Designing a bench press workout

There are a million ways of approaching a bench press workout. Obviously I’m not going to deal with all of them here but I will describe a few ways you can incorporate this exercise into a training programme to achieve certain goals.

The first thing we’ll look at is using the bench press as a tool in developing maximum force. This is not the most obvious way that most people would analyse the exercise but I find that it is very beneficial to certain athletes that need a lot of upper body muscle endurance. These could include boxes, basketball players, swimmers etc. All of these sports require hundreds of repetitions and also quite a lot of strength.

A lot of people have one or the other, but to combine great strength and keep that strength going is a difficult task. It takes a lot of training specifically to induce that type of adaptation in the muscles. You would think the obvious way to solicit a change in the upper body musculature for muscle endurance would beto use the bench press for hundreds of repetitions per set. This is only partially true. If we analyse the actions of, for example, boxer, the punching is in spurts, not necessarily continuous. The same applies to a basketball player who will be running more or less constantly throughout a game, but only using the upper body muscles all out when passing a shooting. A swimmer is a slightly different case as generally there will be a steady pace during the whole race so this will need a entirely different approach when using the bench press to induce muscle endurance.

English: bench press
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Dynamic effort bench press training

The ideal way to use the bench press in a workout for a boxer would be to use sets that would duplicate his style of punching in terms of rhythm, pace, and force. A bench press workout designed for a boxer would need to focus on maximal force, as well as absolute strength. Force is mass times acceleration. In terms of the bench press, I weight approximately 50% of the one repetition maximum is the ideal weight to use to generate maximum force. This allows a heavy enough weight to be moved at a high-speed. A much heavier weight could not be moved at such a high speed fast the fourth generation would be less. A much lighter weight could be moved quicker but the mass being lighter, would also produce much less force. So what you find with strength athletes that like to develop maximum force such as weightlifters and powerlifters, is that they tend to use weights for bench pressing for i force generation between 50 to 60% of their absolute maximum lifts.

The way these workouts, often called dynamic effort workouts, organised is as follows. With powerlifters, they tend to do around 6 to 10 sets of three repetitions each using as much force as they possibly can. These three repetitions per set are done as fast and as powerfully as possible. The idea is to accelerate the bar into the top position as quickly as possible. They can imagine that at the top of the movement the bar is almost flying out of their hands. To overcome this and also to add to the efficacy of the bench press workout, sometimes huge elastic bands are wrapped around the ends of the barbell and attached to hooks on the floor. These elastic bands are often called stretch bands and are available in varying resistances.

As the barbell is pressed to the top position, known as the lockout, the resistance from the stretch bands increases and slows the barbell down. People are usually stronger in the top position, so this type of training with bands actually helps to increase the efficacy of the whole bench press workout as it trains the stronger position with more resistance.

Another way of adding extra resistance at the top of the bench press is to use chains wrapped around the ends of the barbell. These chains are quite long and at the bottom of the movement are draped on the floor. As the barbell is pressed upwards in the bench press, more of the chains are pulled off the floor adding to the resistance in a similar way to the bands. These are methods of bench press workouts popularised by the Westside barbell club and its coach Louie Simmons. These are probably the best-known ways of using the bench press to increase maximum force production.

Endurance bench press workouts

Almog Dayan, IPA's world champion 2007 in
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Dynamic effort method bench press workouts take care of how quickly somebody can deliver a punch, throw a ball, or move their home through the water, but it does not take care of absolute strength or total muscle endurance, although it is a part of that. Obviously there is no point having endurance if there is no force to the action and so the next step is to harness the force gained from dynamic effort training and increase the stamina of the muscles.

Depending on your chosen sport this would be tailored to meet the needs of your upper body pressing muscles. These are mainly the chest or pectoral muscles, triceps and anterior deltoids. This is where it becomes trickier in choosing which weight to use in a bench press workout. What I have found to be a tried and tested method to ascertain the correct way to use for muscle endurance in bench press workouts for any sport, is to do a calculation based on time of effort and intensity of effort needed.

