What are you getting yourself into?
2427 Words - Average read time of 18 Minutes and a whole lot of awesome
I am back on the blog train after a break and content will be coming out again more regularly. The long absence was a combination of personal and professional but I won’t bore you with details - Instead we are going to dive right into the second part of the maximum bench series! So sit back, dig in and pick up some tips on how to improve your bench for your next training cycle.
The Need for Speed
Years ago if you would have asked me about perfect reps I would have told you they are a unicorn - you needed to strain and break down before you progressed if you wanted to get stronger. That statement holds partially true to me now; I would certainly agree that if the reps look effortless and feel effortless then the weight is likely too light to be beneficial - however if you keep position but slow down or hit a slight sticking point then that is a beneficial set. Envision a fast rep compared to one that starts slowing down around the sticking point - the kind of rep that feels slower than it looks, you know the one. No grinding, no painful slow ugly movementbut it slows just a little. Right about then is the point you should rack the weight and call the set. Risk of injury goes down and the reps are kept relatively smooth.
So what changed my mind? It was a few things rather than just one. A combination of having too many ugly reps in my repertoire and a reduction of speed in each of my sets over a short period of time took its toll over a training cycle. Grinding is a skill in itself but everything has a time and place and having enough mental toughness to finish a repetition under duress is less for every rep in a training cycle and more for a competition. There is such a thing as working too hard, too much and progressing very little because of it. What I learned from experience was the more I used slow grinding reps in my training the weaker I was getting even after my training cycle. The more I pushed, and kept persevering, the less progress I saw. I can be a stubborn guy, especially when it comes to work ethic. As a friend put it, you can work too hard on the wrong thing sometimes. Don’t misinterpret this as never having hard slow reps, because that’s not what I said. It’s about having too many slow hard and sometimes ugly reps in a program that creates problems.
At the time I was running a few people through some experimental programs to find what worked and what didn’t. These individuals were intermediate lifters that had been lifting between 2-4 years. I ran two program designs; one with high volume (25-40 working sets per week), working up to a heavy triple 2x a week and I had another two that ran a low volume (8-12 sets a week total) 3x a week with low(60-65%)—high(90-95%)—moderately high(85%) intensity in that order.
I was pretty surprised that not only did the second group with a quarter of the volume do better, but they did so much better by hitting 10kg (110kg to 120kg) and 12.5kg (127.5kg to 140kg) personal records respectively. The other group both managed small increases of 2kg (100 to 102kg) and 1kg (130kg to 131kg). So what in the world was going on?
Some things I took away were:
- Volume isn’t king for strength - in fact the amount of volume in the first group was stalling progress.
- Drop in bar speed was the biggest indicator of strength increases; the faster the bar the better, with the final rep being the slowest. Preferably the final set.
- Intensity needed to be high enough that it was diffcicult to perform the movement fast but light enough that it did move fast. There was a fine line where the Mass was large enough but the Acceleration was fast enough to produce the most amount of Force. (Force = Mass x Acceleration anyone?)
Before you jump the gun and tell me I threw way too much volume at the first group for them to recover; the largest amount of volume was coming from back off sets and fatigue was managed adequately to ensure the quality of the next session was good (72 hours minimum between each session). At least that was what I thought at the time - realistically in hindsight the volume was too high for them to recover from regardless of the lighter loads. From a perspective of fatigue volume regardless of load is far more fatiguing than intensity from a performance and hypertrophy standpoint.
From a research standpoint it seems my observations on bar speed seemed accurate. Take a look at the infographic below.
The faster the bar speed was in the concentric phase the better the outcome was on 1RM strength. This makes some sense as Force = Mass x Velocity. If the load is too light you wont produce enough force even though you move the bar quickly, and conversely if it is too heavy you cannot produce enough force as the speed drops too much. We only get stronger by increasing the amount of force we produce.
The main argument you hear from most bodybuilders is to build muscle you need TUT (Time under tension). In regards to strength that doesn’t seem to be the case as even though the “TUT” was 62% greater in the slow bar speed group, the strength improvement was only half that of the fast group. Less "TUT" more gains.
