I just promised a friend that I could add 20 pounds to his bench press if he just let me show him how to do it. I’m 100% confident that this is true – and honestly it might be more like 30 or 40 pounds. He is stronger than I am but he’s just lacking the technique – all I see is untapped potential!

I have spent more hours researching the bench press than I care to admit. In truth I studied so much because I was that stereotypical ninety seven pound weakling when I was younger. I have spent over a quarter of a century now (27 years!) grinding it out in the gym, and since I’m built like a distance runner, it’s been a long, slow journey for me. The only way I could get any kind of edge on my competition was by learning everything I could and applying it to my training. My best bench ever was not anything to write home about – I did 275 raw, and 365 with a shirt – and that 365 didn’t even touch my chest so it wouldn’t count in competition. But I tell you this to let you know that I’ve felt a decent amount of weight on the bench before – and the only way I pushed that sucker back up was by doing every one of these points that I’ve listed here.

So if you’re looking to up your bench, try out some of these tips! If you don’t know these techniques already, I can actually promise you your bench numbers will go up!

  1. Set yourself up properly. Take the time to center your head and body properly on the bench. Ensure you’re gripping the bar at the same width left and right. Your feet should be flat on the floor (as a starting point) and tucked in underneath your butt.
  2. Take the correct grip width. Too narrow is all triceps. Too wide won’t be a strong enough position. Aiming for a vertical forearm position is probably a good starting point for where you need to grip the bar.
  3. Grip the bar hard and with straight wrists. Tight wrist straps can help here – where you wrap the wrap across the wrist joint and prevent it from bending back. Additionally, you’ll want to take a full grip on the bar. You might feel stronger with a thumbless grip, but it’s just not worth the risk of the bar slipping and falling onto your chest. A good cue here for how to grip the bar properly is to squeeze your pinky as hard as you can around the bar. Similar to the entire body being tight, your entire grip needs to be tight. Gripping the bar as hard as you can fires the central nervous system and allows you to lift more weight.
  4. Get your body tight. I mean, really tight – head to toe. This is the number one error you’ll typically see when you watch most people bench. If there is any looseness in the body, any twisting, any jittery feet or knees, I guarantee they are benching far less than they could. Not to mention setting themselves up for injury. You need a stable base to push off of- just like a squat or a deadlift, every part of your body has to be tight when you bench. When you get it right, every part of your body should be uncomfortable. Pull your feet in tight underneath your body, a flat foot is a good starting point, this will allow you to learn how to drive into the floor and tighten up every muscle in your legs, your butt, your lower back, your core.
  5. Pack/Pinch your shoulders underneath you. Primarily this puts your shoulders in a safer position, but this also further creates more tension and significantly SHORTENS THE RANGE OF MOTION. Pinning your shoulder blades together under you simultaneously raises your chest towards the bar. You can dramatically reduce the amount of travel you have to move the bar to complete the rep. This shortened range of motion makes a massive difference in the amount of weight you can move.
  6. Arch your back. Essentially this changes the movement into a slight decline bench, (a stronger position), creates more tension, shortens the range of motion further, and keeps those shoulders pinned back. If you do all of this right, your glutes, hams and quads might even start cramping. Especially if the day before was heavy squats and deadlifts… It takes some getting used to. But if you’re uncomfortable, you know you’re getting it right.
  7. Take a big breath. The cue I always yell is “Big air!” Before your decent you take a big breath of air, further expanding your chest towards the sky and tightening up your body. The bar descends while you’re holding your breath, and you drive it up using the pressure. You can’t drive big weight without getting the breath right.
  8. Keep your elbows tucked. If you’re t-bar benching, you’re not going to be moving a lot of weight, and you’re putting your shoulders in a position that’s begging for an injury. If you’re not sure where your elbows should go, aim to have your upper arm at about a 45 degree angle from your torso. Halfway from being tucked right at your sides and flared out by your ears.
  9. SHOVE the bar. Once in the above position, with head to toe tension, chest full of air, when you push the bar off your chest, you can SHOVE it off your chest – and this movement starts at your feet. Driving from your feet at just the right time will assist you in shoving the bar upwards. You don’t bench with your chest. You bench with your entire body. Further, you want to accelerate the bar quickly. Moving fast will help you coast through the sticking point. (for most people, this is around the middle of the lift)
  10. Flare your elbows to get through the sticking point. But if you flare too early, you’re just putting yourself in a weak and vulnerable position. This is a bit more advanced though, and might take more explanation than I can give here – but it’s probably enough to explain that the move starts with your elbows tucked, and the flare is there if you start to stick. Along with the next point:
  11. The bar path is a slight arch. The bar touches the point of your chest that is closest to the sky (typically below the nipple line), but as it travels upwards there is a natural arch back towards your eyes. This is different from person to person, and some people argue that straight up is more efficient – but generally, when you hit your sticking point, if you drive the bar back towards your eyes and start to flare your elbows at the same time, you’ll get through it.

