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The bench press: is it weight lifting or ego lifting?

By Eric Butterman
Cortesy of: EAS

Life is just filled with status numbers. How much are you making? How much did your car cost? How big is your … don’t answer that. But answer me this, what are four words you can always count on hearing at the gym? Say it with me now: “What do you bench?” They even asked it in Good Will Hunting, and no matter the answer (Robin Williams’ was 285), the lifter always wishes it was higher. Well, stop wishing, start reading and let’s grab some bench!!

To start, it doesn’t matter how much weight you can get down to your chest and back up on the bench if the form isn’t right. Start out with your hands shoulder-width apart. Lift the weight up and, with control, lower it down until the bar lightly touches your chest. Then press up, never locking your arms out as that will take the intensity off the movement. Casey Viator, who finished as high as third in the Mr. Olympia and is author of Casey Viator’s Total Fitness, warns against having your elbows tuck into your sides during the press. “Always keep your elbows wide as you bring the weight down, “ Viator says. “When you come up, never let your hips come off the bench as you will be robbing yourself of the full effect of the press.”

Three-time Mr. Olympia Frank Zane stresses that the bar should take at least three seconds coming down to achieve the negative. “I see lifters bouncing the weight up and down as fast as they can like they were in a race,” Zane says. “When you do that you put your joints at risk and when you bounce the bar off your chest it creates a spring-like effect which is cheating. This is as effective as doing sit-ups on a springy mattress.” Zane, who now runs the personal training firm Zane Experience in San Diego, recommends as many as five sets before you go for a max.

Other cheats are letting your stronger arm push weight up that your weaker arm can’t handle, says Rich Gaspari, a three-time Mr. Olympia runner-up. “This is horrible for your pecs because you’ll end up with one much bigger than the other,” he says. “Remember, you’re trying to build a muscle group, not break records.”

When you feel confident you’re benching properly then we’re ready to set up a routine. With bench as much as any movement the lifter has to “listen” to their body’s needs. Some lifters seem to respond more to lower reps while others to higher. Gaspari likes to do the low-rep range of five to six reps for five sets for a three-week period and then do high reps for a three-week period following. If a lifter wants to work up to their max Gaspari recommends doing eight reps one week, then six the next, then five the following and then go for the max on your fourth week. But Gaspari admits, “I tended to stay away from maxing for most of my career as it seemed more a test of ego rather than helping my pecs to grow.”

Just as sets are important, the poundage you use for each rep is extremely important. Amateur English Grand Prix Competitor Jamo Nezzar recommends for a lifter trying to max out at 175 to do 100 for 10 reps, then 115 for 10, then 145 for four before going for the max. “If you want to do a one-rep that’s fine,” Nezzar says. “But I’ve seen many lifters injure themselves without doing 10-rep warm-ups that are critical to getting some blood in your pecs.”

Don’t call it “chest press”

Although the major body part worked in bench is chest, there are several body parts you need to develop if you hope to get maximum strength for the lift. Biceps and lats play some role, but it’s the triceps and shoulders that can most help the chest for this movement. “Triceps are critical to bench success,” says Viator. “I strongly recommend close-grip bench press for three sets of 10 to 12 reps, but make sure not to do them on the same day as your normal bench or you’ll be wiped. I’ve seen some lifters literally put their hands together for close grip, but at least four inches apart is optimal for me.”

NPC Champion Richard Baldwin says weighted dips are also critical to improving tricep strength. The key for this movement is to not up your poundage until you feel you can do a solid 20 reps with just your body weight. Baldwin also recommends hitting the front deltoids for added push strength. One of the strongest movements for this is front dumbbell raises. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding very light weights. With arms out in front, slowly raise the dumbbell high like you’re painting a fence from bottom to top. Make sure to keep elbows slightly bent and to not swing the weight. If the movement isn’t controlled, then you absolutely need to go to a lighter weight.

close-grip-bench.gifCut your workouts in half (or quarters)

Sometimes one full rep isn’t necessary, but 10 half reps might be. 1995 Arnold Classic Champion Mike Francois found an alternative way to overcome a plateau when he started benching on racks with powerlifters. Francois would set the pins at various stages, be they at the half-way down mark or just a quarter of the way down, and get repping. “I could never handle more than 500 pounds for a full rep, but when I just did the top quarter part of the exercise on I could handle 630,” Francois says, who now runs his own training camp in Columbus, Ohio. “After a few weeks of this I found my full rep max started to rise and kept rising for quite a while!”

Although Francois doesn’t recommend doing pins all the time, he says many lifters end up lifting a fraction of what they could because their arms are weak on the top quarter of the movement. “Using pins hypnotizes your muscles into thinking they can do more weight. Whatever works, right?” Baldwin also believes racks contribute to success. “Put the pins wherever the sticking point is,” he says. “Remember that the first quarter of pushing up the weight can be just as much a sticking point as the finishing quarter.”

Another method for improving your push upward, whether the first or last quarter, is by attaching chains to the bench that are already attached to the floor. Zane, who personal training firm Zane Experience in San Diego, has seen many people achieve success in this fashion. “What’s great about this exercise is the resistance gets stronger the further up you try to push,” he says. “By forcing you to improve those driving muscles, you’ll be used to pushing through that difficult midway point which results in either finish or the bar slamming against your chest.”

Expect results, don’t expect the impossible

Nezzar says one of the biggest problems his clients have is that they want too much too soon out of their bench press. “They look disappointed if they don’t gain 10 pounds a month,” he says. “A realistic expectation is to try and improve more like 2 1/2 pounds a month. By putting unreasonable expectations you are set up for disappointment. Disappointment is one more reason not to go to the gym and there are enough reasons as it is.” Gaspari agrees and believes a lot of people are guilty of wanting the bar to go up all by itself. “I’ve seen many people train who only give a half-hearted effort,” he says. “That bar gets to the sticking point and sometime a little scream might push it up or by your partner yelling your face. Find a motivation and use it.”

Cheating on yourself

The bench press is the ultimate ego boost, but sometimes people boost a lot more than their egos to get the weight up. Here’s a list of the top five bench press cheats that you shouldn’t be doing:

1) Halfway home. You say you’re going to do full reps and somehow the bar doesn’t get anywhere near your chest. Though half reps can be beneficial, pretending to do full reps is not.

2) Head and neck above the rest. Sometimes the bar looks a lot closer than you’d think it would when you put it back on the rack. That’s because your head and neck have been off the bench the whole time. Number one, it’s cheating, number two, many lifetime injuries have begun this way.

3) No butts about it. Though backbends are a wonderful gymnastic exercise, bringing your butt off the bench and arching your back is forcing the bar up with muscles that weren’t meant to be involved. It’s also another great excuse to enjoy the emergency room.

4) How low! Remember to not let the bar hit on a part of your body below the chest. If you do it will hinder pec development and will make it that much harder for your training partner to bring the weight up from having to lean.

5) No bouncing back. Letting the bar smack into your chest creates added bounce for the bar to move back up. Great, right? No.

Most of the bodybuilders mentioned can be contacted online for their products and consultation by typing in their full names and then “.com.” The only exceptions are Jamo Nezzar, who can be reached at musclejam.com, and Richard Baldwin through legendaryfitness.com.