Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Breaking Down the Bench Press Barrier

     The other day I got an e-mail from someone who was having problems downloading the articles on my website.  (Which I really don't use any more, to be honest.  If you want updates you'll find them here on my blog.)  So, I thought I would start transferring some of those articles over to this blog.
     Since (almost) every gym rat's favorite exercise is the bench press, I thought the first of those articles that I would add is my "Breaking Down the Bench Press Barrier" article.  A lot of the tips offered in the article don't just work for the bench press, however.  They work for other lifts and for just making you one big, strong mo-fo.

Breaking Down The Bench Barrier

Tips For Gaining As Much As Fifty Pounds On Your Bench Press


     The bench press.  It's the lift that everyone loves to train.  It's also the lift that most people plateau on the fastest.  Why's that?  Despite the fact that the majority of American lifters are obsessed with benching more, they're not obsessed with learning how to bench more.  Therein lies the problem.

     There's a lot more to bench pressing than just getting under the bar and pushing to failure at every workout, trying to add more pounds to the bar whenever possible.  While that strategy works for the beginner, it does nothing for the seasoned lifter who has been bench pressing for years with little to no break.

     The majority of bodybuilders, powerlifters, or other strength athletes in this country have probably been using this progressive overload system of training on their bench press for many years.  They have developed such an overtrained movement pattern that there is no way in hell they will ever make any more progress on their bench press.  Well, it's time to change all of that.


     For months I was stuck at a bench press of 315 pounds.  While that's not terrible for a guy weighing 175, it's not anywhere near where I wanted to be, or knew that I could accomplish.  However, after using many of the tips that I will outline in this article, I was able to bench press 355 pounds within 8 weeks.  That's a 40 pound increase and more than a double-bodyweight bench press.

      So, what are these tips that will take your bench press to new heights.  Read and discover them for yourself.  Use them and I can guarantee that you will add at least 30 pounds to your bench press within a couple of months, though 40 or 50  pounds may be even more likely.

KEY NO.1: TRAIN WITH HEAVY TRIPLES, DOUBLES, AND SINGLES ON A REGULAR BASIS.  A lot of gym-goers want to get stronger but they go about it in totally the wrong manner, performing too many sets with way too light of a weight.  Heavy, heavy pressing exercises (though it doesn't have to be on the bench press) are the secrets to building a truly massive bench.

     A lot of lifters hear this and immediately start on a heavy bench pressing regimen, working up to a single in every workout.  They get great results for a couple of weeks and then are surprised when their bench press not only stalls, but starts to regress.  The problem?  They overtrained their movement pattern and their body no longer had the coordination to complete such a heavy lift.

     The key to using massive weights week after week lies in variation.  If you change your core exercise every two to three weeks, then you can perform max triples, doubles and singles every single week and achieve some good results.

     What am I talking about here?  After maxxing out on regular bench presses for a couple of weeks, you could perform two weeks of rack lock-outs, followed by two weeks of floor presses, followed by two weeks of bottom-position bench presses performed in the rack, followed by two weeks of incline presses, and so on and so forth until you started the cycle all over again after eight to twelve weeks.  At that time, you could test your new one-rep maximum.

KEY NO.2:  INJECT DYNAMIC SESSIONS INTO YOUR TRAINING. When you read a powerlifting authority write about dynamic strength, they are referring to explosive, or speed, strength.  You build this strength through numerous sets of low reps (2 to 3-no more) with a weight that's around 50 to 60% of your one rep maximum.

     Dynamic work is absolutely vital for developing explosion off of your chest that can carry through to lockout when you have to handle a maximum single attempt.

     Speed work became popular among powerlifters when the great powerlifting coach Louie Simmons introduced his Westside Barbell way of training.  At the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus Ohio, Simmons has trained 3 out of the all-time 12 world record holders in the bench press.  In addition, 18 of his lifters bench more than 550 pounds.  Two of these lifters are 198s and over 40 years old.  Simmons, who is 56, has benched more than 600 pounds himself.  Training once a week for speed and a second day a week with super-heavy weights is the key to Westside's success.

     Like I was saying, you train your speed day using multiple sets of low reps with 50-60% of your one-rep maximum.  I have found that 10 to 12 sets of 3 reps with 60% seems to work best.  Simmons recommends 50% of a one-rep maximum if the max was performed with a shirt.

