Friday, October 8, 2010

Bench Press, Part Fourteen

Lee Moran

Bud Ravenscroft

Training Ideas for Developing the Bench Press

4.1 – General Philosophy

How should we then train the bench press to maximize performance and minimize injury potential? This remains the million-dollar question and one that may elude us for some time. It is actually probable that there are many training approaches that will produce a better bench press. After all, this is what we see now with all the diversity of programs pumped out in the magazines and books every day. Obviously, people have reached high levels of bench press performance using very different training philosophies and programs. In fact, a glimpse at the research on training muscle shows a similar diversity of “programs that work” (see, for example, Atha’s review [reference 1]).

It seems that bench pressers and scientists alike are both taking the wrong approach to solving this training dilemma. That is, it is just about impossible to ever systematically try every possible training program in the hope that someday the “magic” one will appear that produces 1,000 pound bench presses in six weeks. There are simply too many potential training programs to try. But of course, we still continue to do this a lot and we also still work hard to seek out the results of top lifters in the hope that they’ve stumbled on something we missed. The dangers in this approach are mainly in misdirection with a good chance for people getting into training programs that are really bad and sometimes even dangerous.

Well, there IS an alternative that hopefully you’ve already thought of if you’ve read this far. That is, to take the information on the biomechanics of bench press techniques (as in Chapter 2), add this to the knowledge available on training the key muscles used in the bench press (Chapter 3), and put all this together with the most physiologically valid training philosophy. If nothing else, at least this procedure provides a more research-based approach to training and should logically have more chance for success than simply the “guesswork” that is mainly used today in designing programs. Let’s face it, how much logic do you think is really behind the training programs most people are now in?

Since I’ve already stuck my neck out this far, let me continue and present my philosophy of bench press training (based both on my research and experience):

(1) First, we need to think of the competition-style bench press as the complex sport skill it really is (see Chapter 2). In this lift, technique is VERY important, if not crucial to success. You should think of your competitive bench press as, let’s say, a pole vault or another “complex” sport skill. If you think of it in this way, you’ll quickly come to realize that just as the pole vaulter lifts weights to build the key muscles important to pole vaulting, he also spends a lot of time with a coach working on his techniques. We should do the same with bench press training.
(2) With this first point in mind, an important part of our training time should be spent on training the key muscles of importance to bench pressing (as in Chapter 3). Intelligent training of these muscles, as we’ve previously discussed, should be viewed as “separate” from actual training of our competitive style bench press. Further, the most research and experiential-based physiological training approach should be used as far as sets, reps, intensity, volume, etc. are concerned to best develop these muscles for their roles in the bench press. Additional specialized training can also be used here (for example, to develop strength at the sticking point region) as needed.
(3) The final step is to structure the technique training portion of the total bench press program. Now that more is hopefully understood about bench press techniques (as in Chapter 2), it is time to start coaching the bench press as it should be. Technique assessment, whether it is from simple observation or computerized biomechanical analysis of high-speed (slow motion) films, needs to be done more extensively. After all, technique work is one of the most critical aspects of high-level performance in any sport. In fact, it can be shown that the performances in the 1984 Olympics by U.S. athletes were significantly helped by the biomechanical technique studies done for the coaches and athletes over the previous four years. This is also what the Soviets and Eastern Bloc nations spend considerable efforts in.

Now, let’s spend more time expanding on these ideas and hopefully this bench press training philosophy will become clearer.


(1) Atha, J., “Strengthening muscle”, Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, (ed: D.I. Miller, Franklin Press), Vol. 9:1-74, 1981.

4.2 – Optimal Training for Key Bench Press Muscles

First and foremost, keep in mind here that I am saying that you should not rely on bench press training that simply involves doing sets and reps with your competitive style bench press. This is an important departure from most conventional bench press training approaches. Rather, we will use this section to explore how to optimally train the key muscles involved in bench presses. Training of the competitive style bench press will only be done in a “technique development” fashion (to be discussed in the next section).

What I am really saying here is that I am resolving perhaps the biggest bench press training controversy of our time – that is, whether to use singles versus a cycling approach. There are definitely advantages to each, but in my opinion, the singles have value mainly in technique development, and that will be discussed in the next section . . . whereas training individual key muscles is best achieved by using proven cycling (or “periodization”) concepts. What I intend to talk about in the section, then, is how best to develop the key bench press muscles to optimize their role in producing a great bench press.

