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Monster Bench: Unlocking the Riddle of Bench Steel

Part 1: From a 225 Max to Reppin’ 315 in One Year!

“It was August of 2002 in Portland, Oregon. I had one final attempt at the bench press, and the crowd knew what I was going for. The loaders piled on iron plate after iron plate, the stage was set, and the roar of the crowd built like a tidal wave. I walked out onstage, almost in a trance, my eyes dilated and my pulse pounding in my ears. I set up on the bench and looked at the bar on the rack above me. The spotters handed the weight off to me, my hands squeezed the knurling, and I began the descent, feeling the insane load dropping to my chest. The bar paused, and I fully came to realize just how heavy this burden was.

“I could no longer hear the crowd, and the world around me seemed to simply drift. ‘Press!’ the judge commanded, and every fiber in my body pushed against that weight. The bar came off my chest like a rocket, my muscles coursing with burning flames. My triceps and shoulders fired on all cylinders, forcing my arms to lockout, and the lift was mine! I had just bench-pressed 800.5 pounds! What was formerly thought of as impossible had just been done.”
—Ryan “BenchMonster” Kennelly
Monster Muscle, 2003

Magazines these days are filled with advanced training routines that the pros use. A lot of the articles are inspiring and informative, but they aren’t of a lot of use to the novice lifter who isn’t yet physically prepared for those weight, set and rep schemes. Though every gym member claims a 300-plus-pound bench when he’s outside the weight room, the reality is that presses with two wheels and change are far more common than ones with three 45s and above. The bench program presented here is for lifters who have a max bench press of 225 pounds and want to break the 315 barrier. (Note: A max bench press is what you can bring down to a dead stop on your chest, hold while pausing for a split second and then press up completely by yourself for one rep while keeping your butt planted firmly on the bench. It’s not what you can push on a Smith machine, a guestimate taken from your 10-rep set or what you can lock out with the help of your spotter’s hands on the bar.)

Bench once per week and start with 45 percent of 225 (or whatever your max is) for eight sets of three reps. Add 5 percent to the bar each week. Once you get to 75 percent of your original max (six weeks), the routine drops to four sets of three reps.

Keep adding 5 percent each week. Then, when you reach 85 percent, the formula changes again to just two sets of three reps. When you reach 225, or your original max, you’ll be able to do one set of three reps for sure—and you will have a new one-rep max of around 250. (Multiply whatever you can triple by 10 percent, and that’s going to be within 10 pounds of your 1RM.)

In the outline below we’ve adjusted the numbers to take you from a max bench of 225 pounds to being able to triple 315 in less than one year. With that basic training program, your assistance work will be rack lockouts, skull crushers and close-grip incline presses.

Close-grip incline benches and skull crushers, a.k.a. lying triceps extensions, are common bodybuilding lifts, so you probably already know how to perform them properly from reading past issues of IRON MAN. Rack lockouts, however, are not as common, so see if you can get an experienced powerlifter or bencher to demonstrate them for you in the gym or at least follow these instructions carefully before going at it:

For rack lockouts, place a flat bench in the power rack. Set up the power rack safety rods—the long pins—so that, when the bar is resting on them, it’s about halfway between your chest and lockout. Then perform your reps by pressing the bar from the safety rods to lockout. When you bring the bar back down, let it pause on the rack before you press it back up to lockout.

Rack lockouts are similar to board presses in that you work the top half of the bench press movement, which will build strong front delts and triceps. Make sure you stay tight under the weight, and expect the weight to sometimes stall out on the pins. If you keep your lats and legs flexed and continue driving against gravity (don’t go too crazy and blow a fuse), often the bar will suddenly rise again after a grueling few seconds of effort.

On all of your assistance work perform five sets of five reps, increasing the weight on each successive set up to a heavy set on which you can barely get the fifth rep, and quit. Then finish your bench press workout with a few high-rep sets of triceps pushdowns (try different variations of pushdowns if you like) and some optional shoulder work—such as plate or dumbbell front raises for the front delts and dumbbell lateral raises for your side delts. Use high reps on the shoulder exercises as well. A sample assistance workout is outlined below the bench routine.

At each session, after your press work perform the rack lockouts, close-grip incline presses and skull crushers as discussed above, and add weight if you’re able to while maintaining good form and safety—except when you’re directed not to do the assistance work.

Phase 1 of the BenchMonster Program

Week 1
Bench presses
Bar x 20 reps x 1 set
85 pounds x 12 x 1 set
100 pounds x 3 x 8 sets
(This is ultralight, so focus on benching as explosively as possible without becoming spastic.)

