Editor's Note: This isn't your typical training article. Instead, it's more of a glimpse into what it really takes to achieve a specific goal — in this case a 600 pound bench press. Still, you're sure to pick up a few training tips along the way.
Six Hundred the Hard Way
The first article I had published in T-mag was called Bench Press 600 Pounds. In it I provided twelve tips to help you increase your bench press, tips that took me my whole career to learn. Although the article proved helpful to many people, benching 600 is much more difficult than I made it out to be. It's not an easy task and for me it seemed damned near impossible as I was stuck at 585 at the time I wrote the article.
Truthfully, the numbers are irrelevant. To some, 600 comes easy; to others, 600 comes not at all. You can get stuck with a 300, 400, 500, 600 or even 700 pound bench press. No matter where you get stuck there are times when the standard fixes just don't work. You have to be willing to try many new things and change in a moment's notice. Your sticking points can be mental, physical, technical or a combination of all three. You only need one solution to break a sticking point but have many options. It's somewhat like playing the lotto. There are many numbers but only one will win. To increase your odds you have to play as many numbers as possible.
To illustrate, allow me to tell you the story of how I finally benched 600 pounds, the toughest challenge I've ever had in the sport and perhaps in life.
In the Beginning...
I entered my first competition in 1984 and benched my first 500 in the summer of 1986. I was still nineteen at the time and felt like 600 was just around the corner. I went to work on my plan. The first step in accomplishing this goal was to put on more muscle mass. I weighed 242 at the time and wanted to be 275. The best way I knew to achieve this was to go into bodybuilding.
I spent three years in the sport and even did a few shows. I felt my strength was going through the roof. During this time I benched 315 for a set of thirty-two reps, 405 for sets of ten, did 405 for six on the incline press and 405 for five on the behind-the-neck press. My off-season body weight was now at 275 and my body fat was lower than when I weighed 242. I didn't max on my bench at any time during these three years.
After my last show I decided it was time to go back into powerlifting and take a shot at 600. I trained on a sixteen week progressive overload cycle for the meet. To my surprise, on the day of the meet I only benched 450 in the 275 pound class! What the hell had happened to my bench? Three years of adding mass had done nothing for me!
I was bigger and harder than I'd ever been yet I was weaker than I was three years earlier. Lesson learned: You can't use bodybuilding methods to get strong. Bodybuilding is fine for adding muscle mass but you have to do specific training for the one rep range. You also have to train with speed. This I didn't learn until years later. My bodybuilding training was all done slowly and required little force. Not good for benching big numbers.
I went back to the drawing board. I knew what I wanted and just had to figure out how to get there. Over the next five years I used my old style of training that worked for me in the past. The first phase of the cycle I'd do sets of eight reps, then over the next twelve to sixteen weeks the sets and reps would drop down to one or two sets of one to three reps. During the first two years this helped me to get my bench back up in the 500 to 520 range. Then I got stuck and nothing seemed to get me unstuck.
Instead of trying to learn more I just kept doing the same training over and over with zero success. I learned that I had to keep educating myself. I'd go as far as to say you have to over-learn. Just knowing enough will only get you enough. If you want more than enough then you'd better learn more than enough!
Louie Simmons, A Torn Pec, and Rehab
At a meet in 1990, Louie Simmons tried to sink his fangs into me. He'd known me for a few years and had noticed how much bigger I'd gotten. He'd also noticed that I wasn't any stronger. This is when he asked me to make a trip to Columbus to see what they were doing at Westside Barbell.
I made a few trips up to train with them and hated everything I saw. It just didn't make any sense. What I did learn is that I had to bring my triceps up. So during the next few months I increased my total triceps volume. I felt my bench finally getting stronger but I also felt very old. My pecs and shoulders hurt all the time. It was hell getting through my bench training. But even with all the pain I did feel stronger than ever. That winter I traveled to Columbus for a bench press competition. Based on my training (a 500 pound triple) I knew I was good for at least a 550 to 570 max. My opener at 475 felt like crap. My second attempt was 500. That was the attempt that tore my pec off.
I was told if I ever wanted to bench again, I'd have to get it fixed. After surgery, they said I'd be lucky to bench 400 again. I ignored them, but I didn't ignore Louie Simmons. He told me if I didn't change my ways I'd be out of the sport within three years. My problems, he said, were from the heavy progressive overload training I'd used my entire carrier. With my arm in a sling, I told Louie about my goals. ³Listen to me,² he said, ³and you'll bench 600.² I listened and decided to move to Columbus.
