Maximize your strength in the king of all upper body exercises with this helping of iron-clad wisdom
Ask a guy to show you his muscles and he'll likely flex his biceps. But if you ask him how strong he is, he'll likely tell you how much he benches. That's because the standard barbell bench press is the most basic and widely used measure for upper body strength there is. No disrespect to proponents of heavy back training, of course, but when was the last time you heard about a barbell rowing contest, or a football recruit losing his draft status because his pull-up total wasn't up to par? When it comes to true alpha male status, the bench press is simply in a league of its own. It stands to reason that you'd want to improve yours.
Luckily, you can add pounds to the bar -- and quickly -- if you're following the right protocols. Too often, guys just get under the bar and push, with no concept of how much weight they should be using, how many reps they should be chasing or which techniques can get them the desired results in the least amount of time. The following tips, provided by Southern California-based trainer Christian Cianfrani, CSCS, can help you build a max worth mentioning.
1 GET NEGATIVE
Negative reps are one of the most productive, yet underused methods of gaining strength. Cianfrani suggests taking your max, adding 20 percent to it and loading up the bar. "Have one or two spotters lift the bar on the way up. You try to control the bar yourself as slow as possible on the way down," he says. Do this for 3 to 5 reps at the end of your normal chest training routine.
2 STRENGTHEN THE OPPOSITION
Alright, back training advocates -- here's your shout out. A big bench isn't just about the muscles of the chest. That being the case, you should make training the opposing and supporting muscle groups part of your focus. "Increase the strength of your posterior deltoids with a wide-grip barbell row or T-bar row," says Cianfrani. "This is the opposite joint action or superset of a bench press."
3 GET RACKED
Head into the power rack and use it for what it's there for: building stupid amounts of strength. "Identify your sticking point," Cianfrani says. "For most people it is about half way up. Place a bench in between the squat rack and place the two safety bars so that you are only working from halfway to lockout. This will develop the muscles to get you past that stopping point."
4 SLOW IT DOWN
Forget about pounding out reps mechanically. Stimulating the muscle with slower, controlled reps is the best way to coax the muscles into getting stronger. "Slow tempo training with lighter weight is similar to the eccentric training," Cianfrani says. "The difference is that you have more control. Use about 30 percent less than your 1RM and lower the bar for 5 to 6 seconds and push the bar for about 2 to 3 seconds."
5 BANDS AND CHAINS
Sometimes, all you need is a little extra equipment. Bands and chains, which provide linear variable resistance (LVR), notch the resistance up as the range of movement increases. "Use chains or bands on both sides of the bar," he says. "As the arms extend during the up phase the chains get heavier by picking up links and the bands add resistance as they are stretched. This will add resistance at the top of the movement so it equals the workload at the bottom of the movement."
6 GO LOW
Don't be afraid to train heavy. Sets of 10 are great but moving more weight for less reps is the only surefire way to move past plateaus. "Strength training is between 1 to 5 repetitions with a 2 to 5 minute recovery," says Cianfrani. "For two weeks, bench press with 3-5 sets of five reps and then increase the weight for 3 to 5 sets of 2 to 3 reps for another two weeks. Use the decline and incline bench as part of your routine and on some days, mix the order of the benches. Test your one-rep max every four weeks to measure progress."
Orange County, California-based trainer Christian Cianfrani, CSCS, is a former Army Aviator and Physical Training Officer. Christian is a graduate of the National Personal Training Institute and is enrolled at the Arizona School of Health Science for a Masters in Science in Human Movement and Sports Conditioning.