How To Increase Your
Bench Press Max by Garry Holman
Since there was a question about bench training last week I thought
that some people might be interested in how I train for bench press
as a powerlifter.
Now I'm no expert but since bench press is my worst lift I have to
be smart about how I tackle it so that I can make gains and keep
pushing up new personal bests...
My list of muscles that I rely on in bench press (in order of importance)
are triceps, anterior delts, pecs, lats and biceps. Yes... I'm a firm
believer that strong triceps and delts are the key to a good bench press.
Why do people fail at the bench press
Poor form. By keeping the bar within the proper lifting 'groove'
you will maximize your lift.
Lack of strength in one muscle group. When people hit failure in the
bench press it is due to one weak area. You have to gradually strengthen
these weak spots and you'll see your bench go up.
Lack of mental focus. In powerlifting the mind is key... being able
to concentrate through the pain and will your muscles to do what they
want is a difficult task.
Since I (and many people) tend to recover from bench press quite quickly
(for me ~3 days) I train my bench press twice a week: Once on primarily
bench movements and the other primarily on assistance exercise. I space these
days ~days apart. This allows me to address issues 1 and 2 above.
On my bench day the main purpose is to improve my benching form. There is
a saying amongst powerlifters... the best way to get good at an exercise
is to do that exercise. No surprise right? The better you get at keeping
within your benching groove the better you will lift...
Following my bench press training I typically want to do some extra work
on my triceps, anterior delts and lockout ability.
After my lockout work I usually select 3 or so pressing exercises to
try to expand my 'groove' somewhat and to strengthen my various pressing
So my bench day looks like this:
1st) Warm up followed by Bench Press : 2 sets to failure
2nd) Lockout: 2 sets to failure
- I typically switch my lockout exercises every 4 workouts or so
amongst the following lifts: rack lockouts, floor presses, board
presses and negatives (not a real lockout movement but taxing on the
tris and delts.)
3rd) Choice of 3 pressing exercises : 2 sets each to failure
- each day I choose a different ordering and selection from the
following exercises: decline bench, incline bench, weighted dips,
shoulder press, lateral raises and cable flies.
(How do you choose? That's up to you... I have 6 exercises so I just
roll a dice and do a random selection every bench day. I don't
like to think much. 8^) )
When you're doing bench press lower the bar in control. Do not bounce
it off your chest. This isn't helping improve your bench press and you'll
just get red lighted in competition meets. Select a grip width that you're
comfortable with... typically one just slightly narrower then your contest
bench grip width.
rack lockouts - move into a power or squat rack and set the pins so
that you only do the last 4" of the movement to lockout. The idea in this
list is to drive the bar from the pins as fast as you can in control to
the lockout position. Slowly lower back to the pins and come to a complete
stop. Then repeat. This will help you drive to lockout and get you used
to struggling/straining to get that bench locked out... too many people
give up to easily. Don't give up.... drive that bar!
floor press - Lay on the floor and get your partner to pass you two
dumbells (or balance them on your legs and swing them back to the right
position if you're doing this alone like me 8^) ). The movement is
exactly like DB bench press except you will not be able to go down
as far because your elbows will contact the floor. The movement is start
from a complete stop with the elbows on the floor and drive the DBs to
lockout. Slowly lower elbows to the floor and coem to a complete stop.
board press - named because originator put a 4"x4" board on his chest
that prevents the bar from touching your chest. This also can be
done (like how I do them) in a power/squat rack and setting up the pins
so that the bar starts at this 4" off the chest height. Motion is similar
to rack lockouts except it has a greater range fo motion.
negatives - everyones favourite. 8^) Pick a weight heavier then you can
normally do for bench press and get a spotter (that you trust) to help
you. Start with the bar in lockout and slowly lower the bar to your
chest... resist all the way down. It should at least take 5 seconds
to go from top to bottom. With your spooter's help push the bar back up
to lockout and repeat.
Rep choices: Powerlifting is a sport of 1 rep maximums. That's what you
will be doing in your competition. As heavy as you can for 1 rep...
The problem is you can't train like that because it doesn't build
muscle nor strength well, you cannot perfect your form and you're likely
to injure yourself. So most powerlifters start with a high reps scheme
(say 10 or 8) and dwindle down to heavy triples. For me I do 4 weeks
of 8 reps, 4 weeks of 5 reps and 3-4 weeks of heavy triples.
