CL: I’m doing this show for selfish reasons. Because, I have a bench press like a girl. I’ve got a great deadlift and I’m got a great squat, but when it comes to the bench press, I’m embarrassed in the gym.
So, given that it’s the new year and lots of people are making resolutions, I decided that we’re going to do a show dedicated to how to build a big bench press and I couldn’t think of anyone else to have on the show other than Mike Westerdal from CriticalBench.com. How you doing, Mike?
MW: Doing good, Carl. Glad to be here.
CL: Yeah, we’re glad to have you, too. And actually, Critical Bench, while it’s dedicated to the bench press as an art form, you guys cover a lot more than that. You cover a lot of weight lifting, weight training issues as well. Correct?
MW: Yeah, pretty much everything related to strength training. We cover muscle building, sports performance and a variety of fitness related topics. The central theme is Powerbuilding though. This is where you train for strength and muscle size while keeping your body fat in check. A hybrid powerlifting/bodybuilding approach so to speak.
CL: How did the website get started?
MW: It got started…in college I was playing football and I had one of the better bench presses on the football team and I just put up a website as a hobby for of a class assignment. All I did was I share program I was using in college and that’s actually how it all began. The site kept gaining popularity and getting bigger and eventually I was able to quit my full-time job and help as many people as possible doing something I love.
CL: So, what year are we talking about that…
MW: It was a while ago, I graduated college in ’99.
CL: Wow! That’s amazing. So, in 1999 this was just like a combination of something you enjoyed doing, plus something that you had to do for a class, build a website.
MW: Right. It was completely a hobby.
CL: Wow! Talk about… It’s amazing, isn’t it? Ten years later you’re doing it full time.
MW: I never would have imagined.
CL: Now, on the football team, how big was your bench back then?
MW: I had a 400-pound bench.
CL: Wow! I mean, that’s really a big bench press for just about anybody. That’s amazing. That’s amazing. So, all your teammate were like, Mike, man, how did you get your bench up that fast, that high. And they all wanted to know what you were doing.
MW: Yeah, that’s pretty much how it started. Some of the younger guys would ask me a lot for training advice. But I had mentors too from some of the older guys and there was a handful of people around the same strength level. But, we all trained a little differently than what the coaches had us doing.
The coaches all had us bench pressing like three, four times a week, doing the same routine and all the underclassmen were just following suit. You know, you get a little stronger no matter what you do, but then myself and some of the more knowledgeable guys kind of started doing our own thing. We’d leave and go to the local gym Powerhouse Gym and do some workouts there instead. We all started getting even stronger and I documented all the workouts.
CL: Okay. So, obviously that’s what we’re going to be talking about. Now, this is part one of a two-show series, because we can’t cover it all in one show. So, we’re going to be doing this. The goal of this show is to take average, non-competitive guys and allow them to build a 300-400 pound raw bench press. Correct?
CL: Okay. So, we’re going to do this in two parts, like I said, and Mike actually laid it out, because he’s the guru here. So, part one, which is today’s show, we’re going to first address the common mistakes that people make, the things that they may have learned from common gym experiences or gym rats who tell them do this, do that, and so on. And that’s where we’re going to start.
So, the first thing on the list that you sent me, the number one mistake that people make, you claim, is over-training. Why don’t we talk about that first?
MW: Yeah, sure. I mean, most people that have problems with their bench press, they’re very, very motivated about it and they really want to improve it. And that can cause an issue because it makes people want to train the same lifts and muscle groups several times a week.
I think what people really need to learn, to understand, is that your muscles are growing and repairing when you’re resting, not while you’re training. Just because you train more often and harder, doesn’t mean that you’re going to get better results.
CL: Now, there’s a consensus out there of powerlifters who say if you want a big bench, you’re got to spend a lot of time under the bar. Maybe that’s misinterpreted by a lot of other people thinking you’ve got to spend a lot of time under the bar, multiple times in a given week, as opposed to just focusing a lot of your routines in the bench press. Would you agree with that?
