The Hard Way
Let me say right off that I'm not a great bencher. I never benched 315 until after college. I didn't bench 400 until I was 38 years old and didn't reach 500 until I was 42. I did 400 and 500 weighing about 230 pounds in a single ply shirt. I reached 500 the hard way, but if you pay attention then you might hit that mark much sooner than I did.
I've had just about every problem and issue you can have with your bench press. I've been too slow, too weak, too small, and too dumb to succeed, often all at once! You won't have those excuses anymore! The solutions to your bench press problems and lack of upper body mass are hard work done in a targeted and efficient fashion.
Shirts, Drugs and Whiners
You might ask, "But aren't the top bench pressers not as big as bodybuilders? Aren't they all on steroids and aren't their shirts made of the armor that should be in Humvees?"
Sorry, but crying about drugs and shirts is just a weak excuse and a road to a small bench and a hollow chest cavity! Yes, Ronnie Coleman is the biggest, freakiest man on the planet, but he trains very heavy and uses powerlifting gear in his cycle. There aren't many people benching above 500 who you'd describe as "lithe."
Quite simply, you'll get stronger and build a lot of muscle by making your meet-technique bench press bigger. If doing raw benches with a max range of motion, your feet in the air and your back flat, made you bigger and stronger, everybody big and strong would be doing them. Hint: They aren't!
The full range, elbows out, flat back bench press doesn't build the lockout strength you need to bench big, and it destroys your shoulders. Just like an Olympic pole vaulter, a Tour de France cyclist or college baseball hitter, you need to focus on perfect technique, getting the most out of your equipment, and mastering your sport through constant practice and training. Squirting tears over somebody who uses different "supplements" or a better shirt than you is pathetic and an excuse to not work hard.
Whether you choose to lift raw and be a gym all-star, step up to single ply or higher, or compete drug tested or open, you need to shut up and train smart and hard. The harsh truth is that more plies and drug use complicates rather than simplifies your approach. Drug use makes you able to lift more weight, but it has very little effect on work capacity. Work capacity is the key to getting stronger as work capacity drives the volume you can handle and recover from, day to day, week to week, cycle to cycle.
But here's the good news! If you build work capacity for the bench press and eat, you'll not only get stronger, you'll grow! While you can be a good shirt bencher and a good raw bencher at the same time, you can't maximize one without neglecting the other. You must pick your road and follow it when it comes to gear.
Raw benching is more chest focused; shirt benching is more lockout focused. The grooves are similar, but shirt benching demands some amount of speed work and much more lat and biceps strength for stability. Pick one style to focus on. I strongly recommend at least a single ply shirt.
One last drug disclaimer: I choose to not use drugs as an active duty military member who wants to keep his retirement, but I'll leave the morality issues to ESPN.
The Three Cardinal Points
On a compass there are four cardinal headings that define a distinct direction: north, south, east and west. There are also 356 other headings available for you to pick from on the compass. In bench training, it's very much the same. There are four cardinal directions:
1) Volume training, like the plans Russian coach Boris Sheiko advocates
2) Westside conjugate max effort / speed training
3) Metal Militia style training
4) Western periodization
Three are very effective as standalone approaches, but the Western periodization approach of constant progressive overload (moving from hypertrophy, to strength, to speed to peaking) with volume dropping and intensity increasing each week, is the southern heading of training. If you follow it or mix it with other approaches, your bench will move initially, then head directly south.
Like every training approach, it works fine for beginners and for subjects in studies on untrained college students, but it has numerous theoretical and observation-based deficiencies. Namely, it focuses on only one thing at a time and leaves you beat up and smaller at the end of a cycle, with no skill improvement.
If the Patriots worked only on conditioning in pre-season, then defense for six weeks, special teams the next six weeks, then offense right before the playoffs, do you think they'd win a Super Bowl? How would their conditioning be in the second week of the playoffs? How would their offense be in week two? So, we'll be leaving Western periodization out of this article for obvious reason.
