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Article in brief:
- Know why you are bench pressing. Then train accordingly. For example, close grip benching will have more carryover to performance in football, whereas wide grip benching will have more of a carryover for powerlifting.
- Train the bench press once or twice per week. Training less or more won't be sufficient to elicit an adaptive response.
- Perform warm-up sets with zen like focus. This will allow you to move more weight in your work sets.
I don't want this blog to simply be about building muscle, shedding fat, and leading a healthy lifestyle. I also want it to center on achieving goals efficiently. All of our time is split among competing interests and I want to help you incorporate a healthy lifestyle in a manner that minimizes the impact on your other obligations.
I've decided to focus on the bench press for my inaugural post for two reasons.
First the bench press is an inherently efficient exercise. Like all compound/multi joint movements, the bench engages multiple muscle groups at the same time, reducing the need to do isolation work for deltoids, triceps, pecs, lats etc. Additionally, compound movements, and in particular the bench press, allow you to use a lot of weight. This is important because the more weight you use in a given exercise the more stress you place on all the systems of your body (skeletal, muscular, nervous) and the better the adaptive response will be. In short, compound movements that allow you to use a lot of weight will get you swole quicker.
The second reason is that the bench press is awesome. I don't know if its a cultural phenomenon or if we are just hardwired for it, but nothing feels quite as viscerally satisfying as getting under heavy bar and pushing it off your chest before it crushes the life out of you. Its awesomeness has bred popularity and familiarity and most people think they know how to perform this exercise for maximum benefit (read: impressing their swole bros and the indigenous gym bunnies). Unfortunately this popularity has also lead to a lot of stagnation and injury.
1. Know Why You Are Bench Pressing
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Any program for goal achievement will tell you that you need to know where you're going before you start on your journey. We understand this intuitively, but people but it into practice with surprising infrequency. Most people have a vague idea of what they want out of training program (to look sexier) and they stumble into the gym and start crushing reps on whatever exercises they are familiar with or recently read about in a shiny fitness magazine. After a few days they lose interest and are back to spending their evenings with Tyrion Lannister and a box of Krispy Kremes.
Clearly defining goals will not only allow you to train smarter it will act as a constant motivator and gauge of progress.
For example, imagine you are an offensive lineman at a D1 school. Your goal is to better protect the quarterback by holding back the defensive line. If you go into the gym and start benching just because that's what athletic people do, you'll most likely take a relatively wide grip (far outside shoulder width) because this will allow you to move more weight and impress your gym buds. After a few months you're definitely stronger but you've noticed only marginal carry over into your sport. Why? Because you don't hold and push people with your arms spread beyond your shoulders. You push at shoulder width or narrower. Had you used your goal as a guide and focused on close grip benching you would have seen considerable carry over into performance on the field.
To take the example further, you can also use your work in the gym as a gauge for honing in on weak links. When you fail on the bench press is it usually at the top or the bottom of the motion? If its at the top this may indicate that the triceps are a weak point and accessory movements to address this may be necessary (dips, skullcrushers, tricep pressdowns). You could also incorporate bands on chains which cause the bar to be heavier near the top or lockout of the movement and lighter at the bottom.
On the other hand, if you fail at the bottom it may indicate a weakness in your pecs. You may want to incorporate a 1.5 rep method to create more training volume for your pecs or add accessory work that better targets the pecs, such as dumbbell bench presses, and cable flyes.
2. Train the Bench Press Once or Twice Per Week
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It stands to reason that if you want to be good at something, you do it a lot. If you want to be a professional backgammon player you'd be smart to play backgammon everyday. But this intuition doesn't translate into weight training. Bench pressing once or twice per week is not only all you need, but is actually optimal for strength and muscle gain.1 Training a lift less frequently is typically not enough to create an optimal adaptive response, and training more frequently can lead to fatigue and stagnation. Nearly all of the most effective time-tested training programs train the bench press (and other big compound lifts) with a once or twice per week frequency; Charles Staley's EDT, Jim Wendlers 5/3/1, Louie Simmons Westside programs, Dante Trudel's DC training, various programs recommended by Chrisitan Thibaudeau, Chad Waterbury, John Meadows, bodybuilders from all eras, and the list goes on.
