If you are a competitive powerlifter, and are interested in improving your Bench Press, you should develop a systematic plan for increasing your maximum lift. Even if you do not compete, but would simply like to get stronger, you must still develop a program that will lead to an increase in your poundages. And most people will not need a pep talk to get into a program of heavy Bench Pressing. The Bench Press is an excellent test of upper-body strength. I have heard it described as "pure, unadulterated power," from the motionless beginning on the chest, to the completion of the lift. Of course, if you are going to perform the lift, it should be done correctly. When I talk about a Bench Press, I do NOT mean taking a weight, letting bouce off your chest and allowing your spotter(s) to help you complete the movement. A true Bench Press should be done as close as possible to contest rules. Feet flat on the floor, lowering the bar under control, pause at the chest, drive up the bar and lock out both arms evenly. During the performance of the lift, the butt should not come off the bench. The feet should remain motionless (no kicking),and, of course, your spotter should not touch the bar at all. This is how we trained at Bruno's Health Club. And, like most gyms of that time, Larry Licandro, the owner, had a "300 Lb. Bench Press" Club. To get your name on the plaque, you had to perform a perfect Bench Press, in strict form and witnessed by Larry. We used to wonder about how many so-called 300 Lb. benchers from other gyms would be able to get their names on Larry's plaque.The point of all this is to emphasize that there is no sense in performing any lift in sloppy form.
The first, and most important consideration, when designing a program is to determine your strengths and weaknesses. Be honest. You want to devise a plan for turning your weaknesses into strengths, which will ultimately improve your lift. The Bench Press consists of three parts:
1) Lowering the bar.
2) The initial push off the chest.
3) The lock-out.
Lowering the bar may sound simple, but it is important to control the bar, and not have it control you. Lowering the bar will affect the initial push off the chest. If the bar is lowered too high, or too low on the chest, it can the difference between success and failure. Inhale as the bar is being lowered, and try to lower it slowly- under control. If you are a competitive lifter, remember, you will receive the referee's signal until the bar is motionless. A slow descent will bring the signal more quickly. ( I will refrain from making any comments about some federations and their, shall we say, lack of strict judging.)
The initial push off the chest involves the pectorals, and, to a lesser extent, the lats. One of the best ways to improve your initial push- or "blast-off"- is to always train with a pause. Do NOT bounce the bar off your chest. You will develop good habits which will only help you at a contest. Plus, your shoulders will thank you years from now. If you want to take your pauses to another level, you can train with a three to five second pause with each rep. Of course, as is the case whenever you're bench pressing, you should always train with a spotter.
Completing the lift from the mid-point to lockout involves a great deal of triceps and shoulder strength. This is an example of determining your strengths and weaknesses. If you are strong off the chest, but you can't quite lock out the weight, then that is a sign that you should strengthen your triceps, and perform assistance exercises to improve your lockout. There are several exercises that you can do, and I will detail them in a future article. As for your shoulders, it is important to strengthen this important area of your body. Not only to improve your Bench Press, but to also prevent injury.
When it comes to training the Bench Press, you must also determine the optimum number of days to perform the movement. Many lifters will find two days per week sufficient to develop strength. However, there will be some people who might find this too much. Again, be honest. If you find that you are not recovering sufficiently between workouts, or if you are perpetually sore, then you might benefit from less work. If you are training twice per week, you might find that your body responds best by incorporating higher reps in one of your workouts. High reps will provide for a nice change of pace, especially during the "off season." However, you must remember to train with low reps and heavier weights if you are actively preparing for a contest. It would be foolish to train with lighter weights and high reps when you are preparing for a contest. On the other hand, do not become a slave to heavy, near-limit poundages. This is a sure way to become over-trained and/or injured. While heavy, low-rep sets are crucial in preparing for a contest, you can build a lot of strength by utilizing moderate weights and training to a point of momentary fatigue/failure.
As drug-free athletes, we have to be especially careful not to overtrain, while still trying to make progress. This extends to all facets of training: Diet, sufficient sleep/rest, and the actual training. By training smarter, you will make steady progress. In a future article, I will discuss assistance exercises for the Bench Press, and the best way to utilize them.