By JIM STOPPANI, PHD Flex
When you first started training, what exercise did you equate with power? We'll bet it was the bench press. Indeed, when people ask, "How much can you lift?" most are not talking about squats or deadlifts.
Although bodybuilders tend to neglect the flatbench press, opting instead for the incline bench press to bring up lagging upper pecs and to reduce wear and tear on shoulders, research shows that the flat-bench press activates more pec muscle fibers than the incline bench. Studies also reveal that the barbell bench press activates more pec muscle fibers than the dumbbell press. If you've been nixing the bench press on chest day, now is the time to get back into it.
Think strength and muscle mass don't go hand in hand? Ask Jay Cutler and Branch Warren, two of the world's biggest bodybuilders, who just happen to be some of the world's strongest bodybuilders. Or ask Ryan Kennelly and Paul "Tiny" Meeker, two of the best powerlifters in the business. They will tell you that you can do reps all day, but the only way youÂre going to put on size is to lift heavy. That's exactly what you'll be doing with the FLEX Approach the Bench program. By the end of this eight-week cycle, you'll be packing pounds on both the bar and your chest.
POWER TO YOUR PECS To get a big bench press you have to train like a powerlifter, or like a bodybuilder who trains like a powerlifter. Your goal here is to get both bigger and stronger. The only way to get a muscle to grow is through the principle known as progressive overload. Basically, you must either lift increasingly heavier weight for a given rep range or get more reps with a given weight. By boosting your one-rep max for the bench, you'll be doing both, which will ultimately result in increased muscle mass.
First, you need to learn the lingo of percentages. Bodybuilders talk about reps, but powerlifters talk about percentages. That is, they hoist percentages of their max lift for most exercises, such as the bench press. In the Approach the Bench program, you'll see percentages such as 50% 1RM (50% of a one-rep max for the bench press). To determine these percentages, you must first figure out your 1RM. Your bench press training poundage will rely on this weight. (See the Max Out section for steps to determine your true or estimated 1RM.)
Over the eight weeks, the percentage with which you will train will increase from 85% of your 1RM to 95%, and in the final week you'll test your new and much heavier 1RM. This is how powerlifters peak for competition. Many think that the best way to increase strength is simply to lift as much weight as possible. They're wrong and ultimately, they don't progress as they should. You have to start with lighter weight, gradually increasing it and reducing the reps over several weeks or months. Powerlifters rarely max out usually only during competition or to determine their training percentages. That is exactly what youÂre going to be doing.
By the end of the eight-week program, your chest should be bigger and stronger than before. So step up. It's time to approach the bench.
SPLIT IT During this program, you will emphasize the bench press (and chest training) by hitting your pecs twice per week. One workout will be a heavy bench press workout and the other will be a lighter chest workout that includes bench presses, as well as some dumbbell exercises. During the workouts, you'll hit your chest from different angles by alternating between incline and decline presses every other week. We repeat: alternate between incline and decline presses every other week throughout the program; this will help to ensure that you gain both strength and mass over the next eight weeks.
To save your energy for the days you'll be training chest, cut back on some of the training you do for other muscle groups. That said, stick to 12-16 total sets for larger muscle groups, such as back and legs, and to eight to 10 sets for smaller ones, with reps in the six-to- 10 range.
Chest should be the only muscle group you train twice a week during this program. To do this requires a unique split, as shown in the "Training Split" chart.
Your one-rep max for the bench press (or any other exercise) is the greatest amount of weight you can lift for one rep and only one rep. Testing for your 1RM requires intense concentration and all-out effort, so we suggest that you max out after two consecutive nontraining days. Follow these steps for the best possible max bench-press effort.
#1 Use a reliable spotter. He should be strong enough to lift the weight off your chest if you fail, and he must know when (and when not) to help you lift up the weight.
#2 Estimate a first max attempt weight. To do this, consider the amount of weight you can normally bench press at which you fail on the 10th rep. Check out the 1RM conversion table to figure out how much weight you should use on your first max attempt. For example, if you can bench press 185 pounds for 10 reps, a good first max attempt for you would be 250 pounds. If you can bench more than 275 pounds for 10 reps, get out a calculator and multiply the weight you can lift for 10 reps by 1.33 and round up. For example, if you can bench press 315 pounds for 10 reps, your first attempt should be 420 pounds (315 x 1.33 = 418.95).
#3 Warm up. Do this by following the percentage of your first max attempt as outlined for the heavy day on the program chart. First, do 50% of this weight for 10 reps, then 60% for six reps and 70% for four reps.
#4 Attempt your estimated 1RM.
#5 Consider how you did on your first attempt. If you failed, then you obviously need to try again with a lighter weight. Decrease the weight by five or 10 pounds and try again after three or more minutes of rest. If you succeeded, consider whether or not you could have lifted a little more. If so, add 10 or 20 pounds and try again after resting three or more minutes. Stop only when you know the weight you lifted for one rep is your absolute best 1RM.
FINAL BENCH POINTERS Two of the most important aspects of the bench press, for a number of reasons, are form and technique. "A lot of guys bring the weight down way too low." Meeker says. "By doing that, they're actually bending their hands back real bad and putting pressure on their forearms. They are also lifting their shoulders off the bench. Their shoulder blades are not staying back. That's causing a lot of injuries."
