Push and Pray
Just about anything will improve your bench press during the first three months of weight training, even those silly articles you read in most "average guy" fitness magazines. This is due to neural adaptations and not necessarily because of additional muscle mass. But after this period of rapid progress, most guys stall out. It's at this point that trainees go into a tailspin that sometimes continues for years.
They plateau and then ask, "Where do I focus next? Do I consult the local bench press know-it-all? Call the psychic hotline? Was it forced reps I read about being important to a big bench or was it dumbbell work? Maybe it was more volume or intensity – what's the difference anyway?"
Most confused trainees end up employing every program since the Charles Atlas starter kit came complete with its plastic sand weights. Or worse, they practice the "push and pray" method – doing nothing different and expecting a miracle.
You Gotta' Have a Plan
Advanced progress is not accidental. It's a planned, organized and executed process, no different than a "needs analysis" in business planning. Random suggestions on improving the bench are as common as flabby triceps at a Bingo hall. The trouble is these "authorities" don't prioritize the individual's weaknesses, which represent a major crack in the armor.
The big bench coaches work hard to identify the weakest links and their relative contribution. This creates a dual priority (two elements) deficit. When these factors are strengthened, the athlete should expect to experience rapid advancement in strength levels.
Strength and Stabilization Deficits
It's hard to hit your target unless you know where to aim. This is a simple but overlooked success principle. It's as vital to business productivity as it is to strength training. Strength deficit is the difference between maximum strength (current ability) and absolute strength (potential maximum ability). Stabilization deficit is the difference between your current stability versus its potential. So the best question you can ask is, "How much strength and stability do I need to bench a certain level?"
Size and Strength Correlations – Discover Your Goal
Recent advances in technology have allowed the noninvasive determination of muscle size. Researchers have found a significant relationship between muscle cross sectional area (muscle mass) and strength. This is more evident in athletes with longer training experience. This may be due to less inhibition by the nervous system or producing more "free" Testosterone over time.
Most T-mag readers would rather teach etiquette to Hannibal than do mathematics, so I'll use a predetermined example. To be a carved "Greek god" type, a 275-pound bench press would likely deliver the following gains in mass:
Upper arm circumference 15" to 16"
Chest circumference 44" to 47"
My experience indicates that in the above scenario, the lifter's 1RM (one rep max) is roughly 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 times his body weight. Since size and strength relate, it stands to reason that a stronger athlete also has more mass potential. To put this into prospective, studies on elite weightlifters indicate an average maximum bench press of just under three times their bodyweight!
Your goal should be anywhere in that range: 1 1/2 to 2 times your bodyweight for icon status, and three times your bodyweight for immortal fame. So an average 180 pound guy should be shooting for a bench press of 270 to 360 pounds if he wants to run with the big boys.
Upper Back Stability – The Overlooked Aspect
If I've seen it once I've seen it a hundred times – the smug weekend warrior loads the bar then spastically brings it down to his chest. After a "one hopper" off a pec, he dumps the weight clear off one end, which in turn causes the other end to slingshot to the floor, leaving the lifter stunned and bewildered at his public display of coordination.
"You can't shoot a rocket from a row boat" is my best advice to novice trainees. In other words, when the support muscles of the upper back are weak, the primary movers have no stable surface to contract against. The nervous system is very sensitive to any loss of stability or neuromuscular control.
There are specific reflex proprioceptors around the shoulder capsule that can "shut down" the chest muscles when evoked. Gaining enough strength to turn off this reflex is one way that upper back/shoulder stability is a key weak link in the bench press.
The Real Athletic Supporters
The main function of the shoulder girdle is in suspending the upper extremity. The suspension mechanism is formed by the muscles which originate in the neck and insert onto the clavicle and scapula. The most important muscle is the upper part of the trapezius.
Is your upper back strong enough to endure maximal force? If you suffer from a stiff neck or stressfully tight traps, it's likely that you need to stop pounding the prime movers and re-focus on the stabilizing muscles. Also, if you can see or feel the medial angle of the shoulder blade (inside edge of the spine, between 5 and 11 o'clock) or if you get stuck in the bottom position on the bench press, then your scapula is "winging" and you need additional stabilizer work.
The trapezius, supraspinatus, infraspinatus and serratus anterior make up the shoulder blade fixators and rotator cuff stabilizers. Because these are the primary support muscles for the bench press and are often neglected using traditional "canned" routines, they represent a natural weak link for the iron man to target. A secret weapon I was shown early in my career that saves months of wasted training is the shoulder endurance test.
