The following article is a revision of one that I wrote a few years ago for Planet Muscle Magazine. It covers several different styles of training for the bench press—styles, of course, that also could be used on the other powerlifts.
This article is good for anyone who is not well acquainted with the major styles of training amongst powerlifters. It's also a good lead-in article for a series I want to do on "hybrid" training, which is discussed in brief at the end of this article.
Building a Bigger Bench
Analyzing the Various Training Methods for Increasing your Bench Press
For many years, powerlifters and strength coaches have used a variety of training methods for achieving a bigger bench press. This article will analyze some of the more popular methods so that you can best decide which method suits your needs and your desires.
Many of you who don’t keep up with the trends in powerlifting will probably be surprised by some of the ideas presented here. They might seem new and innovative—or perhaps just fly in the face of what you considered to be accepted training practices.
Bodybuilding-Style Bench Workouts
This is the one method that’s not going to be new to your average lifter. By bodybuilding-style workouts, I’m referring to sessions that rely on a lot of volume—a wide range of repetition patterns and several different exercises for each muscle group being trained. Although this is not the typical kind of workout used by a lot of powerlifters, some well-known powerlifters have achieved great results with it. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, guys like Ted Arcidi—who called his style of lifting “power bodybuilding”—Chris Confessore, and Anthony Clark all trained in this manner. All three of these lifters did a lot of bodybuilding-style work other than just bench pressing to build their upper body mass.
Now, to be honest, I doubt that any powerlifters outside of the U.S. and Canada would ever use such routines for building bench press power (the Russians would absolutely scoff at this kind of training), but you can’t argue with the results achieved by Arcidi, Confessore, Clark, Pellechia, et al.
So, just what would a session look like using this approach? Below is an example routine:
Bench Presses—1x15, 1x10, 1x6, 1x4, 3x2 (including one or two forced reps on the last set)
Incline Bench Presses—3x10
Day Two (at least three days after the first session)
Flat Dumbbell Bench Presses—1x15, 1x10, 1x6, 1x4, 2x2
Bench Press Lockouts—1x5, 1x3, 1x2
2-Board Bench Presses—1x10, 1x8, 1x6, 1x4
In addition to performing these exercises, you would also need to perform some work for your triceps, your front delts, and your lat muscles—all muscles that aid greatly in moving up big numbers on your bench press.
Is this a good routine for packing pounds on to your bench? That depends on how you look at it. This approach has both pros and cons.
The pros: This kind of routine, besides promoting strength, also builds muscle mass. For guys looking to gain weight—all you bodybuilders out there—that’s a definite plus. It will give the lifter a good pump—another thing that a lot of bodybuilders crave. And it will also add some weight to the bar.
The cons: The first con is the same as the first pro. This routine probably works better for hypertrophy than it does strength. For powerlifters trying to stay in their weight class, that’s not good. Even though a pump feels good—and can be a contributing factor to gaining muscle—it’s not a reliable indicator that you will be stronger at your next workout. Most bodybuilding workouts will only make you as strong as you look, not stronger. Explosively strong lightweight powerlifters who bench press three times their bodyweight definitely don’t use this type of routine. It doesn’t develop truly explosive power or aid in building neural strength as much as other methods. Luckily, there are other methods...
Traditional Powerlifting Cycle
Despite the advent of other methods of serious strength training—which we’ll get too shortly—this is still one of the popular methods for building a big bench press. Ed Coan—arguably the greatest powerlifter of all time—used it to total more than 2400 pounds. His record might still be the highest ever if it wasn’t for all of the powerlfting “equipment”—double-ply and triple-ply bench press shirts and squat suits—that have become popular in recent years.
This method works by “cycling” weights. With cycling, you simply add weight and decrease reps on a weekly or every-other-week basis until you have worked up to a new one-rep maximum. Below, for example, is a 12-week cycle recommended by Ed Coan for a lifter who bench presses 270 and wants to increase that to 300:
Week 1 – 190x2x10
Week 2 – 190x2x10
Week 3 – 200x2x8
Week 4 – 210x2x8
Week 5 – 220x2x5
Week 6 – 230x2x5
Week 7 – 240x2x5
Week 8 – 250x2x3
Week 9 – 260x2x3
Week 10 – 270x2x2
Week 11 – 280x2x2
Week 12 – 300x1
Coan recommends performing this “heavy” bench session once per week followed by a second, lighter session a couple of days later. In addition to flat bench presses, he also does 2 sets of close-grip and 2 sets of incline bench presses.
This isn’t the only way to employ cycles. Many powerlifters prefer to start with much heavier weights. For instance, you might begin a cycle with sets of 5, followed by a couple of weeks of triples, then a couple weeks of doubles, and then hit your heavy singles.
