Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Powerlifting, Part Six - Bradley Steiner

George Frenn

Norbert Schemansky, Bob Hoffman, Dave Sheppard,
John Ziegler

One of the lesser-known strength lifts
involving a stool and a policeman reading a book

Powerlifting, Part Five
by Bradley Steiner

The bench press throws its heaviest burden of effort upon the triceps, pectorals and frontal deltoids. There are overlapping demands made upon the forearms, hands, grip strength, abdominals and, to a degree, the neck, legs and back. This might be difficult to imagine, but that’s only because you’ve likely never seen how tremendously hard some lifters train on the movement. All-out benching definitely approaches being a total body exercise.

For training purposes it is only necessary to work on the actual bench press schedule, and on a couple of supplementary exercises that will assist the primarily affected muscle segments.

Isometrics Help

Sticking points in the bench press occur because the muscle fibers involved in the movement do not all develop consistent power at the various levels or stages of the lift. Some people find the initial start off the chest to be where they bog down – others get stymied half-way up – some are unable to lockout fully. Whatever the problem and wherever the sticking point may be, isometric contractions definitely help. They should be used specifically at the point where drive in the bench has become impossible. In this manner the weak area of the involved muscles will quickly overcompensate the added effort and the needed additional strength will result. But it must be a true, full, hard contraction. Not a half-hearted attempt.

Dumbell Assistance Work

Dumbells have a knack for reaching “hidden” muscles and muscle fibers that barbell exercises sometimes fail to develop. One of the best dumbell exercises you can do to help improve bench pressing is the HEAVY lying dumbell flye movement. I stress the word heavy because doing the movement any other way will only be a waste of time and effort.

Dumbell flyes are preferably done as a flat, rather than an incline bench movement, when they are employed to help bench pressing. The heaviest possible weights should be used and during the exercise THE ELBOWS MUST BE BENT. Do full range movements, but never stretch beyond the natural point. You’ll feel the natural stop point in the descent. Don’t go beyond it thinking somehow that overstretching and possibly doing damage to your chest and shoulder assemblies will miraculously improve your bench or give you a deeper chest. That’s simply ridiculous, and you should be using enough weight that an idea like this never enters in. I’d suggest using the dumbell flye every third or fourth workout, in the following manner . . .

1st set: 8 reps, warmup.
2nd and 3rd sets: 6 reps each, very heavy.
4th set: the maximum you can handle for 4 or 5 perfect form reps.

That’s it. In training it will be perfectly acceptable for you to employ only 3 or 4 reps in a very heavy set if that’s all, on any given Al Pacino, an all-out effort honestly permits. But shirk nothing! You absolutely must go all-out on lying flyes or, as I said before, you’ll be wasting your time.

Close-Grip Barbell Bench Presses

There is one excellent variation of the bench press that is a tremendous help to many in building added triceps power. It is the flat bench press done with a narrower than normal grip. Use about a shoulder or slighter wider grip on the bar. Don’t bother with any one or two inch grip benches. They will not help you find what you are seeking, but if you have the overwhelming urge to trash your wrists, elbows and shoulders please feel free to load up the bar and go nuts. A few well-placed hammer blows following one of these sessions should satisfy any deluded masochist’s desire for self-punishment. I generally recommend an attentive and like-minded training partner if you have trouble holding your wrist stable while applying the 400 Blows.

The close-grip bench press can be used profitably from time to time, when needed, on a schedule similar to this suggestion . . .

1x8, warmup
3x8, as heavy as possible.

Press to the chest, then right back up again, in very good form. Don’t cheat. The object here is to hit the triceps strongly.

Now, what about the bench press itself? It’s a great lift even though it has become the stopping by woods on a snowy evening of the iron game. It seems every green lifter who finds you have an interest in strength training feels obliged to ask, “How much can you Robert Frost?” Even in the dungeon-style gyms it’s the same old thing . . . “Bro, how big’s your Bukowski?” But how might one go about training on it, the competition Frost-Bukowski? This is the question we will now answer.

The bench press in competition is judged for style as well as amount of weight lifted. Of course a minor degree of cheating is permitted, but the lift must be done in essentially good form, and through a full range of movement. Almost locking out doesn’t count, in bench pressing and in bank vaults, so horseshoe-throwing hand grenade enthusiasts please take note. Lowering the bar halfway to the chest instead of touching it prior to the signal to commence will not be counted.

