by Joseph Orlandi T-Nation
When you head to your commercial gym this Monday, take a moment to observe your fellow gym rats. How many would you say have made noticeable progress over the past year?
The answer will be a handful, at most. The vast majority will likely look about the same; doing the same thing, pressing the same weight, training the same physique they had a year ago. Unfortunately this type of “progress” is a common occurrence in weight rooms.
The reason for it is that mainstream training can be best described as the ignorant training the ignorant. The personal trainer who gets more certifications than results; the guy who’s been lifting all his life but can barley lift his hands above his shoulders; and finally, the pretentious exercise science degree holder who can name all the bones in the foot, but tells you he doesn’t speak Russian when asked his thoughts on Verkhoshansky, Sheiko, or Matveyev’s training philosophies.
It’s truly the blind leading the blind.
Fortunately, I’ve had the privilege to intern and be mentored by an all-time great bench presser, Bill Gillespie. Coach Gillespie is a lifetime drug-free lifter who has benched 804 pounds, squatted over 1000, and is one of the most respected lifters in the world.
Fortunately for me (and for you), Coach Gillespie has allowed me into his inner circle of elite pressers to learn their training philosophies. Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifter these training principles can be applied and used effectively in your routine.
1. Strength is a Skill – Display It
Strength is a skill. According to the law of specific adaptations, improving at a skill requires practicing that skill. However, the law of accommodation also states that the response to a given stimulus decreases over time.
To be successful, you must practice “specialized variety,” which in laymen’s terms is the happy medium between the two laws. Specialized variety lets you practice displaying max strength weekly with the use of maximal attempts, while also allowing you to change the way these maximal attempts are taken to avoid accommodation and plateaus.
Week 1: Work to a maximal attempt incline bench using a close grip.
Week 2: Work to a maximal attempt off a two-inch board on your chest.
Week 3: Work to a maximal attempt off the pins just above your chest.
Week 4: Max your standard flat bench.
This training principle lets you practice the skill of displaying maximal strength consistently while making small changes in how you max to avoid stagnation.
2. Extended Range of Motion Presses
It’s common throughout a training block to use a lot of shortened-range pressing techniques. For example, one week you work up to a maximal attempt off a two-inch board, the next you work lockouts from the pins.
All these methods are successful in increasing your bench press. However, it’s important to add in “extended range of motion movements” to assist.
Any lift that increases the total range of motion of a standard flat bench press can be considered an extended range of motion lift. So if earlier in the week we used a shortened range technique, we always add in an extended range movement – like the incline bench press using a narrow grip – to make sure we’ve balanced our shortened range of motion presses with extended ROM movements.
3. Alternate Band-Assisted and Band-Resisted Presses
Band-assisted and band-resisted presses each have a unique way of overloading and strengthening the lockout portion of the bench press.
Band-assisted work teaches the trainee to transition from the middle portion of the lift to the lockout, a popular stumbling block usually attributed to weak triceps, but is really a neuromuscular issue.
Adding this movement into your routine trains the neuromuscular aspect of this transition, allowing you to lock out heavier weights.
How it works is the bands essentially stop assisting after the bar passes the halfway point of the concentric portion of the lift, forcing you to pick up the slack on your own.
Band-resisted pressing forces you to learn how to contract as hard and as fast as possible because the more the band tightens up, the longer it takes to complete the concentric portion of the lift.
The band reaches its highest point of resistance at the top of the lift, making it a great way to overload the lockout so many trainees struggle with.
Alternating these two band exercises will allow you to overload the top position of the bench with two very different yet effective techniques.
4. Focus on Your Weaknesses – With Caution
When you find a glaring weakness, it’s common to throw the entire kitchen sink at it until you feel it’s been “fixed.”
Let’s say you’ve been having trouble locking out your attempts and decide to fix this by hammering your triceps with extra dips, JM presses, triceps extensions, and lockouts off pins.
You do this for weeks and when it’s finally time to put this new lockout strength to the test you stall again, maybe even worse than before, and can’t believe all that extra work didn’t pay off.
Fatigue masks fitness. Often all this extra work to improve your lockout is taking the weakest part of your bench press and fatiguing it to the point that performance is even worse!
