Progression of the Bench: Part 2

By Mike Strom

This is part two of an article series outlining my experiences in the bench press competition and in training to hopefully make the road to progress a bit shorter for others. In part one I covered competition bench press technique. In this part, Iíll cover training and equipment.

Training
There are many factors to consider when training to bench as much as you possibly can. To succeed, none can be overlooked. These are some general categories to consider when developing a comprehensive training program. Itís also important to remember that thereís a big difference between ďtrainingĒ and ďworking out.Ē Training covers much more than time spent in the gym. Itís essentially how you live your life with your goals in mind.
Training methods
What Iím referring to here is the use of various methods of training designed to yield specific results. Most people are familiar with these methods from other articles so Iíll just list them: max effort method, dynamic effort method, repetition method, and sub-maximal effort method. Itís important to do some research and understand what kinds of results to expect from the use of each method. Itís also important to understand that I canít tell you how much of each of them needs to be included in your specific program. This is something that needs to be discovered through trial and error and by critiquing where you are now in relation to your overall goals.
For example, a lifter who wants to move up a weight class would put a greater emphasis on training for hypertrophy than a lifter who wants to improve his ranking within the weight class heís already in. Therefore, both lifters will tend to utilize the repetition method and sub-maximal effort method to achieve their specific goals. The use of these methods should also vary to some degree depending on where you are in relation to the next competition that youíre training for. Overall, this is something that will take a great deal of time, experience, and study (of your training results) to master. This is why itís very helpful for less experienced lifters to compete more often. More experienced lifters tend to compete less often because theyíve already determined which training methods work best for them.

Muscle priority/correction of imbalances
When a lifter first decides to compete, this factor is typically one of the biggest keys to early improvement. Most bench press competitors were lifting in some manner prior to deciding to compete, but almost any background set them up for less than optimal balance between the muscles used to bench press with a shirt. When a bench shirt is used, the triceps must be as strong as possible in relation to the other muscle groups in order to get the most out of the shirt. Itís also extremely important to develop a strong upper back so that the heavy loads pressed in a shirt can be controlled.
One common mistake is training the chest too much. I know this sounds a little strange, but when using the shirt, itís important that the triceps are able to overpower the chest. If the chest is stronger, lockout will be difficult because youíll naturally want to squeeze in on the bar with your more dominant chest muscles as opposed to ďspreadingĒ the bar to activate the triceps and lock the bar out successfully.
Performance practice/perfection
As mentioned in part one of this series on technique, itís important to devote time to practicing the execution of the competitive lift. The advancement of equipment needs to be addressed in the equipped lifterís training program. Especially in the case of a bench only competitor, itís essential to spend time in your bench shirt. Itís also important to keep in mind what youíre training for when youíre doing any exercise. A common mistake is seen in board pressing. Many lifters focus so much on trying to set a new PR on their board press that they donít bother to do the exercise correctly. They donít realize any benefits to their lockout from an exercise thatís typically in their program specifically to improve lockout strength. This can happen with any exercise in your training program. Itís important to understand why youíre doing an exercise and how to do it correctly to get the benefit of it.
Weak point recognition/improvement
Essentially, weak point recognition automatically takes place whenever you miss an attempt. You immediately ask yourself, ďwhy?Ē If itís not something that can be fixed by the time your next attempt comes (technical problem), youíve discovered a weak point that needs to be addressed in your training. Now that sounds simple, but there can be many reasons why a lift is missed. For example, if a lifter fails about three quarters of the way up, it could be that he needs stronger triceps, more explosiveness, or a better balance of triceps to chest strength. Or he simply needs to practice in his shirt to be able to make a smooth transition from the initial press to locking a weight out. So once youíve determined where you failed, you need to determine why it happened.
To do this, first think of any possible reasons such as the ones described above. Then start to eliminate the reasons that are less likely than others. Using the above example, a lifter would then have to examine his training logs to search for what seems to be an under-trained attribute in his training that could fix the problem. You may also choose to change more than one thing at the same time. However, the downside to this is that you then canít be certain what led to your progress if the changes yield a positive result. Once you decide how youíll modify your training, you need to keep in mind what changes youíre trying to bring about each time youíre in the gym. Itís important to really focus on correcting your weak point so that youíll be sure to perform each exercise in the way thatís most beneficial to your overall performance.
Recovery methods
As a lifter progresses in strength, recovery becomes more and more important because the stresses on the body become greater. To reach your full potential, you must take advantage of at least a few methods to speed your recovery. I wonít go into a great deal of depth on this topic because I still have limited experience with it myself, but Iíll list some methods that Iíve found useful.
Icing following workouts is a great way to flush out the swelling of an area so that the recovery process can begin. It can also be used to treat the small injuries that become pretty common with advanced training. Contrast showers arenít the most comfortable, but essentially you alternate hot water for about two minutes with cold water for about two minutes (get it as cold as you can tolerate). The idea here is basically the same as icing, but itís usually more readily available at the gym. Anti-inflammatory use is something that also has benefits, but you should try to limit your use of it for nagging pains or small injuries since most of these medications can have long-term side effects.
Massage therapy is another great way to aid recovery, but itís typically not affordable enough to do on a daily or even weekly basis. I like to schedule this recovery aid to coincide with deload weeks. This way I feel Iím using the combination of the lowered training stress and extra recovery method to really help get over nagging tightness and soreness. Chiropractic care is a method that shouldnít be ignored. Heavy lifting takes a toll on the spine, and itís important to keep your back healthy if you want to stay healthy enough to compete. With so many different recovery methods, itís important to take advantage of these if you want to see your full potential.

