The question has been around for as long as men have been lifting weights.
"How much do you Bench?"
Do you answer by adding 20 pounds to the truth, or are you honest despite your fear of looking like a weakling?
Although (like most athletes) you may never have a crowd-gathering Bench Press, you want to be able to hit your genetic potential, even if it's 225 pounds. The key is to have variation in your program. You don't want to focus only on the flat Bench Press. Instead, you want multiple variations.
I will give you ideas on how to create variation to your benching program in order to hit new maxes.
Fix 1: Mix Things Up
Many athletes are familiar with three or four variations of the Bench Press: Flat Bench, Incline Bench, Decline Bench and Dumbbell Bench. But there are actually more than 30 variations you can try.
To create variation, consider pressing speed, range of motion (ROM), angles used, starting position, grip positions and even (often overlooked) progressive linear variability, also known as Bench Pressing with a resistance band on the bar.
To give you options, I've created different categories of ways to completely change up your Bench Press to allow for more variation.
- Full ROM
- Partial ROM (board pressing—can use 1 board, 2 boards, etc: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIBp-my013I)
- Normal grip
- Close grip
- Wide grip
- Normal ("from the top")
- Rack press (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhpzrRGgAyI)
- Rack press from safeties at chest
- Rack press from safeties at high level
- Floor press
- Normal cadence (the cadence you typically use)
- Slow cadence
- Two-count pause at bottom
Your ability to create variations is almost limitless. Mix and match variables to create differentiation. By changing your press variation weekly, you can constantly challenge your nervous system while avoiding program stagnancy.
Fix 2: Lift for Strength
Here's where many lifters confuse what they are trying to achieve. Are you going for a "pump" or are you trying to get strong? The purpose of this article is to help you build a heavy Bench. To do so, you must lift heavy, meaning a rep range of 1-3 reps to failure. If you are repping out 8, 9 or 10 reps, you aren't training for strength. But if you can move the weight three or fewer times to failure, you're on the right track. Even going as many as 5 or fewer reps tends to stress the central nervous system (CNS) to adapt to strength changes.
When you start hitting 6 reps or more, you are entering a rep range that is geared more toward hypertrophy. But don't think 6 reps equals hypertrophy and 5 reps means CNS. This isn't a rule that all humans are biologically wired to follow. It's more of a guideline. When in doubt, shoot for 1-3 reps to failure.
Fix 3: Use "Loaded Warm-Up" Sets
Another pitfall I often see: lifters burn themselves out before even getting to their heavier sets. First and foremost, your heavy lift should be the first lift you do. What logic would there be to doing triceps work before heavy pressing? That would only pre-fatigue your triceps, thus reducing their contribution to your lift.
Next, and just as important, don't perform massive amounts of volume on your first (and big) lift. Why? Because by the time you reach your final set—which should be your be-all-end-all set—your muscles are wasted. Instead, use what I refer to as a "loaded warm-up"—essentially using a weight that is a percentage of your anticipated one-rep max (1RM) and performing only a few sub-maximal rep ranges. For instance, if your 1RM is 225 on the flat bench, you would perform 3-5 loaded warm-ups. Here's how your progression would look:
- 1 X 3 @ 65% (146 pounds rounded to 145)
- 1 X 3 @ 75% (168 pounds rounded to 170)
- 1 X 1 @ 85% (191 pounds rounded to 190)
- 1 X 1 @ 90% (202 pounds rounded to 200)
- Maximal Effort Set: Use this set to move the absolute most weight for one rep.
Loaded warm-up sets not only prevent premature fatigue, they also can be used to "feel around" what you anticipate maxing out at. On days you feel stronger, you may predict a higher 1RM, or vice versa. If you have higher volume training to do, perform it after completing your heavy lifting.
Fix 4: Don't Overdo It
All that is required of your commitment is one heavy session per week. Pick a day of the week and mark it on the calendar for next week and the next and so on. Treat this day like a business meeting and commit to not missing your work that day.
On the flip side, don't do more than one heavy session per week, as this will cumulatively tax your CNS. Also, every week, make sure to do a completely different variation of the Bench. Changing up the lift each week is key to avoiding CNS overload and stagnation. Since you are going for your absolute max every week and changing up the pressing variation, your body can work at its "training max" on a week-to-week basis. On the other hand, if you were to do the Bench Press the same way for a few weeks without variation, you would see improvement in the first week or two followed by dropoff.
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