The first challenge came during rehab. All I could think about was snapping my damn pec off again. I became gun shy, too psychologically freaked out to work up to the heavy weights. My head was a mess. The other guys in the gym ragged me about it constantly and at the time I hated every one of them for it. I even had one of them throw tissues at me when I complained of twinges in my torn pec. The ragging paid off of course and I became so pissed off at them I forced myself back under the heavy weights.
The only choice was to deal with it. The more I dealt with it the better it got. I learned that if you fear something you have to not only stare it in the face, you have to follow through and do it. The more times you do it the better it gets. Then one day you realize you're no longer scared.
On the next max effort day I knew I had to deal with the demon. On this day I figured out how to take all the fear and use it to my advantage. I put on the bench shirt and began to work up. When I felt like I wanted to pull out I'd think of the worst possible situation: tearing my pec again and the bar falling on my head and crushing my skull into pulp. I let this build until the point where the fear was out of control. I stuffed all this fear inside and when I got under the bar all I could think of was getting that fucker off me. I shoved will every bit of aggression I had and ended the day with a 550 pound bench. I was back on the path to 600.
So Close and Yet So Far
Over the next couple of years I posted a 540, 550 and 560 bench. My training was based on a general Westside template (see The Periodization Bible Part II). In 1996 I benched 585 easy. Back in the gym I just kept doing the same things I had been doing. Over the next three years I missed 600 ten times in meets. Now I was faced with another problem. How in the hell was I going to get a lockout? I could jam the bar to the top but just couldn't finish my right arm.
Then, in the summer of 1999, I decided to try on my shirt to see how it fit. My bench felt strong so maybe I could give 600 a good ride, I thought. On my last heavy set the bar decided to drift out to the right side about four inches and I tore off my right pec. After an MRI I was told the decision for surgery was up to me. The tendon was still attached but the muscle was split almost in half.
I decided to forgo the surgery and get back to the gym. I knew what I needed to do and started the rebab training again. The one thing I'd learned is you have to get in the mix ASAP no matter what the weight. So on max effort training day I still worked up to a one rep max, although it was only 200 pounds. Maxing allowed me to deal with the mental BS right away and get to the real issues. Within a few months my speed work was back to normal but I was still having trouble locking out my right arm.
Once I was back in shape I had to put the shirt on again and see how the training was going. I worked up to 600 and missed it three times at the top. The right arm just wouldn't lock. As it turns out, this day would send me back to the surgeon yet again for shoulder surgery. My teres had been torn for some time and could've been part of the reason why the arm wouldn't lock out.
After the shoulder surgery I once again went right back to work. Recovery from this surgery was very intense and fast. Within one month I had my strength back but was lacking shoulder stability. I could press fine but had a hard time setting the bar and locking the bar out. At this point I added in some special movements to focus on this problem. You can only fix one thing at a time so the triceps training went on the back burner and I began a series of shoulder movements geared toward stabilizing the joint. I used the following shoulder complex:
1) Front raises, thumbs down
2) Front raises, thumbs up
3) Overhead dumbbell presses
4) Bent over side raise, thumb up
5) Bent over side raise, thumb down
6) Bent over front raises
7) Zottman curls
8) External shoulder rotations, bottom half
9) External shoulder rotations, top half
I used light dumbbells and performed two sets of 12 reps four days a week at the end of every main training day. At night I'd do 100 push-ups and lower the position each time 100 was met. I started the push-ups standing against a wall and worked down until I was performing these off the floor. I'd do as many reps as I could then rest a minute or so and keep going. At first to get all 100 would take many sets and long rest periods. Once I was able to get 100 on the floor within ten minutes (about one month) I dropped the push-ups.
The last movement I included was a reverse barbell shrug while lying on the bench. I began with 95 pounds and could barely get ten reps. I worked this movement for about six weeks and got up to 225 for ten. At this point the shoulder joint began to stabilize itself and the lockout was almost better than before the surgery.
In the fall of 2001 I benched 500 at a bench meet and decided to focus again on triceps strength. I added in high board presses with bands and a few other heavy pressing triceps type movements. I wanted to try to use the bands for most of the partial range max effort movements to fix my lockout problem. I needed to be able to strain at this position for a longer period of time. I also added in more bands on the speed day.
At a meet in the winter of 2002 I opened with 500 then went to 545. I missed to lift halfway up and decided to take it again on my third. I switched back to a thumbless grip and managed to make the lift. It was very sloppy and just about killed me in the process, but I had the strength to strain and press it to lockout. This is when I knew I had to again change many things.
First, I was always beat up and would wake up every night unable to move my arm because of the shoulder pain and my elbows hurt when I trained. Second, my lockout was still way off. The bar wanted to always fly back toward the rack. Third, I was pressing with my pecs first off the chest, not my triceps. Forth, I had no idea what I was doing with a bench shirt. Fifth, I'd totally lost my confidence in the bench.
