The Secret to Increasing Your Bench

The bench press fascinates most people in the gym; It doesn't matter where you train. Someone's always loading up a bar on a bench and someone's always asking, "So how much do you bench?" The bench press is the lift that everyone loves to love; yet it's also the lift that everyone seems to plateau on.

What's the solution to the dreaded bench plateau? Stop bench-pressing! Now, I know some of the powerlifters are going to get a little excited and say, Hey, that's one of my main lifts; I can't stop doing it. My answer to that is, Do you really think you're going to forget how to bench?

Besides, when I say, "stop bench pressing," I mean don't use a barbell. There are numerous other methods of developing pectoral mass with pressing movements. Probably 99 percent of all lifters have bench-pressed with little or no break over the years. That's a sure way to overtrain the movement pattern, the results of which include loss of strength, boredom and injury—for example, pec tears and tendinitis.

Going from a barbell to dumbbells can be a difficult change for many people. It's tough mentally because you can't handle as much weight and people are afraid they'll get weaker. Then there's the problem of asking power-lifters to skip doing one of their main lifts.

I didn't always use bench press as a means of building strength, however. Instead, dumbbells were the key to big increases. I have trained with people who increased their bench strength by 30 to 45 pounds in less than three months with very little work on the barbell bench press. The improvement came from changing the grip of the dumbbells (neutral, palms-forward, palms-back), changing the incline of the bench and using an unstable base of support, such as the swiss ball, for flat-bench, incline and decline presses.

The approach is like Louie Simons' conjugate method, in which you use lifts that are similar to your main exercise. Louie is a world-famous powerlifting coach who has had enormous success producing champions at his West-side Barbell club in Ohio. Simmons describes his two-day split of intensity and exercises. One point I particularly like is his explosive day, in which he uses 60 percent of max for eight to 10 sets of three reps. That's important because it's a means of firing the type 2B fibers under a different load and tempo environment.

I like to add something to it, so I use something the Russians have called a complex set. I precede my explosive set with a heavy set of doubles or triples, rest three to five minutes, then perform an explosive set on the bench press with about 60 percent for three to five reps. You can also do it without the rest between sets.

The complex accomplishes two things: It assures that you're using your 2B fibers in a slow max-strength attempt, and it allows you to move the bar with greater velocity, as you trick your motor units into believing they're going t lift a heavy weight. I use the heavy-set complex for only two to three sets, and then continue with three sets of explosive reps.

From a practical standpoint this technique works, but according to the literature, there's one problem with it. It's called the deceleration phase. It's been demonstrated that when you lift a load of 81 percent of max, 52 percent of the range of motion of the lifting portion is used to decelerate the weight. When you lift a max load, it's 23 percent. The existence of the deceleration phase is one of the biggest downsides to weight training. Using the lighter loads helps develop some explosiveness off your chest, but you end up decelerating to a greater degree. That may be one of the causes of the dreaded sticking point—it's a result of your nervous system constantly thinking about slowing down as you lift the bar with max force. One way of overcoming the problem is to integrate plyometric exercise into your routine.

There are a number of ways you can do it. The key to success is to use a load that's heavy enough. Performing medicine-ball drops won't do it. It's been proven that dropping a 10-kilogram medicine ball from a height of 10 centimeters into the extended arms of a trainee—with him ore her catching and recoiling with the ball—results in an eccentric load impact of only 37 kilograms per millisecond. That's not heavy enough to induce positive change; however, if you perform a plyometric activity that eccentrically loads the muscles appropriately, you can overcome the negative results of the deceleration phase. Examples include exercises such as drop pushups with your feet elevated and push/catches with a hanging heavy bag. That type of activity is very intense, so you should keep your repetitions below six.

You can also try using a Smith machine with a spotter on each side. Use a weight that's approximately 45 to 50 percent of your max, lower the weight to your chest and explode so hard that you actually throw the weight out of your hands. Your partners must be quick and catch the bar as its velocity reaches zero. If that isn't enough, you can try an extreme drill that I hear the Russians have used. Back in the mid'80s a colleague of mine saw a Russian lifter fitted with an upper-body harness, and he was hung from the ceiling so his body was parallel to the floor. He was pulled back about 15 feet from a wall, and then swung into the wall. As soon as his hands made contact with the wall, he blasted off as hard and as fast as he could. A little drastic, but very innovative. The Russians will do anything to win.

