Here's the scenario: you've been working out for a while. You're not a beginner, and you've made some progress; but you're just not as strong as you want to be. (Really, who is?)
It's easy to progress from beginner to intermediate, and almost any program followed with some measure of intensity will do the job. But breaking past the intermediate level, becoming significantly strong, that's the real challenge.
The principle of specificity tells us that the stronger we get, the more specific the program must be to continue to produce positive adaptations. I'd argue that this concept is the principal theme of one of the best books on resistance training published to date, Supertraining, by Mel Siff. As one's ability increases, the programming must become increasingly specific to the given movement if further adaptation is to occur.
Naturally, as a strength coach, that's where I come in. I've been pursuing strength for a long, long time-although I'm still not as strong as I'd like to be. I've found some good plans along the way, plans that have proven to be effective not only on myself but on my training partners, friends, clients, and students as well.
If the vast majority of people respond favorably to a given program, you can usually bet your favorite pair of Zubaz pants that the plan is a good one.
Before we begin, I should say that the title of this article is a bit misleading. While the following programs all use the flat barbell bench press as an example, that doesn't necessarily mean that these are exclusively "bench press programs." I've seen each one used successfully with other compound lifts like squats and deadlifts, and even some single-joint movements like barbell curls.
Wait; did I just mention barbell curls? I thought that would get your attention! So without further ado, here they are. Three kick-ass programs to get you strong!
The Rep Increase Program
In this program, you're going to start with a certain weight. If you know your 1RM (1-rep maximum), use 75-85% of that number (if you're quite strong, use the lower end of the percentage range, if you're not, use the higher end). Otherwise, simply go with your 6RM.
On the first week, after warming up, do 4 sets of 3 reps with that weight. Follow with a fifth, heavier set using about 87.5% of your 1RM, finishing with a back down set using approximately 60% of your 1RM.
Repeat this process a week later, but with a small rep/load increase that I'll illustrate in the following example.
Here's a sample 10-week bench press workout with some numbers laid out. Assume your 1RM in the flat bench press is 300 lbs. I'll use 80% of that, which is 240 lbs.
|Set 1||Set 2||Set 3||Set 4||Set 5||Set 6|
|Week 1||240x3||240x3||240x3||240x3||265x1||180x AMRAP *|
|Week 2||240x3||240x4||240x4||240x3||270x1||185x AMRAP|
|Week 3||240x4||240x4||240x4||240x4||275x1||190x AMRAP|
|Week 4||240x4||240x5||240x5||240x4||280x1||195x AMRAP|
|Week 5||240x5||240x5||240x5||240x5||285x1||200x AMRAP|
|Week 6||240x5||240x6||240x6||240x5||290x1||205x AMRAP|
|Week 7||240x6||240x6||240x6||240x6||300-1 Negative||210x AMRAP|
|Week 8||240x6||240x7||240x7||240x6||310-1 Negative||215x AMRAP|
|Week 9||240x7||240x7||240x7||240x7||320-1 Negative||220x AMRAP|
|Week 7||Determine your new 1RM, or start the cycle again, adding about 10 lbs to the base. Follow the same overload pattern as before.|
|Week 10 example||250x3||250x3||250x3||250x3||275x1||190x AMRAP|
* as many reps as possible
Notice that for the first 4 sets, each week we added two reps (1 rep on 2 sets) to build overload. In addition, the heavy set goes up 5 lbs every week, and once you get close to your 1RM you can start doing negatives (shoot for a 10-second eccentric and for the love of God please use a spotter).
The load on the final back down set goes up 5 lbs. per week as well, and it's important that you do as many reps as you can until failure. Calculate your goal for this set before you even show up at the gym and nail it. Get intense here.
I've found with the bench press, if you're striving to "pause" your reps at the bottom position that this is a good program to practice this method. Pause all the work sets for one-second, although if you want to do "touch and go" on the all out back down set, you can. You can also pause the reps if you find the first couple of weeks relatively easy.
For this program, you should be lifting two to four times a week and training each muscle group/area one to two times a week. You can program in the other assistance work as you see fit, but the volume is moderately high so I'd avoid doing much work on similar exercises. Rest as long as necessary between sets.
The Rep Increase Method works with any of the big lifts like squats, deadlifts, and military press. If you're not sure how to program those lifts, just post the lift and your 1RM in the discussions forum and I'll offer my suggestions.
Cycled Load Program
This program is even simpler than the Rep Increase Method. You're still training the lift once a week, but with this program you'll pick 4 different weights to work with. They all need to be separated from one another by a minimum of 20 lbs, or 10% of your one-rep max. Back in college this was my former training partner's favorite bench press routine so I'll use his numbers as an example.