There's no way to reach your potential, in terms of how much weight you can put up, if you're not lifting the right way. Don't kid yourself, the bench press targets the chest, but it's a totalbody exercise. As is usually the case, your power emanates from your legs and your core. Make sure your feet are planted firmly on the floor, and push through your heels during the lift.
"Your whole body has to be concrete" Kennelly says. "The only things that should move are your arms. When you bring the bar down, of course you want to have your elbows tucked in. Some people bench with their arms at the 3 and 9 o'clock positions. That puts a lot of stress on the shoulders and is very dangerous. For better strength and safety, your upper arms should be at about the 4 and 8 o'clock positions when the bar is down on your chest. Your head should stay back, and your torso should be arched as high as you can get it. Everything should be solid."
SUPPORT GROUPS Hitting your chest from different angles is another must if you want to improve your bench. Cutler, for example, usually does nothing but presses when training chest. He switches between incline, decline and flat-bench presses, and uses dumbbells in addition to barbells.
"The decline bench is a great way to build bench strength." Meeker adds. "Especially the way we [powerlifters] bench, with a good arch [in the lower back]." Sometimes when your bench is lagging, it's best to look elsewhere to find the solution to your problem. "Basically, on the bench press you have to have shoulders, lats, pecs and triceps." Kennelly says. "You have to have the whole package. With that in mind, it helps to focus on other exercises from time to time." Working triceps with massbuilding movements, such as dips, close-grip bench presses, pushdowns and lying extensions, is a must. "One thing, for me, is military presses to the front" Warren says. "Whenever my military presses get strong, my bench goes through the roof."
For back, compound movements, such as pullups and bent rows, are a good idea. A serious bench presser also pays close attention to legs. After all, you can't build a house on matchsticks.
When I first started getting a big bench, I never trained legs." Meeker says. "Everyone always told me to train my legs. Well, I started going heavy on legs, and my bench jumped 40 pounds in the first month."
For Cutler, the secret isn't all in weight work. "I do a lot of stretching." he says. "The more flexibility you have through the shoulder girdle, the better your bench press is going to be."
FLOOR IT Aside from traditional bodybuilding exercises, there are a few others you can incorporate into your training to improve your bench: floor presses, board presses and rack lockouts, to name a few.
"One thing that helped me a lot when Johnnie [Jackson] and I were hitting it hard together." We were doing floor presses, Warren says. "That did tremendous things for my lockout power. We would do floor presses and then go back and do close-grip presses."
Floor presses are to bench presses what deadlifts are to squats, the ballistic movement is taken out. For the press, youÂre lying on the floor and you're forced to pause at the bottom of the exercise. Start light for floor presses; use about 50% of your 1RM and work up from there.
Board presses are similar to floor presses, except there is more give to the movement and, thus, a little more potential for momentum to aid in the exercise. You do these with up to three 2x6 boards placed on your chest. Bring the barbell down to the board(s); this cuts down your range of motion.
Rack lockouts are done while lying on a bench. The bar is placed in a power rack to allow you to rep through just the upper range of motion of the exercise to the "lockout" of the weight at the top. "Position the bar either halfway or three-quarters of the way up" Meeker says. "It's a really good exercise to train to failure, but I [suggest] doing lockouts only about once a month."
QUOTE: "My max set is usually around 400 pounds, and I do anywhere from eight to 10 repetitions. I could go heavier, but I don't. I might do two with 495."
ON USING A SHORTER RANGE OF MOTION: "I make sure I stop about two inches shy of my chest. This saves the elbow and the shoulder joints, because that's where you're going to risk the most injuries. "When you get to the point in the lower portion and you try to explode up. And, at the top of the movement, I don't lock out. I try to squeeze the chest."
ON BREAKING PLATEAUS: "Back in the day, I would bench press three times a week. I would lower the weight down from my maximum bench of about 315 and I would use about 175 pounds. I would do five sets, all out, as many as I could get on those sets. So I would be using much higher reps, around 15-20. Two weeks of that, you're going to go through six workouts. The third week, I would go back to try and break my max and more than likely, "I would break it."
ON WARMING UP: "I always warm up with flat-bench presses. I don't believe the theory that since I started with f lat benches last week, I've got to start with inclines this week. That doesn't work with me. If you train with full intensity every single workout and your diet is in check, you don't need to switch up exercises to trick your body."
QUOTE: "Training for the Olympia, I was at 455 doing sets of seven or eight reps. When I was hitting it hard, I got to the point where I could take 500 and do seven or eight reps with it."
ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN POWERLIFTING AND BODYBUILDING:"You still want to control the weight. You don't ever want to bounce it, because you're going to get hurt. When I was powerlifting, I would come down and pause, all that good stuff. But I'm not worrying about how much weight I can lift anymore. Real fast, explosive reps, that's how we're doing it right now."
ON PUSHING PAST PLATEAUS: "Sometimes the hardest thing to teach guys is I see guys all the time trying to get past the weight they're doing. They'll try it one time and they can't get past that. But sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. Drop down in weight and work back up. In six weeks or so you should be able to do more."
ON BARBELLS VERSUS DUMBBELLS: "I always do them both in the same workout. I start with barbells rather than dumbbells because you can lift heavier. My philosophy is you've got to lift heavy to grow."