MW: Yeah, I’d have to agree with that. And it also depends on what kind of powerlifters you’re talking to. I mean, you have…not everybody knows, there’s geared powerfliting when you use powerlifting equipment. That takes a lot more time just to put on and use the bench press shirts. And that’s not really what we’re focusing on today. For your non-competitive guys that are not using gear you should keep your workouts less than an hour long and you don’t need to be bench pressing more than one or two times max per week before it starts being counter-productive.
CL: Okay. And you know what? I want to throw something in here because my audience, we talk about steroids and stuff like that, and I think this is a big mistake for even drug-using athletes out there, that they don’t give themselves enough time. They think that by using drugs, that that means they can train with greater frequency. And the central nervous system really does need time to recover.
CL: That’s where a lot of the strength is developed. So, that’s a rule that applied no matter who you are, in my humble opinion.
MW: Yeah, I mean, that’s definitely something you’ve got to take into account when comparing strength training to bodybuilding. If you’re training a bodybuilding type workout for looks, and you’re not pressing the big poundages the same way, you don’t need to rest your central nervous system as much. On the other hand if you’re lifting heavy weight on a consistent basis you’ve got to let your nervous system recover.
Same thing with your bones and tendons. You get people getting all kinds of tendonitis problems. If you get strong too quick, your bones can break. Your tendons have to catch-up. And like you mentioned, people using drugs are especially prone to this. Their muscles are getting strong so fast, so quick, their bones and their tendons aren’t able to keep up, and that’s when you get the injuries.
Personally I like bench pressing heavy only once per week. This way I give it my all and know I won’t get another shot at it for another week. If you have another bench workout coming up a few days later it’s a lot easier to take it a bit easier and not push yourself as hard every workout. For me it’s a mental thing.
CL: Well, I’ll tell you something else, too. When I was working on my deadlift, as my primary goal, and increasing my deadlift, I really started to pull some very, very heavy weight. I knew that I was over-training because one of the things I started to experience was I would start to obsess about the workout that day before and I would start to get anxiety on the way into the gym. I would think, oh, man, I hope I don’t blow a heart valve today. I hope I don’t pull my…I just hope I don’t injure myself.
And when you’re feeling that level of angst and anxiety, your body’s talking to you. It’s say, you know what? You need to back off a little bit. That doesn’t mean necessarily stop the deadlift at that weight, but you need more time off so that psychologically you start missing it again.
MW: Yeah, definitely.
CL: Yeah, so that’s a really good point.
MW: I have competed in powerlifting and I trained at a powerlifting club called Tampa Barbell. There’s a couple guys in there that can deadlift 800-pounds, and they only dead lift once a month. The guy that’s actually the strongest deadlifter in the gym, he only dead lifts off the floor once a month.
CL: Ok. The rest of the time he’s doing accessory work?
MW: Yeah. He’ll do a another kind of deadlift exercise. It might be stiff-legged deadlifts on a different week. But, just basic back workouts, good mornings, things like that. But, the actual deadlift exercise, he’s only doing once a month.
CL: That’s really interesting. That’s really interesting. And that’s a good point. That’s a good point.
Okay, the next thing you have on your list is pre-fatiguing muscles, which obviously has come from the bodybuilding segment of resistance training. Would you agree?
CL: So, let’s talk about that.
MW: First of all there are a lot of bodybuilding methods for getting a muscle pump that shouldn’t be used at the beginning of a workout if one of your goals is also to increase your bench press max. When I’m talking about pre-fatiguing a muscle that means you shouldn’t exhaust a muscle group before your main working sets.
For example lets take a look at the way a lot of guys warm up on the bench. Let’s say most people are pyramiding up, so they start with a light warm-up of ten reps and then they follow that with a couple of sets of eight. By the time they get to their actual work sets that consist of triples they’re already worn out. That’s a huge mistake though because those are the most important sets for building strength. Save the 10s and 8s for later on in your workout.
Stay tuned for a follow up this week where I’ll walk you through exactly how to warm up for a one rep max attempt.
CL: Right, right. And I guess you’ve got to make a decision. What are you there for? Are you there to get a great pump or are you there to move a lot of weight? I mean, I’ve had this conversation because of a routine that I’ve been experimenting with and I talked about it on my show one day. And I said, you know, you’ve got to look at training like you do work. If you had a job at UPS lifting boxes, before you left for work, would you do things to fatigue your back before you got there? Before you leave for work, would you like lift the furniture in your house a dozen times so that your back is really sore when you get to work? Like, you’re not going to be able to lift as much as you want then, once you’re there. So, that’s a really good point.