The benefit of this kind of program is that it coaxes your body into using heavier and heavier weights week by week. For bodybuilders, it also provides several weeks of “hypertrophy” work, but also offers some neural benefits toward the end of the cycle.
So, what are the drawbacks? Like the bodybuilding workout, it doesn’t focus enough on explosive strength and is probably geared more toward a “chest bench presser” as opposed to a “triceps and shoulder lifter” because of all the direct bench press work.
Westside Barbell Club Training
When Westside Barbell Club—and their owner Louie Simmons—burst on the scene, it wasn’t long before bodybuilding-style workouts and traditional powerlifting cycles were almost a thing of the past. If there’s a guru of bench pressing—not to mention powerlifting in general—it has to be Louie Simmons. Simmons, and a lot of his lifters who learned from him, have employed some innovative ideas, and his methods are well loved by many lifters.
Simmons always has his trainees bench-press twice a week. The first session—typically on a Sunday—he calls a “dynamic” workout. This workout is for developing speed in the movement. A Westside lifter will typically perform 8 to 10 sets of 3 reps on the bench press with 60% of his one-rep maximum. The lifter performs all reps as explosively as possible with about 45 seconds’ rest between sets. After the speed work, the lifter trains triceps, delts, and then lats, usually in that order.
Two days later is the “maximum effort” workout, when the trainee works up to a one-rep or three-rep maximum on a designated chest exercise, but never on flat bench presses. He/she will rotate this exercise every one to three weeks—depending on how advanced the lifter is—and replaces it with another bench-press building exercise. Simmons likes to use exercises such as board presses (from various board heights), floor presses, wide-grip benches for a 6-rep maximum, close-grip incline presses, and a few others for the maximum effort day. After the heavy exercise, the bencher once again does four or five exercises for triceps, delts, lats, and upper back.
If you’re at all confused, here’s an example of a typical Westside workout:
Bench Presses: 10 sets of 3 reps with 60% of one-rep maximum
Lying Barbell Extensions: 4 sets of 10 reps
Overhead Presses: 4 to 5 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Chest-Supported Rows: 4 to 5 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Barbell Curls: 4 to 5 sets
Floor Presses, Board Presses, Rack Lockouts, Close-Grip Inclines, Seated Presses, or Decline Presses: Work up to one or two maximum singles.
Follow this with the same amount of assistance work as the Sunday workout, except use a heavier rep range (sets of 5 to 6 reps).
Westside Barbell has a few other interesting ideas about building bench press strength. Here’s a brief overview:
- No off-season
- Does not believe in taking layoffs
- Does not believe in periodizing workouts (traditional powerlifting cycle)
- Does not believe that bodybuilding workouts build strength. In fact, Simmons once commented that: “bodybuilding magazines ruined strength training in America.”
- Believes in using chains and bands, which are added—in most cases—to the end of the barbell to increase resistance at the top of the movement
- Does not believe in taking sets to muscular failure, always stopping one or two reps short
There are many of “pros” with this kind of training. I think the main one is that it focuses on the bench presser’s weak points, which—if he hasn’t trained this way before—have to be bar speed and triceps strength. The variety also keeps the powerlifter from going stale. Maxing out on a weekly basis just feels really good to be honest (especially for those of us who love heavy training).
The cons? Probably the main disadvantage is a lack of direct bench press work—which could be detrimental for a lot of guys come meet time. This program also involves a lot of volume, especially when you apply the Westside approach to squatting and deadlifting too. Drug-free lifters might need a break after six weeks of hard training on the program. I doubt natural lifters can maintain this kind of volume without a layoff.
Russian Style Routines
For years, powerlifters from Russia—and other countries from the former Soviet empire—absolutely dominated international competitions. And for years, those of us in the Americas discounted their training techniques. In the West, it was believed that Russian-style routines only worked for lifters who were on a lot of steroids or were very genetically gifted—or both. But that was a mistake, as many American powerlifters—and bench pressers—are now discovering.
First, let me briefly outline the kind of training Russian benchers perform, then I’ll lay out a sample routine which will give you an even better idea into how the Russians train their bench press.
Here are the general tenets of this kind of training:
- Russian strength coaches believe in something called synaptic facilitation, often called “greasing the groove” in the West. This refers to the body’s ability to improve at bench pressing by bench pressing more frequently.
- They believe in training more than one of the major lifts at each session. In other words, even though you want to improve your bench press, you also need to be doing some type of squatting or some type of deadlifting at each workout.
