Friday, October 31, 2008

Pushing For Power Part Two - Bill Seno

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Pushing for Power – Part Two
The Bench Press


The bench press is the most popular lift among the lifting populace. It is so popular because most kids are introduced to calisthenics to begin building their physical statures and strength, and within the gamut of exercises, pushups seem one of the most, if not the most, renown. Youngsters are constantly aware of who can do the most pushups. They keep abreast of who is who within their own peer groups, and the person who can do the most pushups is considered prestigious in the realm of strength. He may not be skillful, but he is one to be reckoned with in combative sports.

Moving along through high school, students are introduced to weight training by almost any coach in the sport, and the continuation of the pushup mystique is furthered by the upside down pushup – the bench press. Again, students find a meaning in upper body power that seems to emphasize strength whereas, in their minds, legs are not as impressive.

I surmise that this attitude stems from several sources. When a child is young, attention is geared to legs and walking; as he continues through school, most sports activities still center around the use of the legs: soccer, basketball, track, football, hockey, etc. Being brought up in a leg conscious society, the person with a well developed upper body is not the norm. So a mystique grows. He is thought to have an advantage over the normal male. People envision the slow moving, crushing power of Hercules lifting boulders. When we speak to people at eye level, we do not stare down at their legs, so we are unaccustomed to mounds of muscle staring back at us as we converse.

Some people feel offended as if a direct personal affront has been made on their egos. Some people think it is freaky and a waste of time, for what can be done with all this muscle? Whatever personal shortcomings arise, the point remains that the lifter with the big upper body remains noticed. It is also surprising the interesting traits and characteristics the lifter observes in people’s behavior regarding the difference in stature, anything from a smile to a nervous twitch.

Needless to say, the necessity of weight training in athletics has been proven time and time again, and the athlete from freshman in high school to senior in college will always remember his weight training once his athletic days are over. He can always feel the comfortable, individual carryover of the iron, to be used at will, probably even for a new beginning. Even the non athlete who feels a need for physical exercise remembers the pushup; also, the ease of the supine position is enticing. Isn’t it great to be able to lie down and build a great body?

In spite of the enigma of the great upper body, the legs are too big, too strong and have had too great of a head start. There will always be ore people with squat ability and even deadlift ability than bench press ability. This is what makes the desire for a good bench press even greater – the fact that it is rarer than the other two. There are more people closer to the squat and deadlift records by formula than the bench record by formula. This proves what I have always believed: the good bench presser is harder to come by than either of the other two. It doesn’t mean the bench presser is the strongest because only the total can show this.

The foremost principle I have used concerning the bench press is to follow the body.

It is well and good to write out a routine and attempt to follow the paper, but what is written is not the key; the body is. If a lifter is following 4 sets of 4 with a given poundage, and the body is struggling to recover from the last workout, gains will be small or nonexistent. When there is a gain, the body is saying Yes.


When I began lifting at the age of 20, I benched 240 for 5 and 280 for 1. 300 pounds came within one month, and by my eight month I was benching 400. My initial bodyweight was 180, and by the eighth month I was 200. All I had ever done was pushups, and plenty of them, which gave me a good base. Of course, the routine that I was on then was not the pyramid that I developed by trial and error but merely 5 sets of 5 – the old standby. The old standby got old fast. I found that pushing for a single rep more often allowed me to lift a heavier single than the five reps did. It seems that as one improves in the reps, he doesn’t improve enough in the single until it is done more often.