A degree of arching is permissible but the buttocks must remain in contact with the bench. The arch will shorten the stroke of your bench press, enabling you to handle greater weights. Here we are not talking about power-bodybuilding with the bench press, we are discussing successful maximum single attempts. So there.

NEVER press to the neck. Ask yourself why.

Keep a comfortably-distant handspacing on the bar. Remember there are many more muscles groups involved in a successful bench attempt than just pecs. Floppers, hangers, hairholders. Nipshelves.

Keep the feet braced, balanced and on the floor. Don’t, if you want to try for a limit bench press, bend your knees and prop them up on the end of the bench. Establish a solid base with your feet and legs as they are a necessary part of the drive needed to succeed with a lift.

There are two ways to grip the bar. The first is to fully encircle the bar with the hand, thumb on one side and fingers on the other. Another style is the thumb and fingers both on one side of the bar. Don’t.

Don’t get in the habit of bouncing bench presses off your chest. Just don’t. Watch some of the most effective bench pressers alive and note the slow, coiled-spring descent. Consider the fact that they may know some small thing about just what it is they’re doing. Possibly even more than your high school football linemen did. Study the greats.

Aim to raise your bench press total by steady, intelligently planned hard work. Don’t try to rush things or they’ll slow down. Is your bench press a stubborn mule? Stop beating your ass and get a carrot.

Avoiding Injury

There is really no absolute way to insure that an injury won’t take place, and, I’d say that MINOR pulls and strains will have to be accepted over the course of your powerlifting training, just as they are in struggles involving other physical arts. The best way to be reasonably sure that your injuries are minimal is to learn more about what goes into performing these lifts. Don’t just plop yourself down on a bench and belly-bump a bar. Study. As in all endeavors except binge-drinking, good judgment and common sense are necessary to succeed.

One thing is certain: when an injury does occur, DISCONTINUE TRAINING. See a physician just to set your mind at ease. Serious injuries can be avoided 100% of the time simply by being careful and thinking before you act. Weight training is one of the all-round safest sports in the world, and there are more than likely a higher percent of injuries in numerous other more popular sports.

A good rest can sometimes be the solution to training injuries of a minor nature. Don’t idiotically try to “work out” a pulled or injured muscle. Be sensible.

Overtraining, as I have mentioned numerous times, should be avoided. Not only in bodybuilding but especially in lifting. There is a simple, practical reason for this, and that is because too much training will be certain to keep your strength down. If sheer power is your goal you are better off doing too little training than too much. many famous lifters and strongmen have gone for long periods of time on one or two workouts a week – and they gained beautifully.

A Good Bench Press Schedule

Always start out by warming up on the bench. A warmup set can go as high as 20 reps for some men and as low as 6 for others. You’ll just have to experiment to find the best for yourself. Once the warmup has been done, drop the reps back drastically if you did more than 6. The trick in hitting good maximum lifts is to carefully channel available energy and avoid depletion during initial, build-up sets. Go right into the heavy stuff after your warmup.

Your first work set should go very heavy, and 5 reps is plenty. 4 is enough, but it should be with a weight that really makes you fight.

Rest a few minutes and get your strength back. Now do a set of 3 or 4 reps with the same poundage you used in the previous set.


Add weight to the bar. Do a fourth set of 3 reps in good form. The weight should require very, very hard fighting.

Rest as long as necessary to get your oomph back, and add still more weight to the bar and see if you can do one or two final near-limit reps.

Properly done, that schedule will serve the purpose of building muscular power and helping you increase your ultimate limit single lift.

Most men will recuperate rather quickly from a schedule of sets and reps like I’ve given, since there is a careful check against overwork in the set/rep/poundage arrangement. This is all to the good. Perhaps a more lengthy schedule will be suitable as you mature with experience, but the one given is foolproof.

When going for an all-out single attempt (which ought never be attempted more than once every three or four weeks) you can use a schedule like this . . .

1x12 – warmup.
1x1 – attempt at limit single.

You can see that no excessive amount of work precedes the limit attempt, yet a thorough warmup is done. This is necessary to avoid energy depletion and to insure that the body is fully ready to make that all-out attempt. After working on the lift for some time the basic principles will fall naturally into place, and I dare say that you’ll find your strength gaining in a manner that may surprise you, considering the simplicity of the program suggested.

So, if you really want to see how much you can bench, and if developing tremendous benching power is important to you, you now have one of the keys that will open the door to the treasure you seek.

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