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Lessons from the Underdogs: Five Ways to Stack Your Bench
- Updated: September 13, 2015
By Alex Nurse and Fabian Sybille – Stability, health, consistent stimuli, intensity. We all know the importance of these things when it comes to getting strong. However, from time to time, we need to take off our veteran-masks and hear them said in a different way with that may just work a little bit better for you. Former GAT and now 5% Nutrition Sponsored Powerlifter Fabian Sybille – ex-military and a contender for the world’s strongest pound for pound natural press, and myself, go in on some of the ways to get your press high and to keep it there.
• Vary Your Accessory Exercises and Push Them to the Limit
You’ve heard it before, if you want to get strong in an exercise, simple repetition of that same exercise done in the same way will only get you so far- especially for the bench. If you want to bring it up, you must utilize modified variations and a range of secondary exercises to do so. And yes, this may be nothing new, but here are some perspectives on this that you may not have been practicing consistently.
When training secondary movements to help improve strength in the bench (board presses, floor presses, close-grips, California presses, etc.) we want to use rep-ranges of no more than 5-7. Why? This range is just above the range for purely neurological stimuli (which is about 4reps and below), and it is just below the range for purely hypertrophic stimuli (about 8 reps and above).
We don’t need to get caught up in training in the hypertrophic rep-ranges (above 7) when trying to get strong. Although it’s admittedly true that even low repetition ranges can imitate the physiological response of high repetition ranges if we prolong our eccentric contractions. But for all moderate eccentric tempos (no more than 1-2s) we know that below five reps tends to target the CNS and get it to open up more HTMU’s; and above seven reps begins to promote more soft tissue damage which leads greater hypertrophy.
We want our accessories to hit the five to seven range to ensure that we are getting the best of both worlds: a little bit more efficiency in our force production spread amongst a variety of fibres and muscles of the “bench group” (serratus anterior, triceps, anterior deltoid, pectorals) without totally draining our CNS; and a little bit more hypertrophy to bolster the amount of TUT this same group can handle down the road. You know, for those maximal and supramaximal bench press reps where our concentric contractions can last a brutal 5-10s as we attempt to attain glorious lockout.
In regards to the rep range discussion above, dammit, how many times do we give ourselves rep ranges to work in (for example, the 8-10 range), and do a decent set of 10 and stop when we know deep down we could have hit 11. If you can hit 11 reps in a work set within the 8-10 rep range, then it wasn’t a work set! It was a warm-up set! Don’t waste your work-sets on warm-up sets. If the rep range is 5-7, make damn sure that you cannot get more than 7 reps no matter how hard you squeeze, fart, and yell. But also, we don’t want to fatigue our CNS further. Save your weekly, pure CNS reps for the bench, andmake sure that you can get at least five on your accessory sets. Once you can get more than 7, jack the weight up and start from 5 again.
Try These California Press: Hybrid between a close-grip press and a triceps extension JM Press: Great for triceps hypertrophy and developing greater integrity of the triceps tendon Tate Press: Another press/extension hybrid using dumbbells
• Do Prehab/Rehab Work According to Synergists/Antagonists and Muscle-Fibre Orientation
Most people have had their pressing stalled at one point or another from the dreaded issues that face our elbows and shoulders due to overuse and compression. The typical soft-tissue and ligament problems that face those dedicated to the press are common to everybody. Don’t wait until they arrive to deal with them- prepare for them early. And better yet, don’t perform sub-par, general pre-hab work either (external/internal rotations, wall-slides, etc.) The press comes with specific problems, so do specific work in advance! Here are some protocols to help keep pain at bay.
I just want to assert that the human brain has way more autonomy in regards to movement than we can imagine. It’s a better regulator of your movement behaviour than Uncle Sam. When certain movements and muscles are used over and over again, the Motor Control Centre in the cerebellum can reinforce these movement habits by blocking the neurological pathways to lesser used muscles (known as inhibition) in favor of the muscles and motor units that we have been constantly accessing and using (known as facilitation). This can happen because of bad habits over time (whether they be postural habits or movement habits), or because of trauma (acute, specific incidents like the whiplash from a car crash). Looking at the bench press, this can mean that the constant use of our agonists (e.g. pectoralis minor) can lead to the inhibition of their antagonists (e.g mid-traps); and sometimes our agonists (e.g pectoralis minor) can even lead to inhibition of their synergists (e.g. levator scapula), simply because our agonists are overused and thus become very powerful.
In the bench press, I see facilitation in the anterior deltoid, pec minor, and even upper trapezius all of the time. And as a result, there is inhibition of the neurological pathways to other muscles (their synergists and antagonists). This can lead to poor postural habits and movement dysfunction which is detrimental to the health of the gleno-humeral and scapulae complex, and thus detrimental to pain-free force production in the press. Here are some helpful prehab sequences for pre and post training to stay forever pain-free in our pressing patterns. With added benefit, the ROM and angles of the exercises are as specific as possible to the fibre orientation of the muscles being targeted.