Things not to do:

  1. Don’t bounce the bar off your chest. Sooner or later you’ll injure yourself.
  2. Don’t take a thumbless grip. Not worth the risk.
  3. Don’t let your butt come off the bench. That’s just cheating bro. But have you ever thought about why people lift their butts when they struggle? They are creating a decline position where they are stronger. You can do that with sufficient arch.
  4. Don’t fail. Train yourself to make lifts. If you always put more on the bar than you can handle, you’re training the pattern of failing and giving up. I always trained to make my lifts, and have almost never failed in training. Train yourself for success.

If you have any questions or comments let me know! Either comment on this or feel free to send me an email. matt@matthewtoth.com.

Now go crush that bench press!

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If you are struggling with Toes to Bar and are searching for answers, look no further! Here is my attempt to gather all of the information that I have learned into one place. I will continue to update and edit this article until it is as clear and as useful as I can make it!

When I was starting to learn TTB, I found myself frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to perform the movement. But I was even more frustrated because I couldn’t seem to find enough information about how to do them. I would learn a bit from one video, a bit from another… I would get lots of help from the coaches at my box, but without enough material to create a frame of reference, it was often difficult to understand what they were trying to tell me.

To start, touching the bar with my feet was not difficult – but it took a while to figure out that I was going about it the wrong way. Figuring out how to string them together, understanding the timing and the movement pattern, that all took a lot longer. Finally I have figured them out, and I can string together quite a few – though I haven’t tested my max yet – 15? 20? And now I actually look forward to seeing them come up in a workout.

A note of encouragement if you are struggling with the movement: TTB were easier to perform than I expected. I would have been happy to string together four at a time, but I can already do much more than that. I would say TTB are more about correct movement patterns and timing than anything else.

First, let’s take a look at the CrossFIt movement standard video:

1. Hands outside of shoulder width

More specifically, your hand width should be where you are strongest at kipping. If your grip is too narrow, you wont be able to push through into the arched body position. You might even need to put your hands out a little bit wider than they suggest here – it might be something to experiment with to figure out where you are strongest.

2. Full grip on the bar

You’ll be less likely to fall off the bar… Which is probably a good idea. I can’t see any reason to go with a thumbless grip here. Also, I’m assuming you’re using gymnastics grips! I have yet to find anything better than Bear Komplex grips, and I highly recommend them. Not only do they prevent hand tears, but they just help to grip the bar really well.

3. Start hanging with arms extended

They are just defining the movement standard here.

4. Initiate swing with shoulders

This is actually something I need to work on. Another way to initiate the swing is to jump forward at the bar, rather than just jumping up to the bar. This initiates your swing and you will have enough swing and tension to begin the movement right away.

5. Alternate between arched and hollow positions

This movement pattern is repeated often in many movements in CrossFit and sports.

6. Lift feet towards bar while in hollow position

I’m not sure how you would do it otherwise!

7. At the same time, push down on the bar with straight arms

This is a big key to the movement. Closing the angle between your hands and your feet makes the movement easier, and less hamstring flexibility is required. Further, pushing away like this gives you enough momentum to swing through to the fully extended position. If you push away too little or not enough, you’ll have trouble timing your swings. “Timing” might be the big key to the movement that they are failing to mention in the video.

8. Both feet contact the bar between hands

Again, the are just defining the movement standard.

What they don’t mention in the CrossFit video:

There are two different types of toes to bar, the pike version and the “tuck and flick”.

If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, check out this video with Dan Bailey  going head to head with Bjorgvin Karl Gudmundsson. It will be obvious, but Dan is doing the tuck and flick version, and Bjorgvin the straight leg pike.