By exploring each of the effective approaches below, you can choose the best direction for your needs. (Or maybe the best path for you is a heading somewhere in between a cardinal direction?) Here's an overview of each method to help you get your bearings and get you on the path to a big bench.
Westside Conjugate Method
Louie Simmons advocates a twice weekly approach that focuses on speed strength on one training day, max effort training on another training day, and high volume triceps/lat assistance both days, along with constant focus on raising general physical preparedness (GPP) and work capacity. Westside was the first non-academic program that considered and applied the differences in strength speed, speed strength, reversal strength, absolute strength and strength deficit in its training.
The Westside approach consists of a speed day that's done with 40-60% of a raw 1RM, using three grips inside the rings of the Olympic bar, for eight sets of three reps. Moving the bar fast is more important than any certain percentage here. The bar should take less than a "one thousand one" to go down and come up once.
To this bar weight, you add either chains or bands. This is done to accommodate resistance, which is adding resistance as the bar travels along the range of motion away from the body. These speed benches are done "catch and go." You lower the bar fast but under control, then catch it at your chest and push it up as hard and fast as you can.
The bands also add to the acceleration of gravity on the bar and add to the force that you can produce on the concentric (lifting) portion of the bench press. To illustrate, if you dropped a 135 and a 405 pound bar from three feet off the floor, the bars would hit the floor at the same time, as the acceleration of gravity is the same on both independent of mass: 9.8 m.sec^2. But if you add bands to either bar, the bar with the bands will accelerate more and hit the floor first.
This delivers a very plyometric-like result when speed benching or box squatting. More importantly, this gives what Louie calls "virtual force" and causes the stretch reflex to be maximized. Amazingly, a bar with 250 pounds and bands will come up faster for a 500 pound bencher than the bar alone. Why? The bands load more kinetic energy into the muscles and make the CNS fire more muscle fibers due to the stretch reflex's action. If you teach your body to do this on a regular basis, you become more explosive. Louie believes speed is the best way to crash through sticking points.
The max effort day is designed to teach you to lift big weights. The best way to learn to lift big weights is to lift weights above 90% of your 1RM, but your central nervous system can only handle this for about three weeks. To get around this, Louie and his gym change max effort (ME) exercises every week.
For most, this needs to be worked into by doing a ME exercise two or three weeks in a row then changing. The first time you do an exercise you're really only learning the groove. Next time through the ME cycle you can get by with doing it only one or two weeks before changing.
Once you have the motor skill down, you can change exercises weekly and make PRs frequently after not doing an exercise for a while. The outcomes of max effort days are frequent PRs, but the bigger point is to do the best you can that day. Early in your cycle you may not hit a PR, but as you get in better shape and are more highly trained, the PRs will come.
Along with the PRs comes a loss of fear of big weights and identification of sticking points, a very important skill for a huge bench. Decide on what max effort exercises you can or need to do (if you hate doing it and are weak at an exercise, it's a good clue you need to do it) and keep PR records on each. Incline or decline presses, floor presses, board presses with or without bands and/or chains, band-lightened rack presses, and all with various grips have a PR kept in your training log with the date you made the PR.
It helps you know where you're lagging and helps you pick PR weights next time.
On a ME day you work up in 1-3 rep ramp-up sets to about 90% of your previous PR for a single, then you go to a PR or at least what you feel is the maximum you can do that day. Sometimes, one more single can be done. An optional down-set of 90% of your best single that day for a triple, and you're done. This gives you 2-7 reps at above 90%, and now you're on to triceps, lats and upper back assistance.
Early on, Westside advocated very little shirt work on ME day, but later changed to working down the boards to learn to use the shirt. Louie now advocates full range work only in the bench shirt, using shirts of various looseness. Like everybody who's successful at anything, Louie constantly corrects and improves his overall approach.
Westside lifters, when finished with the max effort or speed day main exercises, always hit triceps, lats and upper back assistance hard. Triceps extensions with various bars and dumbbells, board presses with and without bands, the JM press (a combination close grip bench press and triceps extension done with an Olympic bar lowered to a few inches above the throat), some overhead pressing in the rack, rows and pulldowns/pull-ups, and shrugs, pulls to the face, and plate raises are done in various rep schemes.
You'll see about 25-50 reps total for each body part here: 5x5, 10x5, 5x10, 7x7, etc. This isn't scripted and is often done by feel and fatigue level up to one to two reps from failure. Most Westside lifters are three lift competitors, so on another two days they're doing this same approach for squat and deadlift, plus extra workouts like timed dumbbell presses, high reps band pushdowns, sled pulling, reverse hypers, and all kinds of ab work for recovery and addressing weaknesses.
The Westside groove is basically a lot of leg drive, with the feet farther away from the body than the knees, driving the toes hard into the floor and attempting to drive the body along the bench. The bar is lowered by leading with the elbows; the elbows are tucked in as tight as possible to the lats the entire range of motion.
Pushing from the touch point below the sternum to lockout, with no drift of the bar back toward the face, gives you the shortest bar path possible. This has almost a decline press feel to the rep. The upper back is tight and the shoulders are retracted. This lower groove and shorter range of motion takes almost all of the stress off the shoulders.
If the bar won't touch when wearing the shirt, Westside advocates tucking the chin into the chest to get the shoulders to rotate and get the bar down. Then the head is driven back into the bench as you explode off the bottom from the pause. This takes practice!
Read Dave Tate's "Eight Keys" series in the T-Nation archives for more details on this type of training.
Sheiko Style Volume Programs
Russian super-coach Boris Sheiko is one of several former Eastern Bloc coaches who prescribe frequent practice of the competitive lifts largely without much assistance work. The concept is that by frequently training the bench press up to eight times a week, the body adapts to the work load and allows even more volume in each workout. You'll also see a lot of wave loading in here like Ian King wrote about in a recent T-Nation article.
The central nervous system gets very efficient at the muscle firing patterns and the groove required for benching. These workouts are done mostly in the range of 50-85% of 1RM, using waves of volume and intensity. This is simple, but brutally hard work.
There isn't a lot of specific guidance from the former Commies on shirt use and technique. It's advisable to use a shirt in training if you're using a shirt-based max to compute your training percentages. You'll need at least a size looser shirt to get training weights to touch. This approach is probably best for single ply lifters as it doesn't build the lockout needed in a double ply shirt or better.
Pausing all the reps is very important with Sheiko style programs. For some reason I can't exactly describe but experience every week, the pause benches stimulate not just your chest, but your lockout even more.
Here's a ten week training plan devised by Coach Sheiko and recommended by Pavel Tsatsouline in his book, Beyond Bodybuilding:
Preparatory Week 1
Key: %1RM x reps x sets, BP = bench press
Monday: BP 50x5, 60x4, 70x3x2, 80x3x5 (30)
BP 44x5, 65x5, 75x4x4 (26)
Tuesday: Incline BPx4x6 (24), Dips with weight 6x5
Wednesday: BP 50x6, 60x5, 70x4x2, 75x3x2, 80x2x2, 85x1x2, 80x2x2, 75x3x2, 70x4, 65x6, 55x7, 50x8 (71) "The Infamous Wednesday BP Marathon"
Friday: BP 50x5, 60x4, 70x3, 80x2x5
Saturday: PBN 5x5 (25), Dips with weight 4x6
Total Lifts 201, average intensity 67.1%
Preparatory Week 2
Monday: BP 50x5, 60x4, 70x3x2, 80x2x2, 90x1x3 (22)
BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3, 80x2x5 (19)
Tuesday: BP Dips with weight 5x5
Wednesday: BP 55x5, 65x4, 75x3x2, 85x2x4 (23)
Friday: BP 50x5, 60x4, 70x3x2, 80x3x7 (36)
Saturday: BP 55x5, 65x5, 75x4x5 (30)
Lifts 130, Average Intensity 71.5%
Preparatory Week 3
Monday: BP 50x5, 60x4, 70x3x2, 80x3x5 (30)
BP 50x5, 60x5, 70x5x5 (35)
Tuesday: BP 55x5, 65x4, 75x3x4 (20)
Wednesday: BP 50x8, 55x7, 60x6, 65x5, 70x4, 75x3x2, 80x2x2, 75x3x2, 70x4, 65x6, 60x8, 55x10 50x12 (86) "The Even Worse Wednesday BP Marathon"
Friday: BP 50x5, 60x4, 70x3x2, 75x3x6 (33)
Saturday: 50x6, 60x6, 65x6x4 (36)
Lifts 240, Average Intensity 64.7%
Preparatory Week 4
Monday: BP 50x4, 60x4, 70x3x2, 80x2x5
Tuesday: BP Incline BP x3x5 (15), Dips with weight 6x5
Wednesday: BP 50x5, 60x4, 70x3x2, 75x2x2, 80x1x3, 75x2x2, 70x4, 60x6, 50x8 (44)
Friday: BP 55x4, 65x4, 65x3x2, 85x2x4 (22)
Saturday: PBN x4x5 (20), Triceps work 10x5
Of note, when two bench sessions are scheduled in the same day, you can either put a squat workout in between or make this a morning/afternoon split schedule. This is a workout for an advanced lifter, so a less qualified lifter could drop the inclines, press behind the neck (I'd drop this overhead work anyway!), dips with weight, and drop a set off every instance you do more than one set with a percent. You could also knock 10-20% off your 1RM and plug it all in from there.
Competition Week 1
Monday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 80x3x6 (30)
Tuesday: Incline BP 3x5 (15)
Wednesday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 80x2x3, 85x1x3 (21)
Friday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 80x3x5 (27)
BP 55x4, 65x4, 75x4x4 (24)
Lifts 117, Intensity 71.6%
Competition Week 2
Monday: BP 55x3, 65x3, 75x3x2, 85x2x4 (20)
BP 503, 65x3, 70x3, 80x3x6 (27)
Tuesday: PBN 4x5
Wednesday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3, 80x2x8 (28)
Friday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 80x2x2, 85x2x3, 80x2x2 (26)
Saturday: BP 55x3, 65x3x2, 75x2x4 (14)
Lifts 135, Intensity 72.7%
Competition Week 3
Monday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 75x2x4 (20)
Wednesday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x2x2, 80x1x2, 90x1, 95-100x1x2-3 (16)
Friday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 80x2x5 (22)
Saturday: BP 55x3, 65x3x2, 75x3x4 (21)
Lifts 79, Intensity 70.0%
Competition Week 4
Monday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 80x2x3, 90x1x2, 80x2x4 (24)
Wednesday: BP 55x3, 65x3, 75x3x2, 85x2x3 80x3x2 (24)
Friday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 80x3x5 (27)
Saturday: BP 55x3, 65x3, 75x2x5 (16)
Lifts 81, Intensity 71.8%
Competition Week 5
Monday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x3, 80x2x4 (20)
Wednesday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x2x2, 80x1x3 (13)
Friday: 50x3, 60x3, 70x3x2, 75x2x4 (20)
Lifts 53, Intensity 67.7%
Competition Week 6, Meet Week!
Monday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x2x2, 75x1x2 (12)
Wednesday: BP 50x3, 60x3, 70x1x3 (12) meet warm-up run through!
Saturday: Meet! Same warm-ups as on Wednesday, then 90%, 102%, 107-110%.
Lifts and assistance go down in the meet prep cycle significantly, but intensity goes up slightly. Note the small amount of 90% plus weights even in meet prep cycle, but how the number of 71-80% weights stay the same as the prep cycle over the first four weeks of the meet cycle. The last two weeks are a taper.