     On the speed day, train fast.  Take no more than a minute of rest in between each set.  This will increase growth-hormone production, which aids in hypertrophy if you're looking to gain muscle or move up another weight class.  Also, don't be tempted to increase reps on any of your sets.  Do this and bar speed slows down too much to build enough explosion off your chest.

KEY NO.3: TRAIN THE TRICEPS HARD.  When it comes to bench pressing, triceps strength is equally as important as chest strength.  You can not do too much tricep training if you're an aspiring mega-bench presser.

     The key in developing strong triceps for bench pressing is to forget about the "sculpting" movements generally used for bodybuilding.  Cable work and kickbacks just aren't going to cut it here.  You need lifts that mimic the bench press and focus on the long head of the triceps muscle.

     Here's a list of some great triceps exercises for getting that big bench and a brief overview of how to perform them.

-Close Grip Bench.  Performed as the name implies.  A lot of lifters use too close of a grip however.  Just inside shoulder width is as narrow as you want to go.

-J.M. Press.  Named after J.M. Blakely, one of the strongest benchers in the world and a member of the Westside Barbell Club.  Take a close-grip, lower to about fist-height above your throat and then press back up.  This pressing movement takes the delts out of the lift and really hammers the tris.

-California Press.  A personal favorite of mine.  Start the lift as if you were performing a close-grip bench.  As the lift reaches the midpoint on the descent, start to bring the bar back toward your neck.  Continue as if you were performing a lying triceps extension.  Perform the ascent in the same manner.  This combo skull crusher/ close-grip bench press is a real killer.

-Midrange Close Grip Partials.  Set the pins in the power rack about five to six inches above your chest and press to lockout.  This takes some of the stress off of your delts when going for a max single, allowing you to use a closer grip than usual (and heavier weights).

-Close Grip Floor Press. Performed in the same manner as the above exercise except executed while lying on the floor.

-Reverse Grip Dumbbell Presses.  Perform these on a flat bench with your palms facing toward your face.  Get a good stretch with the dumbbells lowered to your upper abdominal area.

-Lying Dumbbell Extensions.  Most lifters perform this exercise with a barbell, but it is more effective when dumbbells are used.

     Remember, even if you are a powerlifter who uses a bench press shirt, the shirt offers no assistance from about mid-point on.  The lift will always be "raw" at the top and strong triceps are needed to complete the movement to full extension.

KEY NO.4: BLAST THE BACK.  After triceps, it's important to have strong lats and a strong upper back.  A lot of benchers mistakenly believe that delts are more important than lats but they're not (we'll get to that later when we discuss proper execution of the bench press).

     All of your great bench pressers did lots of lat work, including Simmons, Ed Coan, Chris Confessore, and old-timers like Pat Casey and Jim Williams.  Simmons, in fact, has many of his members train their lats up to 4 times-per-week.  That's a lot of back work but it pays off in the form of big benches, not to mention strong squats and deadlifts.

     When picking lat and upper back exercises, the barbell and dumbbell movements are still the best despite a large influx of machines for these muscle groups.  Barbell rows (with various grips), dumbbell rows, chins, pulldowns, pullovers, shrugs, and heavy, one-arm deadlifts are all great exercises for beefing and strengthening up the back.

     Keep this in mind.  Strong lats will really help you to rebound the bar off your chest, creating power that can carry through to lockout.

KEY NO.5:  WORK THE ROTATOR CUFF MUSCLES OF THE SHOULDER.  One very effective way to increase your bench press is by strengthening your rotator cuff muscles.  I've known lifters to add as much as twenty pounds to their bench just by working the rotators on a regular basis for several weeks.

     You need to work these muscles a couple of times each week with specific exercise and light weights.  Let's take a look at a few exercises.

-Cuban Presses.  Grab a pair of dumbbells.  Pull them up as if you were performing an upright row.  When your upper arms are parallel to the ground, rotate your hands upward until your fists point straight up to the ceiling and then press overhead.  Lower down in traditional pressing fashion, not in the manner in which you performed the ascent.

-Flat Bench Cuban Presses.  Lie down on a flat bench with the dumbbells held above your hips, palms facing down.  Execute an upright row.  As your upper arms reach parallel, rotate your arms until your hands face toward the ceiling and then press up in bench press fashion.  Lower the dumbbells back down as if you were performing a lying front raise.

-Floor Rotations.  Lie flat down on the floor with either dumbbells or a barbell as if you were going to execute a floor press.  With your elbows locked into position, rotate your arms backwards until the back of your hand touches the floor.