And here’s a great explanation from Chris Spealer as to why the flick is easier, as well as why people mess up their swing. “leg’s go straight down!” that is not to say you just lose tension and drop them, you keep the tension but push your feet straight down as soon as you touch the bar with your toes.

For me personally, the “legs straight down” cue was the missing piece. When I got that, I got the movement.

The tuck and flick version is likely way more attainable for you if you are lacking flexibility. BUT you should probably always be striving to do the straight leg movement. the strength and flexibility required for the straight leg version can only help you.

Building Your Strength To Improve TTB:

There are a ton of useful exercises to build your strength here. Such as sit ups, toes to rig, leg raises, one leg v-ups, v-ups, bar hang for time, scap raises, knees to elbows, partial toes to bars, hanging leg raises, L-sit, hollow hangs, hollow rocks, etc. 

But which exercises you use will depend on your individual weaknesses. For me, I just worked on all the moves until I figured out which I was weakest at, and I focused on that move. It turns out I am terrible at L-sits and v-ups. So for me, I work on those, but also hanging knee raises / knees to elbows, toes to rig and leg raises are helpful.

Improving Your Flexibility To Improve TTB:

Anything that improves the flexibility of your hamstrings (and your hip flexion) will help you here. If you struggle with flexibility and mobility, like I do, you might want to spend a significant time stretching your hamstrings before any TTB workout.

I won’t go in depth into various stretches here, as this writing would get way too long – but I do have one possibly useful tip – try to approximate the movement. I always suggest focusing on whatever stretch that most closely resembles the movement you need to do. As en example, here’s a photo of me doing a hanging hamstring stretch, and if you flip it, you can see it’s the TTB position. (As an aside, this is also a simple test to prove whether you have enough flexibility to do the movement)

Tips:

Partial movements will help you learn the timing. Knees to elbows, or knee raises past the hip, or straight leg as high as you can but without touching the bar. The focus on the push away is the same, the timing is similar, the kip is the same.

Don’t kick the bar slowly. For the tuck and flick, the flick is done very quickly. Hence, the word, “flick”. You want to touch the bar as quickly as possible so you don’t lose the timing of your swing. Further, if you’re lacking flexibility, holding the toes touching the bar position for any length of time is very difficult. After you quickly tap the bar, you can use that stretch reflex to shoot your feet straight back down to the floor.

Don’t look at the bar! This is a common fault. People tend to stare intently at what they are trying to hit. But looking up like that will effect your spine position and mess up your movement pattern. Keep your head pointing straight ahead, and you will likely find the move easier. If you go back and look at the video that I posted above (the one with Dan and Bjorgvin) you’ll see they both are looking straight ahead.

Maintain tension in your core when you are dropping your feet. If you just relax, you will lose your swing. This is another common fault, and something we are used to perhaps, pushing hard on the positive and relaxing on the negative. But that’s not what we want here – you need to maintain tension through the core on the decent. One way to teach this feeling is to do a toes to bar, and then have someone push your feet down quickly. The feeling of resisting that push is what you need to keep.

Lastly, when all else fails, just get really strong! Drill the movements and work that core hard!

As a rower, if you don’t have enough hip flexion, you won’t be able to get in an optimal position in the catch. If you are lacking flexion, you have a lot to gain from improving it.

Moving into the catch, as soon as you hit end range of motion with the hip, your lower back will start to round. This position does not allow you to get power out of your glutes. This reduces your ability to drive hard against the foot stretchers. ​Driving out of the catch with a rounded back is also a compromised position for the spine. This is also what happens to you when you squat with poor hip flexion​. If you are descending into the squat and lack flexion, your lower back will round at the bottom, shutting off your glutes. Lack of flexion will negatively impact your running form as well​, as it is difficult to drive your leg in front of you with each stride. Squatting and running are outside the scope of this article, but you can start to see the importance of hip function for all athletic activities.​

Here’s a quick test​ to see if you have sufficient hip flexion: (see picture below) lying on your back raise your knee as high as you can without assistance, without rounding your back or moving the other leg. Ideally, you should be able to hit about 120 degrees before feeling resistance​.

The good news is that there are some simple exercises you can use to improve your mobility – usually, you can see the difference immediately. Mobilizing your hips before you row (or squat) will usually allow you to get into a better position, allowing you to produce more power and reducing your chance of injury. Stretching after you row can help keep you limber so that you don’t tighten up further, and promote better mobility.