ALLWeek 2
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
115 x 3 x 8

Week 3
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
125 x 3 x 8

Week 4
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
135 x 3 x 8
(This is still light, so it’s a great time to focus on your bench form while pressing forcefully.)

Week 5
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
115 x 6 x 1
145 x 3 x 8

Week 6
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
135 x 6 x 1
160 x 3 x 8

Week 7
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
135 x 6 x 1
170 x 3 x 4
(The weight is getting more serious for you, so cut the number of sets to four and make sure that you keep your intensity high.)

Week 8
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
135 x 6 x 1
155 x 3 x 1
180 x 3 x 4

Week 9
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
135 x 6 x 1
155 x 3 x 1

190 x 3 x 2
(For both of the sets with 190 get yourself really psyched up and convince yourself that the weight is no match for you. Start programming your mind and body to triple the weight no matter what.)

Week 10
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
135 x 6 x 1
185 x 3 x 1
200 x 3 x 2

Week 11
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
135 x 6 x 1
185 x 3 x 1
200 x 3 x 1
215 x 3 x 1
(This is your test run for the peaking of your training cycle, so give it everything you’ve got and solidify your confidence.)

Week 12
Bench presses
Bar x 20 x 1
85 x 12 x 1
135 x 6 x 1
185 x 3 x 1
205 x 3 x 1
225 x 3 x 1
(You just tripled your previous one-rep max! Do not perform any assistance work on this day.)

For the rest of this training program you should follow the above 12-week pattern of sets and reps, changing the weights as directed below (page 104). Pick your warmup-set weights logically so that it takes you five to eight sets to get up to your heaviest working weight. Don’t fatigue yourself, and don’t make poundage jumps that are too big. Also remember that except for weeks 12, 24, 36 and 48, after you bench, you move on to rack lockouts, close-grip incline presses and skull crushers (get a close spot for these) for five sets of five each, working up to what you can rep five times while maintaining good form and safety. Then finish off with a couple of sets of high-rep pushdowns, front-delt raises and/or side-delt raises, as your endurance allows. Here’s a good sample workout:

Medium-grip inclines presses. Do these by going all the way down to the chest if your shoulder flexibility allows you to; otherwise, bring the bar down at least level with your chin. Perform five sets of five reps each. The first and second sets should be lighter, so you adjust to the feel of the lift, and then the third, fourth and fifth sets should be heavy enough that you barely get the fifth rep with relatively good form.

Power rack lockouts. Set the pins in the power rack so that the bar is either three, five or seven inches above your chest when it’s resting on them. Do five sets of five reps each. Again, the first and second sets should be lighter, so you adjust to the feel of the lift, and then the third, fourth and fifth sets should be heavy enough that you barely get the fifth rep with relatively good form. Make sure you pause for a split second on the pins at the bottom of each rep.

Skull crushers. On these make sure that your elbows are pointing to the ceiling and that you’re using your triceps to move the weight. Do five sets of five reps each. Take the first three sets to fully warm up, as this exercise tends to put more strain on the elbow joint. You can wear a neoprene elbow sleeve if your elbows tend to get inflamed. Start out using a light weight, and don’t be in a hurry to increase it over the weeks. Take your time so you don’t develop joint discomfort. You’ll eventually strengthen the joints and the surrounding muscles, making this exercise one of your best triceps-strength builders—but have patience.

Dumbbell or barbell front raises. Try to stand fully upright on these, and avoid swinging the weight during the first half of each set of reps. You can slightly swing the bar or dumbbells up on the reps of the second half of each working set. Take the first set to fully warm up and then perform an additional two sets with 12 to 20 reps each.

Dumbbell lateral raises. Try to keep your body still—except for your arms—during the first half of each set; after that you can use your legs to get the dumbbells moving during the second half of each set, if needed. Take the first set to fully warm up, and then perform an additional two sets of 12 to 20 reps each. You can do either a straight-arm version with lighter weight or a bent-arm version with heavier weight. I suggest alternating from workout to workout or every few workouts.

Pushdowns. Try to keep your body fully upright for the first half of each set so that your triceps are doing almost all of the work. For the second half, as fatigue sets in, you can allow yourself to lean forward slightly so your chest muscles can assist your triceps. Take the first set to fully warm up and then perform two more working sets of 12 to 20 reps. You really want to burn out on these, so pick a weight that’s difficult to get more than 12 reps with, then safely work hard to get the additional one to eight reps, or perform a drop set—immediately move to a lighter weight for the second half of each 20-rep set, maintaining good form.