In those days I was working out heavily three times per week. Several years later I decided that I couldn’t recuperate enough from the heavy single and sets that followed. I think I should mention two principles here that I employed then, and that I stand by to this day. I remember my days in college and high school sports when the coach merely warmed us up before an activity, making sure we were warm but not expended. I often noticed lifters working their heads off with reps before they ever got to their maximum effort and thought, “I wonder what he could do fresh?” By observation I noticed the same thing occurring in the warmup area during contests. Some novice lifters, due to lack of knowledge, or confidence, seem to think it is necessary to lift close to or even more than the starting attempt. I couldn’t believe my eyes while watching a lifter who was about to go out for his first attempt in the bench with 315 do a double with it in the warmup area to assure himself that he would be able to do it on the platform. They don’t realize how important it is to remain fresh. There is no reason to approach closer than 30-50 lbs. to the starting attempt. I knew fresh was better because it allowed my body to handle more, more often and thus become stronger if I could recover. Thus, my principle was don’t work up; warm-up and work down. I found even my sets working down were easier and grew quickly; however, there was still something bothering me. The sets grew stale. I thought to incorporate as many other principles as I could to work for me. No set was the same poundage, no set was the same amount of reps, and SPEED and THRUST became all important.

I thought that by running the gamut on poundage and reps I couldn’t possibly grow stale, and I was right for many years to come. I worked the bench in this manner three times per week for seventeen years. Within that time, however, the three heavy workouts diminished to two heavy and one medium, then to one heavy, one medium, and one light. In my eighteenth year of lifting the light set became so light I dropped to two bench workouts per week. The only thing that has changed since then is the amount of sets has lessened and the reps have gone up to rehabilitate my old bones and tendons more. I cannot go as heavy as often. I must wait for a more opportune time – a time of recovery. Notice, through it all, my body was my gauge and still is.

I did not allow other lifters’ routines or new commercial equipment to sway me from my course – what my body demanded.

I well remember the isometric racks and how they were supposed to make lifters stronger, faster. A few tries on the rack showed me that it could not compete with isotonic training. My body was very sensitive at the time, and my bench would move up, down, or stagnate within short periods of time. To this day I tell athletes: lifting weights cannot make you throw a baseball or football skillfully; only continued throwing can help itself. Weights are strength builders, so it can give distance to the throw, but not the spins and the curves. The same thought applies to isometric racks, mini gyms, Nautilus, Universal machines, etc., etc. They do not train the muscles as they will be used during the actual squat, bench and deadlift. These machines cut off the use of stabilizing muscles – muscles that control the heavy poundages in a most necessary and expedient groove. Without stabilizer strength and control the lifter will lose the lift. I must, however, speak up for the groove machines, also, because they do have their function in introducing students to weight training and have the ability to serve many students at once. Besides this convenience the groove machines do have a benefit for the experienced lifter, also. It is convenient to work auxiliary muscles and, possibly, rehabilitate on these machines. The benefit in working auxiliary muscles such as the deltoid or tricep on the groove machine is greater as an exercise for the bench press because the machines keep the particular muscle toned and strong without tiring some of the stabilizing muscles, and it also limits the use of joints and tendons which makes for greater recuperation while capitalizing on strength. The same reason can be applied to rehabilitating injured areas, and, possibly, keeping them safe from injury.

The groove machines can also be beneficial for the squat because by working the leg press, one can increase the leg strength without tiring the many joints of the spine, which again makes for better recovery: any exercises will insure quicker recovery and stronger, better conditioned muscles.


In considering which width grip for the bench press is best for you, something extraordinarily strange occurs, and I think I know why. So many beginning lifters feel confused upon gripping the bar. It is as if they have no feel of power or coordination. They grab the bar very wide, too wide for their structures. or too close, or off center. This is to be expected because they are novices, but they do not have the same degree of problems with the squat stance width. I think the reason is again connected to most people having more faith in their legs than arms; therefore, the novice lifter, even though terrified of failing, adjusts better to leg stance. Besides, he can find a degree of comfort more easily because his physical inclination is more geared to legs.

This is the principle I use to seek the best grip for the individual – physical comfort and inclination. I ask the prospective lifter to drop to his normal pushup position (without mentioning grip). I ask him to adjust his arms until comfortable and he has a feel for power: a few pushups will accomplish this. Measure the distance between forefingers and you have the grip of power for that particular physique structure.

