Q: I am having trouble with my benches. I have tried using pyramiding, sets of 5, and am now doing single reps working up to a max single each workout, benching only when fully recovered.
Notihng seems to work, and my progress on the bench the last four months has been zero.
My assistance exercises include barbell curls, close grips, lying triceps extensions and pushdowns for 6 sets of 6.
Would I gain more size (not definition) and bulk using sets of 8, or pyramiding poundages for all assistance work? Also, would I gain more in the way of bulk and strength in my bench using pyramids or sets of five? I am getting confused, since some powerlifters say pushing a set to the limit with heavy weight does more for strength than pyramiding or single reps.
One last problem I have is with my shoulders. I have difficulty doing military presses and side raises, yet not front raises. I read I may have damaged my rotator cuff. What can I do to solve this problem and how can I strengthen my shoulder joints. Any help would be much heeded.
A: First of all, I would not do any military presses if they cause pain to the shoulder. If you are doing presses with pain this could be the cause for your bench press trouble.
Standing side laterals are a good exercise and can be done with light weight for 3-4 sets of 8-12. Keep the weights light so you don't put too much stress on the shoulder joint, because the shoulder joint gets enough strain doing benches. I wouldn't recommend to anyone that does a lot of benching that they should do front laterals. It can cause the anterior deltoid muscle to become overtrained, thus shutting down some of your bench press power and endurance. The bench press itself will give the anterior deltoid all the work it needs.
Basically, your question is, "Would you give me a bench press routine?" I hate to keep repeating myself in these answers, but if that's what it takes to get results, then I'll say it once again . . . The vast majority of world class powerlifters train their bench press two days a week. One day is used for heavy work on singles, doubles, triples or even sets of five. Three or four sets are used during the heavy day.
The other bench press day is used for lighter work, let's say 2-3 sets of 10 reps with a light weight. The object of the light day is to get some work, but not to fatigue the muscle to the extent that it won't be recovered for the next heavy workout.
Assistance work for the bench press should be done both days and include two to three sets of your favorite exercises for the biceps, triceps and lats.
When choosing the number of reps to be done on your heavy day, use your own feeling. If it is exciting for you to do sets of 5 reps, then by all means do sets of 5. I would not recommend going over sets of 5 reps for building maximum strength for many reasons, both physical and mental, and beyond the scope of this answer. The basics of heavy weight, low reps is still the law in strength development.
Q: What's the safe way to use forced reps? I add weight and do only forced reps, or 2: just do one set at the end and force out some reps to failure.
A: Forced reps in their true form are used more in bodybuilding than powerlifting. You find that bodybuilders do forced reps on the majority of their sets in every workout. This is where all the "screaming and yelling" comes from in the gym. If you go to Gold's or World Gym in Santa Monica you will see many of the bodybuilders going to complete failure with each set. The lifter's training partner helps him through the last few reps of the set. After a short rest, the lifter will go through the cycle again.
Powerlifters use the "overload" principle more often. I have used overloads for years, and so has every other national caliber powerlifter I have trained with. The major difference between what I call forced reps and overloads is that in forced reps you use weight that you can normally lift, but need help with due to fatigue. Overloads use a weight you normally can't lift and need to have a spotter help you through the movement of one or two reps. Most powerlifters use this type of system in some form with great success.
Q: I'd like to know the difference, in your mind, between taking a handoff in the bench and taking the bar out of the rack unassisted. Most of the lifters here take the weight out of the racks themselves. My best bench is 470, which I took out of the rack with no handoff. I've been reading where handoffs increase your bench, but I've tried them with light weights and it seemed more uncomfortable than the unassisted way. Also, after doing benches, is it better to work arms and shoulders, or should they be done on a separate day?
A: I find your question very interesting. My first thought after reading your letter was, "this guy can bench 470 and takes the weight out of the rack by himself!" You just don't know how strong you are! I am truly impressed.
To address your question, let's take a look at all the world record holders in the bench press. What percentage of them get the weight from the rack through the use of spotters? The answer is 100%. Every national or world class lifter uses spotters in the bench press. The reason for this is simple. Conservation of energy.
It takes an enormous amount of energy from the pecs and anterior deltoids to pull that 470 pounds off the rack. The lower the rack, the more energy required to bring the bar to an extended position. The fact is, a lifter CAN bench more by having a handoff than by taking the weight out of the rack himself. This is not a theory, not does it vary from lifter to lifter. I have never known a competitive lifter that didn't use a handoff in the bench. I would would think that your problem of being uncomfortable with a handoff is that it is not being done correcty.
The proper way to receive a handoff is for the lifter to give a signal to the spotter to help him with the weight when he is mentally ready. At the signal, the lifter and the spotter both bring the weight in to position. Once the weight is in position, the spotter slowly lets the weight down, until the lifter is supporting the entire weight himself. Trouble occurs when the spotter helps with the weight out of the rack and then dumps it on the lifter. This throws the lifter off balance and he has to use up energy to control the weight that he could have used in the benching effort itself.
If you want to improve your bench, use a spotter and work with him so your handoff is comfortable. This will save you enough energy to get a couple of extra reps in at the end of the workout.
Q: It seems like everything you read states that 6-10 reps builds mass, 3-5 builds power, and 1 rep singles just tear you down. In one of Ken Leistner's articles he stated that he felt doing singles was not a very productive way to gain strength (Roger Estep being the exception). So, Roger, will you explain why 5 reps say at 87% of max are supposed to be better than say 1 rep at 98%. I find this very interesting in the sense that in a set of 5 reps the first 4 wear you down so that the last rep feels like 98%. Why not just go to 98% in the first place? I guess what I am trying to get at is what specific purpose do the first 4 reps accomplish (scientifically).
A: Thanks for the question. It is an interesting one and one that is more of a challenge to answer than most. Actually, to give an in depth physiological answer is beyond the scope of this response. That being said, the number of reps that build strength is somewhat subjective from individual to individual. I mean, when do you draw a line on reps. If a person says 5 reps builds strength and has success at it and is a world champ, and another person says 6 reps and is also a world champ, then why can't another person come along and use 7 or 8 reps, or maybe 10 or 15. I think what Dr. Leistner was trying to do was generalize on how the majority of powerlifters train.
It has been proven in exercise physiology labs throughout the world that low reps and heavy resistance build fast twitch muscle fibers much quicker and give them additional thickness, more so than prolonged, high rep workouts, but the specific number of reps is up to the mental attitude of the lifter. Some lifters just can't handle the stress of doing singles all the year round, and determine instead that they get a better feel from doing 5s or 3s. If you train with me, I absolutely guarantee that you will make progress by doing singles, because I will make you a believer in yourself.
I will try to answer your question concerning what is the good in doing the first 4 reps of a 5 rep set, even though I don't subscribe to this kind of training. The first reps are good to develop some short term endurance into the muscle, so that when you go to a meet, you'll have some energy in the muscle to pull from. Also, by doing reps, you can strengthen your lift positions that might normally be weak. If on the second rep, say, you get out of the groove and still make the rep, you will be able to do the same in a competition. I can show you, however, how to do this with singles and down reps.
The basic answer is that it is up to the lifter.
Some like 5s, some like triples, and there's me. So what?
If you're doing what you like, you'll be successful, as long as your intensity is high. Whatever is more comfortable for you, psychologically, is what you should use.
Enjoy Your Lifting!