Diet/supplementation
In my opinion, diet and supplementation should mostly be used as a way to manipulate overall mass and body fat percentages, and maintain general health. Essentially, you have to assess your goals in order to determine what to do with your diet and supplement program. If you want to move up a weight class, you need to consume more food than you typically feel comfortable with. You also need to be sure that youíre getting plenty of protein so that the majority of what you gain will be muscle. To help with this, a lifter should take protein supplements or weight gainer shakes.
As far as manipulating body fat percentages, apply the opposite principles for gaining mass. Youíll really need to restrict your caloric intake but still get plenty of protein to help maintain muscle as you drop fat. Recovery supplements can also aid in both mass gain and muscle maintenance during body fat loss.
For maintaining general health, itís a good idea to take some kind of joint supplement to help recover from the wear and tear that your joints take from benching heavy. This really isnít rocket science, but so many lifters fall into the advertising traps that some supplement companies use. Keep your supplementing simple. Focus on getting a good protein source, something that you feel helps your recovery (creatine, ETS from At Large, or really whatever you feel works for you). If you experience any joint pain, find a glucosamine-based product to take for that.
Outside of these things, I feel most of whatís out there isnít cost-effective for a typical powerlifter, especially considering that you could spend $200 on supplements that might boost your bench by only 10Ė15 lbs. But you can buy a good training video that will teach you how to put 50 lbs on your bench or a shirt that can give you 100 plus lbs. In my training, there are really only four supplements that I take on a regular basis and truly believe in. These are CytoGainer by CytoSport, Nitrean by At Large Nutrition, ETS by At Large Nutrition, and Releve by MHP. These all fit into the protein, recovery, and joint relief categories.

Equipment
So, how can you learn to get the most out of your bench shirt? The answer lies mostly in understanding the bench press competition for what it is and making sure that is reflected in your training. To break things down simply, you compete wearing a bench shirt. Therefore, all of your bench training should be geared towards benching more in your shirt. At first it may be difficult to take the focus off of your raw bench. However, remember that at a meet allowing bench shirts, your raw bench matters about as much as the number of pull-ups you can do. By adding a shirt, the lift is completely changed. Once you truly accept this, you just need to determine what this means for your training.
In my opinion, three things are required in your training to benefit fully from the shirt. The first is to spend time in your shirt during training. This should be a no-brainer, but many people think they can just add the shirt in for the last few weeks before a contest and magically get 200 lbs from it. Doing this means you havenít accepted that the shirt changes the lift. Getting a lot out of your shirt takes a lot of practice and hard work. Be sure to plan training time dedicated to learning your shirt.
The second is speed work. Because the shirt aids the initial press off the chest, speed work becomes extremely important. You need to press as fast as possible in order to use the momentum created by the shirt to press the bar all the way to lockout.
The third requirement is that you must accentuate your top end strength. Since the shirt boosts you off the chest, you must be able to lockout the additional weight. Basically this means adding board pressing, rack lockouts, and lots of triceps work to your training. By implementing these changes in your training, you should notice your bench in the shirt take off very quickly.
In the final part of this article series, Iíll discuss the importance of body weight changes, training partners, and mind-set on your bench press performance.