Variability Affects Your Anatomy, Which Means Big Gains

The anatomical reason for changing from a bar to dumbbells is that the small stabilizing muscles in your shoulder come into play to a greater extent. These include the teres minor, infraspinatus, subscapularis, serratus anterior and coracobrachialis. When strength coach Charles Poliquin was coaching women's powerlifting champion Cathy Millen—who has bench-pressed 407.5 pounds at a body-weight of 185 pounds—she started with a bench press of 275 pounds at a bodyweight of 165. Charles had her benching only once every five days, and when she hit 380, it went down to once every seven days. He also kept Cathy off the bench press for 18 weeks before her first competition, emphasizing dumbbells, which resulted in a much greater stretch of her prime movers.

That's a great benefit, as enhanced flexibility prevents long-term overuse injuries. Many gym-related shoulder injuries come on like cavities in your mouth—they take a long time to show up, but once they do, it's too late. Charles felt the dumbbell work made a significant contribution to Cathy's amazing results, causing great adaptation in all her stabilizing muscle groups. As a matter of fact, he has said that her serratus anterior is the strongest he's ever seen on any human being.

Poliquin also placed emphasis on elbow flexor and extensor strength. It may seem unusual that improvement in the elbow flexors would assist in the bench press, but Poliquin believes it enhances nervous system adaptation, allowing the triceps to reach greater strength levels.

Anatomy plays another role in the bench press, and that has to do with inclination of the trunk and hand spacing. In a fairly recent study involving electromyography, researchers looked at the way bench inclination and hand spacing affect recruitment of the sternocostal and clavicular heads of the pec major, the anterior deltoid, the long head of the tricep and the latissimus dorsi. Unfortunately, the researchers used the Smith machine as the testing mode. It's a machine that I don't particularly like for strength training, mostly because it's been demonstrated that freeweight exercises stimulate greater muscle activation than machines on the bench press exercise. What's more, chronic use of the Smith machine causes a faulty movement pattern to develop in the shoulder girdle. The following determinations by the researchers in the above-mentioned study reinforce what is general knowledge.

Sternocostal head of pectoralis major:

  • In the military press position activity was at its lowest, as compared to the decline, flat and incline positions. The highest activity was in the flat-bench position.
  • Generally, hand spacing had no effect on muscle activation except during the incline press, when the wide grip elicited a greater activity.

Clavicular head of pectoralis major:

  • As you move from a decline to a flat to an incline position, you get progressively greater activity, with little activity in the military press position.
  • Generally, there was significantly greater activity when the subjects used a narrow grip as compared to a wide grip.

Anterior-deltoid head:

  • Activity in the muscle tended to increase as inclination increased.
  • Using a wide grip in the military press and incline positions resulted in greater activity. A narrow grip in the decline and flat position resulted in greater activity in those positions.

Long head of the triceps:

  • Decline and flat positions had significantly greater activity than the incline and vertical positions.
  • Using a narrow grip resulted in greater activity over the wide grip.

Latissimus dorsi:

  • Activity was very generally low compared to other muscle groups. There was indication of activity just prior to the start of the lift.
  • The greatest activity was in the decline position with a wide grip.

The Plan for a Big Bench

Try the following routine for the next eight weeks. You'll find that if you've been stuck at a certain level on the bench press for any length of time, this program will get you out of that rut. Note that this program is for experienced lifters. If you're new to the game, don't follow this workout.