We have already spent a considerable amount of time in Chapter 3 (see Sections 3.2 through 3.5 in particular) going over the training techniques and exercises that should be used for developing the key bench press muscles. Please refer back to these sections carefully for this information carefully for this information. What we need to talk about here, however, is the WAY in which we train these muscles to develop them most effectively for their role in the bench press.

Based on my experiences over the years it has become evident to me that most lifters believe that somewhere out there is an 8½ x 11 sheet of paper listing the sets, reps, exercises, etc. of the “perfect” training program (for example, do “X” exercise, “Y” sets, and “Z” reps every fortnight until the full moon in June, deloading each third week, but only if the groundhog sees his shadow and Christmas this year falls on either Sunday or its face . . .). They are convinced that someone (whether it is a name powerlifter, bodybuilder, candlestick maker or whatever) knows this super-secret program and their job is to try, by any means possible, to discover it. They are certain this program, if they can just find it, would be the answer to all their bench press prayers. Indeed, they often get so caught up in this quest that they spend an inordinate amount of time, money, vital fluids, etc. trying to uncover this “perfect” workout, and are often preyed upon by sharks swimming the shower-room sewers of public gyms and monkeys swinging with abandon from lat pulldown thingeys.

Wellsir, the joke is unfortunately on them. No fixed workout, no matter how perfect, will work for very long. In fact, any training program that does not effectively and systematically utilize change will eventually lead to overtraining, lack of progress, injury, loss of vital fluids, sharking monkeys and chimping fish. Overtraining is all too common among weight trainers everywhere. The body can be pushed extremely hard, but not for long periods of time without respite. Let’s have a quick look at what’s advised in avoiding overtraining.

In the 1930’s, Hans Selye developed the “General Adaptation Syndrome” that described the way an individual adapted to stress during his lifetime. Expanding on this, Garhammer (see reference 1) has presented the basic concepts of the General Adaptation Syndrome in terms of what happens during training to the powerlifter, weight trainer, or athlete. To quickly summarize, there are three distinct phases of adaptation that a lifter goes through during the course of a weight training cycle:

(1) The first phase (alarm stage) is the initial response to the new weight program. During this first phase there is typically a drop in strength/power levels due to the associated soreness and stiffness that accompany the first few days of any weight program;
(2) The second phase (resistance phase) is where the lifter positively adapts to the weight program and increases his strength/power levels. This is when the program seems to work quite well and progress continues uninterrupted;
(3) The third phase (exhaustion or “overtraining” phase) is where the total stress of the weight training program becomes too much to handle and the lifter’s progress stalls or diminishes. It’s also important to note that other stresses besides the physical stress of the training program can sum to push one into overtraining (such as stresses in work, school, personal life, environment, loss of vital bodily fluids etc.).

Obviously, what we are looking for is a way to avoid the third phase and keep improving our strength/power levels. One of the many ways to do this involves properly incorporating change into the training program. To do this one must change some of the characteristics of any training program, such as VOLUME – the total amount of work done, or INTENSITY – basically how heavy the weights are. The person who first proposed a way to do this was Matveyev in 1961 (see reference 2 for details). His concept of periodization (or cycling, as it is commonly known) is an approach for changing the characteristics of a training program so overtraining can better be avoided and performance can more effectively be increased to optimal levels.

Training volume and intensity should be changed during the course of a training program, generally so that volume begins high (at the start of, let’s say, an eight week cycle) and decreases over the course of the cycle. Intensity, on the other hand, begins low and increases over the same cycle’s duration. The details of this approach are more fully described in reference 2. However, the basic bench press cycle I recommend for developing the key muscles would basically involve 3 weeks of 10 reps, 3 weeks of 5 reps, and 1 week of 2-3 reps before the meet or personal record. Use 3-5 sets per exercise, and up to 10-20 sets per muscle group are acceptable. Beginners in powerlifting or weightlifting appear to require less change in volume and intensity than more advanced lifters with years of training behind them. Furthermore, Stone (personal communication, 1983) has found that the results of a training cycle are greater if the changes in volume and intensity are more abrupt. Many lifters decrease repetitions too gradually during the course of a cycle (for example, going from 10 reps for 3 weeks to 8 reps for 3 weeks, etc. on down towards the meet). Stone’s work indicates that going from 10 rep weeks to 5 reps weeks, then to 3 rep weeks etc. “shocks” the body into greater adaptation than more gradual changes in volume and intensity.