Let’s take the example of a boxer who wishes to develop his punching endurance for flurries of around 30 seconds each.

I would have him test out a certain weight in the bench press and go for 30 seconds solid. If at the end of 30 seconds he still has the ability to do some more reps, I would stop in their, get him to rest for a minute, and then increase the weight by 20% and get him to do it again for 30 seconds. Again, if you can reach the end of 30 seconds while still pressing continuously at a reasonable pace, say about one rep every second and a half to 2 seconds, then increase the weight again by another 20%. Keep doing this until he fatigues at around 20 to 25 reps. Whatever the weights was when he fatigues at this rep range is the way to use in the bench press workout designed to elicit muscle endurance. In the case of this particular boxer it is very specific to his needs. You would have to work out a system that would do the same for another athlete specific sports goals in terms of upper body muscle endurance.

A Soldier (lying down) performs a bench press ...
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Maximum effort bench press training for strength

The ideal situation is to have somebody that could move a huge weight for a long amount of time according to his sporting goals. The best way of increasing absolute strength is to do low repetition work with lots of weight, and again we go to the example of the strongest man in the bench press, the powerlifters to understand how best to develop this specific aspect of strength. Competing powerlifters tend to train in the very low rep range, usually between one and three reps in the bench press in order to develop maximum strength. Training in this way is potentially quite dangerous and most active powerlifters have a history of quite severe shoulder and chest injuries such as pec tears and ruptured tendons. To avoid this scenario, it’s better for most athletes to train in a slightly higher rep range, one that will still increase absolute strength but not induce so much trauma on the upper body.

I have found with most sportsmen that 3 to 6 reps is ideal to increase absolute strength in the bench press. It also has some carryover to hypertrophy in this rep range which is good for certain athletes who want to increase their weight. I maximum effort bench press workout as it is known in powerlifting circles, is different to the dynamic effort method in that it all leads up to 1 all out maximum set with the heaviest weight the trainee can manage for the chosen rep range. Sometimes two or three maximum sets are attempted depending on how the athlete feels that day. But the general rule for maximum effort bench press training is to work up to the maximum one or two or three sets using 6 to 10 warmup or feeler sets. In a bench press workout such as this, the first set is usually performed with just the bar itself, the next set some weight would be added banana thing that causes any particular type of effort. It is just a warmup the muscles and tendons. By about the fifth set we are looking at getting into the 60% of the one repetition maximum. Repetition is used around about 30 for the first set and as the weight becomes heavier decreasing to round about 10 repetitions midway and then finally the one or two sets prior to the maximum lift are usually for the same amount of repetitions that are going to be used for those specific lifts.

To explain this a little more, the last three warmup sets would be done for around about five repetitions each, if you are going for a five repetition maximum set on your final lift.

So here I have outlined three basic bench press workouts that cover maximum force production, muscle endurance and absolute strength. These are three approaches that strangely enough, most people you will find in gyms never specifically train for. The reason for this is the predominance of bodybuilding type training which tends to focus on making the muscles larger rather than quicker, or stronger. Bodybuilding bench press workouts tend to use a weight that is about 70 to 80% of the maximum lift you could do for one repetition. Sets of between 8 to 12 repetitions are the norm. It is this type of training that elicits the greatest growth in terms of size. Any athlete that is keen to go up a weight should also incorporate this type of training into their workouts. In powerlifting circles it is known as repetition effort training.

Bench press workouts can also be designed to burn fat by incorporating the bench press into a circuit of exercises. There are limitless ways to design circuit-based workouts and I won’t go into all of them here. Briefly though, you would also make the bench press with other movements with minimal rest between exercises. So for instance, you could do a set of the bench press 15 reps, followed by a set of squats and then a set of deadlifts. Then you might rest for a minute and repeat the three exercises. This is a very intense way of training often known as metabolic resistance training. It is not really a specific bench press workout but you could design it so that the main focus of the strength aspect of the workout focused on the bench press, and use other exercises with lighter weights as a means of active rest in order to burn body fat.

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