Metal Militia Training
This is the Mecca of shirt benching. Even Louie Simmons gives props to these guys as innovators in the bench press. Like Westside, they work their asses off and increase volume throughout the cycle. Between Sebastian Burns and Bill Crawford in upstate New York, and Shawn Latimer and Mike Miller of Nazereth Barbell in the Keystone state, these men and women do the very hard and heavy specific work with the exact technique they need to be good at being a strong meet bencher.
They work so hard they take every fourth or fifth week off completely, based on their fatigue level. They're training all-out every workout, and even though they're eating a lot and growing into their shirts, they still need a back-off every few weeks.
Sebastian laid it out clearly, "We take off around the third or fourth week depending on how we're feeling. After two to four weeks of heavy training we're ready for a week off. Sometimes we go two weeks, sometimes three, sometimes four. If we need it, and you always will training Metal Militia, we take it. If you're really beat from your last workout, you won't be able to train hard and make gains week after week. A week off here and there really helps."
These benchers are in their shirt every week, always using the shirt in the full range of motion, constantly seeking to be perfect in their setup and groove. This is their template explained by Sebastian Burns:
"We train the bench two days per week, one day for low-end raw strength, and the other for top-end and shirt practice. Our workouts fall on Tuesday and Saturday. Tuesday is for raw and Saturday is top-end and assistance day.
Raw bench: Index finger on ring grip
We work our way up to a 3 rep max (3RM). If we get all three reps we will go up 10 pounds and try another three reps. If we don't get three we may stop there or go down for a 5 RM. Next week we'll attempt the 3RM again and go up 10 pounds, etc.
Total sets = 5 to 8
Decline: Pinky fingers on rings
For decline, we work up to a 5RM with all sets done for five reps. Total sets equal five.
The more you arch on the bench press the more valuable the decline will be.
4,3,2,1 Boards: Pinky fingers on rings
We usually work up to a 3RM on the #4 board, then we may go for 1RM on the next boards depending on energy levels and soreness from the previous workout.
Total sets range from 8 to as many as 15. Total sets on this day range from 15 to 30. Other exercises that can be done on this day:
Incline: 4 sets, 5 to 1 reps
Rope Extensions: 2 sets, 20 to 40 reps
Pulldowns: 4 sets, 10 reps
Shrugs: 4 sets, 10 reps
Close Grip Bench: Pinky fingers on rings
This exercise is used as a warm-up and we use the same progression as raw bench for the sets except we don't go back down for a 5RM.
Shirt Bench: Index fingers on rings
We'll put our shirts on here if the meet is within four weeks or so. If the meet is farther away we'll do our shirt work at the end before rack work. Everyone usually starts off with their shirt where they left off with the close grip bench, starting with 3 to 5 reps in the first few sets to get into a groove of the shirt, then onto a few doubles then some singles.
If the singles don't go well, if there are problems touching or with your groove, then we'll go right back to the beginning and work all the way back up again trying harder to get everything right. Sets here could range from 5 to 10 to even 20 or more, depending on how everything goes. If you don't get it right you must work back through until you get it right.
6,5,4, Boards: Pinky finger on ring
We'll usually try to max on all of these boards and sometimes work through the same board twice if the groove doesn't feel right or we miss our goal weight on a certain board. Again, sets could be very high if things don't go right or if more work is needed in a certain area. The #4 board is optional on this day depending if you did it on Tuesday or not.
Rack Lockouts: Pinky finger on ring
We work our way up to a 3RM using three reps for all sets. These are done at the end of the workout when you're tired and want to go home, but if you stay and do them you'll have great finishing power needed to lockout heavy weight. Total sets range from 6 to 10.
