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Building a Bigger Bench: An alternative to the Flex Approach

Tell someone you train and inevitably the first question they’ll ask you is ‘What d’ya bench?’ Promptly followed by ‘Show us your six pack’, to which I reply ‘It’s in the fridge’. In all seriousness though I’d have much rather offered up what I squat or deadlift than what pathetic weight I shifted off my chest. Despite having been consumed by every chest training and bench press article the bodybuilding glossys had to offer from the start of my iron education I really didn’t have much luck in the pec department, be it size or strength. A serious shoulder injury later and I was still none the wiser, messing around with roughly the same weight I’d been pushing for the last couple of years the training rut I had fallen in to now seemed more like a gigantic chasm destined to consume my manhood and plague my very being for ever more. The prospect of being eternally taunted by my double D cupped, big benching buddies was too much to bear. A solution had to be found, and fast. The next time I replied to the ubiquitous, yet annoying, ‘What d’ya bench?’ question, I wanted to install awe in the inquisitive chap that asked, not prompt the retort ‘so does me mam!’ Well hop off the cable crossover folks, I think I’ve found my answer.

After watching the big benchers at subsequent powerlifting meets, and critiquing my own form in the gym it became apparent to me that I had been searching for the Holy Grail in entirely the wrong place. I was trying to slaughter two bulls with one bullet, trying to build a set of gargantuan pecs and a bar bending bench at the self same time. This just isn’t feasible. To an extent the two go hand in hand, but somewhere along the line they get lost in translation. When you make the progression from beginner to advanced lifter so to should your training. Initially there may be little need to prioritise as you are looking for size and strength across the board, in essence everything is a weak point and each goal must be pursued with equal vigour. A few years down the line though when newbie gains are but a distant memory and your stronger body parts dominate the weak, things have to change. Prioritisation is the name of this game. Ultimately a bodybuilder lifts weight to sculpt and refine their physique; as a consequence they will gain a good deal of strength also. A powerlifter on the contrary lifts to lift, it is what they’re all about and they’re pretty damn good at it. Had common sense prevailed three years earlier maybe I’d have realised this, put down the Flex mag and started reading something a little more relevant. Sorry Ron, Jay and Marcus but when it comes to the big numbers I’m gonna have to seek counsel elsewhere from now on. If you want a powerful bench press, powerlift.

The first thing that I needed to address was the sheer volume of workload I was doing in any one session. If it wasn’t too many exercises then it was certainly too many sets of too many reps. The likelihood is your benching like a bodybuilder, both in your style of training and your exercise technique. Countless sets of barbell presses of all angles with elbows flared, back flat, feet loose on the ground, your chest a launching pad for the bar in mid repetition are all common practice among the bodybuilding fraternity. From here you’ll pound the dumbbells in a similar fashion before poncing around with an assortment of cable flyes and crossovers. Save the cable part this was pretty similar to what I had been doing religiously, week in, week out in hope of forcing my self to become stronger. In reality, I was actually retarding any chance of a strength increase that I had. I wasn’t adhering to the fundamentals of strength training at all. There was no progressive resistance, just hard and heavy all the time, it was no wonder I was finding myself using the same weights for prolonged periods. The ancillary muscle groups essential to a strong bench press were being neglected as were the mechanics involved in efficient bench press technique. Truth be told, technique alone and more specifically my set up on the bench were key to escaping the rut and finally getting some weight on the bar, so often neglected yet so important. Ideally when setting up you want to plant your feet, generally the further back the better, this affords better stability all round and also allows you to utilise leg drive when executing the movement. When lying down maintain an arch in your back and drive your traps and upper back in to the bench, retracting your scapulae and tucking your elbows in when grabbing hold of the bar. Personally I use a relatively close grip as I feel that this maximises lat and triceps involvement and is just more comfortable in general, but let your own preference prevail here. Keeping the elbows tucked also enables more lat and posterior recruitment, your upper back is very important to your bench strength, in fact your entire body is. For this reason try to think of the bench press as you would the squat or the deadlift, as a whole body compound movement. When it comes to a big bench your chest is a good few rungs down the ladder of relevance, realising this can make all the difference. It can all seem a bit awkward at first, almost to the point of being painful but once you get the hang of it you should notice dramatic improvements. Ideally, in time, your set up should become second nature.

Prioritising your training extends further than simply realising that your bench sucks ass and something needs to be done about it. You have to identify WHY it sucks ass. Are you weak in at the bottom, middle or top of the movement? Do you get stuck on your chest or fail at lockout? Find out where your weak point in the lift is and work towards improving it. I found that I was having problems just before the mid point of the movement because I was allowing my elbows to flare, taking my lats out the equation and putting unnecessary strain on my shoulders. The solution was simple, concentrate on keeping the elbows tucked and work the midpoint of my bench to make it a strength rather than a weakness.

The basic training template for me is:

Bench with 80% to 90% of my pre determined 1Rep Max for 3, 4, or 5 sets of 1, 2 or 3 repetitions. For example my first week might look like 130kg for 5 singles, each set concentrating on maintaining perfect form and refining my technique. The sooner you find a groove and work with it the better. Because I am training RAW (without any powerlifting equipment) it is all too easy for me to over train the bench press. If I were to constantly work around maximum weights, and push myself to failure on the same movement week in, week out then I would almost certainly over train, halt my progression or worst case scenario, risk an injury. I have found that having Max Effort exercises that are variations of the bench press is the best way to progress. This way you can push your self and become consistently stronger in one of a variety of movements that directly correlate to your bench. When the ME exercises weights go up, your bench will to, it has too, as all the muscles involved in the primary movement are still becoming stronger.

After I have performed the bench I go on to Board presses typically for 2 or 3 sets. This involves benching to a 2", 4" or 6" board that is placed on your chest by a spotter. It is the same as the bench press except that you come down to the board instead of your chest. I found that my weak point was not on my chest but rather 4 inches or so above it so I implemented 4" board presses into my routine. This exercise is done for 2, 3 or 4 reps and can normally be performed with a weight nearer to, or even above your 1 Rep Max dependent upon which block you are using, as the range of motion is restricted.

Typically, the next exercise for me is floor press for 2 or 3 sets of 4 or 5 repetitions. This is executed in a similar fashion to the standard bench press except you lye on the floor and get a spotter or two to hand you the barbell. Because of your position the weight can only come down until your elbows come in to contact with the mat. This is excellent for triceps recruitment and lockout strength (NB. You wouldn't do 6" board presses and floor presses in the same workout as they address similar weak points).

To finish off my workout I incorporate some higher repetition work, normally Flat dumbbell, weighted dips or Incline barbell press, 2 or 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps for hypertrophy and dynamic strength. I use an explosive movement stopping just short of lockout on each rep of each exercise.

I go by feel, if I think I can do an extra set of an exercise without it negatively impacting my workout then I will. This won’t suit everyone as there is more than one way to skin a cat, what skinning cats has to do with bench pressing I’ll never know, but I do know this; this routine has helped me add 20kg to my bench in 6 months. Stick to it for a solid 8 weeks before de-loading and allowing your body to recover by working at around 70% for a few weeks with slightly higher repetition work. Good Luck!

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