He chose the classic weights of 225, 275, 315, and 365 lbs. At the start, he could get 365 lbs for 1-2 reps, so the high-end number was 95-100% of his max. To start the program off, use the lightest of the four weights you've selected and do one all out set for as many reps as possible (make sure to perform three to five warm-up sets first). Once you're done, you're finished with the exercise, and you move on to assistance work.
Next week, you do the second weight. Same process, and just repeat this plan until it stops working. Here it is written out (work sets only):
Week 1 225 x AMRAP (let's say, for example, 20)
Week 2 275 x AMRAP (10)
Week 3 315 x AMRAP (5)
Week 4 365 x AMRAP (1)
Week 5 225 x AMRAP (22)
Week 6 275 x AMRAP (12)
Week 7 315 x AMRAP (6)
Week 8 365 x AMRAP (1)
Week 9 Rinse & Repeat if desired
Notice that the weights do not increase during the routine. Instead you try to do more reps at the same weight.
You're doing only one work set for the main exercise, so you have to bring the intensity in a big way. This can be good practice for intermediates trying to learn how to channel their strength into one nut-busting set, as one set usually isn't enough of a stimulus unless you're already relatively strong.
When you go back and repeat a weight, the goal is to add more reps; so on week 5, when you repeat the weight you did on week 1, your goal is to beat those reps and you should know what they are going into it. Again, I strongly encourage setting your target long before the workout begins and attacking it like a man on a mission. You only have one set to make it happen, so don't blow it!
Program in the assistance stuff as necessary; you can do more assistance work on this plan than on the Rep Increase Method, as the workload is less, but don't go crazy. If you're a bench press addict and want to bench twice a week, I'd suggest doing some lighter, moderate volume close-grip work on the second day.
I think this program can be very effective at improving one's rep performance, like an NFL combine test. My college workout partner worked up to 225 lbs. for 42 reps using this simple program.
The Buckeye Routine
As with the previous programs, I didn't invent the Buckeye routine. I actually found it on the Internet of all places, sandwiched between an argument about wrist straps and the merits of direct arm work. Who says arguing on the 'net is a waste of time? Anyway, I tried it, liked it, and talked to others who have tried it and liked it as well.
For this program, you need to know or have a very good idea what your 1RM is. Once you determine that number, simply subtract 20 lbs. This is your starting weight, your working 1RM.
Here's an example using an actual 1RM of 275 lbs. If we subtract 20 lbs from that, we get 255 as a working 1RM.
Buckeye Routine 255 1RM
Set 1 65% x 8 reps = 165 x 8
Set 2 72.5% x 6 reps = 185 x 6
Set 3 80% x 4 reps = 205 x 4
Set 4 85% x 3 reps = 215 x 3
Set 5 90% x 2 reps = 230 x 2
Set 6 92.5% x 1 rep = 235 x 1
Set 7 75% x 4 reps = 190 x 4
Yes, you read that right: 72.5% and 92.5%. The 72.5% is used to split the difference between 65% and 80%, and 92.5% is used to avoid excessively taxing the CNS. However, you don't have to have that precise a weight on the bar, just round to the nearest number. Investing in some 1 1/2-pound weights is also very helpful.
You do all of these sets in one workout. Assuming you're successful in each one, next week add 5 lbs to the working 1RM, recalculate the percentages, and repeat. Please note that this is not the same as adding 5 lbs to every work set.
The standard Buckeye program recommends the last set (set 7) to be 75% x 4 reps, but if you desire a bit more volume and/or speed work you can do the last set for as many reps as possible. This routine works well not only with the bench press but with any big compound exercise. I've even used it successfully with biceps curls.
Generally, you can follow this routine for 8-10 weeks and experience very significant strength gains. It's quite possible that if you check your ego at the door and start 20 lbs under your true 1RM, add 5 lbs a week, and repeat for 8 weeks that you'll finish with a 20-pound increase in your 1RM. Which my friends, is nothing to sneeze at.
Just keep in mind, if you happen to fail on a set, then the following week you must repeat all the work sets, and assuming you get all your reps the second time around you can increase your max.
If you can't go up for four weeks straight, it's best to move on to a new program. You could even try cycling through these three routines, following each one for 8 weeks or so.
That's it. Three routines to get yourself to that next level of strength, the one where you start getting noticed for being strong. I can almost guarantee there is a PR in here somewhere for you, waiting to be hit.