Other exercises that can be done on this day:
Triceps Pushdowns: 3 sets, 10 reps
Rope Extensions: 2 sets, 20 to 40 reps
Pulldowns: 4 sets, 10 reps
Shrugs: 4 sets, 10 reps
As you can see, there's much more volume done on Saturday than on Tuesday and nothing is set in stone. The workouts are dictated by the way we feel and where we feel we need the most work to produce improvement."
Metal Militia's technique is amazingly well thought out and detailed. They're very big on upper back tightness, with the shoulder blades retracted. They're experts at getting the shirt perfectly set. These expert benchers have their feet closer to their head than their knees and as wide as possible. But while they drive with the balls of their feet, they'll also put their heel on the floor for stability and to help the bar to touch.
Speaking of balls, they drive their balls down into the bench while sticking their stomach and chest upwards, flexing their glutes. This maximizes arch and stability, and keeps their butts touching the bench, not to mention being pretty hardcore. They don't press straight upwards; they let the bar drift slightly backwards at lockout, as they feel this allows for a smoother lockout. The Metal Militia guys really live up to their reputation as masters of technique.
Making It Work For You: My Journey
You need to train most where you're most deficient. If you're skinny, you need to focus on adding muscle and bodyweight. If you're slow, you need to work on speed. If you have poor technique, you need to hone and perfect your groove. If you're weak at lockout, you need to get stronger in the upper range of your bench press.
I can't address every situation, but my ongoing trip to 600 (the day you're satisfied is the beginning of the end!) started with a bad bench day at the 1998 USAPL Military Nationals. I struggled to a two white light 375. It was slow and ugly and barely locked out. I was fed up with my bench and was determined to fix this problem.
I read an article in Powerlifting USA by Louie Simmons called "Chasing Your Tail." Western Periodization, the normal approach of working up in weights and down in reps from 10 to 8 to 5 to 3 reps over a 16 week cycle, wasn't working and Louie showed me why.
I started working on speed and triceps strength. I added speed work with bands with no tension at the bottom and a lot at the top, and 225 pounds of bar weight, plus lots of triceps pushdowns and lat work in both rowing and pulldown planes. In the fall of 1999 in an Inzer EPHD shirt, I hit 400 for the first time, then 410 at 234 pounds of bodyweight in a full powerlifting meet, after squatting 700 for the first time.
In the spring, thinking I was on a roll and with high hopes, I struggled to break that PR. I then reduced my bar weight to 205 on speed day, made sure I had band tension the entire range of motion using doubled mini bands, and switched to heavy JM presses and EZ-curl bar extensions to the forehead from cable pushdowns.
In the fall of 2000, I hit a 430 at 225 pounds in my Inzer, then a week later 420 at 217, both in a full meet. (Important point: Bodyweight loss is at least a pound-for-pound negative to your bench.) I was trying to stay at 220, so even though my training lifts and raw board PRs were going up, the fight to stay at 220 kept me making only second attempts of 420-430 and missing PR third attempts.
In the fall of 2001 in a tune-up meet, I hit 705-435-605. This was still all in single ply and at about 228. At this point I decided to stop the 100 kilo insanity and move up to 242. There was an event that fall that changed everyone's life, and as a Navy pilot my training moved back substantially in my priorities as I was heavily deployed overseas for the next two years.
A leg injury aggravated by doing heavy good mornings further limited my training, but even with bodyweight down in the spring of 2002 I hit 440 weighing 219 while home on leave, with no peaking. I'd been doing less speed work overseas, but a lot of 4 and 5 board close grip work.
Deployed again with a heavy flying load, I had to further limit speed work and max effort due to training alone and did lots of low rep sets on an irregular schedule, trying to always finish with some 3 or 4 board lockout work. I occasionally even did a Sheiko BP Marathon on my raw day. You get a muscle fullness much more intense than a pump, but with surprisingly little residual soreness the next day with these workouts. The higher volume and less frequent speed work was easier on my pec insertions. So was pausing the widest grip speed work, but still catch and going the closer grips.
