Having another well-established coach turn to you for help is the most sincere compliment a coach can receive. This is even more true when that coach has views that are usually dramatically different from your own.
A coach who is willing to try different things shows that they’re open minded and sincerely looking for the best way to progress, not boost their ego. These are the kind of coaches – and people – I respect. – Christian Thibaudeau
November 2010, I was pissed.
My team and I did a push/pull meet. The deadlifts went well, but we also benched that day and not one of us set a PR.
Nobody slacked in the gym – my guys train hard or they don’t train with me, period – but the truth is our benches had been stuck in a rut for a year or more. I’d racked my brain and tried a variety of programs, but all I was getting for my hard work was a measly five pounds here and there.
Eventually, I threw up my hands and decided it was time to try something different; something new, something even a bit radical. I remembered reading a TNation program by Christian Thibaudeau from 2005 called 8 Weeks to a Record Bench. It had stuck in my head because it sounded kind of crazy, but also cool. It was high frequency, and I usually lean towards the lower frequency end of the spectrum.
But my approaches weren’t working. It was time for a change. It was time to try this program.
Coach Thibs’ original program is a little complicated – I had to reread it a few times before I truly got exactly what I was supposed to do. I think it can be streamlined a bit, particularly with the help of some videos, so you can see exactly how it’s supposed to go.
Also, as with many programs, often there’s a desire to modify it to your schedule, so I’m going to give you some options for that. To further alleviate confusion, I’ll present exactly what I did each week.
You might be wondering what kind of results you can expect from this routine. Here’s what our team achieved. These lifts indicate raw, paused, competition form benches unless otherwise noted. We started the program on January 3rd, 2011.
|Feb 26th 2011
|April 1st 2011
Fail on 225
Fail on 287
Fail on 275
|303||315 *||+50 lbs
|Tim||308 * *||347||365||+57 lbs
* touch and go.
* * 308 was my third attempt because my second felt so crappy. I didn’t fail but I maybe had 315 on that day.
In the original version, Coach Thibs prescribes five bench press workouts in the week. Each workout consists of one main pressing exercise and an assistance exercise. The kicker is that rather than doing these workouts Monday through Friday, you do three workouts on one day (he suggests Sunday) and then one workout on two other days of the week.
Coach Thibs: It’s funny how things go in circles! I’d forgotten about that program before Tim contacted me, but much is the same as I would recommend now – although now I have a better understanding why it works. For example, the three daily workout days are a form of “concentrated loading,” which is used to cause a rapid change in capacities. When properly planned, this leads to exponential strength gains.
Workouts 1-3 are completed on the same day.
|1||Bench Press||One single cluster set||90% 1RM||AMAP|
|2||Close-Grip Decline Press||5||4 – 6|
- Single Cluster Set – is where, after a warm-up, you perform one rep of the bench press, rack it and rest 20-30 seconds, then perform another single rep, rest, and repeat for as many as possible. Once you’ve finished that set you’re done and can move on to the next exercise.
- AMAP – As many as possible.
|1||Bench Press||5 multiple cluster set||5|
|2||Seated Dumbbell Military Press||5||4 – 6|
- Multiple Cluster Set – is where, after a warm-up, you perform one rep of the bench press, rack it and rest 10-15 seconds, perform another single rep, rest, and then repeat until you complete 5 reps. That’s one set. Rest 2-5 minutes and repeat for a total of 5 sets, completing 25 total reps.
|1||Bench Press||3 drop sets||95%, 90%, 85%, 80% 1RM||4|
|2||Skullcrushers||5||4 – 6|
- Drop Set – (in this instance) is where, after a warm-up, you perform just one rep at a heavy weight, immediately decrease the weight 5%, then perform another rep. Repeat two more times for a total of 4 reps (4 singles). That’s one drop set. Rest 2-5 minutes and then repeat two more times.
|1||Pause Pin Press||6||90% 1RM||3|
|2||Pause Speed Bench Press||8 – 12||40 – 50% 1RM||3|
- Pause Pin Press – Set the pins about 1″ above your chest. Start with the bar on the pins. Press it up, bring it back and fully pause on the pins, then press again for a total of 3 reps. Perform 6 total sets.
