Continuing the series that, at this rate, is set to finish up in about 15 years, here is the third installment, and currently the first of three installments about the bench press.
Just to recap what this whole thing is about – since a lot of you weren’t following my blog the last time I did an installment (in January) – I’m giving an overview of the things I had to learn to hit milestones in each lift (50 pound increments for the bench, 100 pound increments for the squat and pull), and as the series progresses I’ll talk about how my training has evolved over time to avoid/break plateaus and keep making progress.
So, without further ado…
1. Practice the pattern
I was a pretty good bencher the first time I tried. The main reason was that I had always done a TON of pushups. When I started playing football in 3rd grade, I asked my coach how I could get stronger. He told me to do pushups. So I did. Every day for the next 3 years. I’d do as many as I could in the morning, after school, and at night. When my parents got me a weight set for my birthday in 6th grade, the first thing I did was max on bench press (I was a bro from the start 🙂 ). I got 150, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of bodyweight. I didn’t lift weights very often at first because I was playing sports essentially year-round (and was told never to lift weights in season), so fast forward another 3 years of essentially only doing pushups, and by my freshman year in high school I was benching 275 with very little time spent under the bar.
This basically mirrored my experience with the deadlift, which was strong from the start because of practice with the pattern from a young age, as compared to my squat, which was an uphill battle for a long time. I’ve seen this with essentially all my friends who have joined the armed forces as well. In spite of sleeping very little, running and marching all the time, and doing enough pushups and pullups to make the most people cry “over-training,” they almost invariably come back from basic with bigger bench presses than they left with from doing bazillions of pushups.
This is a principle that can be applied to almost anyone, regardless of training age. If I find myself in a rut with my squat or bench, I’ll spend several weeks doing a few hundred bodyweight squats or pushups a day, and the increased work capacity, combined with the neural effect of greasing the groove, almost always pays off for me.
2. Train the triceps
I heard bench was all about the pecs when I first started lifting. That was the common wisdom in the YMCA weightroom and the school gym. However, when I met Travis Mash and he told me about Westside, I learned about how important the triceps are. Now, looking back it seems obvious because the bench press requires you to extend your arms, but it was pretty revolutionary to a 14 year old. Not much more to add to this point, and in those early days I probably took things a bit to far by over-emphasizing my triceps and neglecting my chest (just like the shirted benchers who taught me how to bench), but it is erroneous to think of the bench press as purely a chest exercise.
3. Get comfortable with heavy weight in your hands
When I first started training, I used bands and chains all the time (because I cut my teeth on westside). I’m less sold now on bands and chains being superior to straight weight for raw lifters, but I do think they have one big advantage: they let you feel heavier weight in your hands and move it through a full ROM.
Everyone who’s spotted for someone benching heavy weight knows what the “oh crap” face looks like. You lift out a weight to them for a PR attempt, and as soon as they feel it in their hands their eyes bulge, they look like a deer in headlights, and you know they have no chance of completing the lift. Using bands and chains (and nowadays things like the Mark Bell’s Slingshot or the Titan Ram) lets you feel supermaximal weights in your hands while still moving the bar through a full ROM, so that when you attempt a new max, the weight at least feels manageable in your hands and you have a fighting chance.When I was starting out, I used bands and chains all the time, so even when I missed lifts I found out the weight was too much when I couldn’t grind it to lockout, not when I got a liftoff.
4. Don’t fixate on numbers.
I had a bad mental block with 315. I’d hit 310 in either a meet or in training probably a dozen times, but when I got 3 wheels on the bar I would literally be unable to budge it off my chest. All my other bench press variations were going up (remember, I was training Westside style, so I was rotating through several different bench variations), but my plain old competition-style bench press was staying put. My training partner at the time, Lavan, fixed this one day by telling me I couldn’t look at the bar during my workout. Between sets I had to sit up and face away from the bar, and he’d load the weight for me. He made sure to use an odd assortment of 10s and 5s so that after 2 or 3 sets, I honestly had no idea how much weight was on the bar. I ended up benching 330 that day before I finally missed 335. When I finally missed and was allowed to look at the bar, I was both relieved I’d crossed that barrier, and pissed at myself because I had obviously been capable of doing so for quite some time.If a number is screwing with you, having a training partner do something like that for you might just be the ticket to a new PR and fresh gains once you get past the mental barrier.
5. Train with volume
I always loved benching with a TON of volume. I’d do the normal 9×3 Westside speed work one day, then work up to a max, then drop back for a burnout set or two, then do a DB press pyramid accumulating 80ish reps over 6-8 sets, then direct triceps work, and 8 sets of rows and 8 sets pullups or pulldowns. On my other bench day, I’d work up to a max single or triple on some bench press variation, then strip some weight off the bar and do 8 sets of 5, followed by the same basic accessories from the other bench day.By no means do I think what I just described was optimal, but for bench I’ve always found that erring on the side of too much was better than erring on the side of too little (ditto with squat, opposite for deadlift). If nothing else, it builds the work capacity to help you adapt and supercompensate when you take up a more sane training program or taper for a meet. Now, enjoy this video of a bunch of people who all bench substantially more than I do: