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Bench Kings - Learn from the Pros
In high school weight rooms around the world, the bench press reigns supreme. While the squat and deadlift have great athletic carry-over, the bench press has earned a spot as the definitive gauge of upper body strength.
Even though the bench seems like a deceptively simple “push a bar off your chest” exercise, BP specialists could spend weekends palavering about methods to improve their press.
I got on the phone with a half-dozen of the best benchers in the biz, picked their brains (they were surprisingly generous in sharing their secrets), and was rewarded with some useful tricks and techniques to help anyone go from benching a weight that weenies might use for curls to driving up a bar that rattles a bit.
Here’s our all-star line-up:
A.J. Roberts, one of the great lifters from Westside Barbell, is chasing after a 2800-lb total (with current lifts of a 1035 squat, 820 bench, and 760 deadlift). In just two years at Westside, he has seen his total climb by almost two hundred pounds, and his big bench is a large part of that.
Ryan Celli is a dangerously strong 198-pounder with an all-time record raw total of 1840. His best raw single lifts (not all at the same meet) include a 625 squat, 534 bench, and 685 pull. His single-ply total of one ton is comprised of a 705 squat, 622 bench, and 672 deadlift, built over his two decades of competition.
Having held the all-time world record total of 2605 (in the 275 class), Scott Yard has posted a 1050 squat, an 840 bench, and a 720 deadlift. Switching over to raw meets, he has boasts an equally impressive 750 squat, 505 bench, and 755 deadlift.
Travis Bell is another Westsider with a raw bench in the gym of 540 lbs (at a body weight around 250) and an amazing contest-equipped bench of 770 (weighing in at 258).
Vinnie Dizenzo considers himself a strength athlete cast in the old school definition of the term. His lifts of a 605-lb raw bench (as a super-heavy), shirted benches of 820 (in the 308-pound class) and 730 (at 242), a strict overhead press in competition of 405, and an 800-pound trapbar deadlift in competition validate this beyond dispute.
APF and WABDL lifter Adrian Larsen has numerous state, national, and world records to his credit and recently has benched an imposing 710 pounds (weighing 259).
If there were a United Nations of strength, these men would be the Warrior Kings of the bench press. The sum of their applied knowledge distilled here can help you make the leap to a higher level of bench press prowess.
Adrian Larsen - APF and WABDL lifter with a 710lbs bench to his name
Anyone that has put in some time in the gym knows that genetics play a huge part in how strong you can get, and when we are talking about on specific lift, body mechanics and leverage are a major part of that. As Travis Bell shares, “I am five foot nine, have short arms, and I’m pretty thick, so my range-of-motion is a lot less than a lot of the full-power guys that have exceptional deadlifts.”
Adrian Larsen goes on to say, “I would have to rank my mechanics for the bench as definitely a ten. I do have some disadvantages. I was born with a dislocated hip so I can’t put my feet down on the ground. That is a huge disadvantage. I just put my feet straight out, but as far as how my body is built, I am pretty barrel-chested, and I can bench as wide as legal. I think I was built to be a big bencher.”
For those without the typical bencher’s build, the advice from our panel was universally echoed. Scott Yard says it best: “I’m 5’8” and have short arms, so my body mechanics are good for benching. When someone asks me how to increase their bench, I tell them to gain twenty pounds. That’s a sure-fire way to make your bench move.”
Ryan Celli concurs, “Someone with long arms is going to have to build up their arms to make them thicker and add some mass to their frame.” For the full meet lifters, of course, arm length has its pros and cons. “I don’t have excellent mechanics for any of the lifts,” says A.J. Roberts. “I just have good mechanics for all of them. I have good leverages for everything, which equals a good total.”
“As an adult, I have been as light as 190 pounds and as heavy as 329,” says Vinnie Dizenzo. “The leverages that I have now, I created for myself.” This speaks to the concept that you never know what you are capable of until you try. “Don’t use your body leverages as a cop out. When I look at a guy like Garry Frank, who is incredibly tall with very long arms but is still capable of benching huge numbers, it’s a reminder that people can overcome anything.”
“Mechanics help you to an extent,” Scott Yard adds, “but it comes down to how hard you are prepared to work to get better.”
Ryan Celli - Big Bencher
SETTING UP THE BENCH
The quickest way to increase your bench press is simply to start doing it right. Proper form, based on your specific needs, allows you to exert maximal strength while moving the bar a minimal distance. “Once guys get really strong using poor technique, it’s really hard to change that,” says Travis Bell. “It’s good to get really sound technique in the beginning stages, although it might slow the initial speed of your progress. Ryan Celli is a prime example of the payoff to this. If you watch ANY of his lifts, they are picture perfect. His strength is a production of that technique added to his training ethics.”
As Ryan Celli says, “For every lift, you have to start from your feet up”, but there is some variability in how lifters do this.
“There are two ways to set your feet. One is tucked up underneath you, which you see a lot of guys do. I used to do this, but what I found was that it was pretty unstable,” says A.J. Roberts. “If you get to rocking from side to side, it’s hard to keep your balance, so I have my feet out in front of me, basically creating a solid base with my feet. The whole part of the press starts with a foot drive, pushing the heels into the ground. Once you have that solid base, you shouldn’t be able to move anything. You should be rigid.”
Roberts goes on to say, “You have to create what I call a platform shelf that you bench off of. When you bench press, you need to squeeze your shoulders together and make sure your upper back is completely on the bench, otherwise you get a lot of shoulder rotation, so you can move your shoulders up and down. What that is going to do is make you lose force through the shoulder when you press the bar. If you have them pinched under you, giving you a solid base with no movement in your shoulders, there is no place for that force to go but through the bar.”
“You want a slight arch in your lower back,” Roberts continues. “Everyone is different as far as how much arch they can get. It really depends on how you are benching, if it is really beneficial. You really want to arch your mid to upper back if you can, but it takes a lot of practice.”
Scott Yard adds, “I have a very simple setup. Bench-only guys can afford the expense of a setup with an arch that is eight inches off the bench and having their feet back real far, but when it comes to full power, you can’t do that. I use more of a conservative bench setup because I still have to pull three deadlifts.”
A.J. Roberts goes on, “Once you have that set, the next is bar placement in your hand. You want to have it low in your hand, basically in a straight line, with your wrist as straight as possible. Thumb is always wrapped, otherwise you don’t activate all of the muscles you can, especially the bicep muscles. You want the forearm to be straight up, straight down. Basically, you bring the bar out and lower the bar down onto your lats. It’s kind of hard to explain but [in regards to] your wrists, you will notice that if you squeeze your pinkies, you elbows turn inwards, and that’s the position you are going to bench from.”
“Your grip should be the absolute widest you can go,” Travis Bell adds. “I very rarely have anyone use any less than index-on-the-rings, and the few individuals that had to were guys with very narrow shoulders. If some guys could just learn to go with the wider grip and then tuck their elbows a little bit more, forcing your shoulder to stay in tight, it will decrease your range of motion by two or three inches, and that can easily be the difference between making a lift and not finishing one.”
Vincent Dizenzo - Benching 605lbs RAW
PUTTING TOGETHER YOUR TRAINING PLAN
The amount of variability the lifters used in their training surprised me, probably driven primarily by their personality type. Some prefer a solidly constructed template while others (particularly Ryan Celli) train in a less organized manner. With two of the six (Travis Bell and A.J. Roberts) as members of Westside Barbell, most of the readers of this are very familiar with Louie Simmons’ proven techniques. Scott Yard and Adrian Larsen follow many of the WSB concepts but seem to find that they do better if they limit the amount of dynamic work. Vinnie Dizenzo has used a number of different protocols in the past but currently follows a block periodization plan.
“My bench workouts have run the gamut,” Dizenzo says. “I’ve done Westside. I’ve done block periodization. I’ve done Metal Militia. I think any program with a little science or thought behind it works if you implement it and follow it properly. I don’t rethink programs. If I decide I’m going to do Wendler’s 5/3/1, I do 5/3/1. If you think you know more about lifting than the people that have poured years of knowledge into these programs, then you are fooling yourself.”
“I train simple and based on feel,” Ryan Celli says. “I do my own thing, a combination of everything I have learned. I do speed squats and use bands and chains, which is sort of Westside, but it’s all modified to fit what works for me. I do more bodybuilding type stuff than the average powerlifter. I think it works all the stabilizing muscles and keeps everything in balance. I want to look like I lift too.”
For A.J. Roberts and Travis Bell though, they worship at the Westside altar as disciples of a church that has canonized more saints of power than any other gym in the world. As the man that most people in powerlifting consider their messiah (especially after the reverse hyper has rescued you from severe back pain), Louie Simmons has developed a system with four primary workouts each week divided evenly between squat/dead and bench sessions, with one session of each devoted to max effort (heavy near-limit poundages) and one devoted to dynamic training (lighter weights explosively pushed for speed).
AJ Roberts with his mentor Louie Simmons
A recent adjustment to the Westside protocol that is followed by both Bell and Roberts is greater variety in the max effort exercise. “We found that because of the level we are at, it keeps shocking the body and works better,” says A.J. Roberts. “Usually we rotate between full-range, a partial-range, and then a shirted bench. For example, week one might be hanging reverse blue band bench press. Week two might be a floor press, and during week three we would be in our shirts, pressing against bands or against chains.”
“A lot of the Westside techniques are individualized,” says Travis Bell. “On our max effort movement, we will hit a five-pound PR and then usually hit a second pressing movement, whether that is a couple of down set with the same setup and a little bit lighter weight, or we’ll do some shoulder pressing work. Then we will proceed on to our triceps work, which is usually something like Tate presses or rolling dumbbell extensions, or JM presses with different bars or with kettlebells hanging from them, perhaps using the football bar. We usually do two triceps exercises of four to six sets and six to eight reps. Then we move on to upper back and delt work with some rear delts. We usually do a rowing movement and then a pulldown movement and then something like band pull-aparts or reverse pec deck.”
“The whole thing takes 45 minutes to an hour,” Roberts says. “On shirted day it takes a little longer, but on other days we go pretty fast, back to back.”
Roberts continues, “On dynamic day, we start out with a speed movement; typically its 40-50% of our raw bench press and done with resistance, mini-bands, or chains. We rotate bars each week too, so we use a fat bar, skinny bar, football bar. For example, we might do a regular bar with mini-bands doubled on it and do nine sets of three there and go on to something high-rep, like an incline bench press. We finish up with a triceps compound exercise, which is three exercises together. We call it crazy eights. We use an ez-curl bar and do eight extensions, eight rollbacks, and eight close-grip presses. Then I do a little extra back work — some pulldowns and some shrugs.”
“For our dynamic effort day,” Travis Bell says, “Louie has had me cycling between eight sets of three and then seven to eight sets of five reps. We have been doing triples for so many years, we needed a change. We concern ourselves more with the speed that we are using to move the bar, not the weight, because we want to train that explosive response while keeping good form.”
Vinnie Dizenzo, however, has been training using a block periodization program. “I like the amount of volume. It has two bench days. Even though I am 41, I want to get bigger and more muscular, and I think the volume from block periodization will do that for me.”
When asked to describe it, Dizenzo says, “You train in blocks and it’s based on percentages, working off of Prilepin’s chart. The beginning month you do high volume, so the weight is going to be lower, with you doing a lot of sets, a lot of reps, and a lot of assistance work. Then you deload for a week to give your body a little bit of a break. Then you gradually train a bit more specifically to your competition lift. The volume will decrease as the weight gradually goes up. The assistance work is more tailored to the completion lifts you will be doing. You do a second deload week, and then for the last block you do very high percentages, near your max, for fewer sets and reps and very little assistance work. At the final stage, you just do assistance work that specifically assists you with recuperation from the heavy training.”