So many lifters, even great ones, will say the wide grip is the best, or the close grip is the best. The best grip is the one that is suited to your power structure. Power structure is the particular build of the individual by which certain muscles in that structure are emphasized; for example, one person may have flaring deltoids and a flat rib cage. The chances are very great that this person will have to bench wide. The rule for competition states that the distance between forefingers cannot exceed 81 cm. which comes to almost 32 inches. The wider the individual is, generally, the wider the grip. Conversely, the individual who has a flaring rib cage, one with breadth and large pectorals, will have more drive off the chest and, thus, will assume the close position of his power. I have seen lifters built for close grip assume wide grip and develop prodigious benches, but ultimately nature catches up to them and injury and even surgery becomes evident. This happened in the cases of Larry Pacifico, Sam Mangialardi and Fred Hatfield. This is not to say that any other bench position can deep one safe from injury because maximum efforts for prolonged periods of time make anyone vulnerable.

The compactness of the close grip gives protection. There is more muscle supporting muscle rather than joints out on a limb. A good test of the instability of the wide grip is to place your hands out in front while spread far apart. Have someone try to move your arms. Try the same with your triceps close to your ribs and latissimus dorsi. Get the message? Your arms can be moved at will while wide but hardly at all while close. Close grip gives the lifter the stability of the torso. In the close grip the distance to push may be farther than the wide grip, but prevention of injury, greater development of the torso, coupled with more thrust with the close far outweigh the wide grip. It must be remembered that we are not all built for the close bench. In spite of what I have shown above, nature has a way of protecting its own, so go with our natural tendencies.

The wide grip primarily uses the lateral or outer edge of the pectoral and the anterior or frontal deltoid. Not much lat or tricep is used because the rotation or the lat is cut down considerably in the wide grip, and since the bar has a shorter distance to travel, there is not the extra needed push for the extension and, thus, less tricep development. The development of the wide gripper is in the shoulder, to a swooping pectoral.

The development of the close gripper is in the major pectorals (closer to the sternum and the middle of the pectoral muscles) and the triceps. Because of the tightness of the combination of muscle groups, there is a greater surge off the chest. The great surge still, of course, will incorporate the use of the anterior deltoid but not as much as the wide bencher. The great explosion off the chest even has a way of passing up the deltoid to a triceps catch and press. Even though speed is all important, especially in the close grip, control on the down groove is just as important. The wide bencher must be more careful with his groove; as I said earlier, the arms are more apt to wave with a wide grip. If the descent of the bar becomes too fast, the weight increases in poundage. If the descent is too slow, the muscles tire from holding the bar too long. The trick is to lower the bar under control as quickly as you can in the groove. The groove is a term used to indicate that critical area of any lift in which the lifter has the utmost control and power.


So many beginning lifters and even some experienced lifters feel that there is little or no difference in the psychological preparation for lifting a maximum single versus a maximum set of repetitions. This kind of thinking limits their ability to make gains. It is absolutely essential that the lifter prepares his mind for the degree of intensity and speed; that is, he must zero in on his power capabilities for that day, that set: he must know within a few pounds how much he is capable of lifting at that time. He must also prepare himself for the amount of air he will need to complete the set; one deal with lung capacity and endurance more when going for a higher number of reps. The lifter will suspect or know that he is stronger by the feel of the warmup and by how the trend of his workouts has been doing lately.

Sometimes a lifter will gamble strictly out of greed or rashness because some lifters become impatient of fail to acknowledge their limitations, therefore, manufacturing or imagining lifts that they really cannot handle. Handling weights that are too heavy can be disastrous to making gains because these poundages take their toll on the body which fails to recuperate even more, and it is all downhill from then on, until the lifter realizes what is happening and how to deal with the problem.