MW: True, but to make sure you don’t get caught in that pitfall you have to know all the muscles being utilized in the bench press in addition to your chest. You’re using your shoulders. You’re going to need your triceps towards the end of the lift when you’re locking-out. And then, you also use your back for stabilizing the weight. The take home point is that you shouldn’t be doing any other shoulder or triceps exercises prior to bench pressing because you are going to need those muscles to assist your bench. Taking things even further I don’t recommend training shoulders or triceps within two days of a heavy bench workout.
CL: Would you agree with the 72-hour rule, or you think that even…when you start lifting every heavy weight, that even goes out the window?
MW: In my experience seventy-two hours, is the minimum. I prefer to have them three days apart.
CL: And again, that comes from the bodybuilding culture, because they’re looking to stretch that muscle, the casing around the muscles to get a really good pump so that they have…their muscle is getting larger as opposed to strength. And obviously, there’s a lot of guys who’ll do shoulder work and tricep work before they do bench work because the attitude is, if your shoulders and your triceps are weak, then your pecs have to do all the work. But again, you’ve got to make a decision. Are you in there to build a big bench or are you in there to build what looks like a body that can perform a big bench?
MW: Right, and those things even go hand-in-hand sometimes. If you look at some of the old-school powerlifters and Olympic weight lifters and Strongmen from back in the day, these guys were lifting heavy weights and they were huge. Training for strength can build size too. It’s not like you’re just going to get strong without developing your muscles. You may not read about it in a text book but I have first hand experience with using heavy compound lifts to build size.
CL: And that’s a good point, because there is a school out there that thinks that muscle growth and muscle strength are two very, very different things, and you have to make a decision on which one you want to go after. But, the truth is, through super-compensation, which is what the body does every time you lift heavier and heavier weight, the body super-compensates so the next time it doesn’t get challenged to the same degree and that’s obviously strength occurring.
MW: And you can even get the best of both worlds. For example if you’re training chest you can begin your workout with a big compound exercise/ primary mover like the bench press using heavier weight and low reps and follow up that exercise with some higher reps on a few isolation or assistance exercises. This way you can work on strength, make your weak links stronger and put on some muscle in the process.
CL: The next item that you had on your list is self-doubt. This is a big one for me, personally, actually.
MW: I think it’s huge. It goes so much further than just working out. It can effect everything in your life.
CL: Well, I mean, but especially…the bench press is unique in that… Look, the deadlift, you can drop the bar. The squat, you can even let the bar roll of your back. I mean, the truth is. But, the bench press, it’s like the freakin’ guillotine over your head.
CL: And, you know, I don’t train with partners. Not because I’m anti-social, but it just doesn’t work out. I like to train when I want to train and I don’t want to make a commitment to somebody because my schedule changes up and I can’t be there. So, I train by myself and I have to resort to dumbbells all the time. And the dumbbells in my gym only go up to 140.
MW: Right, well that’s better than a lot of places.
CL: So, I mean, getting under a bar scares the crap out of me, personally.
MW: Yeah, that’s understandable. Without a training partner, you definitely have to back off a little. Instead of going 110%, you maybe have to go 90% and that’s just for your own safety. Unless you can get access to a power rack or something like that.
I’ve worked as a personal trainer and hearing the way clients and people in the gym talk to themselves sometimes is awful. Some dude will come up to me at the gym and ask for a spot but follow it up with a disclaimer, saying, “Hey, I’m not sure if I’m going to get this,” or “I don’t know how many reps I’m going to do, but I’ll give it a shot.” Or, something like that, something negative, and that’s just what I’m trying to point out, don’t be negative about the lift. You’ve got to have a good attitude going into the workout and the lift. . Now lets talk about the subconscious mind for a minute.
The things that you say out loud and the things that you think, that’s what your brain hears, and then that’s what your body winds up doing. So, if you’re affecting how your body performs by the way you think, why not program it with positive thoughts? Visualize yourself doing really well on the bench press, or if you can’t do that, at least don’t say negative things. Don’t talk about how you’re not going to be able to do it. I’d rather you don’t say anything than say something like that. Don’t plant a negative seed in your mind right before you’re about to perform.
