Are you having trouble putting poundage on your bench press? Let me assure you that you’re not alone.
Besides people asking me how they can improve their vertical jump, or get big, or get lean, or get fast, the most common question I get is people asking me what to do about their bench press.
Let me ask you this: How many consistent squatters do you hear complain about not being able to make gains on their squat? How many consistent deadlifter’s do you hear complain about not being able to make gains on their deadlift?
If you hear the same things I do your answer is probably going to be, “Not very many!” I simply don’t see or hear from many people who squat and deadlift consistently who are unable to make gains on those lifts.
Now here’s another question for you. How many consistent benchers do you hear complain about not being able to make consistent gains on their bench?
Now that question yields a different response doesn’t it? More then any other lift the “bench” is the big one that everybody desires. It’s also the one that the average trainee has the most problems with. Now think about this. Why is it that average trainees (I’m not referring to powerlifters here), have so many problems making any sort of consistent progress on their bench, yet their squats and deadlifts go up easily? Think about that for a second. Ok. Now a couple of more questions:
Illustration of the Problem
How many people would be capable of training their legs the way the average trainee trains their chest? By this I mean, how many people do you see performing forced reps on each and every set of squats? How many people do you see performing a leg workout consisting of 5 sets of 8 squats, often with forced reps on 2 of those sets, followed by 4 sets of 8 hack squats, followed by 4 sets of 15 leg presses, followed by 3 sets of 20 leg extensions? How many people do you see perform a workout like the one I just described who come in the gym the next day and perform a similar workout using the deadlift and other exercises for the backside of the body? You won’t see that very often, if at all, yet you will see people who come in the gym every Monday and perform exactly what I just described for their upper body. They’ll do 4 sets of 8 benches with forced reps on at least 2 of those sets. They’ll follow this up with 4 sets of 8 incline dumbbell presses, followed by decline presses or dips, followed by a fly movement.
You’ll see these same people come in the next day and do basically the same thing for “back” or “shoulders”. Now, you might not be doing that much volume, but chances are what I’m describing isn’t all that far off. I’ve even seen plenty of high school and even collegiate coaches recommend a routine very similar to what I just described. You could even cut the volume in half and it would still be about twice as much as the average lifter uses on lower body. Hell, no wonder everybody’s bench is stuck.
The Problem – Defined
The problem is simple and let me sum it up. The reason many people get stuck on their bench is because they kill their upper body pressing muscles with too much volume and fatigue in pursuit of hypertrophy. Now there’s nothing wrong with getting huge. The problem is, everybody wants a huge upper body but there is a difference in training for a “huge” upper body and a “strong” upper body. Strength training is not size training. Yes, strength correlates with size and size correlates with strength but they do not share a completely linear correlation. In other words, the training necessary to stimulate optimum hypertrophy is generally too much volume to stimulate strength gains optimally. Your nerves fire your muscles and the junction that joins your nervous system to the muscle (the neuromuscular junction), can easily become overworked. Muscles themselves can withstand much more high intensity stress then the nervous system that controls those muscles.
In order to “tear down” a lot of muscle (necessary for hypertrophy), your nerves and your neuromuscular junctions have to fire first. Since the threshold for their fatigue is generally less then the muscle itself, they get chronically drained. Thus, making consistent strength gains often becomes a difficult process for those who train on a typical American format. Therefore, to maximize strength you need to train for it. Training for it means more of a focus on the load being lifted and minimal muscle fatigue instead of a focus on generating the most muscle fatigue possible.
Upper Body is Easy – Leg Training Hurts
This isn’t much of a problem with leg training because it’s so painful and the volume necessary to generate lots of nervous system fatigue requires more pain and gut busting work then most people are apt to perform. However, upper body training is relatively easy and even the scrawniest outfit will perform an upper body workout with enough volume to leave aspects of his nervous system as beat as a bowl of mashed rice. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a 450 + lb bencher doing forced reps on each and every set with their partner yelling “It’s all you man!” When was the last time you saw the 135 lb benchers doing that? When was the last time you saw a really strong bencher run through the typical bodybuilding “chest” workout every Monday of bench presses, incline DB presses, decline presses, and flyes? You’ll rarely, if ever, see that. When the strong guys train they complete their repetitions and, compared to a bodybuilder, they use a low volume of specific work generally training the entire upper body in on session. They’ll use a couple compound movements and a few isolation exercises.
Do you think maybe the reason people make consistent gains in squat and deadlift is because they’re not pounding the working muscles into total submission? They do enough work to “stimulate”, but not to “annihilate”. Now what if we took that same approach and applied it to our bench press?
Stimulation vs Annihilation
If you want a strong bench you have to “coax” your muscles, not punish them into submission. The acquisition of strength is a skill that requires “practice” lifting heavy loads, which requires a fairly fresh nervous system.
What I have here is just the workout for all those “stuck benches” out there. It’s a 6-week routine that should add a minimum of 20 lbs to your bench. It’s a simple scheme that “coaxes” your muscles and allows you to zero in on your target. I did a routine nearly identical to this one 11 years ago and it worked beautifully. At the time I didn’t know why it worked I just knew it did. Over the years I’ve had many other people use a version of it and it’s never failed to generate impressive bench press increases without a lot of complexity or guesswork.
