By Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES ProSource
Twenty years ago, a good introduction would have been, "If you live in America and you want to be called strong, build a big bench press. Americans judge strength prowess by the bench press." Now, it can be said that the world judges strength by the bench press. Over the last decade, behind the old iron curtain, bench pressers of behemoth proportions are coming out of the woodwork. Regardless of what the trainer (who can't fill out a 40 inch sport coat) pontificates at the local fitness center, the bench press builds upper body strength and builds muscle. Both Ronnie Coleman and Arnold started their chest workouts with bench press and often preach about its effectiveness. Looking at some classical power lifters through the eyes of bodybuilding standards, it would be hard to sport a more muscular chest than Bill Kazmaier or Doug Young. Arnold was rumored to consult with Doug Young before personal training was a legitimized profession.
With all this being said, I am the youngest person to bench press 600 pounds raw and currently train a number of the top bench pressers in the world, Jeremy Hoornstra, Al Davis and Robert Wilkerson. I'm going to share with you Seven Habits of Highly Successful Bench Pressers.
Maximum force. Bench press weights with maximum force. Force = mass X acceleration. In layman's terms, how much force you produce bench pressing is the weight of the bar and how quickly you move it. Lifting submaximal weights with maximum force is called compensatory acceleration training (CAT). Greater amounts of force exerted into the bar will create higher amounts of muscle tension. This will not only build strength but aid in muscle hypertrophy because you recruit a higher amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers (the ones with the most potential for growth). Many scientists believe that heavy training is not the only factor in developing strength. Acceleration, velocity and movement speed are very important factors in gaining strength. An experiment in 1996 compared the strength gains of bodybuilders who performed conventional bench presses with a second group that performed explosive bench throws. The bench throw group, on the positive portion of the rep, had 27 percent higher average velocity and a 36 percent higher peak velocity (highest speed reached). While bench pressing is not a speed sport, the average amount of force was 35 percent higher with the bench throw group. So, what does that mean? Higher forces are produced with submaximal weights. On the bench for your work sets, control the negative portion of the rep and lift the positive portion with max force and speed. High amounts of force are needed to lift heavy weights. This is a great strategy to produce high forces while avoiding overtraining due to using maximal weights on every single set. Because of the strength curve of the bench press, as you push the weight up, the force you are able to produce increases. The key is to produce maximal force through the entire range of motion. This provides sufficient intensity to force a positive adaptation, and you will get stronger.
Bigger arms. If you're reading ProSource and you don't want big arms, you are in the minority. Who doesn't want bigger arms? Let's put vanity aside for a moment and take a look at how bigger arms can boost your bench. Most people know triceps strength is extremely important to locking out the weight with heavy bench presses. Obviously, the triceps are going to get the best work from compound movements like weighted dips, close grip bench presses and close grip decline bench presses. Single joint movements for high reps should also be included to make your arms grow and support heavy weight for big bench presses. To fully develop a muscle, a variety of exercises and set and rep schemes need to be applied. Curls are for more than girls. Biceps help stabilize heavy weights. Think about a massive storm with very high winds, a tree with a large trunk is much more stable than a tree with a skinny trunk. The same concept applies to heavy bench presses -- think of them as a large storm. Furthermore, strong forearms help you squeeze the bar tightly, making the weight feel much lighter in your hands.
Arranging sets and reps. A max is defined as one rep, unless otherwise specified. Let's say you are going to do a total of 24 reps on the bench in one workout. An orthodox approach would be to do 3 sets of 8 reps. When doing higher reps, it is harder to produce maximum force rep after rep. You also get a total of only 3 first reps (1 each set.) Let's rebel against this traditional scenario and do 8 sets of 3 reps. Now, all of a sudden, you get 8 first reps. It is easier to produce maximal force for only 3 reps. The duration of lifting a submaximal weight with maximal force is much closer to doing it with 3 reps than with 8, when it relates to a 1 repetition max. More sets and less reps is sport specific, if your sport is developing a big bench press.
Dead benches. The dead bench is not an ego lift. You will not be able to lift as much weight this way. On the negative portion of the bench press, your muscles store elastic-like energy that aids in the positive portion of the bench press. This is called the stretch shortening cycle. A practical example would be a vertical jump. Try one dipping your butt down rapidly and then exploding up. Now, try another one from the bottom squat position without dipping down first. You will not be able to jump as high this way. This is because you are not taking advantage of the stretch shortening cycle. The bench press works the same way. A dead bench is done in a power rack. The weight starts at chest level and is pushed up as explosively as possible. The ability to develop force rapidly is known as starting strength. A great amount of starting strength is needed to push huge bench presses off your chest. Give dead benches a try! Only do dead benches for single repetitions; multiple repetitions defeat the purpose.
Visualization. Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors the prepared mind." The bench press is no exception to this. Perception is reality, folks. Your central nervous system cannot tell the difference between a real and an imagined experience. Start setting aside some time every day to visualize yourself blasting up huge weights in the bench press. Even go as far as loading the weight on the bar at the gym, staring it down and seeing yourself demolish it. Remember, the more vivid your imagined experience, the more real and beneficial it is. When your name is called to get under that heavy pig iron, you will just be going through the motions. You have already done it in your head.
Build the upper back. "Strong back equals strong man," says the strongest man of all-time, Bill Kazmaier. Upper back muscles are extremely important for stability in the bench press. There is a variety of different ways to work your upper back. Lat pull-downs and pull-up variations are all great, but it is important to remember the bench press is performed horizontally. So, get some work in the horizontal plane. This can be done performing bent over rows with barbells, dumbbells, or specialty bars. It's also important, from an injury prevention standpoint as well as aesthetically, to have a balance between the front side and backside of your body.
Deload. If you train with maximal weights week after week, your muscles will not fully recover and your central nervous system will begin to hate you. The key is to follow periods of high intensity with periods of low intensity. This can range anywhere from every 3-6 weeks, depending on training intensity, past injuries and, of course, ability to recover. Deloads should generally be about 60-70% of total volume and intensity of a heavier session. An easy way to do this is just cut all your working sets down for each exercise by 1 and multiply all your working weights by .6. Boom. There's your deload. If you're using bands and chains in your training, don't use them on your deload.
Enough talk about bench pressing. Enough staring at the computer screen. Time to hit the gym! You've been given the keys to build a bigger bench press, so jump in the driver's seat!