When you’re under the bar pressing your set of 5, are you pushing just enough to get it to the lockout? Or are you pressing each rep aggressively, as hard and fast as you possibly can?
Subconsciously, most lifters press just enough to get the rep to the lockout. If you’ve been training for a bit, chances are you’ve missed a rep on the press. Barring any technique errors or over-optimistic weight selections, the missed rep can start off looking pretty good but stop its upward trajectory somewhere around your forehead before coming back down. Sound familiar?
If you’re in the habit of only pushing just enough, whether subconsciously or not, it’s time to change. Next time you press, think about pressing the bar as hard and fast as you can. Here’s why.
Getting past the sticking point
Every lift has a sticking point. It is a certain portion in the range of motion of the lift where the weight feels the heaviest and seems to require more strength to overcome. For the most part, sticking points tend to be at similar places for most lifters, e.g., somewhere around your forehead for the press or midway on the ascend for the squat.
Sticking points are the classic places to get stuck. However, if you manage to get past this sticking point, the bar will magically feel lighter and carry on its way to the lockout.
If you have a tendency to get stuck at the sticking points, a typical response would be thinking that you have a weak point in the lift and therefore adding in an assistance lift to strengthen that portion of the lift. Before you do that, first make that you’re not missing the rep at the sticking point because of a lack of bar velocity.
There have been many occasions whereby our client missed a rep on the press. After a bit of rest, tried it again and got it – the weight, bar path, and movement were identical between reps. The critical difference was that on the second attempt, they were told to press the bar up explosively.
We’ve also seen fourth and fifth reps move faster than the third rep after the lifter was cued to press the bar fast.
Eventually, assistance exercises need to be added to keep your lift progressing, but this shouldn’t be your immediate go-to. First, assess if you’re consciously trying to lift the bar with maximum velocity on every rep.
Obviously, just because you’re trying to lift the bar with speed doesn’t mean the bar will move fast, especially when it’s heavy. The focus will be trying to move it as fast as you can.
Lifting the bar fast is an expression of power – it’s the athletic ability to express your strength quickly. Someone that can express their strength very quickly is usually referred to as being explosive.
So how do you increase power?
Power, strength and speed
A standard equation for power is:
Power = work / time
Substituting in work = force x distance, we get:
Power = force x (distance / time)
To increase power, you can either increase force, or decrease time. Since your neuromuscular efficiency is genetically limited, decreasing the time for your muscles to contract is not possible. The only other option is to increase force production.
How do you increase force production? You do this by increasing your strength, which we define as your ability to produce a force against an external resistance.
While how explosive you are is innate and thus genetically limited, you can maximise what you have. For example, you may be capable of bench pressing 100kgs and moving the bar from chest to lockout at 0.5 m/s. But maybe you’re not thinking of pressing it as fast as you can and press it up at 0.4 m/s. The bar still moves up, albeit taking a slightly longer time.
So to increase power, you’ll have to increase your strength. But at the same time, you should maximise what you were given genetically by pressing as aggressively as you can.
A faster upwards velocity also has other benefits. Because momentum = mass x velocity, the faster you are, the more upward momentum you’ll have. The bar moving at a higher velocity at the sticking point has a greater chance of getting to the lockout.
Muscle fibres and the size principle
Let’s look at your muscles. Muscles are made up of 3 types of muscle cells or fibres:
- Type I “cardio muscles”: slow-twitch muscle fibres. Low power output, fatigue-resistant, and use oxygen to produce energy. These muscle fibres are good for endurance.
- Type IIa “well-rounded muscles”: fast-twitch muscle fibres that use both oxygen and anaerobic metabolism to produce energy. Higher power output than type I fibres and more fatigue resistant than the type IIx fibres.
- Type IIx “weightlifting muscles”: fast-twitch muscle fibres that rely mostly on anaerobic metabolism to produce energy. Very high power output but fatigues quickly
When lifting weights, the slower, low-power output fibres are recruited first. If these fibres are not sufficient to do the job, the faster, higher power output fibres are recruited. The ramp-up in muscle fibre recruitment from weakest to strongest happens very rapidly, taking only milliseconds.
This is the size principle: smaller motor units with slow-twitch (Type I) fibres are recruited first before the larger motor units with fast-twitch (Type II) fibres are recruited.
In simple terms, your body always recruits the small and weak fibres first, and the large and strong fibres last. It does this to optimise its energy usage, because smaller muscle fibres use less energy and are more fatigue resistant.
How to improve your explosiveness
While the size principle is fixed, there are studies that suggest that the recruitment process could be accelerated through training. Doing the lifts faster seem to recruit larger motor units sooner, and even more so when the lifter has been trained and practised to do so.
If you’re a late novice/intermediate lifter and beyond that have a good grasp of technique, start with the mindset of going fast. Because fast activates larger motor units quicker, and larger motor units are stronger. You want to do each rep explosively out of the hole. Think “press the bar with speed”, “move it fast!” or “make the plates rattle at the top!”
One way to practice that is by doing what is known as dynamic effort training, which can easily be incorporated into a program. For example, if your program has a volume day and you’re doing 5 sets of 5, change the set/rep scheme to something like 8-10 sets of 1-3 reps. Done this way, each set is less fatiguing and more reps can be done when you’re less knackered, which allows you to focus on lifting the bar explosively on every rep. Since each set will be less fatiguing, your rest times between sets can also be shorter, saving you time in the gym while still accumulating the same amount of volume.
We used the press as an example earlier but this will apply to all the basic barbell lifts. However, do note that on the deadlift, that doesn’t mean yanking the bar off the floor.
Think fast, be explosive
The rep might feel like a hard and heavy grind, but that’s irrelevant. If you think the rep will be grindy and slow, guess what, it’s going to be grindy and slow. Make every rep be powerful and lightning-fast. Keep your form tight, maintain control, but unleash your explosive force on the concentric phase of the rep. Don’t just push out of the hole – explode out of it!