Here’s how the weights for weeks 13 through 48 look, with only the last work set listed:

Week 13: 110 x 3 x 8
Week 14: 125 x 3 x 8
Week 15: 135 x 3 x 8
Week 16: 150 x 3 x 8
Week 17: 165 x 3 x 8
Week 18: 175 x 3 x 8
Week 19: 190 x 3 x 4
Week 20: 200 x 3 x 4
Week 21: 215 x 3 x 2
Week 22: 225 x 3 x 2
Week 23: 240 x 3 x 1
Week 24: 250 x 3 x 1
Week 25: 125 x 3 x 8
Week 26: 140 x 3 x 8
Week 27: 150 x 3 x 8
Week 28: 165 x 3 x 8
Week 29: 180 x 3 x 8
Week 30: 195 x 3 x 8
Week 31: 210 x 3 x 4
Week 32: 220 x 3 x 4
Week 33: 235 x 3 x 2
Week 34: 250 x 3 x 2
Week 35: 260 x 3 x 1
Week 36: 275 x 3 x 1
Week 37: 140 x 3 x 8
Week 38: 160 x 3 x 8
Week 39: 175 x 3 x 8
Week 40: 190 x 3 x 8
Week 41: 205 x 3 x 8
Week 42: 220 x 3 x 8
Week 43: 235 x 3 x 4
Week 44: 250 x 3 x 4
Week 45: 265 x 3 x 2
Week 46: 280 x 3 x 2
Week 47: 300 x 3 x 1
Week 48: 315 x 3 x 1

While following this 48-week power-bench program, you’ll also want to train your legs and your back and biceps once per week. If you need, psychologically, to get into the gym more than three times every seven days, you can split up your back and biceps work into two training days. If you need a fifth day, do abs and moderate cardio. You’re welcome to mix up your leg, back, biceps and ab training as much as you want to, but we strongly suggest choosing to work variations of rows for your back, medium-heavy hammer curls for your biceps and old-school squats for your legs.

If your progress stalls out at anytime during this four-cycle program, perform the following checklist.

•Are you getting at least eight hours of sleep per night?

•Are you taking in a quality source of protein at least four times per day?

•Are you drinking water throughout the day?

•Are you avoiding recreational drugs completely and limiting your alcohol intake to a few drinks per week?

•Are you sticking with the program, or are you overtraining by adding sets, reps, pounds and/or exercises to your bench day?

If you’re avoiding all of those mistakes but still aren’t able to hit the numbers as they’re mapped out, then add more whole food to your diet—increasing your daily calorie intake—and try taking a one-hour nap on days when your schedule allows you to. If that still doesn’t solve the problem, try cutting back your intensity on the days when you don’t bench to allow your body more time to recuperate.

There’s no reason a healthy lifter weighing 200 pounds or more can’t rep 315 for a triple, and we’ve also seen plenty of guys weighing less than 200 do it. For example, we’ve seen both Ragin’ Ray Hickman and Joe “the Benching Machine” Luther hit 405 (with no bench shirt) or more in the gym at 165 pounds bodyweight every time they near the peak in their training cycles. Now, both of those guys are national bench press champions, so it’s not realistic to think that everyone will bench 405 without a bench shirt at a bodyweight of 165, but you can shoot for repping with 315, and this program will get you there. You’ll also be more muscular than you’ve ever been before, and you’ll feel awesome about that accomplishment!

Editor’s note: Ryan “BenchMonster” Kennelly is a three-time Arnold Classic World Bench Press champion, the ’05 FitExpo pro bench champ and the ’05 Bench America silver medalist. He has bench-pressed 700-plus pounds more than 40 times in competition and 800-plus pounds more than 10 times in competition, and his personal contest best is 902.5 pounds. His DVD, “The Road to the Arnold,” is a 90-minute documentary that follows his quest to repeat gold at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s World Bench Press Championships. The action-packed DVD shows 600-plus-pound gym lifts (no bench shirt), 900-plus-pound board presses and contest lifts and a drop set of 405×20 and 315×20. It also includes the FitExpo pro bench contest in Los Angeles, the World Bench Press Championships at the ’05 Arnold Classic and more. It’s available at Home Gym Warehouse, or call (800) 447-0008.

Sean Katterle has been a TV commentator for bench press competitions shown on Fox Sports Net and Comcast Sports Net. He’s also the owner of, and he’s had strength-sport articles and interviews published in BodyTalk, Monster Muscle, Powerlifting USA and Speed Strength Sport. IM

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