1. Banded distraction before your row: If you’re not familiar with banded distraction, YouTube has lots of good videos to get you up to speed. In general, banded distraction is not hard to do, feels great, and usually has an immediate effect. To explain how it works on a high level, the hip joint is surrounded by tight muscle tissue, which binds to the joint and keeps it from moving well. Think about knotting your t-shirt up around your fist, then trying to move your fist. If you loosen up the shirt, it’s easier to move your fist! It works similar with your hip joint and the surrounding tissues.

There are several variations, but here are two basic versions to try. I find just the first one works really well for me, but I need to get a lot of tension on the band.

Banded Distraction 1: 2-3 minutes per leg, moving around to find the positions of restriction.

Banded Distraction 2: 2-3 minutes per leg, as above.

2. After your row: Stretch and lengthen the surrounding tissues

Here are several variations of just one stretch, though there are many more ways to improve flexion. Partner variations are my favorite, as they allow you to relax completely, and your partner can keep the bottom leg from lifting.

I prefer these at 20-30 seconds per side, for 2 sets. But this is up to you depending on time and what feels right.

And let me know how that new PR goes after mobilizing those tight hips!

 

Sia is a good friend of mine that I have a lot of respect for. He’s a busy guy, and he’s in good shape already, in my opinion, but I know he’s not quite in the shape he used to be, and he wouldn’t mind losing a little bit more fat. Sia has been watching his diet, and has cut out sugar for almost a year already. After seeing some results he’s finding progress has slowed, and today he asked me if I had any ideas to help him get to the next level.

And as a matter of fact, I do.

Really, I think he just needs to kick it up a notch, and try a few different methods to spark a bit more fat loss. It’s not just about trying one thing or something else, it’s about adding them together. Taking his existing healthy diet and adding some more fat loss methods on top of that should be all he needs.

Idea Number 1: Try Some Intermittent Fasting

I’m a huge fan of intermittent fasting and it’s my go-to method of losing fat. There are more benefits then just fat loss, such as improved insulin sensitivity and digestive tract function. I’m always surprised that fasting also increases my energy significantly, or how my eyes will get whiter (I suspect from reduced inflammation). And I get these effects from just fasting 4-6 hours a day in the morning, and not even every day.

I recommend trying just two days of intermittent fasting for four hours each morning after you wake up. Let’s say you get up at 8am – consume nothing but water or black coffee until noon. Then, eat as you normally would for the rest of the day. Continue to try and eat as healthy as you can – avoid sugar and alcohol as much as possible, don’t overeat, etc etc. But don’t under-eat either – just eat normally! The first day, in my experience, is usually really easy, but the second day is a bit harder. Fight through the hunger and hold off until 12, or 1pm, if possible.

Repeat this method of two days of intermittent fasting and two days of normal eating for a week or two and just observe the effects. If you get up one morning and you just really want breakfast, just eat it! Instead fast the next day, or whenever it feels right. Listen to your body, observe the effects, and repeat what works.

It doesn’t have to be painful or difficult. I admit I sometimes push the boundary of how long I should fast for – I’ll go until 2 or 3pm maybe, and then realize I’m a bit too hungry and that I didn’t have to push it that far. Just do what works for you and what feels right. But you should also see a difference. You should lose some weight. If you’re not losing weight, you’re probably just eating too much the rest of the day. Be mindful of your eating, and repeat the morning fast as needed.

Idea Number 2: Do More Intense Cardio

HIIT, tabata, sprints, whatever. Push harder, and you might be surprised at the results. In my experience, easy cardio does almost nothing for fat loss. Going for a 30 minute walk or a leisurely bike ride is good for you, and it is better than sitting on the couch doing nothing – but if you really want to stoke the fires of your metabolism you’ll want to hit that workout harder. The idea here is that your metabolism stays jacked up for hours after the workout, and you continue to burn a lot of calories during this time. I prefer running 400m sprints with 90 seconds rest – 8×400 is my go-to workout right now. But also I do 500m rowing with 1 minute rest. I can get a lot out of a stationary bike as well using the same approximate time frames. I like to put the bike on the hardest possible setting (level 25 or whatever) for 30 seconds to a minute, and then back it off for a few minutes, and repeat for 20 minutes. Just do what you can! And do it harder! Hill sprints are another good one, or stair running / climbing…

A warning though, these are hard workouts and you won’t want to do them fasted. I would only do something like this when I’m fueled up and ready for an intense effort. I also admit I will often have a bit of sugar and salt right after one of these workouts to restore liver glycogen and electrolyte balance. This is another article entirely, but just to sum up, if you’re sweating a lot, you need some salt. And restoring liver glycogen right after a workout will help you recover. My favorite is orange slices for the sugar, and some potato chips or pickles for the salt.