If you're on the MWF Bench train and you haven't seen gains in months then you likely need to reduce your training frequency. I remember how amazed I was when I first switched my MWF bench press to once per week and saw solid consistent gains on a lift that had remained stagnant for months.
But there's more to this strategy than just the performance on the bench press. We are always working with limited resources, specifically limited time, and limited recovery capacity. When you throw the bench press in three times a week you must necessarily throw some other things out. From a time perspective this is obvious. It likely takes between 5-15 minutes to have a productive bench session. If you only have 3 hours a week to devote to training, then benching those extra two times per week is displacing about 5-15% of your training time. Time that you could be rowing, deadlifting, squatting, etc.
On top of that it eats into your energy and recovery capacity. If you start your session with 15 minutes of benching you simply won't be able to move as much weight on the ensuing sets of barbell rows or squats or whatever exercise you perform subsequently. Furthermore, you will be pounding away at the same joints in the same movement pattern which could produce problems as minor as strength imbalances and discomfort and as major as severe pain and dysfunction at the shoulder. And even if you manage to do this injury free long-term, you won't be maximizing your size and strength gains.
3. Perform Warm-Up Sets with Zen Like Focus
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Of all items on this list, this is the one that has the greatest chance of being ignored. So let me be very clear: ignoring this piece of advice is one of the most counterproductive things you can do in the gym. Performing a set with complete focus only takes slightly, if any, longer to perform than a set with little focus, so why waste your time. Simply going through the motions largely mitigates the benefits of the warm-up.
Remember that you are warming up as a way to prepare for your heavier work sets. These preliminary sets are not meant to tire you or elicit a growth response. They are meant to literally raise your temperature, lubricate your joints, and practice the motor pattern of the lift. All of which will help you push more plates and keep your shoulders healthy in the later work sets.
When you unrack the bar for your warm-up set, pretend as if you are performing your heaviest work set. You unrack tight and with purpose, your shoulders and back should be tight, your hands should be evenly spaced, your entire body should be braced. You should lower the weight under control and explode up. At no point should you be loose or distracted by espn or the sweaty girl in pink Lululemons. Treat this as seriously as you would treat a 1 rep max and you will be rewarded.
So what should warm-up sets look like? Generally, stay around 35-55% of your one rep max, for 2-5 sets of 2-5 reps. These numbers aren't set in stone, but using these as a guide should provide some stimulation and practice without really fatiguing the motor pattern.
So for example, imagine you have a 300lb 1 rep max bench press. Your warm up might look like this:
135lb - 1x5
155lb - 1x4
175lb - 1x2
Bar - 1x8
135lb - 1x5
145lb - 1x5
155lb - 1x3
165lb - 1x3
Remember this is not meant to fatigue you. These sets should feel very light.
In addition to this specific warm-up which should be done immediately preceding the bench press. I would advise doing a more general warm-up for roughly 5 to 10 minutes preceding your entire workout. Joe DeFranco's Simple Six is a good starting point, but I will add some of my own suggestions in a future post.
So remember, in order to get the most out of your training you need to first know why you are bench pressing and then adjust the particulars to match your goal. Second, you need to stop benching 7 days a week. One or two days of bench pressing is sufficient to stimulate growth and it actually allows your body time to recover. Finally, you should always perform bench warm-up sets as if they were your work sets. Start with a relatively light weight to warm your body, lubricate your joints, and solidify the motor pattern.
That's all for now. I wanted to focus Part 1 of this post on preparation for the bench press, and focus Part 2 on assistance exercises and form optimization. You can check out the final four suggestions in Efficient Benching Part II: 7 Ways to Crush the Bench.