Q: My bench press hasn’t gone up in months. On the last couple of reps on my heaviest set my arms shake and wobble like crazy, and I just barely get the weight up with some back arch and cheat. Is there anything I can do to help increase my bench press max?
A: Sure. I have several surefire methods of increasing your bench press maximum. The easiest way is to gain some extra lean muscle tissue. Think about it. Why do they have weight classes in powerlifting? Because as the athlete’s weight goes up, so does the amount he or she can lift. A 196-pound-class powerlifter lifts more than a 181-pound lifter, who lifts more than a 165-pound lifter and so on. Concentrate on gaining bodyweight at the rate of about one pound of lean tissue per week per 100 pounds of bodyweight. Gradually increase your intake of protein and complex carbohydrates until you are gaining at that rate. As you pack on the needed pounds of quality bodyweight, your strength will increase on all your lifts, bench press included.
Next, as odd as it might seem, focus on working the antagonistic muscles of those used in the bench press’lats, teres major and biceps’to counter the work done by the anterior head of the deltoids, the pectoralis major and the triceps. Do heavy bent-over barbell rows for three or four sets of four to six reps before your bench presses. Working the antagonistic muscles improves circulation to the arms, shoulders and pecs, which helps to eliminate lactic acid and fatigue products.
The next way to increase your bench press max is by incorporating heavy negatives in your routine. John Parrillo says heavy negatives’the concentric, or lowering, portion of a repetition’enhance neuromuscular efficiency, which is the ability to recruit a greater number of muscle fibers during muscular contraction. By doing heavy negatives, you totally exhaust low-threshold nerve paths, allowing you to systematically work the higher-threshold nerve paths. Ultimately, says Parrillo, that trains the whole muscle to fire at once. Negatives build a quick-firing muscle, and you become stronger as a result.
With negatives you’re sort of fooling the body into becoming more comfortable with heavier weights. Since you can lower about 40 percent more weight than you can raise, you can really overload the working muscles. If you can bench-press 300 pounds for six reps, you can probably easily lower 400 to 420 pounds for six reps. When you go back a few days later to try to lift 300 pounds again, the weight seems light.
When I was in college in 1974, I happened to keep a 200-pound barbell set under a sofa in my dorm room. At that time Arthur Jones was extolling the value of negatives in Iron Man magazine, and I somehow conned my three dorm mates into lifting the 200-pound barbell over my head so I could lower it for negative-only seated behind-the-neck presses. I had plateaued on the exercise’I could do 145 pounds for six reps at about 180 pounds bodyweight. Although I did just two sets of heavy negatives for about six reps with that 200-pound barbell twice over about one week, it did amazing things for my strength. A few days after my first two sets of lowering 200 pounds for six reps, I went into the gym and managed 175 pounds for six reps on my last set of behind-the-neck presses. Not only that, but I was able to do 190 pounds for a double as well. Heavy negatives, done sparingly, can bring about miraculous quick gains in strength.
You mentioned that your arms shake and wobble on the last couple of reps when you bench heavy. When you approach failure, it isn’t just muscular fatigue that causes that shaking and wobbling; it’s the Golgi organs firing to shut your triceps down so you avoid injury. The Golgi organs are defensive stretch receptors in the tendons all over your body, a kind of early-warning system that shuts a muscle down to prevent injury if it’s subjected to severe overload.
If you’ve ever run as fast as you can for a distance, say, a 200- or 400-meter run, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon without being aware of it; the farther you run, the slower your legs get, until it feels as if you’re trying to run with cement shoes on. The same thing happens when you bench really heavy. The pectoralis major, anterior deltoid and triceps are overloaded and overstretched, so the Golgis shut the muscles down, and that’s the reason for your wobbly arms.
Heavy negatives performed with a spotter (two are better), as well as intense fascial stretching between sets, will increase your Golgi organ threshold. The higher your Golgi tendon reflex threshold, the more intensely you can train and the more you can overload a muscle. That leads to greater gains in strength and size. The harder you stretch a muscle, the harder it can contract. That’s a basic rule of weight training.
You can also do partial reps in the power rack. Set the pins in the power rack so the bar is four to six inches from lockout. Again, as with the negatives, choose a weight that’s about 100 pounds more than your current bench press maximum. Do two or three sets of four to six reps, adding weight on each set. On your final set try for a 10-second hold with about 150 pounds more than your max in the full-lockout position. Just by holding such a heavy weight, you put a tremendous overload on your wrists, arms, pecs and shoulders.
By the way, even though you’re in a power rack you should still have a spotter who can help you raise the weight off the racks as you do your partials and get the bar into the top position during your 10-second hold.
Believe me, by getting your body used to handling extra-heavy weights through negatives, partials and 10-second holds, you’ll quickly improve your bench press. IM