You must time these remedies correctly. Cycle them into your program early on, but then as you approach a max, back off, drop a couple sets and reps, or even skip a day. Do not continue to fatigue your weakest point because you’ll never be able to display improvements.
5. Use the “Soft Pause” Technique
Before I began training with Coach Gillespie it was normal protocol for me to un-rack the bar, lower it as fast as possible (i.e., drop it), and then bounce the bar off my chest while letting my hips fly off the bench.
After one set of benching like this, Coach asked if I’d ever kissed a girl before – an odd question at the time, but I responded with a confident yes. He asked me if, when I kissed a girl, did I hurl my face into hers and try to break her nose? I responded, “No sir,” and started to see where this was all going.
Coach said the bench press is no different. You must lower the bar under control, softly touch or “kiss” the bar off your chest, and avoid hurling the bar with no regard. This is what builds true upper body strength.
Allowing yourself to drop the bar and raise your hips in order to complete the lift is simply trading true progress for momentum, so quit head-butting your girlfriend and start getting stronger.
6. Use the Induction Technique
Fortunately there are other techniques to spring the bar off your chest other than bouncing it as hard as you can off your sternum. One of these is the”induction technique.”
When lowering the bar, instead of simply letting gravity control the pace, consciously try to pull the bar down and apart throughout the eccentric portion of the movement. This “pull down and apart” will develop more tension throughout the back and the biceps and more tension equals more strength.
When this tension is transitioned into the concentric portion of the lift it has a sling shot effect, springing the bar out of the transition and making it more likely for you to complete the lift.
7. Every Rep Counts – Grease the Groove
The first time I stepped on the platform to train with Coach Gillespie, I was first in line to warm-up. I positioned myself and did my warm-up set with 135 pounds. I racked it, sat up, and found Coach and another training partner staring at me with baffled looks. They said nothing, and I walked away from the bench thinking that they must’ve been impressed by how easy I just made 135 pounds look.
Now Coach was up. He stepped just short of the platform and focused on what he was about to do for what seemed like minutes. Finally after a deep breath he stepped onto the platform, set himself, un-racked the 135 pounds, and then completed the most intense, focused, and mechanically sound set I’d ever seen. From minutes before his set to his final rep, the focus demonstrated was incredible.
This attention and focus to every repetition enforces a technique called “greasing the groove,” which is a way of training the muscles and nervous system to use proper motor patterns and technique.
Each time you press you have the opportunity to reinforce and learn proper technique. However, if you carelessly cruise through your warm-ups and lighter work sets, it’s easy to pick up bad habits. A concerted effort to use perfect form on every repetition will help you “grease the groove” and establish proper technique, making your heavier work sets easier.
8. Your Back is Your Base – Make it Bigger
When pressing serious weight you need a solid foundation, and that foundation is your back. You wouldn’t build your house on a foundation of sand, so you wouldn’t try to press over 800 pounds with the back development of someone too underweight to make the debate team.
The back is where the bench press begins. You must be able to set a strong base on the bench by retracting your shoulder blades down and back, and have the strength to hold this position throughout the lift. Back strength is critical when fighting the urge to let your shoulders flare up and out.
Back strength and size can only be developed through heavy pulling. Big, heavy, multi-joint movements such as dumbbell and barbell rows, weighted inverted rows, heavy lat-pull downs, and weighted chin-ups should all be used frequently.
Stay away from the higher repetition work and focus on multiple heavy sets of 5-6 repetitions. Add more sets rather than repetitions if you need more volume, but consistently be trying to pull heavier weights. This will develop the big, strong base necessary to press your goal weights.
There’s no shortage of advice out there for those trying to bench press more weight. There is, however, a serious shortage of drug-free athletes who have pressed over 800 pounds, and it’s wise to learn, absorb, and apply as much knowledge as you can from them.
Whether you’re approaching 500 pounds or are just starting out, the tips and principles in this article can be implemented by anyone striving to improve their bench press.
Verkhoshansky, Y. V., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. (6 ed.). Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky.
Tsatsouline, Pavel. Power to the People. St Paul: Dragon Door, 2000. Print.