Cycle 1: Four Weeks
(Days 1 and 2 should be separated by at least three days of rest.)
Day 1
1) Bench press complex 1 x 2 x 90-95% 3/1/exp
1 x 5 x 50-60% 3/1/exp
4 x 5 x 60% 2/1/exp
2a) Undergrip pulldowns to chest 4 x 6 3/1/2
2b) Decline drop pushups 4 x 5
3a) Seated cable rows to the neck (use triceps rope) 4 x 5 3/1/2
3b) Standing external rotation #1 on low cable 4 x 8 3/1/3
4) Prone triceps dumbbell hammer extensions 3 x 8 2/0/2
Day 2
1a) Neutral-grip incline dumbbell presses 3 x 8 4/0/2
1b) Serratus dumbbell front raises on incline bench 3 x 8 3/2/2
2a) Pronated pullups (chest to bar) 3 x max 3/1/1
2b) Cuban presses 3 x 6
3a) Dumbbell floor presses 4 x 8 3/2/1
3b) Pushups on Swiss ball 4 x 8-10
4) Seated incline dumbbell curls Tempo 4 x 10 4/1/3
Cycle 2: Four Weeks
(Days 1 and 2 should be separated by at least three days of rest.)
Day 1
1) Smith machine explosion bench presses 5 x 3 x 45-50% 3/0/exp
2a) One-dumbbell bench presses 4 x 5 4/0/exp
2b) Chest-supported neutral-grip T-bar rows 4 x 6 3/1/2
3a) Close-grip bench presses 4 x 5 3/1/2
3b) Standing external rotation #2 on low cable 4 x 6 3/1/3
Day 2
1) Bar lockouts in power cage 4 x 3 3/1/exp
2) Eccentric chinups 3 x 1 30/0/0
3) Swiss ball dumbbell incline presses and bench presses 3 x 8 4/0/3
4) Dumbbell lateral raises with elbows bent at 90 degrees 4 x 8 3/1/2

Exercise Descriptions

Bench press complex

Perform a heavy set, unload the bar, rest four to five minutes, then perform a light explosive set. You can vary this by not resting after the heavy set. For the four sets of explosive reps on their own, rest at least four minutes between sets.

Decline drop pushups

Get in the pushup position with your feet elevated on an 8-to-10-inch aerobics step. Have your partner straddle your hips and pick up your upper body with his or her hands under your chest. When your partner lets you go, your hands hit the ground, you quickly recoil your arms and explode out of the pushup position. Your partner should catch you at your highest point and then lift you into position for your next rep.

Standing external rotation #1

Stand beside a low cable so the vertical cable is parallel to your left arm. Grab the low-cable handle with your right hand, stand erect and position your right arm so the upper arm is parallel to ground, supported by your left hand, and your forearm is perpendicular to the ground. You'll look as if you're in the contracted position of a onearm pec deck movement. To lower the weight, slowly rotate your hand down till it's parallel to the floor—internal shoulder rotation—keeping your upper arm stationary. That will cause eccentric contraction in the external rotators. To raise the weight, externally rotate your shoulder, rotating your hand up until it's back to the starting position. Always maintain the 90 degree angle at your elbow, and keep the humerus, or upper-arm bone, parallel to the ground.

Serratus dumbbell front raises

Lie chest down on a 45 degree incline bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Keep the weights in the neutral position—thumbs to ceiling. With your head back, raise both arms slightly higher than parallel to the ground as you reach forward— imagine trying to separate your shoulder blades.

Cuban presses

Stand erect holding a bar at your thighs with an overhand grip. Pull the bar up in an upright row fashion, and when your upper arms are parallel to the ground, stabilize them in this position and externally rotate your shoulders to get the bar over your head. Bring the bar down to a front military press position. Do not rotate as you come back down because there's too much eccentric stress on the shoulders.

Smith machine explosion presses

Use a weight that's approximately 45 to 50 percent of your max. With a spotter on each side of the machine lower the weight to your chest and explode so hard that you actually throw the weight out of your hands. Your partners must be quick and catch the bar as its velocity reaches Zero. It's best to use a multi-guide rod machine; i.e., on that has vertical and horizontal guide rods.

1 1/4 dumbbell bench presses

Recline on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Press the dumbbells to arm's length, then lower them to your chest. Push them up one-quarter of the range of motion, lower them back down and then explode to full extension.

Standing external rotation #2

Keep your upper arm by your side, abducted to about 30 degrees. Stabilize that position with your free arm and rotate your shoulder, moving your hand forward and back in an arc.

Swiss ball dumbbell incline presses and bench presses

Lie on the ball so your head and shoulders are supported by it. Drop your hips around the ball, which will put your chest in an incline position. Use a weight that will allow only eight reps. When you reach failure, raise your hips so you're in the flatbench position, then continue to press out as many reps as you can. You should complete a couple more reps, as you're moving from a weak position to a stronger position.

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