You wouldn’t say anything like that to yourself anywhere else would you? Right before a big presentation at work you wouldn’t tell yourself that you’re probably going to mess up bad and blow the deal wold you? Of course not!
CL: That’s what I was going to say. You’re leaving yourself a way out because you are afraid that you can’t complete your goal, so you’re kind of giving yourself a back door, so to speak.
MW: But, do you really need the backdoor? Because, if you don’t get this bench press, who cares? I mean, you don’t fail. It’s just working out. You’re just training. So, whether you get it or you don’t get it, you’re still putting the time in, you’re still getting the work as you’re working out. I mean, it doesn’t really matter. You’re not a failure as long as you keep trying and you keep getting stronger. So, don’t be afraid of failure, that goes together with it, because you’re not a failure until you quit.
CL: Okay. So, you have to be positive about it, regardless of what the outcome is, you have to be positive. Get under the bar, don’t say anything negative, don’t leave yourself a backdoor, just do the lift. That’s it.
CL: Okay. All right.
The next thing on your list is lack of goals. Now, don’t we all have goals? We get in the gym, we want to lift 350-pounds.
MW: Yeah, I mean, if you have an exact number and an exact goal and an exact plan of how to get it, that is a goal. But, you’d be surprised how many people just show up to the gym and they haven’t even decided what kind of workout they’re going to do yet, or they get there and see what everybody else is doing and just kind of hop in. I always ask my clients what their goals are and the majority of people reply with something very vague like gaining muscle, losing fat, increasing their bench or getting stronger.
MW: You’ve got to decide EXACTLY what you want and then you’ve got to make a plan on how to achieve it. With any goal, you’ve got to have a specific goal in mind. I want to know how much you want to increase your bench press by, and I want to know how long you’re going to take to do this. It’s got to be something you can track, so week-by-week you can see if you’re on target or not.
CL: That’s a good point, because even in large corporations, there’s an old saying, if it can’t be measured, it’s can’t be managed. So, that’s very critical. And I think everyone really knows this, but again, I kind of feel like this goes back to self doubt. If I make this commitment to myself, that I’m going to… Because, goals have to be… You know the old saying, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at t time. It’s a big, insurmountable thing, but how do you do it? Well, you do it one piece at a time. So, in other words, if your goal is to bench press 400-pounds, and you’re stuck at 255, then you have to do it in increments. You’ve got to say, well, my most immediate goal is getting to 265 or 275, and chunk it up like that.
MW: And that’s setting a realistic goal. Short-term goals leading to a long term goal. So, you don’t want to, say if you bench 200 now, that in two months you’re going to bench press 450. That’s unrealistic. It’s not a goal that can be accomplished in that time frame.
CL: Right, right.
MW: When you set a goal, another thing you’re supposed to do is write this goal down on paper so you can materialize it and you post this everywhere you can. You hang it on your refrigerator, you put it on a post-it near your computer, and you tell your friends about it. People are supposed to know what your goal is, and that’s so you don’t have that backdoor, so you can’t just quit, because now ten people are going to harass you about if if you give up and the last thing we want is to lose face.
CL: Yeah, I like that one, because… You know what, when I…back in ’98 when I set out to lose weight, I told as many people as I could, because I had read that in a book about setting goals, that you can’t erase it. Once you start telling people… if you keep it to yourself, it’s like you can rewrite it as you go along, but if you tell people about it, it’s almost like you’ve made this commitment.
MW: Yeah, exactly. It’s a commitment. People are going to ask you how it’s going.
CL: Yeah, exactly. So, that’s a really important one as well.
Now, the next topic of discussion is one that perplexes me as well, and what I’d like to do is go ahead and take the break here and continue with Part 2 tomorrow. The next topic is rep ranges and we’re going to need some time to talk about that.. I think there’s so many different schools of thought out there on rep ranges, and what people should be doing with rep ranges and so on and so forth. And I think it gets confusing.
MW: Good call. Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon! If you have any questions post them below 🙂