The Isometric Shoulder Endurance Test
The relevance of this test is to analyze your shoulder stabilizer muscular endurance
(try saying that three times fast) and ensure that it won't shut down your bench. Here's how to do it.
Select a weight that's approximately 20% of your body mass. I usually round it to the closest 25, 35 or 45 pound plate. If you weigh 180, you choose a 35-pound plate. Position your back firmly against a wall. Note: Your buttocks and shoulders must make contact at all times and a slow progressive warm-up is advised.
Time the length you can hold the weight straight out in front of you with a 15-degree bend in the elbows. Now, in order to jack a 300-pound bench press, you should be able to isometrically hold 20% total mass for at least 45 seconds, with 90 seconds being ideal.
This test can be used once per week to bolster your bench; just do it at the end of your training session, otherwise your primary lifts will "shut down." If you find that you can't hold the plate isometrically for 45 seconds, then use the following routine every five days for a total of 30 days (six workouts). Additionally, work on your isometric strength using the above test weekly.
A) Snatch deadlift*
Rep Speed (tempo): 505**
Rest Interval: 180 seconds
* Stretch the traps and neck in between sets.
** Check the FAQ section if you have no idea what these numbers mean.
B1) Seated rows to neck
Rep Speed: 303
Rest Interval: 0 seconds (without resting move to B2 below)
B2) L-lateral raise
Rep Speed: 201
Rest Interval: 0 seconds (without resting move to B3 below)
B3) Side lying abduction
Rep Speed: 301
Rest Interval: 90 seconds (after the rest, go back to B1 and repeat)
C) Incline front raise using dumbbells
Rep Speed: 201
Rest Interval: 60 seconds
Snatch deadlift: This exercise is almost identical to a traditional deadlift: hands outside the knees, feet straight. Grasp the bar using a pronated, overhand grip (palms facing you.) Using an arched back, power the bar up using your quads, glutes, and back until the bar is mid-thigh. Elbows are soft-locked and the chin and neck are retracted with the head in a neutral position.
Stand erect while powering the weight from the floor, and then shoulder shrug the weight once the bar is at belt level. (At the point that the bar has reached mid-thigh level, the lifter simultaneously starts the shrug.) Lower the bar in constant contact with the body, scraping it past the knees and along the shins.
L-lateral raise: Same as a traditional dumbbell lateral raise except the elbows are bent at 90 degrees during the lift. Additionally there's an external rotation motion that follows the 90 degrees abduction. In other words, as you complete the "lateral raise" portion of the movement, rotate the lower arm up and outward (while maintaining the 90 degree angle throughout the exercise and keeping the wrists neutral).
Side lying abduction: This exercise is performed lying on your side and moving 90 degrees of abduction (arm fully extended) in a neutral rotation position from a neutral (adducted position) under your face.
Incline front raise using dumbbells, semi-supinated (palms facing each other): Start this exercise by lying on an incline bench set to 45 degrees. With the elbows slightly bent, raise the dumbbells using your shoulders, from your sides to a perpendicular angle to the bench. Lower the weight under control to a dead stop before proceeding.
Eccentric/Concentric Strength Ratio
A major component in the bench press is the velocity of the bar during the lowering portion of the lift. The best pressers have been shown to have a slower decent. The better your eccentric (lowering) strength, the better your control.
Strength ratio is the proportion between your maximal concentric (lifting) strength to your maximal eccentric strength. Eccentric strength should be 20% to 75% more than concentric strength. This means if you bench 200, you should be able to lower 240 to 350 pounds under control. Your eccentric strength deficit sheds insight into the type of training program that would work best to generate new gains.
Bet you'd like to know how to test this ratio, huh? Here goes:
To test your strength ratio, find your concentric 1RM bench press, lowering the bar for four seconds. This is your concentric max. Next, wait ten minutes for your nervous system to recharge and see how much weight you can lower under the same four second control. Divide the difference of eccentric minus concentric number by the concentric. So if your eccentric is 210 and your concentric is 200, then your eccentric ratio: 210-200 = 10, divided by 200 = .05 or 5%.
This is relatively poor eccentric strength and means that this trainee is better off doing a time under tension, bodybuilding style program with lighter loads and higher repetitions. The following bench pressing micro cycle is suited for the individual with poor eccentric strength and poor to average stability. This is to be performed twice per week for three weeks. Increase the weight 3 to 5% each week and drop the reps by one.