Before I get into the specifics let me give you a few options for setting up your training split. The split can be quite flexible and chances are you don’t have to get far away from the split you’re currently using. The best thing for all you pump lovers is you can still continue to generate some productive hypertrophy.
Train your entire upper body in one workout and have another day for legs. This option would look something like this:
Day 1- Upper Body Day
- Bench routine – described below
- Horizontal rowing movement- (t-bar row, seated row, single arm dumbbell row) – 4-5 x 6-8
- Shoulder lateral movement- (side laterals, front laterals) – 2-3 x 12-15
- Assistance bench or chest movement (flat or incline dumbbell press, dumbbell fly) – 4 x 6-8
- Triceps movement- (pushdown, decline extension) 3-4 x 8-10
Day 3- Lower Body – Your choice – Feel free to perform vertical jump, speed, or whatever training you need to for your lower body on this day in addition to or in place of weights. Add a biceps movement if you feel the need to.
Train every other day alternating between the 2 workouts so that you hit upper body every 4th day and lower body every 4th day.
Train pushing muscles one day and pulling muscles with legs on another day. This option might look something like this:
Workout 1- Push
- Bench routine- described below
- Dumbbell press- 4 x 6-8
- Semi-supinated dumbbell overhead press – 4 x 6-8
- Triceps push down- 4 x 8-10
Workout 2- Pull/Legs
- Optional plyometric, vertical jump, or speed training
- Wide Grip chin- 4 x 6-8
- Single arm dumbbell row- 3 x 8-10
- Bicep movement – 3-4 x 8-10
- Squat – 4 x 5
- Romanian Dead lift + shrug – 4 x 8
Perform each workout twice per week at your convenience. What follows is an example:
- Mon- workout 1
- Tues- workout 2
- Wed- off
- Thurs- workout 1
- Fri- off
- Sat- workout 2
- Sun- off
- Mon- Start over
OK. Now here’s the actual bench workout itself. It will consist of 12 workouts. Each time you train the upper body pushing muscles, you will do one of these workouts on the bench press itself. On these days, the only other exercises that are mandatory are one bench assistance or chest movement for 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps (flat dumbbell presses, flyes etc.) and one triceps movement for 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps. (pushdowns, extensions, etc.) Alternate your assistance or chest exercises. Use an isolation chest exercise such as flyes one workout and then use a compound pressing movement such as dumbbell presses the following workout. Stay a rep or 2 shy of failure on all assistance movements. Let yourself fully rest in between sets.
|Workout||Sets and Reps||Percentage|
|1||8, 6, 5||65,70,75|
|5||6, 5, max reps*||75, 85, 85|
|6||3, 2, Iso hold at midpoint**||85, 95, 105|
|7||5, 5, max reps||75, 90, 90|
|8||3, 2, Iso hold at midpoint||85, 100, 110|
|9||5, 5, max reps||80, 90, 90|
|10||3, 1, Iso hold at midpoint||95, 105, 115|
|11||5, 5, max reps||85, 95, 95|
|12||3, 2, 1||95, 105, 110|
* Use the same weight you use in set #2 and perform as many reps as possible. If you do 8 or more, then in your next workout base your percentages off a load 5 lbs heavier then your original. If you do 3 or less base your percentages off a load 5 lbs lighter then your original.
** Here you’ll perform an isometric hold at the midpoint. Make sure you use a spotter. Unrack the weight, lower to the midpoint of the movement where your arms are roughly parallel to the floor, and attempt to hold the weight at the midpoint for 5 seconds. Try to resist the load as you fatigue. Have a spotter help you re-rack the weight.
Before you start the workout you will need to determine your 1RM in the bench press. To determine your training weights just take your max and multiply it by the percentages listed in column 3. For example, let’s say your max bench was 200 lbs. That means your first workout would look like this:
- 130 x 8 (65%)
- 140 x 6 (70%)
- 150 x 5 (75%)
In Workout 5 you’ll notice an asterisk that says “max reps”. This means you will use the same load as you did in set 2 and try to perform as many reps as possible. If you achieve 8 or more reps assume a 5 lb increase in your max bench and use that weight to figure your percents.
Let’s say our 200 lb. Bench presser achieve 8 reps on set 3 in workout 5. In workout 6 he would assume a 205 lb max bench instead of 200. So his training weights in workout 6 would be:
- 174.25 x 3 (round-up to 175)
- 184.50 x 2 (round-up to 185)
- 215.24 x isometric hold (round down to 215)
You should always round to the closest multiple of 5. If he had achieved 3 reps or less on set 3 of workout 5 he would assume a max of 195.
Make sure you can complete all your sets and keep the bar speed as high as possible on all the sets except for the “max reps” and the “iso-holds”. This means if you can’t complete the required reps for the first 2 sets of any given workout you need to decrease the weight by at least 5 lbs.
At the conclusion of this 6-week specialization scheme you’ll want to spend a couple of weeks solidifying your gains. I recommend you keep the weights below 85% for a couple of weeks, for sets of up to 5 reps, and eliminate any highly intense methods like the iso holds and max reps. After a couple of weeks of maintenance training, a hypertrophy phase would be just the ticket.
Written by Kelly Baggett
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