Idea Number 3: Fasted Cardio

Fasted cardio is another good thing to try, though I admit not one of my personal favorites – I still do it sometimes because it works. The theory is that performing cardio in a fasted state (first thing in the morning before breakfast is probably the most effective) forces your body to burn more fat as fuel. And a lot of people swear by this method. It does seem an efficient method of training, as you don’t need as much cardio to have the same effect. I’m often surprised that I do not feel hungry while I’m exercising and often even have more energy this way. This method also fits in well with the intermittent fasting mentioned above. However, if you do choose this option, I suggest breaking your fast sooner after your workout, because you might just feel too crappy afterwards. Only one warning, it is not recommended to do high intensity cardio fasted. 25-30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio when fasted is more than enough.

Well, there you go my friend. This may be all you need to strip off those last few pounds. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

TomHardyBack0001
Tom Hardy’s Cobra

Big traps look awesome. They fill in that area between your shoulders and your neck. Also, thick middle traps add a thick look to your upper body. Honestly, when I can see someone’s middle traps through their shirt, I find that very impressive. Check out Tom Hardy here, you can see how people used to refer to the traps as the “cobra muscles”.

The trapezius is comprised of three sections: the upper, middle and lower. Each section has a different function, but people typically only train the upper portion. For full development and better posture you need to add a few more exercises.

Trapezius_animation_small2
upper, middle and lower sections

The upper traps elevate your shoulders and keep your shoulders from being pulled down.

The function of the middle trapezius is to pull the shoulders back. Note the difference to the lat or the rhomboids here… Think about just squeezing your shoulders straight back and together. That’s why the high wide machine row works so well (or a cable row) – lean back a bit and you can hit a bit higher on your traps. make sure to grip very wide with your elbows high and squeeze back.

The lower trapezius pulls the shoulders back and down, which is very useful for posture correction.

Here’s a complete trapezius workout for you to try – if you’re really an animal, do this after your deadlift workout! Deadlifts alone hit your trapezius well isometrically. Go heavy and hard on the shrugs and snatch grip high pulls, and do the rest fast with low rest to pump up the muscle. The combination is hard to beat.

Complete Trapezius Workout:

1. warm up: band pullaparts 4×20

band-pull-aparts

2. heavy shrugs (upper traps) 5×10
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3. wide machine high row (middle traps) 4×20 – lean back a bit, keep elbows high, squeeze middle traps!

wide rows

4. snatch grip high pulls (upper and middle) 3×15 – use straps!

snatch-grip-high-pull

5. Y raises on 45 degree bench 5×10 (lower traps)

y-raises.jpg

Some people can get away with very little trapezius training. I’m just not one of those people. Deadlifts, barbell rows and pullups will do a lot for your complete trapezius development, but if traps is something you want to focus on give my workout a try. Even understanding the function and being able to isolate and feel each section will be really useful in your training.

If someone asks me for advice, more often than not, I’m likely to tell them to just look up Stan Efferding. I’ll tell them to look up Stan and follow everything he says, and I guarantee that they’ll be well on their way to being healthy, strong and successful.

Stan is really, really, really good.

Do I like him because he totaled 2303 raw? (that’s a 865.2 pound squat, 600.3 pound bench and 837.7 pound deadlift – yeah, he’s superhuman) Nope. He’s amazingly strong, and when he did this it was probably the first time I heard of him, but it’s not why I think he’s great.

 

I like him because he’s extremely intelligent, well spoken and articulate, and describes training and nutrition concepts better than I can. And he inspires me to work harder in business. He’s an excellent example of how to succeed I think.

Check out his rants, or “10 talks”… Here is a good example of what I’m talking about. Some people speak in sentences, some people speak in paragraphs. Stan Efferding speaks in essays. Here he talks about the obesity epidemic in the Somoan islands, and the parallels to North American diet and obesity.

Check him out! Stan’s website.