There’s a stigma within the ranks of the fitness profession that doesn’t sit well with me: KISS. More specifically, an overreliance on the KISS principle.
I understand and appreciate the benefits of the simplicity that the KISS crowd espouses well enough, and especially when it comes to client interaction, such as exercise instruction or new habit formation.
What I’m not entirely on board with however, is its application.
In my experience “keep it simple” from a trainer’s standpoint, in practice, typically follows with the myriad strength training techniques available to us being watered down to “just squat, bench and deadlift” or the marginally more inclusive “stick with the barbell compound lifts” or any other permutation thereof.
As a training philosophy, this is asinine. Short of training for an actual power lifting meet – which certainly isn’t the goal of any of my personal training clients, nor is it of 99% of training clients anywhere – this is an extremely narrow-minded and ignorant viewpoint, and to me displays the lack of objective analysis in client training prescription that is indicative of many of the shortcomings of the fitness profession.
But that’s a rant for another day, as it is indeed a gripe of mine and I intend to lay out my thoughts on the matter accordingly. For today’s purposes though, I simply wanted to point out that innovative thinkers have come up with many variations of, tweaks to, modifications for, and occasionally, brand new exercises that you aren’t likely to find at your local Globo gym, power lifting dungeon or in a personal training course text book. And while many of these turn out to be better in theory than practice, plenty prove themselves to be excellent alternatives, or even superior options altogether, to the tried and true staples that live firmly inside the thinking box of most, such as the aforementioned big barbell lifts.
The Angled Bar
Angled bar training is nothing new and I don’t claim credit for any of the techniques I’m about to show you. I just decided to take the time to write about a few of them and explain where they fit and why.
A briefing on the equipment itself: Angled bar work is usually performed by fitting a standard barbell (though a short bar can certainly be used) into a specialised sleeve such as a Torsonator, or the more generic yet less politically correct named “landmine”. Failing this option, for the majority of exercises, jamming a barbell into a corner on top of some padding (to protect the wall and minimise the bar sliding) will suffice just fine.
And while a variety of exercise options exist for the lower body, core and a row variation or two, today I’m going to focus on the pressing options, which is where angled bar work really shines.
Bench press and floor press variations provide us with open chain horizontal pressing options, though usually with the scapulae fixed, and the body supported.
Push up variations give us a bunch more horizontal pressing options but in a closed chain, with the scapulae free to move naturally, and with the body unsupported, thereby providing at least some degree of core challenge by default.
Shoulder pressing options are the staple vertical pressing option. These are open chain and with the scapulae free to move.
Handstand push ups are the closed chain option for vertical pressing, though the limitations and practicality of these are many.
Cable or band pressing options can be performed in any vector from horizontal (or even below) to vertical, yet work best in a mostly horizontal vector, are an open chain exercise where the scapulae can move freely and the body is usually unsupported yet static, again providing some inherent core stability demand.
Unlike the above pressing options, cables and bands are generally poor options for significantly heavy loading, which in this instance I’ll define as any work in a rep range below eight.
Between bilateral and unilateral options, different body positions and a variety of implements to use, these options already provide us with a vast array of pressing exercises to choose from. And those possessing the KISS sentiment would typically suggest this is ample. I’m more of the thought that when it comes to exercise variations, more is better.
The angled bar gives us options in between the horizontal and vertical vectors. Essentially it’s an incline press, but unlike an incline bench press variation it permits a free moving scapula, and the body is not artificially supported.
Aside from that vector offering a novel stimuli (something I’m strongly in favour of) it also provides an option for those who are limited in thoracic extension and/or shoulder flexion (read: most people who have built up significant hours working behind a desk) and thus can’t effectively or safely press directly overhead. The angled bar press slots in as “almost overhead” pressing work.
Too, it works well for heavy pressing work, unlike cables or bands. While I mainly tend to use and prescribe angled bar pressing as secondary work in anywhere from the 6 to 15 rep range, I’ve experimented with using it as low as triples, and even doubles (by failing the triple) and it works okay. Though there is one option in particular, which I’ll get to later, that I think works excellently for low reps.
Add in the element of the inherent fat grip – something I feel is very complimentary to most pressing exercises – and these factors make angled bar pressing a unique tool in the training toolbox, and certainly one which offers benefits above and beyond limiting ourselves to conventional bench and overhead press variations.
Now, with that lengthy preamble out of the way, here’s some exercises to try out:
Half Kneeling Angled Bar Press
Here we get an introduction to the pressing action of the angled bar alone (as opposed to with bands, which is next) along with all the fun stuff that comes along with the half kneeling position: frontal plane hip and core stability, a hip flexor stretch (not to lengthen anything, as that’s highly unlikely to happen, but just to be exposed to the position), a little glute activation, ankle and toe mobility, and a position that does a better job of limiting excessive lumbar extension while pressing than standing does.
Keep the back glute tight, aim to keep the wrist fairly neutral (rather than rolling back, which is a tendency especially with the fat grip) and press all the way through at the top to take the scapula through a full ROM of upward rotation.
