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Build the Bench - February 13th 2019

It was spring 2000 and I was strutting into the Islander Gym in Ocean City after school, all fired up for my upper body lift. I remember someone said something, probably making fun of one of my turtleneck sweaters or my ill fitting clothing, as I turned around to fire off some lame response I tripped over a barbell, my bookbag went one direction and my portable CD player went another and I landed right on my ass. The fall might have been embarrassing but my bench press in those days, was downright pathetic. Don’t be like 2000s Drew.

If you want to up your bench press you need to improve technique, learn different ways to max out, train the hell out of your triceps, shoulders and upper back, and add in some speed work.

The set up for a bench press should be like the set up for a heavy squat or deadlift. You need to be tight and tense throughout your body. Your shoulder blades need to be pulled together and down, this might cause a little bit of an arch in your mid back. Squeeze the bar with the intent to crush it to dust. Keep your wrists straight throughout the lift.  As you lower the bar to your chest, your forearms should remain vertical, if your forearms slide in, it means your hands are too close together, if they slide out, it means your hands are too far apart. Touch the bar between the middle and bottom of the chest. DO NOT BOUNCE THE BAR OFF YOUR CHEST.

Take some time and perform some work up sets before attempting a new 1 rep max. Work up sets are warmup sets that can help prime your body for the heavy sets to come. Performing the first few light sets as fast as possible can help fire up your nervous system which, in turn, can help you lift heavier weight. For these warm up sets, you would lower the bar under control and perform the pressing action as fast as possible.

Lets say your 1 rep max is 165 lbs. You would perform 2 sets of 3 reps with 95lbs. on the bar with an explosive tempo on the way up. Your 3rdset would be 3 reps with 115lbs on the bar, your 4th set would be a set of 1 rep with 135 lbs on the bar, your 5th set would be a set of 1 rep with 155lbs on the bar and then you would go for a new max of 170lbs on your 6th set. Only the first 2 sets would be performed with an fast, explosive tempo. You would focus on controlling the weight as the bar gets heavier. Allow yourself 2-3 minutes of rest between each set, regardless of whether you are tired or not.

It is fun to get under the bar, yell and scream as you attempt to max out every week. It is also a great way to never bench heavy. A 1-rep max is very stressful on your nervous system and after a couple weeks of maxing on the same exercise your strength might actually drop. As my Italian grandmother used to say “This, this no good”. There are two ways to get around this issue and continue making progress; you can rotate exercises every 2 to 3 weeks or your can spend some time setting a new 5 rep max and a new 3 rep max.

Exercises like floor presses, incline barbell presses and thick grip barbell bench presses are great options to rotate through if you want to continue trying to set new 1 rep maxes each week. I would switch them up every 2 weeks.

You could also spend 2 to 3 weeks working on setting new 3 or 5 rep maxes on these same exercises. I like 3 and 5 rep maxes for developing athletes as the lighter weights and higher reps will allow more time to develop skill in the lift.

Once you perform your max exercise, you want to spend time working on the shoulders, triceps and upper back. These muscles will help build your bench press strength. Shoulder presses, front raises, lateral raises, face pulls, and pullaparts are great options for the shoulders. Close grip pushups, close grip bench presses, Dumbbell floor presses and tricep extensions are great options for the triceps. Rows, inverted rows, pullups and pulldowns are great options for the upper back. Pick one of each and perform 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 15 reps. Do not just toss the weight around, you need to feel the muscles working. Start with a weight you can handle for 8 to 10 reps and add weight when you can perform 3 sets of 15 reps. Rest for 1 minute between sets and allow yourself 72 hours of recovery before training these muscles again. Rotate exercises every 3 to 4 weeks.

After 72 hours, you will perform your second upper body day of the week. We will sub in a dumbbell pressing exercise or a pushup variation for the max effort exercise. Instead of trying to set a 1 rep max, you will perform 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps of a pushup variation, a dumbbell bench press, a dumbbell floor press or an incline dumbbell bench press. Start with a weight you can handle for 8 to 10 reps and add weight when you can perform 3 sets of 12 reps. Give yourself 1-2 minutes rest between sets. Pick 3 to 4 exercises from the list in the paragraph above and perform 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 15 reps as in the first upper body day of the week.

I learned most of what I know to be true about building the bench from strength coaches and powerlifters like Joe Defranco and Westside Barbell. If you are looking to take your bench into the 4-600lbs. club I strongly recommend checking those guys out.

Master the set up, rotate your lifts and build muscle around the triceps, shoulders and upper back and, with a little patience and grit, you will be on your way to a bigger bench. Oh, don’t ever wear turtlenecks.

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