A1) Bench press
Reps: 12, 10, 8, 8, 10, 12
Rep Speed: 401
Rest Interval: 90 seconds, then move to A2
A2) Barbell bent over rows
Rep Speed: 501
Rest Interval: 90 seconds, then go back to A1
B1) Muscle snatch
Rep Speed: 303
Rest Interval: 60 seconds, then move to B2
B2) Prone trap raises
Rep Speed: 121
Rest Interval: 60 seconds, then go back to B1
C) Incline front raises
Rep Speed: 121
Rest Interval: 60 seconds
Muscle snatch: Start by holding a barbell with a wider than shoulder-width grip. Upright row the bar until it reaches the lower portion of your sternum. Rotate the arms outward until the forearms are perpendicular to the ground, then finish the exercise by pressing the bar overhead. Reverse the movement. (Editor's note: in some circles, this movement is also known as the Cuban press.)
Prone trap raises: Lie prone (belly down) on an incline bench set at 45 degrees. Grip two dumbbells with the thumbs up (like in a hammer curl). Keeping the arms straight, elbows slightly bent, raise the dumbbells toward the ceiling, finishing at a 45-degree angle from your head. Retract your shoulder blades (squeeze them together) at the top position. This targets the middle and lower trapezius.
Incline front raise using dumbbells, semi-supinated (palms facing each other): Start this exercise by lying on an incline bench set to 45û. With the elbows slightly bent, raise the dumbbells using your shoulders, from your sides to a perpendicular angle to the bench. Lower the weight under control to a dead stop before proceeding.
Improve Concentric Strength and Stability
Finally, here's a routine to improve concentric strength and stability. This is to be performed twice per week for three weeks. Increase the weight 5% each week and drop the reps by one.
A1) Bench press
Reps: 5, 3, 5, 3, 5, 3
Rep Speed: 311
Rest Interval: 120 seconds, then move to A2
A2) Chins, close grip
Rep Speed: 311
Rest Interval: 120 seconds, then go back to A1
B1) Military press
Rep Speed: 402
Rest Interval: 90 seconds, then move to B2
Rep Speed: 402
Rest Interval: 90 seconds, then go back to B1
Little Helpers and Overlooked Details
The role of the assistance muscles is important during the bench press. To initiate the upward motion of the bar off the ribcage is the job for the anterior serratus and the latissimus dorsi (back). Midway on the positive, a strength transfer to the pectorals and anterior deltoids occurs. The triceps muscles "kick in" next to complete the motion.
If you get stuck in the bottom position then you need additional serratus work such as overhead pressing or the military press. A mid-position sticking point indicates weak pecs. Flat chest flyes will help. A poor lockout indicates a need for more triceps work; close grip presses or dips are effective there.
Bench pressing tips which are often overlooked include gripping the bar with your hands 16 to 18 inches apart with the thumb wrapped completely around the bar. Keep the wrists neutral at all times. Lower the bar to two inches above the nipple line.
Also, three months out of the year don't bench. Yes, that's right, don't do even a single set of bench presses. Just work on your relative strength on basic barbell lifts such as the military press, deadlift, and chins or get into an Olympic or powerlifting 12 week routine.
The bench press is an athletic event and must be viewed as such. The same sports specific mentality must go into its development as with a 200 meter sprint. We realize that each individual has unique strengths and weaknesses that he brings to the bench press. Clearly, if improvement is sought, it's up to that individual to ascertain his fitness individualism.
It's a waste of effort focusing on your strengths – those skills close to maximal potential. Utmost advancement will occur by working on the weaker aspects involved. The next step is to plan your goals and time period. Then analyze your present strengths and weaknesses with the above test battery. Finally, implement a weekly program that strengthens those priorities and retest them frequently.
Remember, your first goal is to bench 1 1/2 times your bodyweight. These advanced tests and techniques will help get you there and far beyond!
Mats Hagberg, M.D., Electromyographic Signs of Shoulder Muscular Fatigue in Two Elevated Arm Positions, American Journal of Physical Medicine, 1981 Vol 60. No.3
H. Nieminen, E-P Takala, J. Niemi and E. Viikari-Jntura, Muscular syngery in the shoulder during a fatiguing static contraction, Clin. Biomech. 1995; 10. No 6.
Charles Poliquin Modern Trends in Strength Training 2000; Vol. 1.
Charles Poliquin, The Poliquin Principles – The science of reps, sets and workout design, 1997 The Dayton Writers Group and Charles Poliquin.
Mel C. Siff, Yuri V Verkhoshansky, Supertraining – The Use of Testing, section 8.7 444-447 1999.