Half Kneeling Band-Resisted Angled Bar Press
Once familiarised with the general movement and the half kneeling position, adding band resistance is where angled bar pressing really shines.
Along with being easier to add band tension to than probably any other pressing option, there seems to be greater benefit to that tension than anywhere else, too.
With the nature of any shoulder press, the limiting point of the lift is around about where the elbow gets to 90 degrees of flexion, as this places the load furthest from the fulcrum thereby creating poor mechanical leverage. But that 90 degree point comes on very early in the press, leaving a lot of distance still to cover, yet not enough load to maximally stimulate muscle through that range of motion. Enter band tension.
A quick primer on the benefits of bands: they provide accommodating resistance.
As explained by legendary sports biomechanist and author Valdimr Zatsiorsky in “Science and Practice of Strength Training” (p.120):
“The main idea of accommodating resistance is to develop maximal tension throughout the complete range of motion rather than at a particular (e.g. weakest) point.”
Though traditionally reserved for power lifting training on the big three lifts, as I alluded to at the start of this article I view this as narrow thinking, and have found plenty of other applications for creating an accommodating strength curve.
Further, the notion that training “tricks” such as adding band tension and chains should be reserved for advanced trainees I believe is a misguided one, though I once thought the same.
Adding bands to maximal effort box squats? Sure, leave that one up your sleeve for when you need it as a serious and experienced squatter pursuing maximal strength.
But adding bands to a bar for a single arm press to create more load through a greater range of motion to stimulate more gains? Have at it.
Neutral Stance Angled Bar Press
From standing, you have a little better leverage than half kneeling (the slight forward lean, and the knees being soft can allow for an imperceptible little push) allowing for heavier loads, and those heavier loads on top of a longer lever add in a significant core stability challenge in the frontal plane.
Set up with a medium or even narrow stance with toes forward, as this will challenge that frontal plane core stability more than a wider stance, and keep the glutes tight to minimise excessive lumbar extension.
Neutral Stance Band-Resisted Angled Bar Press
Same cues as the above with all the additional benefits previously mentioned about band tension.
Staggered Stance Angled Bar Push Press
The staggered stance offers a more natural, biomechanical advantageous position, as does the incorporation of the hips in the push press. This allows us focus on acceleration: training for power. And as with any push press, it also gives us a little bit of eccentric overload when lowering the bar under control: we “cheat” the bar up, and control down a weight heavier than we could normally have got up there to begin with.
Note the two different tempos used. Both are fine. One is more deliberate, focusing on maximal effort bursts. The other is more continuous, useful for lighter loads if chasing a metabolic stimulus, as well as getting a little more use out of the stretch shortening cycle.
Bands can work here too, though I haven’t found them to be as beneficial over purely loading with plates as I have with the strict pressing versions.
Alternating Angled Bar Push Press
Much like the faster tempo version of the above push press, the only real place I see for this variation is with moderate loads when training for energy system development, such as in circuits or finishers.
Bands don’t work well here.
Angled Bar Throws
While the push press lets us train for power, the angled bar throws really let us train for power.
Being able to let go of the bar means there is no deceleration phase, which means we get to express maximal acceleration all the way through motion.
As with any power training (AKA dynamic effort method) I recommend to keep the loads moderate. Not so light there’s no challenge, but not so heavy that you can’t explode through the bar.
Also, a having a competent training partner present is advised.
Angled Bar Deadlift to Rotary Press
Ultimately this movement is a press, so it made the cut here, but there’s so much more going on than just that.
The deadlift action on the angled bar alone is unique, as there is a frontal plane shift of the load as the bar follows its natural arc.
But then we get to transfer force though all three planes of motion by rotating aggressively through the hips and torso, which will challenge timing and coordination and, somewhat surprisingly, balance.
What I want to see with this exercise is that force can be transferred smoothly from the ground to overhead, and from the sagittal to the frontal and transverse planes.
If performed well, a lot of weight can be moved on this one. Used for higher reps – say 6-10/side – as part of a circuit works pretty well, though I actually prefer to think of this one as a primary lift. Try hitting while still fresh and working up to heavy fives or even triples on each side.
Seriously, don’t underestimate it, and don’t confine yourself to writing it off because it’s not a “traditional” lift like a clean and press or one of the power lifts.
And that really sums up the underlying message I wanted to present here: don’t get stuck in a box of traditional thinking that limits you to meathead exercises only.
Don’t mistake me, I’m not arguing there’s a place for single leg bicep curls on a BOSU ball, or AMRAP of kipping pull ups. There’s not. Pointless and stupid is still pointless and stupid.
But traditional and seemingly simple are far from the only training modalities that are beneficial. There’s a whole wide world of training innovation out there to be experimented with. Let’s not limit ourselves to a training life ruled by power lifting 101 templates, as was the case for Flex magazine bodybuilding workouts during the ’90s. Don’t allow “Starting Strength” to be perceived as some holy grail of training for this generation. It’s not. There are better options out there, and I’ve just given you a sample few.
Go try them out and let me know if I’m wrong.
Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below. And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out.