- Pause Speed Bench Press – Warm-up, then take a light weight, pause it on your chest for an extended time (2-3 full seconds), then press up explosively. Perform 3 total reps per set. Rest 1-2 minutes and repeat for 8-12 sets. This should be easy and it’s a good chance to work on your technique.
|1||Negative Bench Press||3 – 6||100% 1RM||3|
|2||High Rack Press||4||3|
- Negative Bench Press – Take a heavy weight and lower it with a 3-5 second count to your chest. Have spotters lift it up to the top. Repeat for a total of 3 reps. Rest up to 4 minutes. Perform 3-6 total sets.
- High Rack Press – Set the pins just above the sticking point. Don’t let the bar touch the pins once you begin; come as close as you can without touching the supports. Perform 4 sets of 3 reps.
Workouts 4 and 5 are performed on separate days.
What We Did
I have a wife and three little kids and a more than full time job (plus three part time jobs), so the idea of spending a whole Sunday in the gym wasn’t feasible for me or my training partners. Even though my Mondays are long, I do have time to be in the gym on those days, so I decided to do a Monday/Wednesday/Friday workout routine.
I was going to do two separate workouts on Monday (at 2:30 PM and 9:30 PM), and then work out on Wednesday and Friday. This worked well for me, and I think it’s more realistic for most readers, although performing it as it was originally laid out is probably the best idea.
Here’s what I did.
|1||Bench Press||Single cluster set||90% 1RM||6 – 10|
|2||Close-Grip Decline Press||5||Ascending with one back-down set||5|
- Bench Press – The goal was 10 reps – if we didn’t get 6 reps we had to repeat the weight again next week. If we got 6+ reps, then we went up 5-10 lbs. next week.
- Close-Grip Decline Press – It might go something like 135×5, 185×5, 215×5, 245×5, 195×5. Grip the bar with two fingers on the smooth, two on the grip; so not super narrow. Start light, as you’re probably not used to this exercise. If you achieve your targets, go up 5-20 lbs. next week (usually 10 lbs.). This exercise might feel awkward the first time you do it.
Performed right after workout one without using an extended rest.
|1||Bench Press||5||80% 1RM||5|
|2||Seated Dumbbell Military Press||5||Ascending with one back-down set||5|
- Bench Press – I found a big difference in strength between 10-15 seconds rest and 20-30 seconds rest on clusters. Go up 5 lbs. a week if you get all 25 total reps. Note: not 90% of 1RM
- Seated Dumbbell Military Press – This includes all sets so it might go 20×5, 35×5, 50×5, 60×5, 35×5. I also started light on this one and went up 5 lbs. every other week.
Performed about five hours after the completion of workouts 1 and 2.
|1||Bench Press||3 drop sets||95%, 90%, 85%, 80% 1RM||4|
- Bench Press – I was nervous about this but found that several hours of rest and a few meals let me recover quite well; sometimes I almost felt stronger the second time around. This should be your heaviest pressing set. Go up 5-10 lbs. a week if you get your reps.
- Skullcrushers – We did pullover skullcrushers, ascending sets, often with one back-down set. After a few weeks these started to bother my wrists so I switched to DB triceps extensions. Go up 5 lbs. a week every week or every other week.
|1||Pause Pin Press||4||Ascending with one back-down set||3|
|2||Speed Paused Bench Press * *||9||40 – 50% 1RM||3|
- Pause Pin Press – I didn’t include the first warm-up set or two so it would look something like this: 135×5, 185×3, 225×3, 250×3, 275×3, 235×3. Go up 5-20 lbs., usually 10 lbs., each week if you achieve your set/rep goal.
