I benched pressed for the first time when I was thirteen years old. I was taught, or should I say “trained”…a more popular word when referring to the weight lifting sports, by a master…I was fortunate. My trainer’s name was Roger Richards. He was a power lifter from the Northeast in the 70’s and won or placed in more than a few state and regional contests until he suffered a back injury. After the injury that rendered him uncompetitive on the dead lift, his passion for ripping muscle down to rebuild it stronger was undiminished. No, Roger was determined to continue throwing the weights around, but the goal would be slightly changed. Now the focus would still be on ripping up muscle, but this would be a means to a different end. Now when the tissue was rebuilt, although increased muscle strength and endurance would still be a result of his workouts, he was shooting for increased mass and definition. Roger was going to compete in bodybuilding.
He trained hard to compete in this sport at a time when steroids were just coming onto the scene while regulations against them had not yet arrived. In an environment that by no means could be considered a level playing field, Roger was competitive without the unfair advantage of steroids that his competition relied on. He took fifth in his class in the state competition, and I was proud of my coach! I was also grateful. Because my coach hung on to his love for power lifting, in the spirit of “those who can’t do, teach” he made me his protege, and introduced me to the sport. By the time I was fourteen years old, and at only 105 pounds, I took first place in the New England Championship for my weight class with a 145 lb. bench, a 185 lb. squat and a 305 lb. deadlift, and my coach was proud of me!
I remember well our first workout. It was all about the bench press. I remember even more vividly the day after when I called Roger and asked him, “am I supposed to be this sore” ? Without getting into any detailed explanation about muscle cells working so hard that they require more oxygen than the blood can supply therefore causing fermentation that produces lactic acid that causes a kid who has just really pushed himself at his first workout to have an entire upper body that feels like one, big, bruise, he just laughed and said “yes, get used to it, that means you did a good job yesterday”. Well, he did a good job too. He taught me the finer points of this particular exercise, quintessential in the workouts of the body builder and the power lifter or anyone else with the goal of increased upper body strength, mass, and endurance.
Here are seven of those finer points:
1) Form, form, form. A lot of what appears to be strength is really a matter of leverage. When you grasp the bar the bar for the first time, you will most likely naturally find the best position: Not too close, not to big of a spread. As your spotter helps position the bar over your eyes, with your arms extended, bring the weight down to your chest, and press it up to a point over your chin. Try one rep at a time, changing positions slightly each time until you find that sweet spot. You will know it when you have it.
2) Breathe correctly. Inhale quickly and deeply as you bring the weight down. Exhale on the way up. Don’t hold your breath, ever.
3) Keep a log. You want to document your reps as well as the weight, for each of your sets. This is what your sets should look like: You want to start with a weight that you can do 10-12 reps with before failing. For someone who can do 15-20 push ups, this should be about 40% of your weight. Increase the weight by about 10%-15% and go for 8 reps. Continue to increase the weight by 10%-15% as your reps should decrease by 2, until you do just one rep, with or without help from your spot. Resting for up to three minutes between sets, do six or seven sets.
4) Always do the opposite exercise. This means the pushing required for bench pressing should be counteracted by a pulling exercise that uses the same muscle group; like rows or pull ups. Do six sets of as many reps as possible. Remember to document these too. Document everything, you will enjoy seeing your gains on paper as much as in the mirror!
5) Rest. Give your muscle time to recover. It’s OK to work out every day, just be careful to work a different muscle group the next day. You can get injured if you keep ripping muscle without letting it mend. Eight hours of sleep per day is very important for muscle recovery, and the body and mind in general.
6) Stretch. Before and after the workout. A good way to stretch the chest is by putting your hands at shoulder height, on a door frame, and leaning in. Hold a stretch for ten seconds.
7) Experiment. Try different starting weights and percent increases until you get it down to steady 12-10-8-6-4-2-1 rep sets.