recently had a phone conversation about this subject with my friend, Dan Riley, the Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Washington Redskins, and one of the most respected people in the field. Dan is a strong advocate of balanced pushing and pulling. My pushing and pulling philosophy is similar to Dan’s except that he has more planes of movement due to a much larger facility and access to many more machines. I use the following simple guideline for a balanced upper-body program: a horizontal push, a horizontal pull, a vertical push, and a vertical pull. For the lower body I recently began to rotate the squat, Trap Bar deadlift, and Hammer Leg Press so that each of them is trained once during a period of about ten days, i.e., one of the exercises is trained every three or four days. But some people should deadlift only twice per month because they need a long recovery period for the spinal erectors.

Keep in mind that this is only a helpful checklist that I use. There are some exercises that are not easily put into one of the categories I’ve just specified, e.g., the pullover and the parallel bar dip. For movements like these, use common sense and define them as either pushing or pulling movements. Then use them as substitutes for other comparable exercises, not as additions to your program.

For many hard gainers, especially those who use multiple work sets of each exercise, there is a serious risk of overtraining if there is too much training volume. You could alternate the vertical and horizontal push and pull and do them once per week each. For example, perform a horizontal push and pull on Monday, and a vertical push and pull on Thursday.

There ar emany exercises you can use to fill the bill, so you should not go stale. For the vertical push you could use the barbell overhead press, Hammer Behind-Neck Press (which is more like a dumbbell press than a barbell behind-neck press), dumbbell press, or manual resistance. For the vertical pull you could use the chin, pulldown, or Hammer Pulldown. For the horizontal push you could use the bench press, incline press, dumbbell bench press, or Hammer Chest Press. For the horizontal pull you could use the seated cable row, Hammer Iso-Lateral row, dumbbell row while braced against a bench, or virtually any type of machine row that is safe for your lower back.

A balance between pushing and pulling is also important for preventing injuries. Many injuries are caused by muscular imabalance. There is a strong relationship between a joint injury and the development of the musculature that surrounds that joint. Just like a car that pulls to one side when it is out of alignment, your muscles will pull a joint to one side if one side overpowers another. this is at the root of many shoulder, knee and other joint problems.

When designing your training program, always start with the core foundation of your lower body, then move on to balancing your upper-body pushing and pulling. Your body will thank you for it.
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