THE PRESS, THE BENCH, AND THE GLASS CEILING
by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
All other things being equal, it is the rep that arrives at the sticking point with the greatest speed on the bar that is most likely to succeed. It is for you, the athlete, to make that happen.
Recently, we discussed the stretch reflex, how it's not a dominant part of how we think about the bench, and how it is a big part of how we think about the press. We don't "bounce" the bench off the bottom in our system of training. But we're definitely looking for a dynamic start or "bounce" off the bottom of the press.
Both lifts, however, rely heavily on starting velocity.
Anybody here ever get stuck under a heavy press? Yeah, I see a lot of hands. If you're putting up a heavy press and your start is messed up by, say, being way out of the groove, it won't get far. These are the presses that never make it to your eyebrows. You're either attempting something that's too heavy for you today, or your technique is out of whack.
But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a press that seems to be on its way to triumph, and then sputters tragically close to lockout: right as you're preparing to drive through, just about at the level of your hairline. Assuming you have a hairline.
This is the classic place to get stuck in a press, and I have found that the critical difference here (or at least a critical difference) is the velocity of the bar when it reaches this point. When I watch an athlete attempt a press at a certain weight and fail, and attempt it again and succeed, even though the weight is the same and the body movement is perfect and the bar path is nominal on both tries, it's always the attempt that arrives at the classic sticking point with greater velocity that succeeds.
This has fairly obvious implications for performance, and since I've never been shy about stating the obvious, I'm going to state the obvious: The bar needs to EXPLODE off your shoulders. There's a cue that I've found helpful of late, for myself and my athletes: the Glass Ceiling.
Imagine there's a thick plate of glass just barely above your head. Your objective (along with all your other technical concerns in the press) is to smash through that plate of glass. It's not enough to just get there and touch it, or even bump it. Again, it's a thick plate of glass. If you merely arrive at the glass plate at a low velocity, it will stop you cold. But if you fire that bar explosively off your shoulders, and put some real speed on it, you will smash through the sticking point, or at least put a serious crack in it.
Then it will be super-easy to lock it out.
Yeah, that's obviously a lie. Of course it won't be easy to lock it out. You'll still have to grind through that heavy zone of the press, which extends a ways beyond the glass plate. But that's just grinding, and if you stay in your form and keep the bar in the slot as you grind, you will succeed. This works in the bench press, too, of course. There are multiple sticking points in a well-performed heavy bench. In the most general sense, there is a low sticking point in the region of the movement, usually attributed to the chest and shoulders, and a high sticking point in the region attributed to the triceps. For very advanced lifters, accessory work may be indicated to address these sticking points, but for most of us mere mortals, I think reasonable programming, judicious advances in loading, and addressing the technique of the movement itself is a better and more efficient approach.
I see the same sticking phenomenon here: a bench in which there's no explosion off the bottom and no speed on the bar will fail at the higher sticking point, while the exact same weight with the exact same bar path will succeed if only the bar has enough speed on it. ("Slow down, FAST up!") Thinking about the glass ceiling and smashing through it will get you over the hump, and you will be able to grind through the rest of the rep if you stay in your form.
Obviously, we have to be explosive out of the bottom of the squat, too. Unfortunately, I've never been able to use the idea of driving my ass through a glass plate without evoking some disturbing imagery involving my nether regions and razor-sharp shards of glass. So I rely on different cues there. YMMV.
But for the pressing movements, I find that it helps immensely in the right situation, that is, when press or bench success is spotty, getting arrested at the classic choke point on one attempt and not the other. If that sounds like you, try the Glass Ceiling cue: put the speed you need on the bar, and smash it through to lockout.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.