-Shoulder Horn Rotations.  If you have access to one, a shoulder horn is a great way to train the rotator cuffs.  The shoulder horn locks your arms into place and isolates the rotators for some direct work.

KEY NO.6: UTILIZE THE MOST EFFICIENT TECHNIQUE.  Many lifters, who have been benching incorrectly or with a form not suited to their body type, can increase their bench press by 20 to 30 pounds just by working on technique.  In the next few paragraphs we'll discuss how important proper form is for getting the most out of the bench press.

     First, let's talk about grip width.  Far too many benchers lift with too close of a grip.  It may take a little time getting adjusted to, but the wider the grip, the better.  Why?  It's simple biomechanics.  When you widen your grip, the bar has to travel a shorter distance to lockout.  The shorter the bar has to travel, the more weight you can handle.

     Don't expect to make a huge jump in weight the first time your try a wide grip, especially if you've been benching fairly narrow.  It has a different feel to it and really stresses the outer pectorals and shoulders.  Take time over several weeks to widen it out.

    The next way in which you can enhance the poundages you use is through the practice of arching.  Some benchers have been able to take six to seven inches off their stroke just by arching their back.  This also takes time to work into your training regimen.  Also, keep in mind that if you're a competitive powerlifter your hips and buttocks can never leave the bench, so you will only be able to arch as much as your flexibility will allow.

     When you practice your arch, reserve it for your heavy doubles and singles.  Forget about it during the speed work.

     Now, let's talk actual exercise execution.  First off, try to lower the bar using your lats and not your arms.  This saves chest and arm strength for the positive portion of the lift.  It also allows for a greater rebound off of your chest as well.

     Louie Simmons has said that without proper lat involvement, the bar will not be placed on the chest correctly.  If the bar lands too high on your chest, then your triceps are used too much.  Too low on the chest and the delts are involved in the lift more than needed, which places undue stress on the rotator cuffs.

     The most common misconception about exercise technique has to do with the concentric, or positive, portion of the lift.  Too many lifters are under the impression that the bar should travel in a path back toward the head.  This is incorrect, not to mention dangerous for your delts (and one of the main culprits for rotator cuff injuries).

     The path of the bar should be a completely straight line.  This uses the muscles of the chest, triceps, lats, and delts equally.  Also, remember that the shortest distance between two paths is a straight line.  And the shorter the distance, the more weight that can be used.

KEY NO.7: ADD EXTRA WORKOUTS.  This one's not an absolute necessity, but is a key to the success of many big-time bench pressers.  Westside Barbell Club believes it is essential for an advanced lifter's success.  The countries from the former Soviet Empire, primarily Russia and the Ukraine, swear by additional workouts and they absolutely dominate the world powerlifting scene.

     Let's say that you perform two major workouts a week for your bench on Monday and Thursday.  One should be for developing speed and working on power.  The other should be used for the development of pure strength (i.e.: heavy triples, doubles, or singles).  In addition to these two workouts, start by adding one more workout on, say, Saturday.  You should do no pressing movements with a barbell on this workout.  Instead, work on a variety of exercises to work your triceps, shoulders, or lats.  After several months, you could add another workout.  This next one would probably be best the day after your speed session or, if you work out in the morning time, it could be that evening.

     Make sure that your extra workouts are quite short and not ultra-intense.  Where your regular sessions should last no more than an hour (45 minutes is best) your extra workouts should only last about twenty minutes.  Pick two to three exercises, work them fairly hard but nothing to failure, and then stop the session.

KEY NO.8: TRAIN WITH A PARTNER.  I really believe this is one of the most important keys to a lifter's success.  Of course, you have to have a really good  training partner for this to be important.  You need a training partner to help you push yourself beyond your normal physical capabilities.  You also need one that will help you to tweak your form and point out the weak areas in your bench press.

     You and your training partner should always be out to "do in" the other one.  No respect when training together.  Leave that stuff outside the gym.

     On your "light" days, train fast, always trying to beat one another with short rest periods.  On your heavy days, see who can do the most reps with the big weights, or go back and forth with heavy singles until one of you beats the other one with a higher weight.

     One more thing.  No excuses.  If you have a training partner who ever has an excuse for why he can't do an exercise, or can't train heavy on a certain day then get rid of him.  That type of environment will only bring your bench press down.  Negativity breeds negativity.


   Give the above tips an honest try.  Like I said, I can guarantee that you'll add at least 30 pounds to the bench press within a couple of months.

  Stay positive and always believe in your ability to bench more and more weight.  Do that and the bench pressing sky is your only limit.

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