- Speed Paused Bench Press – I performed 3 sets of 3 reps, increased the weight 10 lbs., did another 3 sets of 3, increased the weight 10 lbs., and did another 3 sets of 3 reps. I found that almost pulling the bar down at the very top helped me increase the speed, and each rep had a long pause to it. These sets can feel like a waste of time but they have value. I increased the weight every two weeks by 10 lbs. per set.
|1||Negative Bench Press||4||100% 1RM||3|
|2||High Rack Press||4||Ascending with one back-down set||3|
- Negative Bench Press – I like these. Let the weight drop at about a 4-second count to just above the sticking point and then reverse it (still bringing each rep to the chest). On the fourth set I went for an honest 6-8 second count on the reps, sometimes longer. Don’t waste your energy up high; fight the weight in the bottom half of the rep and lower – where you feel the weakest, fight the hardest. Go up 5-10 lbs. a week if you have good control on that last set.
- High Rack Press – I did not counting the first warm-up set or two, so it might go like this: 135×5, 185×3, 225×3, 255×3, 285×3, 235×3. Don’t touch the pins but get close to them – on the light weight I’d pause briefly just above the pin and then explode. Go up 5-20 lbs. a week if you get the top end set.
Things I learned
Clusters really work. They’re like cheating in that you get those extra heavy reps in but without destroying yourself.
Coach Thibs: Clusters are a tried-and-true method that never fails, as long as they’re not abused. If you want rapid progress it should be among the first thing you try. Sadly, because it’s not “novel” or doesn’t use “cool equipment,” it’s often forgotten.
There’s a big difference between 30 seconds rest on the clusters (which was almost full recovery) and 10-15 seconds rest, which would get tough after a few reps.
If you want to make the 5×5 cluster set tougher, keep your hands on the bar while it’s racked and go again. You’ll go faster.
Coach Thibs: Don’t forget that it’s all about performance. In most cases, provided there’s no decrease in performance, a greater training density is better. But if it leads to a decrease in rep performance, it’s not a good thing. If investing 2-3 more seconds of rest yields one more good rep, then that’s a good investment!
I found that resting 20-30 minutes (which I initially did between Workout 1 and 2) did nothing for my strength; it was ultimately just a waste of time.
I found that resting 3-5 hours, particularly if I could eat a meal or two, resulted in a surprisingly high level of recovery – sometimes I almost felt stronger on that second workout of the day.
Coach Thibs: I noticed the same thing. In the past I’d do a strength workout in the morning and plan to do pump training in the afternoon. But when I found that I was actually stronger in the afternoon workout, I switched to a second strength session and often bested the earlier morning workout. This is due to the neural activation from the morning workout still being in effect and having enough time and nutrients to replenish energy stores.
Try to do a high carb day on the triple workout day.
If you can plan this workout to coincide with a bulking phase, you’ll be better off.
An ice pack on the stomach for 2-3 minutes right before you do your big set on workout 1 can help wake you up.
Coach Thibs: The stomach is like a “second nervous system.” Putting ice on it activates you and puts you into high gear. You can become desensitized to this, so don’t use it too often.
This is a lot of volume; I’d suggest bringing in your grip on all or almost all bench press sets to save your shoulders the pounding. I’d warm-up with my pinkies on the ring and then move my grip in 3-4 fingers-width for the work sets. I’d rotate my grip on the speed sets (1/2 thumb, full thumb, pinky on ring – 3 sets each).
The first day I did this program my shoulders screamed at me but they seemed to adapt by the third week.
Start light. We used our second attempt paused competition bench press as our max. This is not the program to overestimate your max by even 5 or 10 lbs. Jim Wendler’s rule of taking your max and subtracting 20 lbs. is wise. Go up 5 lbs. a week from that and you’re still up 20 lbs. or more on your real max after two months.
Supplements help. I was taking Surge® Workout Fuel (2 scoops), and Plazma™. I did that twice on Monday (afternoon and late night workout) and then on Friday as well (Wednesday was a low carb day for me). I also took Brain Candy® and a high quality vitamin/mineral supplement.
