by John Gaglione T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Raw bench pressers need to train differently than geared or “shirted” benchers.
- Learn to engage your chest when you bench. Elbows-out dumbbell presses and benching with your feet up will help.
- Utilize exercises that increase range of motion and time under tension. Use a buffalo bar or closer-grip benches and long pauses in the bottom range.
- Work all ranges of the press with board presses and Spotto presses, which are “invisible” board presses.
- Train the shoulders to increase stability using overhead and incline pressing.
- Incorporate one day per week of bench-focused training and a second upper-body day with shoulder-focused training.
For years, lifters have struggled to get their bench press up. Why? Because a lot of what they know, or think they know, has been learned from some of the greatest shirted benchers of all time.
In other words, geared powerlifters – those who use special bench press shirts that add safety and ultimately a whole lot of plates to their PRs. Thing is, shirted benching requires a different technique. While a lot of the info coming from geared powerlifters has been great, some of it doesn’t transfer over to raw benching.
Luckily, I managed to learn how to properly train for a massive raw bench from Dan Green, aka “The Boss.” His tips and tricks helped my gym achieve three 500-pound raw benches, many respectable one-and-half-times bodyweight benches, and even some double-bodyweight benches.
Here are four things he taught me to bring the bench up to boss status.
1. Learn to Engage the Chest
For years it’s been drilled into our heads that we need triceps for a big bench. Bands and chains, boards, and extensions are great, but let’s not forget the chest itself. Big arms are awesome but big arms and a big chest are even better.
The chest is a much bigger muscle group and it needs to be utilized to its fullest potential. Every big raw bencher has a barrel chest. The trouble is, it took a long time for me to learn how to feel my chest work again since I’d become so triceps dominant over the years.
Doing exercises where you can really spread your chest open at the bottom with your elbows out wide will help teach you to use your chest when you bench. Dumbbell bench presses with the elbows out can help a ton, as well as doing simple old school, wide-grip bodybuilding style benches with the feet up.
If you aren’t used to benching with your feet up, simply start light and work through a pain-free range. Use light to moderate weight for moderate to high reps. No need to go super heavy here. Save that for the competition-style presses with your feet on the ground.
As your chest gets stronger, you’ll be able to handle more and learn how to bench with your chest again. This is especially important not only for strength, but for a well-balanced physique, too.
2. Extend Your Range and Time Under Tension
Once you learn to engage your chest again, work to increase your time under tension. Extending the press range of motion and adding in pauses are two great ways to do this.
If you can, use a buffalo bar for this type of training. This bar has a slight camber and is traditionally used to save your shoulders when squatting, but it’s also a great tool for benching.
Most commercial gyms at least have a cambered bar for shrugs, so if it that’s your only option, just make sure to use boards or put something on top of your chest so you’re only benching from a slight deficit. One to two inches is plenty.
You’ll feel an incredible stretch in your chest at the bottom. Start with a closer grip and work out wider as you gain more strength and stability in your shoulders.
Again, keep these light and use them as a secondary movement to build your competition bench. Do a slow eccentric and use a slight pause to ensure proper form and safety during the lift.
If you don’t have access to cambered bars, you can use a close grip on a conventional bar to extend your range of motion. This won’t work your chest in the same way, but it’ll still give you the added benefit of time under tension as well as build up your arms quite a bit.
The last thing you can do to increase the time under tension and build strength out of the bottom is adding in long pauses. Three to five seconds work particularly well for building starting strength.
The key is to maintain tension during the pause and don’t relax. Your body should be like a slingshot or a bow and arrow. Keep everything tight and explode when you start the press. This will build a powerful start to your bench. When you go back to a regular pause or touch and go, it’s going to feel a whole lot easier.
3. Do Spoto Presses
Not every lifter is weak off the chest, which is why it’s important to strengthen every part of your bench. Board presses typically work great for the *******, but doing board presses without boards can add a new twist to help kick-start your gains.
Invisible board presses are much more challenging since you can’t rest on the board anymore. You have to rely on your muscles to stabilize the weight.
This will build a tremendous amount of reversal strength since it takes a ton of effort to bring the weight to a dead stop and let it float in the air before you have to start it up again.
Eric Spoto, one of the greatest benchers of all time with a 722 raw bench, coined these invisible board presses “Spoto” presses. If you ever saw how explosive he is off the chest, then you simply can’t argue with his methods.
You can also pause at different heights depending on your sticking point. For instance, I like invisible two board presses to strengthen the mid range to ******* portion of the lift.
Remember, any time you do isometric work, you’re strengthening a few degrees above and below the point of the pause. This is why Spoto presses work the bottom end as well as mid range.
However, you should implement various heights in your training in order to gain strength in all areas. Again, right above the chest and about a two-board height are great places to start. You can utilize these with heavy weight for a few reps or lighter weight for a lot of reps.
4. Add in a Second Upper-Body Day for Shoulder Emphasis
The overhead press is one of those supposedly taboo exercises people either love or hate. Some people legitimately don’t have the mobility to do it correctly – at least in the beginning – but it’s certainly something you should try to progress toward doing.
The old-time benchers all had great overheads. Many of the best raw benchers of the new age also include some type of overhead pressing in their training as well. Strong shoulders will give you the foundation for a strong bench as well as aid in the stability of the lift.
Shoulder training is so important for a raw bench in the off-season that it deserves its own day. At my facility, the second upper body day has turned into more of a bodybuilding day with an emphasis on shoulders instead of a standard speed bench day, which is what we used to do.
We still utilize speed work from time to time, but we do it on the main benching day instead. The rationale is that most people need to work on gaining muscle mass in the upper body before focusing on a speed day.
If you can’t quite get overhead, incline presses are a great alternative. And even if you can lift overhead, the incline bench is another great lift to supplement your bench press training.
The incline bench puts you directly between a flat bench and an overhead so you really get the best of both worlds. You’ll get lots of chest and shoulder work at the same time.
If your shoulders are really jacked up, you can also try incline pressing with a neutral grip dumbbell, a special neutral grip bar like the Dead-Squat™ Bar or a strongman log. It’s a great exercise to build up the shoulders as well as the arms.
When all else fails, even some simple shoulder raises with dumbbells are a great alternative. The bottom line is you need to have strong shoulders for a strong bench. Find a lift that works for you and build it up. Overheads and incline would be top choices, but simple dumbbell shoulder exercises can work great, too.
Putting it All Together
Here’s a sample workout so you can see all these moves and principles in action.
Upper Body, Day 1 – Bench Day
Exercise Sets Reps
A Long Paused 3-Count Bench 3 3
B Invisible Two Board Press with Pause 4 6
C Wide Grip Bench with Feet Up 3 10
D1 Lat Pulldown with 3-sec. Pause 2 10-12
D2 Triceps Pushdown 2 10-15
D3 Dumbbell Curl 2 10-12
Upper Body, Day 2 – Shoulder Day
Exercise Sets Reps
A Close Grip Incline Press with Pause 4 6-8
B Overhead Press 3 8-10
C Dead-Stop Barbell Row 3 6-8
D1 Hammer Curl 2 15
D2 Side Delt Raise 2 10-12
D3 Face Pull 2 15-20