Boost Your Bench Marks

October 25, 2011

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS

For the marathoner, it’s mile 26. For the NASCAR driver, it’s the checkered flag. But if you’re a bodybuilder, your benchmark is the bench itself. And not until you’ve pressed a particularly impressive weight in front of your fellow gym members — whether it’s 225, 275 or 315 pounds — will you feel like you’ve finally finished a race, that is until you’ve set the bar, so to speak, higher once again.

As a teenager, I remember the weekly struggles I had in the squat rack. For some reason, it hadn’t yet clicked. But one day, one glorious day, I got under the bar and finally squatted 225 (the amount of the Olympic bar plus a pair of 45-pound wheels on each side). In an instant, the bar felt like it was a part of my back. I couldn’t even really feel it. By the end of my last set, I felt like a piston going up and down, driving through the floor with my legs. From that point on, everything changed. It wasn’t long before I’d reached 405, 500 and 650 pounds.

Achieving your bench marks is more than lifting an impressive tonnage on chest day in front of your peers — it’s also the point at which you begin the next step to adding another plate on each side. The key to achieving each goal or objective lies within: 1) form; 2) proper programming in setting up key exercises in the right order, sets-and-reps protocol and training frequency; and 3) bench-boosting techniques and key pointers. We’ve nestled all three into a cogent attack on arguably one of the most important lifts to any bodybuilder so that you can quickly graduate up the ranks to the next level.

You’re about to spend the next eight weeks transforming your chest workout with one goal in mind: your best bench-press performance ever. Each week, you’ll notice more confidence under the bar, and more importantly, an increasing number of plates at the ends of the bar. Loads that were once mountainous goals ahead of you will soon be no more than speed bumps in the rear view. So without further ado, it’s time to bench.


FORM RULES: STAY ON THE PATH For those of you hoping to hit the 225 mark, one of the most crucial elements for you to concentrate on is the path of the bar. Like many lifters, you might be stuck in a “straight up and down” motion with the bar. Although you might be hitting the chest at the right level at the bottom (your lower pecs), chances are you’re pressing the bar straight up to the ceiling. The problem with that is that you’re not calling on as many of the chest and shoulder muscles as possible. You’ll be much stronger if you can get the entire upper body involved in the motion.

What you want to work on is pressing up and over your face with the bar. That way, the onus isn’t entirely on your triceps. To start, practice this arc motion with just the bar, coming up and over the face with the bar to full-arm extension.


You’re going to be training chest twice each week as you inch closer to your goal. The first workout will be a heavy bench day. We have you going as low as 50% of your one-rep max (1RM) to 95% of your 1RM. (A 1RM is simply your max bench press for just one rep with good form.) And the bench is the only move for that day. The second session, which should be at least three days later, will be lighter and filled with more compound moves and isolation work than day one. The key on day two will be to hit your chest from various angles to innervate as much of the chest musculature as possible. Reason being, while we’re focusing on strength, we also know that the more cross-sectional area of chest tissue you have, the greater your potential strength. So working in high-rep sets is key to overall bench press performance. In fact, research shows that the higher rep/lighter day will increase strength and size more than performing strictly low-rep sets; high-rep sets produce more lactic acid, a byproduct of damage and ultimately a sign of growth. Experts theorize that mixing in high-rep sets will translate to greater growth hormone release, allowing you much better power under the bar.


At the end of day one, head to the power rack and place a flat bench inside it. Set the safeties to a point that’s just a few inches above your chest. Load the bar with 135–175 pounds. We know that sounds light, but what you’re going to do is called a reverse bench press (not to be confused with reverse-grip bench press). After the workout you’ve just endured, we trust you’ll soon feel the benefits. You’ll perform a bench press using the safeties themselves as the start and end point of each rep, rather than the locked-out arm position.

Essentially, you’ll begin each rep from a dead stop as the bar is resting on the safeties. You press the bar up off the safety bars, then slowly lower the bar down the safeties once again, but rather than explode upward, you allow the bar to settle on the safeties. This will release the built-up negative energy inside your muscles (sometimes called elastic energy — one reason the first rep of a set is oftentimes one of the most difficult). Basically, we’re turning the bench press into a deadlift for the chest. The benefit to doing this is that it gives you the “out of the hole” power and strength that you desperately need. If you strengthen your pure positive (concentric) strength from an inch above your chest, once you combine the negative elastic energy during a standard repetition without the safety bars, you’ll be much stronger at arguably the weakest, most limiting phase of the bench press. Perform 2–3 sets of 10 reps.

Chest: Day 1 (Heavy)

 Exercise  Sets  Reps  Weight
 Bench Press*  1  10  50
   1  8  70
   1  4  75
Weeks 1-2

Bench Press
Reverse Bench Press

Weeks 3-4

Bench Press
 4  4  85
Reverse Bench Press

Weeks 5-6

Bench Press
Reverse Bench Press

Weeks 7-8

Bench Press
Reverse Bench Press

*These warm-up sets are to be done each day before the heavy sets, not taken to muscle failure. After benching, incorporate the power booster using reverse bench presses.


Chest: Day 2 (Light)

Incline Smith-Machine Bench Press  4  15
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Flye
 4  15
Incline Dumbbell Pullover   3  20
Cable Crossover   3  20
Decline Push-up  3
 To Failure
*Doesn’t include warm-up sets; perform as many as needed but never take warm-up sets to muscle failure.