- Russians train the bench press more frequently and with more volume than squats or deadlifts. They do this because they believe smaller muscles need more frequent—and more voluminous—workouts. While many Russians train their squats and deadlifts just two to three times each week, many advanced powerlifters train their bench presses up to eight times each week.
- They perform a limited number of exercises at each workout. “If you want to bench more, you need to bench more,” is a common saying.
- They tend to keep their reps low no matter the amount of weight being lifted. Most Russian programs are based around keeping reps between one and five on the three major lifts. Bench pressers who keep their reps this low, even on warm-up sets, are able to recover from their workouts quicker. This allows the lifter to make better use of frequent workouts and synaptic facilitation.
- As Russians increase weight, they decrease reps and increase sets. Here is a typical set/rep scheme on the bench press:
The following is a typical bench press-specialization program for a beginning strength athlete:
1. Bench Presses—50% of one-rep maximumx5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 90%x1repx4sets
2. Squats—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 85%x1repx4sets
3. Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx1set, 70%x5repsx1set
4. Flat Dumbbell Bench Presses—10repsx5sets
5. Standing Good Mornings—10repsx3sets
3. Deadlifts— 50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx5sets
4. Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx1set, 70%x4repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 70%x5repsx2sets, 60%x8repsx1set, 50%x10repsx1set
5. Flat Dumbbell Bench Presses—10repsx5sets
6. Weighted Sit-Ups—10repsx3sets
1. Squats—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx4sets
2. Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx3sets, 80%x1repx3sets
4. Seated Good Mornings—10repsx3sets
This kind of training is best done by “high-volume lifters”—those of you who thrive on a lot of volume in your training. And the only way you’ll know if you’re a “high-volume” type is by doing the training. This kind of training is also best done by those lifters who are genetically predisposed at bench pressing. For instance, I have never gotten very good results out of this kind of training—at least for my bench press. This kind of training works for my squat and deadlift because I’m “built” for those lifts, but it does very little to increase the strength on my bench press.
German Volume Training
One form of training that is not very popular among powerlifters is what strength coach Charles Poliquin—who coined the term—calls German volume training. Despite its lack of popularity—at least as an aid to building strength—German volume training is very good at eliciting strength gains when used in the proper manner. (Note: To be honest, this form of training is nothing new. A lot of bodybuilders and strength athletes from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s used it; it was usually referred to as the “10 sets method”.)
Poliquin dubbed the system “German volume training” because it’s a form of training that German weightlifters used during the offseason.
With this method of bench press training, you perform nothing but the bench press as your core lift, but you do it for 10 sets of 5, 4, or 3 reps. Here’s how you use the method: For your first workout pick a weight that you would normally use for 10 repetitions and do 10 sets of 5 reps with that weight, resting only about a minute between sets. Five days later, increase the weight by approximately 5% and perform 10 sets of 4. At the next workout, add another 5% to the bar and perform 10 sets of 3. At the following workout, go back to the weight you used for 10 sets of 4, and perform 10 sets of 5 reps, beginning the process over again for another 3 weeks.
Pros and cons of this training? Actually, I think it’s a pretty good system—better than it gets credit for, and on par with the other workouts in this article. It allows you to build good neural strength on the bench press, and promotes a little growth as well (which could be a drawback for powerlifters trying to stay in a weight class). Also, the volume is not so great that you can’t do work for your shoulders and triceps in a separate workout. The primary disadvantage that I see—and I’m sure that Louie Simmons would be quick to point this out—is that you’re training very heavy on the same movement for several weeks. And for many, this non-stop heavy training can “unteach” explosiveness, so change your routine after six weeks on the system if you choose to use it.
Hybrid Training Programs
To be honest, while many powerlifters claim to use these methods, a lot of them use their own hybrids of the different systems.
One of the more popular hybrids over the years has been to combine Westside’s use of a “speed day” with another, more traditional bench day. For instance, instead of using the max-effort day as Westside does, you would replace with a bodybuilding-style bench workout or inject a traditional bench press style.
Another popular hybrid is one used by the “Metal Militia” powerlifting club. In another twist, they essentially perform two max-effort workouts, and eliminate a speed day.
Many lifters today seem to be performing their own Russian-style workout hybrids, where they add a different exercise than the bench press on one of the training days, and/or add more assistance work (ala Westside) to some of the sessions.
I wouldn’t advise trying to design your own routine if you’re new to the world of power bench pressing, but it’s not a bad idea for the experienced lifter who knows his/her body well—in fact, it might be the key to continued progress.
The Sum of All Things Benching
I hope this article has given you a better grasp of the methods used to increase one’s bench press in today’s power training community. And if you’re really serious about boosting your bench press, just delve into one of these training programs. You—and your bench press—will be glad that you did.