A few criticisms might be that the slow group weren't pushing as hard as they could and that a smith machine was used so it isn’t the right measure. So to dispel both of those claims here is another study that’s just as recent using a barbell bench press where one group was allowed to do as many sets as they liked and the other would stop when bar speed dropped below a certain threshold.
Not only did the fast group destroy the self-selected group in increases but the self-selected group made no progress at all! Not only that but look at the volume difference - 62-73% fewer repetitions were done by the fast group. Less work with more results; now that’s quality over quantity.
If you are still in doubt and think that volume is still king, take a look at the study below on the popular german volume training model.
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The dosage of volume does matter and there is a point of diminishing returns. Volume isn’t king; in fact it looks as though in some instances it is counterproductive to do more volume, not only in strength training but for the sake of size too. Most of the time when people are looking to increase any lift they encourage people to do more volume with more frequency. It seems we need to reconsider that sentiment and revisit some critical thinking. Velocity+intensity seem to be the new king and queen in town when it comes to strength on the bench at least.
Putting things into perspective and using this information in a practical sense is important if you want to benefit. Revisiting the Force = Mass x Acceleration model it is important to understand that there is a tightrope walk between the weight being too heavy that reps become too slow for there to be a transfer to a 1RM and the weight being too light and reps being too fast to generate enough force to cause adaption to transfer to a 1RM. So how can you hit that sweet spot? It’s a question I explore in a future article.
Big Arch - Little Bench
A contentious issue for many. Like sumo vs conventional deadlifts. This next section will likely come off more as a rant, but it’s an important one. Something I myself pointed out at the very beginning of this series is that the biggest bench pressers never had big arches; they had a small arch and used it primarily for stabilisation purposes, not so they could cut huge amounts of ROM out of their bench to artificially increase their strength. It was never about cheating a rep; it was always about getting stronger - a point I think is lost on most competitors today. Jennifer Thompson is such an incredible bench presser, the mind literally boggles and yet compared to a lot of her female competitors has one of the smallest arches, yet her bench is the biggest by far. Even Kimberly Walford who has extra long arms has a bench over 100kg and has practically no arch at all.
The shift in focus on the bench press the last five or so years has been moved away from upper body development and more on leg drive, arching and getting tight to cut ROM. Personally I took this advice at first, and quickly saw my bench go up and then very promptly go back down. I actually got weaker after a small initial boost! From seeing others over-emphasise leg drive and arch I noticed most, if not all have weak benches - especially using a close grip or using a small arch. Men and women inclusive.
Strong individuals from the past taught me that they didn't give a damn about the arch or cutting range; in fact they abhorred it. Your legs were your stable base, your back was tight so you could stabilise the bar and reduce your chance of injury. You laid down, planted yourself, brought the bar down to your chest then pressed it up with all the ferocity you had.
Maybe people should stop trying to do yoga back bends so you can arch more on your bench (there are YouTube instructionals' on that shit) and focus on the most important thing; getting stronger at benching.
The Unsung Heroes of Bench Press
If you are still convinced arching as much as possible is not only important but necessary for a large bench press then let me direct you to some unknown (sadly) champions of the bench press. ParaOlympian bench pressers. These guys are absolute bench monsters with absolutely zero leg drive. They deserve an incredible amount of respect not just because they bench big, but because they do it with extreme technical scrutiny - the bench must be locked out evenly, no downward movement and a large pause are some of the big things.
Take Gabriel Magu Wanjiku for example. He weighed in at the Rio Olympic games 58.02kg and took gold with a ludicrous 200kg bench press. You didn’t misread that and I didn’t mis-type it. It wasn’t just a 200kg bench though; it was executed with a degree of mastery not found anywhere amongst some of the best IPF current bench press holders. Did I mention it is also 29kg above the current world record IPF bench press in the 59kg category, 11.5kg above the 66kg record and only 11kg and 8kg less than the 74kg and 83kg bench press world records. To put that in perspective Gabriel benches 8kg less than the able bodied Brett Gibbs who outweighs him by 24kg with stricter technical rules without the use of his legs.
