Monday, July 21, 2008

Mel Hennessey, Bench Press King

Mel Hennessey, Bench Press King
by Vernon L. Hollister (1972)

When Mel Hennessey steps onto a platform to compete, he doesn’t look like a typical 242-pound powerlifter. Not that Mel looks anything but strong and powerful, because he certainly does, it’s just that he is so incredibly and massively muscled that he could be a competitor for the most muscular title in a physique contest, as well as the champion bench presser he is.

Mel’s musculature and development is not accidental; the reason, in part, is how he trains. He does not restrict himself to training only for the power lifts. Mel also bodybuilds, believing strongly that the appearance of a lifter is also important. The heavy weights come on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the lighter bodybuilding weights on Thursdays and Sundays.

Even on those days, Mel has what he calls “my baby” in mind – the bench press, his pride and maybe his joy. Prior to the Nationals, Mel explained what he did on his bodybuilding days to get ready for the event. Though he grinned and said, “I’m giving away all my secrets,” he wasn’t objecting too much to letting people know some of what he does.

Mel doesn’t consider what he does on the heavy days too unusual. He works on the basic lifts, doing repetitions instead of maximum poundages, on other occasions attempting more than he has done in competition. Competitively, his best lifts are: bench 571, squat 690, deadlift 665; but in training (as of early summer), he has succeeded with 590 at the bench, squatted with 740 and deadlifted 710.

But we are talking of the light days, which Mel considers extremely important to his ability on the bench press and to his appearance as a lifter. One of his favorite exercises is the good morning, for developing the small of the back, and he usually works up to 325 x 5 with this lift.

From his day brighteners, Hennessey often moves to the particular exercise he favors most – the triceps bench press – which he works up to 360 x 5, alternating that with lat pulldowns up to 120. He doesn’t always follow the same pattern exactly because he doesn’t want his routine to become dull. “My routine varies because I don’t want working out to become stale. As for the super-setting routine, I do something like 8 or 20 reps for 20 or so sets.”

To watch the ease with which Hennessey easily whips heavy weights up and down on the close-grip triceps bench press is almost unnerving (or any other exercise, for that matter). He never seems taxed by the weight. He doesn’t cheat. He lifts all weights strictly, including side-arm lateral raises, starting out with 70 pounds and working up to a staggering 150 pounds in each hand. “This one will boggle your mind,” he said before proceeding in front of this awed writer.

After flipping around the 150’s, he moved to another assistance lift for the bench and deadlift. The most he used on the lat pulldown was 275, though he could easily do more. Mel doesn’t believe in working for the maximum on most of these lifts because they are supplementary, geared for assistance. To end his “light” workout, except for some situps, Mel may conclude with the biceps curl, working up to 125 for 3 sets of 6.

At the weight of 226, Mel wasn’t quite ready for the Nationals. His method is to gain bodyweight and then go down to a muscular weight with no flab. “I’ll go up a lot and train down to 240, eventually,” he said between exercises. “I’ll wind up being a lot stronger and much more solid. My goal is to get more muscularity, less fat and greater efficiency.”

Instead of entering any powerlifting meets before Denver, Mel chose instead to hold his own meet to qualify. Reasons included not wanting to have to peak too early so as to be at top form for Denver. Most meets were at what he considered the wrong time, and Mel also had work commitments and commitments to his foster child. There are few people who are aware that Hennessey has taken foster children into his home for some time now. Currently, he’s a foster father to a 16-year old.

So, Mel qualified in a sanctioned meet in his garage with a rapt 16-year old watching. “There wasn’t much response because interest is lacking, and we didn’t open it up to everybody because the garage isn’t big enough.” The chief referee was Jerry Jones, who is strict in his judging. lifts that day in June for Mel were 555 in the bench press on his first try (plus a near-success with 575, which he tried only once), 655 in the squat (one attempt), and 600 in the deadlift.

When the powerful Hennessey began lifting as a teenager he did so for his own personal achievement. It was not until the age of 27 that Mel entered a contest, at the urging of a friend. He beat the existing Minnesota State Champion by 125 pounds. That was the beginning. Now, at age 38, he feels he can continue to gain until he’s 45 or 46 and still set records. He even has a 700 pound bench in mind before he retires, still at 242 pounds. the main reason he trains down now is to get out of the superheavyweight class.

If he had to do it all over again, he would shoot for the heavier weight class – for the obvious reasons. Mel says that his training method would be the same: gain weight, which is no problem for him, train down, gain weight, train down, etc. Can you imagine a Serge Reding with Mel’s musculature?

He is content now to train at home in his garage with about $5500 worth of equipment. Mel used to train at the St. Paul YMCA, but there were too many distractions, too many people who came in were not interested in serious lifting. It was more convenient to convert his garage. Many lifters contributed to Mel’s garage gym, including Don Cundy, where Mel now serves as resident authority and consultant to anywhere from eight to twenty lifters.

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