The advanced athlete also needs to add other changes to his program regarding volume and intensity to avoid overtraining. Changing the volume and intensity by varying the loads used WITHIN the week as well as having every 2 to 3 weeks of heavier training followed by a “lighter” week during the cycle are other changes that the advanced lifter should also incorporate in his program. Again, note reference 2 for further details. While space doesn’t permit expanding in detail much further on this point, the main idea here is to change the volume and intensity in the manner I have discussed in your program. By using change to your advantage you will no doubt improve your progress and success on the platform.

Most of the top lifters that I know today use some cycling concepts as discussed above for changing their training volume and intensity during the meet preparation cycle. What I don’t see as often is a change in the biomechanics of the exercises used during their training cycle. In other words, they generally use the same exercises throughout their cycle.

Recent evidence (for example, see reference 3) is beginning to demonstrate the need for periodically changing the exercise movements we use in training. This is, of course, totally consistent with the General Adaptation Syndrome discussed above. Even if we are already changing the volume and intensity as described previously, we still need to avoid doing the same exercise for too long a time. Perhaps the most striking example of this is seen in training on exercise machines. With any machine training situation you have greater repeatability in the exercise due to the mechanical constraints of the movement involved. It’s not surprising that so many people who go on a purely machine-based weight training program will stall progress after 8 to 10 weeks or so. What they need to do (but can’t as easily do with machine training) is to slightly change their muscular involvement through either a change in the exercise or by going to a related but different exercise for the same group of muscles. This, in fact, is one major disadvantage of machines compared to free weights. With weights you have the capacity for diverse change in exercises used, while the exercises on machines are much more dramatically limited.

Obviously, much more biomechanical research needs to be done here in defining how much change is needed and how often it is needed in the exercises used in a training cycle. However, there is no question in my mind how important it is to dramatically change the biomechanics of the exercises you use. Particularly in complex areas of the body like the shoulder joint, variety is indeed the spice of life. The salt and pepper of existence. Being’s nothingness without ‘er. Whether you change the way you do an exercise by altering stance, grip, bar placement, the movement itself, speed of the motion, etc. or periodically use a different exercise altogether, the key is to change. To me, one of the reasons that the bench press is the lift most people have the greatest trouble improving in is that there is usually so little change in the way they bench press. For the most part, when I have taught beginning weight training classes, there are many who actively resist even TRYING one of the many different styles of bench pressing available (mostly, of course, because they won’t be able to lift as much). The best way to improve a stale bench press is to invoke the many possible changes available in this exercise. To do so, as most successful bench pressers have learned, is to improve your bench press significantly. Don’t forget the exercises you use for developing the key muscles involved in the bench press (triceps, deltoids, pectoralis major, etc.) need to be similarly changed periodically as well.

Additional specialized work can be done, in particular, to develop strength in the critical sticking point region. For example, doing isometrics or small range movements with heavy loads in a power rack (set up either based on mechanical analysis of your own sticking point location, or else determined from Figure 8 – for most people about 4-5 inches above the chest and 3-6 inches down from the shoulder). Additionally, using variety in chest development exercises (especially by focusing on different portions of the chest) would help develop strength over the entire region near your bar path and sticking point. Reduced acceleration or paused motions stopped near the sticking point are also potentially useful in developing sticking point strength (and are done a lot by top benchers like Bridges, Macdonald, etc.). Forced repetitions at this sticking point range may also be of some value (ala Arcidi, etc.). I would, however, keep all this work to a minimum, since the shoulder joint (ligaments in particular) can take a beating with this type of training, and needs to be adapted gradually to these higher intensities. Also, these high intensity, specialized motions should probably occur only in the last few weeks of a cycle (during weeks of 5 reps and less), in following the periodization concepts of training.


(1) Garhammer, J., “Periodization of strength training for athletes”, Track Technique, 73:2398-2399, 1979.
(2) Stone, M., O’Brien, H., Garhammer, J., McMillan, J., and Rezonek, R., “A theoretical model of strength training”, National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal, Aug/Sept, 36-39, 1982.
(3) Hakkinen, K., and Koni, P.B., “Effect of different combined concentric muscle work regimens on maximal strength development”, Journal of Human Movement Studies, 7:33-44, 1981.

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