The lifter preparing for the maximum single must have warmed up properly without having expended much energy. The thought foremost in his mind is the single; nothing else matters, not possible injury, his girlfriend or his bills; he is hypnotized to one and only – pushing this new poundage that his mind and body have never before experienced. As he is warming up, the tension is building, but the warmup poundages must be made to feel light and, indeed, lighter than before. This is accomplished by being in shape, mentally prepared, having adrenaline flow, speed and maybe the effort with ego and death before failure. Any wavering in the feel, the timing and control, or the amount of thrust will lose the lift, but making the lift will bestow a “high” of personal accomplishment that is unique and difficult to duplicate.

It the single is strong, you will know you are that day, so use that power to attain more strength. Go down and do reps with poundages never before attempted. These new records will secure the strength and confidence you will need for future maximum singles. An example of a routine for a strong day: warm up to a maximum single, come down to a maximum set of 3 or 4 reps with a weight never attained before; then, drop to a poundage which allows 5 or 6 reps, then a set of 8-10 and finish with a close grip flush (a 16 inch grip) for 12-15 reps. If the single is not very strong or it is a miss, immediately drop to a lighter weight and higher reps. Follow the single with a set of 8 reps or higher, depending on how you feel that day. If you feel fatigued – quit; if not, continue with a set of 10-12 followed by 12-15 or higher. at least the lifter can still work speed.

The mental preparation for repetitions is similar, yet different. The higher the reps the greater the preparation for a longer battle. The overall battle will not be as intense as the single, but the last rep will be. The endurance factor will be higher; the air needed must be more, and the determination level must be held a longer period of time, which really tests desire.

As I said, a good time to do record reps is following a record single because the mind and body have been ultimately prepared, but a record rep set can also be done as a peak set; that is, a lifter warms up to that set alone for the specific purpose of a rep record. The set may be a record at any number of reps desired.


Techniques for working the bench are varied, and these various techniques must be chosen correctly for use depending on the individual lifter’s strong points, structure and grip. A close grip bencher will have less trouble off the chest whereas this is most of the problem for the wide gripper. The reverse is, therefore, true; the second half of the push is more troublesome for the close gripper but much easier for the wide gripper. both lifters will work on thrust off the chest, but the close gripper can make the advantage work for him by increasing the drive which will help it past the critical point of the upper third of the lift. The wide gripper will most likely work the holds at the chest with lighter poundages to increase thrust. The holds may be anywhere from two to ten seconds.

Close grip benchers may also benefit from occasional 2/3 bench presses from the power rack. This may help if the thrust becomes stale, but I have found the rack to have limitations. One must use extraordinarily heavy weight from a rack, and recuperation can be difficult. My experience has been that the rack gains come quickly and do not last long. If one continues working the rack too much per week or too long in time, the bench will become weaker.

The best method for the close grip bencher is to take what the rack will give, no more than one or two sets once a week until the regular bench movement seems to be tight, that is, a slight struggle above what he normally feels with that poundage. When this occurs, it is the signal to quit the rack. Even more beneficial, the lifter should quit before he gets the tight feeling, but we must pay some price for experimentation, or we can never really discover how we personally tick.

So often I read of lifters who are constantly working their weak points, pounding away to overcome this obstruction, but this weak point is basically a part of nature for that individual. It is not saying that this obstacle cannot be improved upon, but because of structure or other reasons, possibly favoring certain muscles, a mind to body coordination or dependency can be extremely difficult or impossible to overcome. There are reasons beyond our control why these certain muscles remain weak at certain angles in a movement for certain individuals; therefore, it can only become frustrating and discouraging to continue to work a weak point and gain such a small percentage of strength over a long period of time when the same time and effort could have been applied to a strong point, thus gaining two or three times the amount of strength.

So the close grip bencher whose main power is thrust from the torso should definitely improve his thrust by working speed with intermediate or lighter poundages. This will assure a greater burst off the chest which will continue momentum through the weak points of the shoulder and tricep. The constant handling of these poundages through the sticking point will inevitably make the weak points stronger.


