Thursday, June 18, 2009

Heavy-Light-Medium Training: Pain-Free Rotator Cuffs

     The other day, I was talking to a guy I used to train—but who now trains at a commercial gym—and he was complaining about some rotator cuff pain he had been experiencing.  I asked him if he was still using the heavy-light-medium system of training—he was—and then I laid out a program that I thought would be just what he needed to stay pain-free.
     I could empathize with him.  In the last couple of years, I've had more injuries—including the rotator cuff—than in all my years of training before that.  Several months ago, the rotator cuff pain became so bad that I had to completely re-vamp my style of training when it comes to the shoulder girdle.
     And I'm not the only one.  Rotator cuff injuries tend to be the most common among lifters—especially those of us who do a lot of bench pressing.
     If you have been following a heavy-light-medium style of training, this might be especially true.  A lot of guys (gals, too; I don't mean to be sexist) who follow full-body workouts (such as H-L-M training) want to be strong as hell on all of their basic lifts.  And one of the best exercises—not to mention most popular—for increasing upper body strength is the flat barbell bench press.  But the flat bench press (barbell style, at least) is one of the worst—if not the worst—exercises for damaging the rotator cuff.  Couple this with the fact that the H-L-M programs allow you to train your bench press 2, or even 3, times each week and you have a potential recipe for rotator cuff disaster.
     It doesn't have to be this way.  And this article will show you how it doesn't have to be this way.
     First I'm going to outline some tips for diminishing rotator cuff injuries, then I will give you an example routine that you can use for some wonderfully pain-free workouts.
Tip #1: Stop Bench Pressing Frequently
     After what I've already mentioned, this might seem like a no-brainer.  But, unfortunately, it's apparently not a no-brainer for a good number of lifters in gyms all across our nation.  People want a big bench press, and they're willing to get one at all costs—even if it means worthless shoulders down the road in life.
     Never fear—you can increase your bench press, and keep your shoulders pain-free, without even doing much flat bench presses.
     Until recent years, rotator cuff injuries just weren't that common.  Up until the 1970s, lifters hardly did flat bench presses.  And when they did use the flat bench press, it was done as an assistance exercise, not as the cornerstone of an upper body regimen.
     Before the bench press became the measuring stick of upper body strength, it was the overhead press that held this honor.  And overhead presses, instead of damaging your rotator cuffs, actually help to strengthen them.
     Interesting thing too about that overhead press: As your overhead pressing strength goes up, so does your bench press strength.
     Of course, there are plenty of other good exercises that tend to increase your bench press strength, and keep your rotators healthy.  Weighted dips, dumbbell bench presses (incline and flat), decline bench presses, and incline bench presses are all good for most lifters who have rotator cuff pain.  The key is to find the ones that allow you to lift without pain.  If you experience pain while doing an exercise, switch over to one that doesn't hurt.  It's often as simple as that.
     If you're worried that all of this indirect bench press work will make the strength on your regular benches suffer, just remember the Westside Barbell Club.  They hardly ever bench press heavy, and they are setting world records all the time.  Now, they do train heavy, but they use such exercises as board presses, incline presses, dumbbell presses, and floor presses.  Maybe that's one reason they don't have as many injuries as other bench pressers, as well.
Tip #2: Do Not Perform Behind-the-Neck Presses
     Bill Starr says that the worst culprit for the recent surge in rotator cuff injuries—aside from the barbell bench press—is the behind-the-neck press.  And I agree.  The shoulder muscles simply are not meant to move at the angles that a behind-the-neck press requires.
     Even as an assistance movement, you should lay off this exercise.  There are plenty of other exercises for the shoulders to choose from—exercises that actually strengthen your rotator cuff.  Dumbbell overhead presses (seated and standing), front raises (dumbbells and plate), lateral raises, and Arnold presses are all excellent shoulder builders.
Tip #3: Train the Rear of Your Body Just as Hard as the Front
     Another reason for so much shoulder pain is that modern-day lifters do far too much pressing work for their upper body while neglecting the exercises that work the rear of the physique.  You should always do an equal amount of work—if not more—for the rear of your body as for the front of it.
     If some of you don't like this ideal, then realize that (1) you will keep on experiencing pain if you don't start doing more rear-of-the-body work and (2) most true strength is derived from the rear of the body.  You want to know if a lifter has real-world strength?  Then look at the muscular development from his hamstrings on up to his traps.  That's a real determiner of whether or not a physique is built for strength and not just for show.
A Sample Workout Program
     Below is an example of a great H-L-M workout that doesn't use any flat bench presses.  If you're a beginner to intermediate, then feel free to stick with this workout for 6 to 8 weeks before changing to something new.  If you're an advanced lifter, then you will want to change to something new after 2 to 4 weeks of training.
     (As a side note, if you haven't been performing H-L-M workouts and are interested in the parameters that are involved, read some of my past blog posts.  Also, you can go to where you can find an in-depth, basic article on the subject that I wrote for them.)
     Here it is:

Monday: Heavy Day

Squat—5 sets of 5

Overhead Presses—5 sets of 5

Deadlifts or Power Cleans—5 sets of 5

Weighted Dips—3 sets of 5-8 reps

2 sets of weighted sit-ups

Wednesday: Light Day

Squat—5 sets of 5 reps

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press—5 sets of 5

Barbell Shrugs—4 sets of 5 reps

Sit-ups—3 sets

Friday: Medium Day

Squat—4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3

Overhead Presses—4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3

Deadlifts or Power Cleans—4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3

Barbell Curls—3 sets of 5-8 reps

2 sets of weighted sit-ups

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