Save energy on the warm-ups. I reduced my warm-ups to the following: 45×5, 135×3, 185×3, 225×3, 275×1, work set.
Start light on the assistance work. Give yourself room to make jumps and only go heavy on one set or so per exercise.
Bigger guys need less volume and/or more recovery time. I had my 250-plus pound lifter do 6 reps on the single cluster, 3 reps on the 5×5, 3 sets on the drop set (instead of 4), 2 reps on the negatives (instead of 3), and often 1 less set on all assistance work.
Coach Thibs: Interesting point. I never realized that point [that big guys need more recovery and less volume] until one of my pro football players (a defensive lineman, who is in very good shape), couldn’t tolerate a volume that I thought he’d easily handle. We tend to assume that guys with more muscle are better suited to strength work and that they can do more of it, but I find that big guys with very efficient nervous systems can’t tolerate volume very well.
We did this program for eight weeks, had a meet, and got good results. I then decided to push it for three more weeks, with one off week, and then a final max. On those last three weeks I reduced the volume.
You should fail little or not at all on this.
This was one of the first workouts programs, especially for upper body, that I really felt the Testosterone being released. (You can ask my wife about that J). It was great.
Lifters can hit the bench more frequently at a high intensity than I thought, and there’s a big difference between 90-95% of the 1RM for singles versus 96-100% of the 1RM.
Coach Thibs: EXACTLY! That is how Bulgarian lifters can reportedly train daily to their “maximum.” Their maximum is a “training maximum” which is roughly 92-95%. Similarly, sprinters can do a lot of volume and frequency running at 90-92%, but one session at 97-100% can leave them wiped for days.
The second workout in the same day was helpful, but if you can only do one workout a day I’d set it up like this:
- Day 1
- Workout 1
- Workout 4 (the heavy low pin press)
- Workout 2 (5×5 cluster @ 80%)
- Day 2
- Workout 3 (Drop-set)
- Day 3
- Workout 5 (Negatives)
The drop-set day is very important; I see the single cluster and the drop-sets as being the two most important workouts, so you want to be fresh for those.
It’s not very balanced. Most of my lifters have good muscle balance, particularly in the upper body, because we’re always blasting back, rear delts, etc., like bodybuilders. We could afford to go three months with essentially no back exercises because we started in good balance. If you don’t already have good muscle balance it might be a problem.
Coach Thibs: Very good point. I personally stagger rear delts/rhomboids or traps work between sets of pressing.
High rate of injury. None of my lifters or I suffered any type of significant injury, but I read that some who tried the original version ran into problems. They likely didn’t understand how to set up the program correctly or they overestimated their max. Coach Thibs did a great job of laying the elements together, which is tough to do in a high frequency/high intensity program for the masses.
Watch doing other stuff. We did other stuff even though it’s recommended not to do so. We did legs on Tuesday and Thursday, and as someone who competes in curling competitions I did a lot of biceps stuff on Monday/Wednesday/Friday. It was okay, but I’d limit any upper body pressing to just what is prescribed here.
Know your maxes. You have to know your true max, base your percentages on that max, and make semi-conservative but regular increases in weight for this program to work the best.
Coach Christian Thibaudeau deserves all the credit for the creation of this program – I’m just dusting it off and lending my experience to it. Still, purists may frown at my actions, arguing that by making even modest tweaks to an original program I risk becoming the strength training equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein, irrevocably changing something beautiful into a mess of misguided loading parameters.
To those critics I say this, whether you follow this is up to you (hell, I hope my competitors don’t read this article), but as a competitive lifter there’s no greater joy than seeing stagnant numbers finally start to climb after a lengthy plateau.
This bench press program might not be for the faint of heart (or the beginner), but if you’re mired deep in the bowels of a pressing purgatory, I suggest buckling down and giving it a try.