Vincent Dizenzo - Gearing up for a big bench
Showing the individuality of the athletes, Ryan Celli says, “I train heavy most of the time. I tease a lot of the guys about doing the deload thing. Everyone is deloading all the time, but I just go by feel. If I feel strong, I go heavy. I don’t know if that’s always the right thing to do.”
Celli does eight to ten sets of bench press, going almost entirely by feel. “After benching I will do one or two chest exercises, something at an incline, whether it’s a barbell, dumbbell or log, and then some kind of isolation exercise for the chest, like cable crossover, pec deck, and flyes. Then we do shoulder work, which for me is just one movement for three to five sets, something overhead. Seated dumbbell presses are maybe 90% of my shoulder work. I do triceps also that day, which by that point don’t need too much. I will do at least one exercise, maybe two. For the first I might do five sets of something, for the second exercise I might do two sets.
“I’m not big on speed work on the bench,” Celli adds. “I might only do it once every three months for variety. It aggravates my elbows, even with band tension. For someone benching raw, I don’t see the benefit from it. If they are going to bench a second day, I think they would be better off doing three sets of eight with 50% of their max just to get the volume and some blood in there while working on their technique.”
Adrian Larsen has come to the same conclusion. “I am a firm believer in NOT doing a dynamic workout every week. I feel it’s really hard on your joints, so doing that every ten days to two weeks is preferable. I do feel quite a bit stronger on my max effort day following a dynamic session, but I think it’s very important to give yourself the time off. I also think people go too heavy on their dynamic days. I have yet to get injured since I made that adjustment. If you work out as hard as powerlifters work out, you need that rest.”
“My first day of the week will be my max effort day,” Larsen explains. “Two days from then, I will either do my dynamic day or a shoulder/back training day, and those two will just alternate. I change my assistance exercises every three weeks and do somewhere between four to seven movements after I’m done benching. Some of my regular choices include grip work, floor presses, JM presses, Tates, incline pressing, dumbbell pressing for reps, shoulder lockouts.”
Scott Yard follows a similar basic approach. “I only train twice a week because I tore my biceps tendon seven months ago, and that has limited the movements I can do. I had to modify things. I use a basic periodization because working with sub-maximal weights for higher reps allows me to train without tearing my body up. I believe in ‘train a little, rest a lot.’”
The average workout for Yard takes about fifty minutes and would start out with flat bench. “I don’t believe in a ton of warmup sets. I work up to one top set. It may be 425 for a set of six. I then switch to triceps. I might do a strict dumbbell triceps extension for a few sets, then do some lat pulldowns, and then finish up with shoulder work, which is front, side, and rear raises. For the assistance work I do three sets of about eight reps.”
FIND A MENTOR
Looking at the lifts accomplished by these champions, all applying similar methods in different ways, makes it obvious that in order to build a big bench, you must both become a student of powerlifting as well as find out exactly what works for you.
The next step for you is to find people in your area who you can learn from. “When I started to become a bench specialist, I was commuting about an average of eight hours a week to train with Bill Crawford and Glen Chabot,” says Vinnie Dizenzo. “If you are serious, find a coach.”
Adrian Larsen agrees, but adds a caveat, “Typically when people go in and start training with other lifters, they try to keep up. Work within your abilities and make goals for yourself.”
Scott Yard tells a similar tale. “I sought out the best people in the area. When I first started squatting, I would drive two hours to train with a guy that was a 1100-pound squatter, and it made my squat go up about two hundred pounds. You have to surround yourself with big, strong people that know what they are doing.”
Take these lessons from Ryan Celli, Travis Bell, Scott Yard, A.J. Roberts, Adrian Larsen, and Vinnie Dizenzo and apply them to your bench training. See if you can build a bench press that has younger lifters asking you how you became a king of the bench!
Written by Steve Colescott
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About Steve Colescott
Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.
He is currently a staff writer for WannaBeBig.com and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.
With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.