I had my sites set on June with the goal of a 600 bench. I didn't care what the total was; I just wanted to get back in the game and needed a place to start.
The Last Push
The first thing I had to do was get healthy. To do this I used three workouts instead of two. The two standards were one max effort workout on Wednesday and one dynamic workout on Sunday. I was still going to train these days but was now going to have one max effort day, one repetition day, and one speed day.
For the max effort day nothing was going to change. The speed day was going to be with mini bands one workout and chains the next. The rep day was going to be a speed day with only 225 with no bands or chains for 15 sets of three reps with 30 to 40 seconds rest. I'd then follow this with bodybuilding work for the triceps, lats and delts. Most of this work was strict and to failure. I had to put muscle mass back on that I'd lost and needed it quick. I used a lot of dumbbell presses, dumbbell raises and pulldown work. During this time I also started getting Active Release (ART) treatment each week.
I kept this schedule for six weeks. During this time I started to get healthy again and some of my max effort records were getting broken by 50 pounds. Once I felt healthy I went back to the one max effort session and one dynamic session except for a few changes. My max effort work kept going up to the point where I began beating many of the 600 plus benchers on the movements. After four or five weeks I put the shirt on again and missed a 525. Now I knew what was wrong. My triceps were stronger but I was still pressing with my pecs first and counting on my leg drive to get the bar off my chest. I also had to bring more speed into the training.
Now my plan was to use bands on every speed day and set up a circa maximal phase to bring the speed back. [Editor's note: "Circa maximal" means using submaximal weights for a short phase.] I lowered the bar weight to 185 for the first two to three sets with one band. The band's weight is equal to 40 on chest and 90 at top. I'd then jump to 205 for two more sets. If this felt good I'd add another band for two more sets with the same weight. This slowed the bar down but taught me to push faster. Then I'd reduce the weight to the original 185 with one mini band for two last sets. I called these my ³super speed sets². This was used for a short three week cycle to prep my body for the circa-maximal phase to follow. The circa maximal phase used for this meet is as follows:
Week 1: Warm up to 155 with two mini bands (band weight 80 on chest and 180 at top). Two sets were done here. I then put on two chains each side and did three sets (chain weight 0 on chest and 80 at top). This is a total of nine reps and was maximal for me. I then went down to 155 with one mini for two more sets. From there I went on to triceps, lat and delt work. I kept the triceps work light and supersetted pushdowns with band extensions.
Week 2: Warm up to 155 with two mini bands. Two sets were done with this weight. I then added a mini band choked (not folded) for one set. Next I jumped to three mini bands for three sets (band weight 120 on chest and 270 at top). These sets were slow as hell but taught me how to lock out and think.
I've always been an aggressive bencher. By this I mean just lay down and shove the bar. I had to learn to think throughout the lift. With the bar moving this slow at the top I learned how to position my elbows to finish the lift if it got too heavy. I then went down to 155 with two mini band for two sets. The accessory work was the same as week one. My max effort work for this week was high rep dumbbell presses with the intention of getting away from the heavy work and work more on restoration.
Week 3: The same as week two except for my max effort day I did board presses and broke my six year old record by 25 pounds.Week 4: De-load week. I was going to use 175 with one mini band but after the first two sets I began to feel I was going to hurt myself because the bar was moving too fast. I put on another set of mini bands for two more sets then did one last set with 175 and one mini band.
I stayed with this for about four weeks. If I felt beat up I just used 185 with one mini band and stayed there. I also began catching the bar again. By this I mean I didn't let the bar touch my chest. I also benched a few weeks with my feet on a crate. This was to take my legs out and teach me to drive with the triceps first. After the speed work I did low pin presses for three sets of three reps. After that I went to triceps, delt and lat work. My max effort days were the same as everyone else in the gym. Over all this time we used board presses, floor presses, chain presses, and reverse band presses.
At the meet I opened with 550; the weight went up like an empty bar. I then jumped to 605 for the second. Here I was again at the weight I'd waited so long to get. Unlike all the times in the past, this day I had all my bases covered and the weight flew off my chest to lockout. I went for 635 on my third, but it didn't happen. No worries, because I know I can get it the next time.
Hopefully you'll find this motivating and perhaps reach your goal without making the same mistakes I did along the way. I had to learn a hell of a lot over the past eighteen years to break 600. I learned that as long as you keep your sites set on one specific goal and don't give up, someday it'll be yours. It may take longer than you think (six years for a twenty pound record in my case) but as long as you're willing to put in the time, listen to others and never quit, you can achieve whatever you set your mind to.
Take it from me. I've seen it all, torn it all, heard it all, and told myself it all over the past six years. If I can do it then anyone can. Now get your ass back in the gym.
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