Heavy Supports for Pressing Power
Q: My bench press hasn’t improved since Paris Hilton said something intelligent. Can you suggest any tricks to help me overcome my training plateau?
A: One of the best ways to overcome a plateau is to do heavy supports. This technique was first popularized by Chuck Sipes, a former Mr. America well-known for his amazing strength on all lifts. He claimed it built tendon strength.
The truth is that heavy supports help heighten the shutdown threshold of the Golgi tendon organ, which is a tension-and-stretch receptor located in the tendon of a muscle. The effect can be seen when two people of uneven strength levels arm-wrestle. The weaker person—when losing—will look like he suddenly quits, as his wrist is slammed to the table. What really happens is that the Golgi tendon organ perceives a rapid rate of stretch during the eccentric contraction and yells to the brain, “Better shut down the contraction, or my biceps tendon is going to roll up under my tonsils!” The brain sends a rapid message to inhibit the contraction in order to prevent a muscle tear.
You can raise that threshold by performing eight seconds of heavy isometric holds, a.k.a. supports, between regular sets. Your bench press routine may look like this:
- Set 1: Bench presses, 5 RM @ 85 percent of max
- Set 2: Heavy supports, 8 seconds @ 120 percent of max (Basically a support is 1/16th of the range; you simply unrack the weight and hold with your elbows just short of lockout. The weight should be heavy enough that your upper arms shake like they’re suffering from a severe Parkinson’s attack.)
- Set 3: Bench presses, 5 RM @ 85 percent of max
- Set 4: Heavy supports, 8 seconds @ 125 percent of max
- Set 5: Bench presses, 5 RM @ 85 percent of max
- Set 6: Heavy supports, 8 seconds @ 130 percent of max
Don’t be surprised if your heavy-support poundages climb dramatically, but don’t shy away from using even greater percentages of max than the ones I’ve suggested. The percentages are merely for initial guidance.
I wouldn’t be surprised if your best bench press performance goes up 20 to 25 pounds in just four workouts when you use the heavy-supports technique. Make sure that you train in a power rack for this routine, and set the range-limiting bars two to three inches below your lockout position to prevent the need for instant plastic surgery.
Q: You said that people who have mostly fast-twitch fibers would do better training with lower reps for multiple sets. My question is, How do I know what kind of fibers I have? I usually lift very controlled on the negative and positive phases, and even with a light weight I’m not a person who can lift fast. I guess I’m not blessed with a lot of fast-twitch fibers.
A: An individual who doesn’t have a lot of fast-twitch fibers will move all loads, all other factors being equal, much faster than a person who has an average fiber distribution. In plain English that means, if you have two guys with the same weight, leverage, strength levels and, say, a 200-pound bench press, the man with more fast-twitch fibers will move the weight faster—whether it is 50, 100 or 200 pounds.
So, if you are indeed slow with light loads, you probably have slow-twitch dominance. If you wish to accurately assess your fiber type, it’s best to enlist the help of a PICP-certified coach to test you for it.
If you don’t have access to a qualified strength coach, here’s what you can do: Find your maximum performance for one rep on a lift using a 4/0/1/0 tempo. Let’s say you bench-press 100 kilograms, or 220 pounds. Wait 10 minutes, and then do as many reps as possible with 85 percent of that weight and a 4/0/X/0 tempo. In this case it’s 85 kilograms—around 185 pounds. If you have average fiber-type distribution, you will do five reps. If you have more fast-twitch fibers, you’ll do fewer than five; if you’re slow-twitch oriented, you’ll do more than five reps. Compared to the usual method of determining fiber type—taking painful muscle biopsies—this field test is extremely convenient; however, you must understand that you can bias the relationship by doing too much low-intensity aerobic work and making your body more neurologically inefficient.