Do two sets of 12-20reps each (all releases are simply static stretches as they are best for disrupting neurological signalling and inhibiting cross-bridges, resulting in temporary weakness). Pick two during your warm-up, and pick two for after you train. The protocols below target the most common synergistic and antagonistic pairings of muscles and their fibres to make sure that some are not impeding others, or that few are not impeding many.
• Stretch the pec minor/major and strengthen the rhomboids, mid/low trapezius, and serratus anterior
• Stretch the anterior deltoid/supraspinatus and strengthen the posterior and middle deltoid
• Stretch the subscapularis and strengthen the teres minor and infraspinatus
• Stretch the medial epicondyle of the elbow, strengthen the lateral epicondyle of the elbow and the lats
*Note: Try to do all strengthening exercise within 30s of performing the release • Warm-Up/Practice Your Work-Sets With Band-Work
When we bench, we want to follow the most familiar bar path possible. This is because a change in bar path is like a change in exercise (like changing the grip type or width), and the CNS stores the specific fibre recruitment of your chosen path. To the nervous system, one set of five reps where each rep uses a different path is like doing five different sets.
Also, from the moment we un-rack the bar to the moment we rack it, we want to keep it as stable as possible. We have heard from a million bench heralds of the importance of controlling the bar throughout both the concentric and eccentric phases of our repetitions.
A good way to practice both of the principles above is to use bands.
Prior to your warm-up sets, hook a band to the top of a power rack, set up as you normally would with the band in hand, and practice using your back and lats to stabilize the band while pulling the band forward (unracking the bar), and pulling it down towards your chest- engaging your lats and the muscles of the thoracic spine to stabilize your shoulders, elbows, and the load itself. Once the band touches the chest, let its recoil simulate the bar- clenched tight in your kung-fu grip, being thrown from your chest hard and fast, maximizing HTMU activation.
This will help to reinforce maintaining control of your pressing pattern, particularly at lock-out where the taughtness of the band will attempt to pull your scapula out of retraction, and you will have to concentrate at keeping your shoulder blades packed and tight, before lowering it again. A few sets with bands that increase in thickness will go a long way to giving you more confidence when holding the bar.
• Respect the Arch!
Arching is a weakness for many, but when used properly it can have a positive effect on bench press numbers by minimizing the distance the bar has to go and helping to engage the muscles of the T-Spine to further stabilize the movement. When you arch, do so only from the Thoracic spine- not the low back. A good arch is a matter of good thoracic mobility. If you’re one of those guys who can’t lower the bar without straining his neck forward like he’s trying to kiss it, focus on improving your general T-spine mobility. The strengthening exercises above, based on NKT protocols, will help.
• Stay in the neurological-zone for the Bench Press and train it often.
You don’t have to train the bench press above 90% every time you’re under the bar, and you shouldn’t. But aim to train it three times a week and to stay in the “neurological” zone (under five reps) for about 60-70% of your total weekly sets, and just outside the neurological zone (between five and seven reps) for 30-40% of your total weekly sets. Even on your light days, do not train the bench with weight that you can handle for anything more than seven reps.
This approach will help the bench-group muscle fibres to maintain better optimal resting lengths, and will allow you to train the bench press more often by avoiding muscle DOMS. No soreness equals more practice with maximal and supramaximal loading; and thus more confidence under intimidating loads- helping to cull the creeping-monster of pre-synaptic inhibition. Particularly for trainees who train the bench all year round (some elite lifters, like Thibadeau, will only train it two to three months of the year), staying in this range will also help with elbow and shoulder health. Put your other lifts on maintenance for a cycle or two and with the above tips in mind, try a template like the program below!
Fabian’s Bench Template
Fabian, at 150-155lbs, benching over 460lbs, is no light-pusher. With a bench press three times his bodyweight, he knows what it takes to make the bench press your bitch. Here is how he structures his work with the bench press and his accessory exercises.
Bench 5 sets of 1, 3 sets of 3, 3 sets of 5-7. Seated Barbell Overhead Press Barbell bent over rows Close grip bench or skull crushers
Barbell curls. Everything 4 sets 5-7 reps
Bench 4 sets of 5-7 Incline dumbbell bench (optional) Dumbbell front raises Seated rows or pull ups Tri Press downs Dumbbell hammer curls Everything 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Bench 5-7 sets of 3-5 reps
Seated Dumbbell overhead press Dumbbell rows Close grip bench or dips Preacher curls
Everything 4 sets of 5-7 • Conclusion
No, it’s not the be-all-end-all, and it never will be. But talking about the bench press never gets dull and can always be novel when you explore problem areas and are brought by either necessity or creativity to find efficient solutions to improving what remains the most popular lift in the world. Try some of these tips on for a cycle or two and see the new progress that awaits you.
Alex Nurse is a Toronto-based specialist in strength and conditioning with the International Sports Sciences Association; and a NeuroKinetic Therapist who practices Soft Tissue Release. He designs strength and conditioning programs for optimal health and athletic performance based on correct neuro-muscular functioning and the release of tonic soft tissues.