The volume was adding muscle even though I couldn't eat very well and wasn't sleeping a lot. You can actually make pretty good gains on peanut butter and whole milk if you have too! I also began to back off my training every fourth week after reading the book Consistent Winning.
In the spring of 2003, I just missed 455 at lockout in a loose Inzer poly in training, so I knew I was on the right track. I left the squadron in the late summer of 2003. I now put together what I'd been playing with in the gym and getting my head around when not flying. I needed to keep my speed up, but focus on more volume to get bigger and stronger, hone my groove in a newer technology shirt, and hammer my never ending lockout weakness even more.
That fall, in a loose double denim, with just a little speed work with 185 and doubled minis and more volume, I smoked 455 but couldn't lockout 470 that last inch. More 4 board work as assistance, extra workouts for the triceps involving high rep band pushdowns, 3-4 board max effort work, and I switched to the Titan Fury single ply poly shirt. In order to master this shirt, I focused more on Metal Militia's form, warmed up raw, then worked in my shirt down the boards to learn the new groove.
It wasn't easy and I dropped 515 on my chest more times than I can count. I did speed work once every two weeks, and most of my max effort days in the shirt doing a board press of some kind or the other on an alternate week. I learned that my 2 board PR in a shirt exactly predicts my meet bench press.
In the USAPL Louisiana State Championships in January 2004, I smoked 470 on a third attempt at 234 pounds. It was the easiest of the three attempts, accelerating to lockout. On a roll, I hit 474 at 232 at the USAPL Military nationals on my third attempt after repeating my opener. I realized I was opening too light and my problem was I just wasn't ready mentally for big weights. My brain was limiting what I could do, not my body.
In May 2004, at the Biggest Bench on the River, with USAPL judges, I hit 500 on my second, missing 525 on a third, then making it on a fourth at 230 pounds bodyweight. I continued to alternate my max effort and speed days every week, and kept my volume up on a raw day once a week. The Thursday raw day after the Monday max effort day in a shirt needed to be cut back as shirted max effort work is extremely hard on the body, even with only five heavy reps done in the entire workout. In my opinion, it's like doing overload eccentric only training, except you can push it back up.
I'd finally qualified for the first time for the USAPL Nationals at 42 years of age. In July of 2004 at barely 225 pounds, I hit 700-501-601 at the meet after a week of the flu. My gear had gotten very loose with the loss of seven pounds, but my experience and practice with using two shirts in training allowed me to make a decent showing.
My last meet in October of 2004, at 231 pounds, I opened light at 500 in a loose Fury, smoked 525 in my tighter shirt, then missed 540 when my shirt seam blew. Since then, I've broken every one of my board PRs, have added back in a bit more speed work, and have gone back to raw board work on max effort day after a conversation with Louie Simmons.
I've hit 550 off a 2 board in a loose shirt, and have hit 605 off a 4 board, but my 3 board keeps coming up short at 600. I'm wearing out that 3 board! Raw days consist of various rep protocols from 10 sets of 3 to multiple waves. We've found that slightly less elbow tuck in the newer poly shirts gives more pop at the bottom of the press.
We even do our speed days once in a while in a Smith machine with a lot of band tension in the whole range of motion (heavily choked green bands), a low bar weight of 65-95 pounds, and the counter weight cables disconnected. We learned this from the great Jesse Kellum.
Despite the added muscle from the hard work done raw, the board work and lat work, it's still hard to stay above 230 pounds unless I'm squatting a lot. Heavy benching builds muscle, but squatting is what adds bodyweight!
Larry Pacifico once said the best way to improve your bench press is to eat more and do close grips. I'd agree, with the exceptions that you also need to have superb technique, a strong work ethic, a willingness to learn and change, a large work capacity, a fearless approach to big weights, and a willingness to back off when you're beat up.
Bigger bench + buffet = bigger upper body. Questions?