Auxiliary exercises are often considered by the powerlifter to aid his power in the three lifts. The philosophy behind the auxiliaries is to make the individual parts stronger and, therefore, the whole will be stronger when all of the parts come together to perform. Basically, this thinking is sound, however, caution must be taken so as not to overwork and, therefore, be two steps behind in recuperation. Of course, we all wonder what is too much ad what is not enough. It is easy to be fooled sometimes because the weight may feel easy at the time, especially if the lifter is not breathing hard, but when it comes time to put it all together for the bench press, for example, the power is simply not there. We are always fighting the battle between rest and work. The key is to find the proper amount of work, whether high or low sets and reps, and coordinate that work with the proper amount of rest. Only time and experimentation will tell you.

Two of the best auxiliary lifts for the bench press are the press or press or press behind the neck, and the shoulder and trapezius shrug. The trapezius do not contract during the bench. First of all, after a warmup, it is not necessary to do more than 2 or 3 sets, or the bench will be negatively affected. These are to be done twice a week with high reps 8-15. The high reps assure blood to the area, conditioning, strength, and above all, healthy shoulders. As the athlete approaches competition, the sets may get heavier, but take care by feeling for the slightest shades of pain. If one continues, the pains will grow and become a detriment to the bench press. Merely stop for that day and come back lighter with higher reps next time.

It is not necessary for a close grip bencher to consider lateral raises or flies, as they are called. The closer the grip, the more pectoral is used toward the sternum; the wider the grip, more pectoral toward the arm is used. So it would stand to reason that a wide grip bencher would benefit from flies. The flies should be heavy with bent arms.

If the arms are straight, the concentration is not on the pectorals but on the arms. Wide grip benchers also benefit much more from holds at the chest than do close grip benchers. Most of the bench for the wide gripper is off the chest whereas the close gripper’s problem occurs after the initial thrust off the chest. This is not to say that the close grip bencher should not practice a hold. It is advantageous to hold the last repetition of each set but not to hold each rep in a set as wide grip benchers do.


An example of a routine using the pyramid system is as follows:
warm up to a maximum single;
work down to a set of 3 or 4, followed by
a set of 6-8
end with a set of 10-15
This is an example of a heavy day routine.

On the light day:
warm up to 90% of your recent maximum single, followed by
a set of 6-8, followed by
a set of 10-12
end with a set of about 15, which is a 16 inch grip flush set.

This is the routine that evolved out of following my body week after week until something seemed to work best. The variance in repetitions is necessary because the individual may be strong one day and not another. On a strong day, stay with a heavier poundage for 10 reps, for example, whereas a light day will call for the 15 rep set. Also, lighter weights allow for the lifter to practice for speed thrusts, that is, firing the weight in one explosive movement form the chest to arms length all in one motion.


One obvious mechanical advantage for all benchers is to bring the bar to a point at the chest where the position is most comfortable and powerful. This point for most of us is at the bottom of the pectoralis major or slightly below the nipples. The tricep can be compared to the thigh during the squat. If the upper thigh goes below parallel, it is more difficult to recover from the low position, likewise with the upper arm. The lower the elbow points downward, the more difficult the initial drive will be. So the trick is to bring the bar to the most comfortable point on the chest while compensating with an arch so that the triceps will not have to work as hard to get out of the pit, so to speak; keeping the chest high will also be an advantage here. Also, by hunching the muscles up tightly, it will give a greater thrust off the chest because all of the muscles are forced into a position that they will naturally try to spring from.

It is this thrust, the same principle a shot putter uses in his explosion as he performs the release, that can be advantageously practiced; some lifters call these thrusts “shorts” for short movements in the reps. They appear to be repetitions, but the lifter is moving heavier poundages off the chest many more times with speed. The full rep takes a greater amount of energy, and the benefits become less. If the lifter can thrust the bar from the torso to a point where the triceps are taking over and then return for the next thrust, the power off the chest increases twofold.

Using the above principle, speed, recuperation, running the gamut on reps, your own structural grip, choosing proper weights without missing, lowering the bar as quickly as you can under control, driving with the legs and letting your body be your guide will help you to master the bench press.

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