One of the mistakes that I see lifters make when trying to increase the bench press is overtraining the bench press movement, and not hitting enough assistance work. You can work the pecs and triceps multiple times a week, but if the upper back, shoulders and traps are not strong eventually your bench press strength is going to plateau and injuries will become more frequent.
Shortly after the 2002 IPF World Championship in Trencin, Slovakia I began training for the March 2003 Arnold Classic Strongman event. One of the competition events was the 366 lb. Apollon’s Wheel. I concentrated most of my upper body workouts training to clean and press the Apollon’s Wheel. My normal structured bench press workouts were replaced with a large diet of overhead press. My bench press training during these four months was limited to occasional heavy singles and doubles. One week prior to leaving for Columbus the guys in the gym were benching heavy and I decided to see how much my bench had decreased. Amazingly I was able to pause a 575 lb. raw bench. This was close to a personal record at the time.
I was able to pause the 575 lb. bench because of the upper back, traps, and shoulder strength that I increased with the high volume of barbell and axel clean and presses. That winter I would warm up with full Olympic cleans and power cleans utilizing good technical form. As the weight got heavier my back strength would take over, and my technique would diminish, but I was able to clean over 400 lbs. in very crude fashion. I pulled the bar as fast as I could. Once the bar cleared my waist I utilized a big reverse curl, added by an arched back, to shoulder the weight. My pressing took a similar path. I would jerk press or push press at times in combination with my cleans. Afterwards I would I finish off with some heavy pressing out of the squat rack. When the weight got heavier my technique would diminish, but I was also able to press over 400 lbs. in training using very little leg drive. Most of the horsepower came from my shoulders.
In addition to all of the clean and press workouts my off season training included a high volume of front squats. I would complete two cycles of the Russian 1974 Olympic Squat program during the winter months. I began doing this in 1997 and continued with it for many years. This may sound crazy, but I have often said that training a high volume of front squats will increase your bench press. In order to front squat heavy you have to build up a strong upper back. I believe that this increased strength will also help to increase your bench.
After tearing my biceps tendons in consecutive years (2002, 2003) at the Arnold Classic Strongman event I gave up on Strongman and went back into powerlifting, but I did learn a valuable lesson; if you want to build and maintain a strong bench press it is critical to train your supporting muscles. Strong deltoids, traps, and upper back are critical for strength gains and to prevent injury. I have continued over the years to include a high volume of upper back and shoulder assistance into my training. When my bench starts to drop off this is the first area I begin to evaluate.
Train smart, stay healthy, set your goals high, and make sure to add GNC Pro Performance HMB along with BetaTOR and PEAK ATP products, available at your local GNC Store, to supplement your strength, energy and recovery needs.
Brad Gillingham, CSCS