I arrived at the gym early, in hopes of getting my workout finished before the after-work crowd hit. It was spring break at the university and I was looking forward to a nice, quiet session without the hindrance of hundreds of questions from student athletes.
For and hour and a half, my plan worked perfectly. I was about to conclude this light day of training with some bench work, when a shadow loomed over me. I ignored it, hoping that whoever it was only wanted to share the forty-pound dumbbells that I was using, but it was not to be.
"Excuse me," the shadow said softly.
Still, I didn't look around as I switched the dumbbell to my right hand and continued curling. "What is it?" I grumbled, foreseeing the inevitable.
"Could you help me with my program?"
The question came out more like a plea than a request and I knew I couldn't refuse. I replaced the dumbbells in the rack, then turned and faced a very serious young trainee. "What is it you want to know?"
His stern expression changed instantly; his eyes brightened and he stood more erect. "I was hoping I'd run into you today," he began eagerly. "I've been wanting to talk to you, but you're hard to track down. It's my bench press. I've been stuck at 275 for over a year. And I've tried just about every exercise in the book: inclines, dumbbell inclines, declines, flyes, triceps pressdowns. Nothing seems to help," he added dejectedly. "Any suggestions?"
It was, of course, a very silly question to ask a strength coach because that's what they get paid for. "Have you ever used the power rack?" I asked, resigned to the fact that I was going to be in the gym a bit longer than planned.
He stared at me as if I had lost my mind and with a little, scornful laugh said, "Sure, I do shrugs and sometimes squat in it, but I'm interested in improving my bench, not my pull."
"I understand," I muttered, slightly irritated at his tone, "but the power rack is one of the most effective tools to help you improve your bench press."
"Really!" he blurted out incredulously. "How?"
"It'll be easier and faster to show you and there is a special technique required in order for the movements to work effectively."
"Great!" he cried cheerfully and pulled on his belt. "What do we do first?"
"First, you warm up. Do 4 sets of 8 in the bench, working up to somewhere around 205 for your last set."
He nodded, hurried to a vacant bench and went to work while I prepared the rack. He was on his third set when I asked, "What's the most difficult part of the bench for you? The start, middle or lockout?"
He crashed the bar back into the uprights and studied the matter for a moment before saying, "The start I would say. Why, does it matter?"
I nodded and answered, "It does because you'll want to give priority to the weakest portion of the lift -- that is, do it first in this routine."
I waited by the rack while he completed his last set; then he hurried over, slightly red-faced. "Not used to working so fast," he explained.
I laughed, "You don't have to bomb-blitz. Lie down on the bench. I need to see where to set the pins so that the bar is resting as close to your chest as possible.'
He did as instructed; I set the lower set of pins so that the bar rested about a half inch above his chest, then put the second set of pins about two inches higher. I loaded 135 on the bar and instructed, "Today, you're going to do 3 sets at each position I show you. This will help you get the feel of pushing against the pins. Once you master the technique, you'll do only 2 sets at the first two positions. I'll explain more about the third position when we get to it."
"I understand." What should I do? This feels kind of light."
"It should feel light. I want you to get used to pushing against the pins. Now push the bar up against the top pins three times and hold the third for a five count."
He did so, set the bar back on the lower pins and looked up at me for further instruction.
"Feel it?" I asked.
"Yeah, I do. That's amazing -- and with only 135."
I loaded the bar to 185 and said, "Do the same thing again, three times against the top pins and hold the third rep for a six-second count."
This time, the bar started to jitterbug by the time I counted to five. He crawled out from under the bar, rubbing his arms. "Damn! What a pump! I can't believe it!"
"One more set and I'm going to drop the weight to 175. This final set is the money set; all the others were just warmups. This time, try to hold the bar against the pins for twelve seconds. Try to push the bar through the pins."
He lasted only till seven, climbed out from under the bar, his face distorted.
"I never would have believed it!" he exclaimed. "How come it pumps me like that?"
"Because it's very concentrated work and there's no way to load or cheat, that's why. There's no training partner helping you through the hard part. One set like that in the rack is equal to a dozen outside of it. Now let's move the pins up and work the middle range."
After repositioning the pins and dropping the weight back to 135, he worked the difficult range just below the sticking point to just past it as found that he was a tad stronger here than in the starting position. He was able to hold the final, third set for almost a ten count and came up smiling, pleased with himself. "I thought I'd be stronger there."
"And you were right. Now for the third and final position, the lockout, you'll work a bit differently. On this one, you won't be pushing into a pin, but rather moving it off the bottom pin to a full lockout. Set the bottom pin just above where you had the top pin for the middle position. this one you'll like because you can handle lots of iron."
My prediction held true, and then some. He did four sets on this one, since the third at 375 was much too light. He ended with 405 on the bar and stood, wearing a Cheshire cat grin, obviously pleased with himself. "That's great! My arms and shoulders are whipped and my upper body is pumped. I do this three times a week?" he asked enthusiastically.
"No, a little rack work goes a long way. Too much will wreck you. Remember what I said about it being very concentrated work. You will want to balance the rack work in with your regular bench routine and some auxiliary work.
On Monday, work your bench hard, going up to a heavy single, double or triple; then go to the rack and work the starting position, but not the other two.
Come back on Tuesday and do weighted dips and heavy overhead presses.
Wednesdays, you can do some inclines, heavy, and add in some triceps pushdowns on the lat machine, 2 sets of 20.
Make Fridays your rack day. This will give you a couple of days to rest up after doing them.
"Follow the same routine that you did today. Then if you feel confident with your technique, drop the second set. Don't increase your top-end weight on the first two positions until your are able to hold that third set for the full twelve seconds."
"I got it," he said smiling, "and do you really think this will move my bench to 300?"
"If you stick to the program outlined and don't start slipping in extra work like flyes, declines and such. All that they'll do is tap into your strength reservoir and keep you from making gains. The basic premise behind isometric work is that once you've stimulated your muscles, tendons and ligaments to 80% of maximum, that's all the stronger you're going to get on that day. Anything extra is counterproductive. That's straight from the mouth of the founder of isometrics, Doctor John Ziegler."
"So this is isometrics?"
"Not pure isometrics. Actually it's a combination of isotonic/isometric exercises. It's isotonic when you move the bar to the upper pin and isometric when you hold the bar for a twelve count against the upper pins. They work nicely together."
"I'll certainly give it a try. Thanks," he said extending his hand.
It was over a month before I ran into Josh again -- in the produce section of a supermarket. I was trying to decide between oranges and bananas when he came up to me, all grins. "Guess what?" he shouted, his eyes sparkling.
"Your bench went up," I guessed correctly.
"Yeah, I got 300 Monday. That rack work did the trick. I got a dozen guys doing it now."
"That's terrific; keep up the good work," I advised and decided on bananas.
Enjoy Your Lifting!