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The Optimum Method of Increasing Your Bench: Stop Benching!

By Lorne Goldenberg
Reprinted from Ironman Magazine

The bench press without question is a lift that tends to fascinate most people in the gym. It does not matter where you train, you will always find someone loading up a bar on a bench. You will always be asked "So what are you benching?" The bench press is the lift that everyone loves to love. Yet it is also the lift that everyone seems to plateau on. So what is the answer to the dreaded bench plateau? Stop bench pressing!! Now I know some of the powerlifters are going to get a little excited and think, hey this is one of my main lifts, I can't stop doing it. My answer to that is a question, Do you really think you are going to forget how to bench press? Of course not. This article will detail methods of increasing your bench press, and examine how your mechanics, and muscular system are all affected by variations in everyone's favorite lift.

Now what do I mean when I say "stop bench pressing", Literally I mean do not use a barbell to bench press. BUT, this does not exclude other methods of developing the pectoral mass with pressing movements. For 99% of the lifting population, you have bench pressed in some part of your program with little or no break over the years. The body can and will end up overtraining a movement pattern. Some of the results of overtraining include loss of strength, boredom, and injury (pec tears, tendonitis etc.)

The Switch From Barbell To Dumbell

The change from barbell to dumbbell can be a difficult one for many people. Mentally it is tough because you cannot handle as much weight as the barbell, people think they will actually get weaker. Then there is also the problem of getting over the fact that if you are a powerlifter, and I am asking you not to do one of your main lifts.

In the 10 years that I coached NHL hockey players, in addition to emphasizing core strength, upper body pressing movements were very important. We used the bench press as a means to determine upperbody strength (as well as their potential to cross check their opponent effectively). Yet I did not always use the test as a means of building strength. The use of dumbbells was a big key for increases in strength. It was not uncommon for a player to increase his bench strength by 30 -45 pounds in less than 3 months. This kind of increase was obtained with very little use of the bench press. It did come about by changing the grip of the dumbbell (neutral, palms away, reverse grip), changing the incline of the bench, and using an unstable base of support, the swiss ball, for flat, incline, and decline presses.

This theory is very similar to Louie Simmons conjugate method, whereby you use similar lifts to your main exercise. This was outlined a few issues ago in IM in an article by Peter Thorne. Louie is a world famous powerlifting coach who has had enormous success producing champions out of his Westside Barbell club in Ohio. In the article Louie describes his split of intensity, and exercises over 2 days. The one point which I liked, is on his explosive day, where he is using 60% of max for 8-10 sets of 3 reps. This is important because it is a means of firing the 2b fibers under a different load and tempo environment. Now in theory and practice this works, but, I like to add another view on this method. I have used what has been termed a complex set(1) by the Russians. The difference with my method is that I will precede my explosive set with a heavy set of doubles or triples, rest 3-5 minutes, then perform an explosive set on the bench press with about 60% for 3-5 reps. This method can also be used without the rest period between sets. The complex accomplishes 2 things: First it assures you that you are using your 2B fibers in a slow strength max attempt, and secondly it also allows you to move the bar with greater velocity as you have tricked your motor units into believing they are going to lift a heavy weight. I use the heavy set complex for only 2-3 sets, then continue on with 3 extra sets of explosive reps. An example will be detailed later in the article.

Now from a practical standpoint this method works, but according to the literature there is one problem with it. It is called the decelleration phase. It has been demonstrated that when you are lifting a load of 81% of max, that 52% of that range of motion of the lifting portion is spent decellerating the weight. When you are lifting a max load it is 23%(2). The existence of this decelleration phase is one of the biggest downsides to weight training. Now using the lighter loads will help develop some explosiveness off the chest, but you will end up decellerating to a greater degree. It is my opinion that this MAY be one of the reasons and or causes for the dreaded sticking point. That is as a result of the nervous system constantly thinking about slowing down as the bar is being lifted with max force. One way of overcoming this is by integrating plyometric exercise into your routine.

