Sunday, July 10, 2016

Building Bench Pressing Power - John Kojigian (1966)

The Author, 1965 Iron Man 2nd Place

by John Kojigian (1966)

At age 18 John Kojigian benched 425 as a light-heavyweight wearing shorts and a T-shirt, a National record at the time, and had done 465 unofficially. 

I have always considered the bench press as the finest all-around upper body exercise for building both muscle and power. It has been my favorite ever since I first began training in April of 1963. 

Many times I have been asked what I consider to be the 'secret' of bench pressing record poundages. I always say that hard work and consistent workouts are essential but you must also have a goal in mind. Setting a goal enables you to focus all or your enthusiasm and attention on succeeding with that poundage.

Triceps Power

If there is any secret to bench pressing it's probably due to powerful triceps. To my mind, triceps power is the key factor in bench pressing heavy poundages. [Note: I've seen photos of Mr. Kojigian's 425 lb. American record, and his grip is quite close, 22 inches, arms very close to straight up and down at the top, using an elbows flared style off the chest.] 

Pat Casey, Bill Seno, Doug Hepburn, etc., are well known for their tremendous triceps strength. I honestly feel that my bench press has increased in direct proportion to my triceps strength. When my triceps power is down, my bench also drops . . . but when my triceps power increases, up goes the bench press.

Perhaps the greatest example of the relationship between triceps power and the bench press was Marvin Eder. His feats of strength, particularly pressing movements, are legendary. Weighing 196 lbs. Eder pressed 355 in strict military form, and benched 495 under official conditions (510 in training), way back in 1953! Famous for his amazing triceps power, Marvin performed a full parallel bar dip with 430 lbs.

The Single Rep System

The most important factor in improving the bench press is the method of training. Single reps with maximum weight works best for me. World heavyweight record holder Pat Casey (he's done 570 lbs. to date) and every other outstanding supine presser I have talked to preferred the single rep training system. This system of training was used by Doug Hepburn, the massive Canadian strongman who, unofficially, hoisted 580 lbs. on the bench several years ago. 


To improve on any lift you must have a thorough understanding of just how the movement should be performed according to your body structure. Here is the exact procedure that I use:

1) Position yourself securely on the bench and make your body rigid and well braced.

2) Grip the bar carefully and firmly. I prefer a rather narrow grip of 22 inches between the thumbs. Once you determine the best hand spacing width for yourself, you can tape the bar so that you get the same grip every time.

3) While remaining thoroughly braced on the bench, remove the weight from the supports quickly, pause slightly at the top so that the weight can be controlled while lowering.

4) Now, lower the bar to the highest position of the chest (about two inches above the nipples in my case) and let it rest at this point for two seconds. Be sure to keep the pecs and triceps fully tensed as though they react as large, powerful coiled springs getting ready to hurtle the weight upward at your command. [Possibly interesting to note that, and pardon my blathering on here, I've seen two lifters demonstrate this, especially the speed of nerve signal involved, both of them standing and using no weight. Standing upright, hands out front, arms locked, very slow lowering and gathering of energy to the 'bar at chest position', a pause, then BOOM! - very, very fast out to the starting position. Ever see a world class Oly lifter split to get under a Jerk? Fast. Fast! Of course when under heavy weight the ascent won't be that actual speed, and the Jerk goes to a 'bone-on-bone' overhead support, but the speed of nerve send and activation is something to think about and definitely train if you're getting stuck just off the chest, as is finding a way to, in your mind, alter the perceived length of time in different areas of the lift.]  
5) EXPLODE THE WEIGHT OFF THE CHEST, with a tremendous push of the triceps, pecs and front deltoids. Keep in mind that you are going to 'push it through the ceiling'.

6) As the weight is on the way up, try and exert a 'second effort' explosive push. Many a lift has been lost because the lifter failed to get it through those last three inches. That extra effort will help you succeed with many maximum attempts.

7) Lock the weight securely at the top and hold it before you (or the spotters) replace the barbel on the supports.

Positive Attitude

Another very important factor deals with keeping your attitude positive at all times and KNOWING you are going to make that lift! I can't overemphasize the importance of 'exploding' the weight off the chest. If you find it difficult at first, keep trying, keep practicing. In fact, practice fast, explosive starts with a lighter weight at the conclusion of your heavy reps. [Sure, it was all going on in 1966, and earlier] You will soon develop the ability to get the bar moving fast. And don't forget that 'second effort' on the way up. 

Strict Form

You will make faster progress if you always perform this lift in correct form. The reason for this, I believe, is that your muscles strengthen in accordance with the demands placed upon them. If you find it necessary to raise your hips or vigorously bounce the weight off your chest, then you are removing some of the effort from the actual pressing muscle structures. Finding a way to 'cheat' through your sticking point will not fix the weakness in that area of your bench. [Don't run from the sticking point, meet it head on and deal with the problem, availing yourself of the many ways of doing just that.]

The bench press, just as any other lift, becomes easier and more efficient with appropriate practice. In other words, continuous repetition of a proper movement pattern results in the improvement of SKILL. A certain percentage of increasing the amount you can lift is due to this improvement in skill. Correct training form enables you to improve both strength and skill at the same time. This, of course, is not true when you resort to cheating methods.  

Training Schedule

Here is the exact training routine that has worked for me, that I have used for the past year, that has enabled me to add almost 150 lbs. to my previous best (my present training poundages are included).
[Don't be silly and feel like you're doing something 'wrong' if you haven't added 150 lbs. to your bench in the last year. 149 is acceptable.]

Bench Press:
[Adjust the weights, volume, and frequency to your own capability]
250 x 15
350 x 6
400 x 3
420 x 1
430 x 1
440 x 1
450 x 1
440 x 1
430 x 1
300 x 12

Incline Dumbbell Press:
105's x 15
125's x 2 sets of 10
115's x 10
105's x 10
95's x 10

Two Hand One Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension:
105 x 15
115 x 10
125 x 10
170 x 3 sets of 8

These three great exercises, listed above, are totally responsible for the strength I have developed on the bench press.

Training Hints

Occasionally I will take a weight like 430 lbs. and perform 6 to 8 single reps with it, resting about two minutes between each rep. I do this about every fourth workout or so. I don't recommend that you try your maximum at every workout because this will bring on staleness quickly. However, if I feel especially strong I sometimes try for a new personal record on such occasions. 

I use the bench press routine listed above three times a week (Monday/Wednesday/Friday) along with heavy squats, calves, and lat work. On the alternate days it's work on the biceps, abdominals, and shoulders. This six day a week training schedule works best for me, however, you will have to experiment and find what works best for YOU at different times in your lifting life.


Proper foods, of course, give you the energy and tissue building ingredients necessary to make positive gains. My diet is primarily a high protein one, featuring meat at least twice a day and four to six eggs, cheese and moderate carbohydrates (baked potato, salad, whole wheat bread, and fruit). I drink lots of fresh fruit juices, but no milk. I know this may sound unusual, but I have never particularly liked milk and almost never drink it. Milk is a fine source of protein, and it if agrees with you and you like it, drink it.

I find that I need plenty of rest to recuperate from my heavy training schedule so I get about nine hours sleep every night. Adequate rest is essential if you want to get the most from your workouts, so don't cheat yourself on sleep.

Tommy Kono's Advice

"I don't claim to be an expert on bench pressing, but I'm convinced that the hints outlined in this article will prove helpful to anyone who wishes to improve on this lift. Remember, train hard, never miss a workout if at all possible, and keep a positive attitude at all times while striving for your goal."


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