Use the This Close-Grip Bech Press and Leg Raise Combo for Upper Body Strength
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
In this video I have one of my NFL Combine athletes Michael Montero performing a unique close-grip Spoto bench press variation with a hollowed body leg raise hold.
Before we get into the various components of this bench press variation and why you would incorporate it into your routine, I want to quickly discuss programming and how it pertains to exercise selection.
Programming Like A Clown
When it comes to improving strength and performance, focusing on the basics is critical. However, periodically incorporating unique stimuli can be incredibly beneficial as long as they’re used strategically. Randomly and mindlessly incorporating unique variations just for the sake of novelty, variety, and “wow factor” does little to improve performance and can actually regress strength and function. So if you’re going to employ unique variations make sure you have specific reasons for doing so and not just throwing it in the mix for the sake of “shocking the body” as many trainers and coaches do.
For instance, 80% of what I do involves basic and foundational movements performed in an eccentric isometric fashion. However 20% of the time I’ll chose unique variations to specifically address some weakness, imbalance, or specific component of strength and/or performance.
The NFL Combine 225 Bench Press Test
Prepping athletes for the 225 NFL Combine test can be tricky as we typically have 2 months to clean up their technique and substantially increase their strength. So yes it requires focusing on the basics as well as periodically employing unique variations to kick start new levels of functional strength and hypertrophy as well as movements that force them to clean up their technique.
And yes improving strength, size, and technique, are the most important factors for crushing the 225 bench press test as well as any other measure of strength. Focusing excessively on muscular endurance, as is the common mistake many coaches make when prepping athletes for the 225 bench press test, can actually decrease strength, degrade form, and decrease neuromuscular efficiency. Get an athlete ridiculously strong and regardless of their levels of muscular endurance, 225 pounds will feel relatively light allowing them to blast out significantly more repetitions.
Now that we’ve got that covered, lets discuss this specific bench press variation as it involves several unique components including a close grip, a pause in the eccentric isometric position, and a hollow body leg raise hold.
Close Grip Bench Press Position
The close grip bench press is one of the most effective variations for improving bench press strength and technique for several reasons.
First the close grip places the athletes into a more biomechanically disadvantageous position making the movement 10-30% more difficult than a standard grip or wider grip position. Improving strength in this position does wonders for increasing your PR on all other variations as standard grip widths will feel relatively easy in comparison.
Second, the close grip does wonders for teaching athletes proper form and mechanics as it reinforces the idea of tucking the elbows and contracting the lats. This also tends to be significantly easier on the joints, tendons, and connective tissue. Many athletes have difficulty tucking their elbows on barbell pressing variations as the pronated grip is less natural for ingraining the elbow tuck and lat contraction technique. However, this tends to be much less of an issue with a closer grip.
Third, the close grip bench press is one of the most effective functional mass and strength builders for the upper body pressing muscles particularly the triceps due to the closer grip. Many powerlifters believe that increasing tricep strength and tricep-pressing power is one of the most important ingredients for maximizing bench press performance.
Lastly, you’ll notice this specific close grip position shown in the video is actually more of a moderate close grip using a shoulder-width position rather than a grip that’s excessively inside shoulder width. Many lifters make the mistake of using an exaggerate close grip position often times involving a grip position that places the hands 12 inches apart or closer. Besides placing undue stress on the wrists and elbows, going too close on the bench press can actually cause the elbows to drift out and flare placing undue strain on the glenohumeral joint. That’s because the shoulders become crowded due to insufficient room for them to retract and depress as there’s no room for them to move around the body. As a result this compromises natural scapulohumeral rhythm as the shoulders essentially become stuck in a slightly protracted and elevated position.
Eccentric Isometric Position Spoto Press
You’ll also notice in the video that my athlete is pausing in the eccentric isometric position roughly 2 inches from the chest. This is similar to the Spoto press protocol made popular by world famous powerlifter and bench press champion, Eric Spoto. There are several benefits of using this technique.
First, many athletes lack the ability to stay tight in the bottom position and oftentimes collapse and relax their muscles when bringing the barbell to their chest. Pausing the barbell 1-2 inches above chest height represents a natural and relatively full range of motion while avoiding a collapsed position and ingraining full body tension.
Pausing in this specific position also represents the perfect balance between eccentric elongation/stretch and intramuscular tension. In other words the muscles aren’t allowed to relax or decrease activation. As a result the amount of tension to the upper body pressing muscles is through the roof making it incredibly effective for stimulating significant strength and hypertrophy. In addition, it actually takes greater effort to hold this position than to touch the chest as the muscles have to remain tight and fully activated to keep the weight from falling to the chest. Going significantly deeper will involve greater stretch but also increase destabilizing forces on the shoulder joint as well as reduce structural rigidity of the muscles.
Lastly, when using the close grip bench press, most athletes will have a natural stopping point of 1-3 inches above chest height as any deeper and the triceps and humerus will move significantly past the plane of their torso. This produces very subtle yet significant internal rotation which is something that’s not ideal. This is also the same concept I’ve discussed in my rowing articles when addressing over-rowing. Generally speaking, whether it’s for chest presses or rows, we never want the elbows, triceps, and humerus to move significantly past the plane of the torso as this places the glenohumeral joint into a biomechanically dysfunctional position and can promote shoulder injuries and pectoral strains and tears.
However, wider grips tend to place the barbell closer to the sternum/chest with the same relative humerus/tricep position. With this in mind some athletes will be able to touch the chest very lightly on standard or wider grip chest press variations without placing strain on the shoulder. However, these are usually larger athletes with relatively bigger chests. Close grip presses on the other hand rarely involve an ideal position where the barbell touches the chest as the natural stopping point tends to be slightly higher than most traditional grips usually 1-3 inches above the torso.
Hollow Body Leg Raise Hold
The hollow body leg raise hold is a unique but highly effective technique for implementing on chest presses. In fact it provides several benefits.
1. It activates the core musculature resulting in increased spinal rigidity and full body stability. As a result it teaches the lifter how to stay tight when pressing which can do wonders for strength and size.
2. It eliminates excessive low back arch often witnessed in many lifters when performing bench press.
3. It isolates the upper body musculature more so particularly the chest, shoulders and triceps as the legs and hips are eliminated from the equation.
4. It teaches the lifter to stay tight and dial in their pressing mechanics as even the slightest levels of asymmetrical pressing, wiggling, shifting, or use of momentum will disrupt the lifter's balance and stability.
5. It teaches the lifter to focus their mind and concentrate like a ninja as even the slightest mental lapse can make the movement feel utterly impossible to control and balance.
Variations and Repetitions
The leg raise chest press protocol can be applied to any and all chest pressing variations including barbell presses, dumbbell presses, bottoms-up presses, floor presses, and kettlebell presses. In fact I’ve periodically implemented all of these with my athletes and surprisingly each has their own unique qualities. Because of the slower tempos and greater mental concentration required to complete the lift I recommend lower rep ranges of 4-8 repetitions per set.