There are a number of methods of utilizing plyometric exercise into your program. The key to success will be using a load that is heavy enough. Performing med ball drops will not do it. It has been proven that dropping a 10 kg med ball from a height of 70 cm results in an eccentric load impact of only 37 kg/ms (3). This is not heavy enough to induce positive change. But it is my opinion, that if you perform a plyometric activity that will eccentrically load the muscles appropriately, that you will be able to overcome the negative results of the decelleration phase. Exercises such as drop pushups with your feet elevated, and push/catch with a hanging heavy bag are 2 examples. This type of activity is very intense, therefor repetitions should be kept below 6. Another trick you can play with would be on a smith machine. With a spotter on each side of the machine, use a weight that is approximately 45-50% of your max. Lower the weight down 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 0. If this is not enough you can try an extreme drill that I heard the Russians have used. Back in the mid 80's a colleague of mine saw a Russian lifter fitted with an upper body harness, hung from the ceiling so his body was parallel with the floor, pulled back about 15 feet from a wall, then swung into the wall. Soon as his hands made contact with the wall he was to blast 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 why changing from a bar to dumbbells is important because when you stop using a bar to bench press, the small stabilizing muscles in the shoulder come into play at a greater level. These muscles include teres minor, infraspinatus, subscapularis, serratus anterior and coracobrachialis. One of the best examples that I can give with regard to its benefits is one from Strength Coach Charles Poliquin, who was coaching women's powerlifting champion Cathy Millen. Cathy has bench pressed 407.5 pounds at a body weight of 185 lbs. When she originally started with Charles she was bench pressing 275 lbs. at a body weight of 165. Charles was able to bring about these results by only benching once every 5 days, and once she hit 380, it went down to once every 7 days. Cathy was also kept off the bench press for 18 weeks before her first competition. Dumbbell work was highly emphasized, which resulted in a much greater stretch of her prime movers. This was very positive as enhanced flexibility prevents long term overuse injuries. Many of the shoulder injuries seen in the gym, come on like cavities in your mouth, they take a long time to show up, but once they do, it is too late. Charles felt the dumbbell work made a significant contribution to her amazing results. It was this dumbbell work that caused great adaptation in all her stabilizing muscle groups. As a matter of fact he has stated that her serratus anterior is the strongest he has ever seen on any human being. There was also great emphasis placed on elbow flexor and extensor strength. Now this may seem uncommon that improvement in the elbow flexors would assist in the bench press, but Poliquin feels that it enhances nervous system adaptation allowing the triceps to reach greater strength levels. This idea of nervous system adaptation will be covered in a future article.

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 (4) The researches looked at how bench inclination, and hand spacing would affect recruitment of the sternocostal and clavicular heads of the pec major, the anterior deltoid, long head of the tricep, and latissumus dorsi. This study unfortunately used the smith machine as its testing mode. This is a machine that I do not particularly like for strength training, mostly because it has been demonstrated, that free weight exercises illicit greater muscle activation than machines, in the bench press exercise(5). Additionally chronic use of the smith machine will result in development of a faulty movement pattern in the shoulder girdle. The following will provide us with some reinforcement of what is general knowledge.

Sternocostal Head of Pectoralis Major

  • In the military press position, activity was at its lowest as compared to decline, flat, and incline bench. 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

  • With regard to inclination, as you move from a decline, to flat, to incline, you get progressively greater activity, with little activity in the military position.
  • Generally hand spacing resulted in significantly greater activity when using a narrow grip as compared to a wide grip

Anterior Deltoid

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

Long Head of the Tricep

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

Latissimus Dorsi

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

The Plan For A Big Bench

Try the following routine for the next 8 weeks. You will find that if you have 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: This program assumes that you are an experienced lifter. If you are new to this game do not follow this workout. Some of the exercises may be new to you, and a few exercise explanations will follow. When you see exercises designated 1a, 1b. This indicates you should move from one exercise to the other with no rest. For those who are confused about tempo, you must have missed the March 1998 issue of IM. GO GET IT, THEN GO AND LIFT!!

CYCLE #1 FOUR WEEKS

DAY 1 AND DAY 2 SHOULD BE SEPARATED BY AT LEAST 3 DAYS OF REST

Day 1

1. Bench Press Complex 2 x 2/5 @ 90-95%/50-60%, 4 x 5 @ 60% Tempo-3:1:exp/2:1:exp
2a. Pulldown To Chest Supinated Grip 4 x 6 Tempo- 3:1:2
2b. Decline Drop Pushups 4 x 5
3a. Seated Row To Neck 4 x 5 Tempo- 3:1:2 (use tricep rope)
3b. Standing External Rotation #1 4 x 8 Tempo 3:1:3 (use low cable)
4. Prone Tricep DB Hammer Extension. 3 x 8 Tempo 2:0:2

