4 months, 4 missed attempts.
This was a milestone lift that I’ve missed and struggled with for months, much like the seconds that you are trying to shave off on a sprint or a soccer shot that you are trying to master. At the end of the day; consistency compounds – if you consistently do it or do not – the choice is yours.
As a strength coach, a competitive swimmer, and water polo athlete, hitting this 400 lbs lift (I weigh 100 kg – 220lbs) taught me a lot about training methods, consistency, and mindset. Here are 5 key lessons I believe were instrumental for me being able to achieve this.
Missed attempt 1:
1 – Environment is Key
Some may do very well training on their own as garage warriors of sorts and in fact, I did this for some of my training due to my schedule and closures of gyms during the lockdown. I got the work in. There is nothing wrong with that, and I commend anyone who has that kind of drive because it is mentally taxing. Over the years I have had a lot of great training partners and team environments that have taken me to the next level.
Success is contagious for me, and when one of my training partners is having a good day, it helps shift the mood of the room and trigger my alter ego. I wanted to be the best version of myself each and every time. I couldn’t help but get a little competitive when my peers were succeeding and grinding rep after rep and just getting after it. I didn’t care about the weight my colleagues moved, I just saw them similarly embracing the struggle at an intensity that was difficult for them. It was a metaphor for life – push past your current limits if you wish to grow.
Training with a team is one of the best ways to take your training up a notch or two. The most overlooked reason that training with other athletes – especially Olympic lifters raised my performance is by seeing how robust their technique was. It made me think, “damn I could be getting more out of my training if I stayed patient with technique.” While I am aware that my achievement focuses on bench pressing which is powerlifting based, the AAS system uses both Olympic lifting and powerlifting in scientifically calibrated amounts. I remember thinking to myself many times along this journey to bench pressing 400lbs, that many of the Olympic lifters that trained at the gym would move weight so explosively from ground to overhead, why couldn’t I embrace that grit and fearless for the heavy weights, psychological stress and apply it to a heavy bench press?
Whether or not I realized it initially, I improved exponentially by having weightlifters like John, Jeremy, Keenan, Maya, and Mali across from me on the platform. I had to move the best weight for me and be technically sound in the snatch, clean, jerk, and power jerk. It was the main way I could enhance my own training through the athlete activation system, but also refine my coaching skills to younger athletes for the Olympic lifts through which AAS is mostly based on – ingraining that rate of force development, power, speed and injury prevention necessary to transfer for their sport. That mindset of attacking heavy weights and achieving a maximum bench press caused me to write “go heavy or go home on my fridge on a sticky note” – so I had to see it every day. I still missed the lift despite this, but I found that I was more confident attacking weight.
Missed attempt 2:
The time to mastery is related to not just the intensity of the load, but more importantly intensity of focus on technique. Even if you cannot find a training partner on the same level as yourself, try to find someone with the same level of commitment to training as yourself. Even if they are a beginner, seeing them improve will spark your own improvement, so get to work.
2 – Use a method and follow it to the end.
At some point in your lifting journey, progress is going to stall slightly, or you are going to find a certain weakness with one of your lifts. In such a situation… it is only natural to seek out some options to help you overcome this plateau. In my case for the bench press, I was stuck at 394 and had attempted 400 four times and would constantly miss it.
Movements like board presses taught me how to be accustomed to heavy weights, maintain arch under supramaximal load, engage the triceps more, and improve the lockout. A board press is exactly how it sounds. It is a bench press variation where you lower the bar to a wooden board, instead of your chest, to decrease the range of motion of the exercise. Each board is usually made from a piece of wood around 2” thick. So a 2-board would be somewhere around 4” in thickness. The common range for a set of boards is a 1-board up to a 4-board if you want to work on various ranges of motion throughout your training for the given max you are aiming to reach.
This was one of the methods I used – it was simple, yet effective. Every week I decreased the number of boards being used and my body had to adapt. It was challenging psychologically and physically, but it helped me to break through barriers.
3 – Train the Bench Heavy and Often
The body needs stimulus outside of the comfort zone to adapt — so if you want to get stronger, you have to attempt maximal and submaximal efforts (for volume) often. Once the weak points and technique are addressed – you must lift heavy and recruit high threshold motor units.
I trained 4 days a week. I swam 4 days a week until pools were closed during the lockdown. I lifted heavy max efforts for Olympics lifts and squats twice per week. Bench press was a maximal effort once per week on Tuesdays. Speed or dynamic effort for the bench was once per week on Fridays and the Olympics and squats were lifted with dynamic effort twice per week. It was lighter than the max efforts, but by no means easy – at all.
I would also do extra work on the same days I benched press. It was simple – push-ups of all variations. 400 total – whether it was 20 sets of 20, 10 sets of 40, 16 sets of 25, but paused push-ups followed by explosive lockouts are my favourite. That time under tension was important for me to be able to break through sticking points. Never underestimate the influence of going back to reinforce your foundation of basic bodyweight strength.
There were definitely days whether it was a max effort day or dynamic effort, that I wasn’t sure how the weight was going to be moved – but I had to remember that like any athletic or performance endeavour that pushing the limit of what you think you can handle is necessary. The training is brutal, but the relentless pursuit it built and translated to how I show up to swim now has made a tremendous difference.
4 – Train your rotator cuffs
Incorporating 2-3 sets of director rotator cuff exercises twice a week helped keep my shoulder stable at the bottom of my bench press. It didn’t take much to have a big impact. It’s not fancy, but the foundation is more important than fancy.
For me, my favourite exercises were seated external rotations or standing external rotations with a low elbow. I have seen many reviews saying that swimmers should not do heavy bench press because of inability to maintain shoulder stability or risk of rotator cuff strain. While this may have some merit, you could also mitigate by training your rotator cuff, especially given the cyclical nature of the sport about the shoulder joint – it would be beneficial to have strong rotator cuffs, to begin with.
So, bulletproof your rotator cuffs if you swim regardless of if you are going to attempt a heavy bench press.
5 – Train around any potential strains
I firmly believe that doing nothing at all is almost always the worst course of action, especially when you strained the body. There’s always something that you can do. Active recovery jump-starts the healing process, so any pain-free movement you perform can put you on the path to being stronger without pain again.
In my case, a back strain while unracking a squat meant that for some weeks I had to do submaximal loads across many lifts including the bench that did not elicit further pain. I also cycled in plenty of pain-free pressing movements – including various push-ups as described above.
So what is next now?
You have to be able to express your strength in your sport – regardless of how strong you get.
Now that gyms and pools have reopened and I no longer have to swim in frigid lakes early in the morning in a drysuit, I have returned to being able to express my strength in the pool – already feeling stronger and more effortless in the pool and more powerful with my starts, turns, breakouts. Most importantly, my legs have gained significant strength and endurance in the water, which for me as a sprinter has always been a weak point – finishing those last 15 meters with power.
The extended off-season that was brought on by COVID globally forced many of us to adapt and find ways to be stronger or find excuses. I decided to get stronger through the guidance of my colleagues at LPS and the guidance of Master Strength Coach Clance. It has been almost a year since I swam at a competition, but now that I am back in the water more consistently working on my skill, my next goal is qualifying regional swimming competitions towards the end of the year and hopefully representing my home country Barbados again after many years. I am stronger than I have ever been, despite age.
Strong and fast is the goal, but to be elite is the dream.
Legs feed the wolf.