Bench More to Bench More
Bench pressing four days a week is stupid, right? That could only lead to overtraining, along with pecs and shoulders so sore they file for a restraining order.
But what if that's just what you needed to do to bring your bench press up? It sounds like programming heresy, or the type of training a novice lifter at Douchebag Fitness would follow at the expense of seemingly more important work for, say, the posterior chain.
However, to remedy a stalled bench press, benching more frequently may be just what the doctor ordered.
High Frequency High Payoff
Prioritizing frequency over concentrated volume has grown in popularity over the past few years because it works, and works well. The logic at play is that exposing the body to a stimulus more often will result in faster adaptation, leading to you getting bigger and stronger.
Not convinced? Think about it. Which do you think is more likely to make you stronger: 52 sessions on the bench a year, or 104 sessions?
Strength is, after all, a skill, and practice makes perfect. High frequency training is especially beneficial for raw lifters who need to hone and perfect their technique on the actual lift.
And more often than not, better technique will be the difference between a big PR and another frustrating failed attempt.
Training more frequently also has other benefits, the biggest being that it increases neurological efficiency – a fancy way of saying it teaches your body to use its muscles more effectively.
The more you practice lifting, the more your body learns to recruit a higher percentage of muscle fibers. More muscle fibers firing means you can lift heavier, and lifting heavier provides the mechanical means to get bigger as well as stronger.
The Russian Monster
Most bench press specialization programs will have you benching twice a week. It's a fine approach and has been proven effective by countless lifters. But like all effective approaches, it doesn't work for everyone, and it doesn't work forever. And when you run out of more standard options, it's time to call the Russians.
In powerlifting it always seems to come back to something Russian. Say what you want about Russia's Cold War economics or politics, but they nailed it when it came to strength training.
You may have heard of the Smolov squat program. This 13-week nightmare drills your squat with such frequency, intensity, and volume that it's been the bane of many an aspiring lifter. Those that managed to survive it, however, often reported outstanding results.
Can the Smolov program be adapted for the bench press?
A lesser known, but still incredibly effective, variant of the Smolov squat program is affectionately known as the Smolov Jr. cycle. It's not nearly as brutal as the original squat program, but still enormously challenging.
The payoff, however, is well worth the effort – it's not uncommon for a lifter to put over 20 pounds onto their bench press in just 4 weeks.
You'll be benching 4 – yes, four – times a week. The first two workouts have a rest day in between them and the last two are back-to-back lifting days.
There are a few things you must be aware of:
This is an intense bench specialization cycle. Your other lifts must take a back seat. That means putting your squat and deadlift on maintenance. Lest you start feeling the icy chill of squatter's anxiety, relax, neither your squat nor your deadlift will erode if you put them on the backburner for a month.
The same applies for upper body assistance work. Beyond some basic upper back training, it isn't a good idea to try to add much in.
The bench days are already frequent, high volume, and intense. You'll get everything you need from them. Trying to add in extra work, no matter how well intentioned, is only going to put you at a greater risk for injury and interfere with your precious recovery time, especially towards the end of the cycle.
Finally, this is an advanced cycle. Don't even think about it unless you've got at least 2-3 years of legitimate training experience under your weight belt.
Now go back and reread this section before you move on. Yeah, it's that important.
|Sets x Reps||6 x 6||7 x 5||8 x 4||10 x 3|
|Week 1||70% 1RM||75% 1RM||80% 1RM||85% 1RM|
|Week 2||70% +5kg||75% +5kg||80% +5kg||85% +5kg|
|Week 3||70% + 10kg||75% +10kg||80% +10kg||85% +10kg|
|Week 4||REST||Test Max|
The program is very straightforward. Everything is based off your one-rep max. To that end, make sure you're using a real – and recent – one-rep max.
This is absolutely not the time to pad your ego by using a number you "think" you could've done had you snorted enough ammonia to resurrect Jimmy Hoffa out of whatever suburban Detroit driveway he's residing in.
If you don't know your 1RM before starting this program, then go test it out and arrive at an honest number. The cycle itself is brutal, and will get particularly tough towards the end. If you use an inflated number, mark my words, you will be sorry.
You'll notice that the progressions are listed in kilograms. That, combined with the percentages, means you're going to end up with some funky looking numbers. In the spirit of starting on the easy side, it's best to round your numbers down, not up. If after your first set or two the weight feels too light, then round up, but not before you get to that point.
It's critical on this program that you try to get all the reps and sets in. If you're failing sets it means you're using numbers that are too high. Don't make the program any more difficult than it needs to be. It won't make you any bigger or stronger. It will, however, increase the likelihood of you burning out, getting injured, or failing harder than a Wall Street trader in Ethics class.
Fit your lower body training in on the off days but do not go crazy. Remember, your other lifts are supposed to be taking a backseat to your bench press. The last thing you want is some ill-suited attempt at "maintaining balanced programming" to interfere with your upper body recovery.
This becomes incredibly important towards the end of the program, when you're using the heaviest loads. You are, however, permitted to perform some light upper back work after 3 of the 4 bench workouts. Just don't get overly complicated; fit it in wherever it works for you, and save the whup-ass for the bench presses.
To help you get started, here's what the complete program looks like with sample assistance work included.
|A||Smolov Bench (70% 1RM)||6||6|
|A||Smolov Bench (75% 1RM)||7||5|
|B||Bulgarian Split Squat||3||15|
* 50% max
|A||Smolov Bench (80% 1RM)||8||4|
|A||Smolov Bench (85% 1RM)||10||3|
|A||Smolov Bench (70% 1RM +5kg)||6||6|
|A||Smolov Bench (75% 1RM +5kg)||7||5|
|B||Bulgarian Split Squat||4||15|
* 55% max
|A||Smolov Bench (80% 1RM +5kg)||8||4|
|A||Smolov Bench (85% 1RM +5kg)||10||3|
|A||Smolov Bench (70% 1RM +10kg)||6||6|
|A||Smolov Bench (75% 1RM +10kg)||7||5|
|B||Bulgarian Split Squat||2||12|
* 60% max
|A||Smolov Bench (80% 1RM +10kg)||8||4|
|A||Smolov Bench (85% 1RM +10kg)||10||3|
* 55% max
- You're still squatting once a week with moderately heavy weight, but not much volume and minimal assistance work. Keep it that way.
- Since heavy deadlifting is very taxing on the nervous system, you'll be using speed pulls instead. This will help maintain your deadlift technique without taxing you too much.
- Notice that the first two weeks include some light arm work but even that gets dropped in week 3 when the bench loads are heaviest. The volume of the assistance work also drops as the cycle progresses since the bench press is also intensifying.
This program has the potential to blast your bench through even the most frustrating plateau. It's difficult – it's high frequency, volume, and intensity – so in accordance with that, you need to be very focused on recovery.
Make sure you're eating and sleeping in proportion to the work you're doing. Burning the candle at both ends by trying to be both a gym hero and a bar star will get you absolutely nowhere.
Also, those prone to overuse injuries might want to take a pass on this one. No program is worth risking an injury. If everything is in line, however, your reward will be an impressive new bench press PR.
Make no mistake, bench pressing 4 times a week is not something you should approach lightly, nor should it be your "go-to" program for the balance of the year.
Use it occasionally and intelligently, and start building a bench that's reflective of your commitment to the iron game.
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Christopher Smith, CSCS is a strength coach out of New York City. A record holding powerlifter, Chris helps people get stronger while staying lean and fit. For more information check out www.TrainBetterFitness.com