Day 2

1a. Neutral Grip Incline DB Press 3 x 8 Tempo 4:0:2
1b. Serratus Front DB Front Raise 3 x 8 Tempo 3:2:2 (use incline bench)
2a. Pronated Pull-Ups Chest to Bar 3 x Max reps Tempo 3:1:1
2b. Cuban Press 3 x 6
3a. DB Floor Presses 4 x 8 Tempo 3:2:1
3b. Push Ups on Swiss Ball 4 x 8-10
4. Seated Incline DB Curls 4 x 10 Tempo 4:1:3

CYCLE #2 FOUR WEEKS

DAY 1 AND DAY 2 SHOULD BE SEPARATED BY AT LEAST 3 DAYS OF REST

Day 1

1. Smith Machine Explosion Bench Press 5 x 3 @ 45-50% of max Tempo 3:0:exp
2a. 1¼ DB Bench Press 4 x 5 Tempo 4:0:exp
2b. Chest supported T-Bar Row, neutral grip 4 x 6 Tempo 3:1:2
3a. Close Grip Bench press 4 x 5 Tempo 3:1:2
3b. Standing external rotation #2 4 x 6 Tempo 3:1:3 (use low cable)

Day 2

1. Bar Lockouts in Power Cage 4 x 3 Tempo 3:1:exp
2. Eccentric Chin-up 3 x 1 Tempo 30:0:0
3. Swiss Ball DB Incline Press\Bench Press 3 x 8 Tempo 4:0:3
4. DB Lateral Raise elbows 90 degrees 4 x 8 Tempo 3:1:2

Exercise Description

Bench Press Complex - Perform heavy set, unload bar, rest 4-5 minutes, then perform light set. You can vary this by having no rest after the heavy set. For the 4 sets of explosive reps on their own, rest at least 4 minutes between sets.

Decline Drop Push - Feet on 8-10" aerobic step, get in push up position, partner straddles hips your hips, picks your upper body up under chest, lets you go, you hit ground and come up as fast as possible, your partner catches you.

Standing External Rotation#1 - stand beside low cable so it is parallel with your left shoulder, grab cable handle with right, stand straight and position right arm so humerus is parallel to ground, and forearm is perpendicular to ground. To lower the weight you will slowly internally rotate-this will cause eccentric contraction in external rotators, to raise weight externally rotate at shoulder. Always maintain the 90 degree angle at your elbow, and humerus must stay parallel to the ground.

Serratus Front DB Front Raise - On a incline bench, hold DB so hand is in neutral position i.e. thumb to ceiling. Keep head back, raise both arms up slightly higher than parallel to ground, and reach forward trying to separate your two shoulder blades.

Cuban Press - Standing with bar in a snatch grip, begin to pull bar up in an upright row fashion, as humerus becomes parallel with ground, stabilize your arms in this position, and externally rotate to get bar over your head. To lower, bring bar back in front military press position, do not rotate coming back down as there is too much stress eccentrically on the shoulder.

Smith Machine Explosion Press - as described earlier, best to use a multi guide rod machine i.e. vertical and horizontal guide rods.

1 ¼ DB Bench Press - On a flat bench lower DB to chest, come back up 25% of range of motion, go back down, and then up to full extension.

Standing external rotation #2 - Same starting position as #1, but this time your arm is by your side, abducted to about 30 degrees. Stabilize this position and rotate shoulder.

Swiss Ball DB Incline Press\Bench Press- Lie on ball so head and shoulders are supported by ball. Drop your hips around ball, this will put your chest in an incline position. Use a weight that will allow only 8 reps. When you reach muscle failure, raise hips back up, this will put you in the flat bench position, then continue to press out as many reps as you can. You should get out a couple more reps, as you are moving from a weak position to a stronger position.

Lorne Goldenberg BPE, CSCS, CFA, ART CHEK-2 is the owner of Strength Tek Fitness Consulting in Ottawa, Ont. He has been an NHL strength coach for over 10 years, and can be contacted for consultations or seminars though his web site at www.strengthtek.com or 613-820-9682

References

  1. Chu D Jumping into Plyometrics. Leisure Press, Champaign Ill 1992 pg. 23-24.
  2. Bloomfield J et al. Applied Anatomy & Biomechanics in Sport. Blackwell Scientific Publications Cambridge Mass. 1994 P136.
  3. Wilson G. Weight and plyometric training: effects on eccentric and concentric force production. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology Vol.21#4 Aug 1996
  4. Barnett C. et al Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the emg activity of five shoulder muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Volume 9 #4 Nov 1995
  5. McCaw S. et al A comparison of muscle activity between a free weight and machine bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Volume8 #4 Nov 1994

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