WSBB Blog: Strong Lats, Strong Bench
Out of the three powerlifts, the bench press is the lift that requires the highest level of precision to complete. With most powerlifters, the squat and deadlift movements can be understood and executed after a few weeks of training. Learning the bench press can take years, with some of the strongest powerlifters never learning and leaving hundreds of pounds off their totals.
Developing efficient movement patterns and strategically organizing your training will play a large part in finding bench press success; however, strength is the third and most important part. The bench press places a great demand on the upper body, specifically the arms, shoulders, chest, and back. Knowing this, we understand that an athlete must adequately train the triceps, biceps, anterior and posterior shoulder, pecs, lats, and traps to lift a specific amount of weight.
One muscle group that has been commonly misunderstood is the lats and their role in the bench press. When it comes to the lats and the bench press, you need to think of the lats as the anchor. When you are bench pressing heavy barbell weight, the most critical part of the entire lift is your ability to stay balanced and stable on the bench. When you have a strong set of lats, you will have the mid and upper back strength required to not only retract the scapula and protect the shoulder; you will also be able to create and maintain a solid foundation on the bench press.
If you have ever benched heavy weight, then you understand the feeling of losing your balance and starting to twist on the bench. Developing a strong upper back and lats is the solution to the loss of stability. Ultimately, your back strength and ability to maintain stability while on the bench press will dictate whether you develop a world-class bench press or remain relatively stagnant, making 5lb gains on your bench every year. How can an athlete properly train and prepare themselves to have a strong upper back to improve their bench press? Here are a few of the primary ways we train mid and upper back at Westside Barbell:
This exercise should be the foundation that all of your back-specific accessory workouts are built upon. Barbell rows are undoubtedly the most effective and customizable back exercise you can perform. Whether you choose to do them using a traditional style, Pendlay style, with chest support, with bands, or with chains, an athlete can modify barbell rows in many ways to avoid accommodation and continue building mid and upper back strength.
Typically, this exercise is performed for three to five sets of five to twelves reps. The barbell weight should match the rep count, meaning sets of five will be heavy while sets of twelve would be moderate to light.
The simplest back exercise and one of the most effective are pull-ups, another great way to train your mid and upper back. Additionally, pull-ups are great developers of the forearms, biceps, and deltoids. This makes pull-ups a go-to choice for accessory work when the focus is improving the bench press.
Depending on the style of grip implemented, athletes can precisely manipulate the training effect of pull-ups to target different upper body muscle groups. For instance, a closer grip is a great way to develop the arms and deltoids, while a wider grip focuses more on the lats to elevate the torso. Using an underhanded grip can also be a great way to target the biceps and forearms, both important when pressing heavy weight.
When implementing pull-ups into your programming, we recommend three to four sets of twelve to fifteen reps or as many as possible for athletes unable to perform high rep sets.
High Pin Rack Pulls
Unlike the two previous movements, high pin rack pulls are a ME or DE lower specific accessory exercise. Athletes should adjust the pin height to place the barbell starting position slightly above the knee. The goal here is to maximize the mid and upper back work while minimizing the taxation on the lumbar spine. To further stabilize the lumbar spine, it is recommended to wear a tightened belt while performing this exercise.
Execution is simple, load up some heavy weight and pull to lockout using your mid and upper back muscle groups. At Westside, we will typically perform three to five sets of five to ten reps. As before, sets of five will be on the heavy side; as the rep count goes up, the weight goes down. To add variation to the exercise, you can use bands and chains or switch bars to increase grip difficulty.
Why Focus on Back Training?
The importance of back-specific accessory exercises in strength sports cannot be overstated. If an athlete seeks success in strength sports, building the strongest back they possibly can needs to be a priority. By implementing the exercises listed above, you will be well on your way to improving your back strength, leading to bench press PRs. Additionally, back-specific training carries over greatly to the squat and deadlift. Not only will your time spent training benefit your bench press, but improving your mid and upper back strength will also lead to squat and deadlift PRs as well.