This dwindling should be done on your bench presses and lockout work.
You can keep your assistive exercises to your normal rep scheme.
Weight choices. You are going to failure in every set but you want to
choose the weight that will allow you to do this and get your rep
range. Here is how I do it: Start your 8 rep cycle with some weight
you know you can do 8+ times. Do both sets with that weight.
Now if you got 8+ reps in a set you will increase the weight by 5 lbs
for the same set next week. Otherwise keep the weight the same and try
to rep out next week. This lets your body tell you when and how fast you
need to progress.
Here is a sample routine:
225 x 10
225 x 8
230 x 9
230 x 7
235 x 8
230 x 8
240 x 7
235 x 7
Note: aim for 5 reps next week so keep this in mind
245 x 5
240 x 4
250 x 5
240 x 5
255 x 3
245 x 4
255 x 4
245 x 5
Note: aim for 3 reps next week
260 x 3
250 x 3
265 x 2
255 x 3
265 x 3
260 x 2
Competition on Week 12
Bench Assistance Day
On this day I concentrate on the assistance exercises to increase my
tricep, delt, lat and bicep strength. The core lift on this day is
the narrow bench as it targets your triceps and delts more and it has
a similar motion to bench press.
Following narrow bench you want to do some heavy bicep/lat movement.
Weighted chin ups, pulldowns or even bicep curls are good choices here.
(If you do a separate back day like I do you may move all lat exercises
to that day if that helps. )
Now again you will choose a choice of 3 exercises to target the delts,
biceps and triceps. Currently I typically choose from: tricep pushdown,
french curl or dicks press, dips, DB bicep curl, preacher curls and
front lat raises. As well if you're doing your lat work on this day
choose some heavy lat rowing motion such as bent over rows, hammer rows
DB rows or cable rows. Keep the rowing motion through the upper part
of the lats as this is what will primarily help you with your bench.
Rep Scheme: I keep all exercises on this day to my normal 8 rep range.
Weight choices: Similar to above... if you can meet you rep targets
increase the weight the next week otherwise try to hit that rep target
next week with the same weight.
Warm up sufficiently... give those shoulders, muscles and tendons a
good stretch and do some warmup sets for bench press. My advice
is not do over do it... too many people lift their competition lifts
in the warmup room and bomb out in the real competition. Aim at a few reps
at around 50% of your 1RM... that's all you're going to need.
Your starting lift should be an weight you can easily triple. This is
the lift to settle the nerves and make sure you do everything legit.
Make sure you understand the rules you are competing under and make
sure you don't break any on this lift. For me (IPF rules) I concentrate
on keeping the feet and butt still and in proper position, listening
to the head referee's commands (bench and rack) and make sure I give a
longer then normal pause at the bottom of the lift.
The reason why you don't open with a hevaier lift is because some technicality
could force you to do it again and since you cannot decrease weight choices
in powerlifting for bench press you might get stuck trying that 1RM weight
3 times... yuch! That's not a good way to lift.
Second lift should be somewhere between 95% and 100% of your 1RM. It depends
on how you feel.
Third lift should be targetted as a new personal best if you feel up to it.
Typically people aim for 100%-105% 1RM on this one... give it your best
shot if you feel up to it.
Using the example workout results I gave earlier (265 triple). I would
do something like.
Warm up: 135 x 8 reps, 180 x 4 reps
1st attempt: 265, 2nd attempt: 275 and 3rd attempt: 285-290
Estimating your 1RM from your gym lifts
For bench press a table from a popular NSCA bench press training manual
gives us the following %'s for bench press:
1RM approx = 1.325 10RM or 1.255 8RM or 1.15 5RM or 1.08 3RM.
No this is not some sort of disco move... 8^) rather it's the optimum bench
press motion. First set yourself under the bar correctly... back should be
arched, pretty much underneath the bar but far enough away that the rack
isn't in the way, pull the shoulders back and stick that chest out. Deep
breath and take the weight from the rack... exhale when you've moved it
over your chest. Take another deep breath and lower the bar in control
(I mean you should be able to stop and reverse at any time... if the bar
is free falling that isn't control.) to the lower third of your pec.
Pause and give the bar a ride. It should go fairly straight up with a slight
angle towards the rack. Do not 'reach' for the rack because that puts your
triceps in a poor lifting position and do not let the bar come straight up or
angle towards your feet because this will not involve your delts.
Good luck on your bench press training and any future competitions!
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