Gabriels Bench opener and 200kg done with a close grip and a slow eccentric can be found below at 52 seconds.
The heaviest Paralympian Siamand Rahman bench pressing 305kg (30kg over the IPF world record and 25kg shy of the untested GPC world record) can be found below.
If you think these are isolated cases I challenge you to look up some of these bench press paraolympians. Male and female competitors are unbelievably strong and did I mention they have no leg drive or a large arch and the drug testing is just as severe as the IPF (GPC is untested).
So to recap - these ParaOlympians out-bench their able bodied counterparts. They have no leg drive, are strapped to a bench for good measure and have no arch. In addition, the rules they must adhere to in the bench press are much stricter than that of even the international IPF competitions by a LOT.
You can check the rule book here.
Maximising Your Leverages
Leverages can be a tricky thing. There is a lot that goes into the topic of biomechanics and can be a complicated subject. It would be a stretch to attempt to condense something so complicated into a single article. From a breif practical standpoint to help your bench improve I can give you this simple advice. Determine where your best point of leverage to train the bench press is by figuring out where you can lift the heaviest load with the fastest bar movement. I emphasise train because you may bench MAX with a wider grip but getting stronger in that position by training that grip doesn’t always work because the bar speed may typically be very slow. If the bar speed is high with heavy weight then you produce the largest amount of force in that position. Once you determine this you can work with that grip and its particular sticking point. Then you may if you so choose use the wider grip for max attempts in a training peak.
That being said, if you want a more complex way of determining your grip width you can head over to www.mybenchmechanics.com and type in your forearm, upper arm length, where you touch the bar on your chest and the width of your shoulders. All of these proportions will alter your bench pattern. In addition a larger arch will change the angle of the push and placement of the bar may also shift. It is quite a lot to take in. From a coaching perspective I tend to look at the individuals bottom position in the press. If the forearms are perpendicular to the floor then that is a good starting position to train their bench. Obviously this can and usually does evolve over time and the grip can be moved out or in to accomodate comfort, stability and power if necessary.
One of the big things that I haven’t seen mentioned very often is that the narrower you are built, the narrower your grip should probably be to push efficiently - regardless of height. The wider you are, the wider your grip needs to be. This is despite arm length! - look at Gabriel or Kim Walford. The reason for this is two fold - firstly, if you are narrow (shoulder to shoulder measured from the acromium process) then your hand spacing will likely have to be narrow to be able to produce the most amount of force from a stable base. However if you are broader, hand spacing will be wider so your hands don't interfere with your shoulders. This means spacing on the bar may appear narrow or wide but may actually be very similar across narrow and broad lifters.
Here is a comparison between Gabriel (59kg) and Siamand (107kg+).
Size does in fact matter. As the width of the person determines the width of the grip on the bar, and this can sometimes be misleading to people when they first look at it, but doing a clear side by side comparison will quickly show you that although the hand width on the bar is extremely different the hand spacing according to anthropometric is almost identical. A 1:1 ratio from shoulder width and distance from shoulder to hand seems to be a good start.
Another thing that is of importance is forearm to arm length ratio. In simple terms; the longer your forearm is comparatively to your upper arm length will mean you will likely have a narrower grip than someone with the same width shoulders and touch lower on your chest. There is a hell of a lot to cover regarding so this in no way is a definitive list but a good starting point for anyone wanting to perfect their bench form.
Some basic take aways that should influence grip width
- Individual limb lengths (forearm, upper arm, shoulder width)
- Bar placement at the bottom position (high, low)
- Stability and comfort
- Efficient force production (Mass x Acceleration) - The bar must move quickly with a heavy weight
Just like the whirlwind of information you absorbed i'm out. Next up is how you should quantify your bar velocity into efficient programming once you have a way to track it, and a potential hack if you don't!
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