Tips to Increase Your Bench Press: Part One – Powerlifting Shoes
You Will Learn:
— The SAID Principle and how it will increase your bench press
— Muscle fiber types and their role in strength training
— Why cardio may be detrimental to your lifting goals
— Factors to consider when choosing an exercise
— Exercises I recommend to increase your bench press
As this is my first article of this type, it is probably best I come clean now. I love to bench press. I love trying to increase my bench press, bench press routines and testing my bench press strength. When I first began lifting at the age of 14, all I wanted to do was bench. Not only would I lift at school, but I would bench press for a few sets as soon as I got home. I even remember my first time benching 225 and bragging about it to my friends the following day at school. One didn’t believe me, so he came over after school to witness it in person. I benched 225 again, even easier than the day before, and I was so proud of my feat! Already, I knew I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that I gained from maxing my bench in front of an audience. Since then, I’ve come a long way. By the age of 22, I added over 75 pounds of muscle to my frame and increased my bench press to a strict 391 in competition at 220 pounds.
Unfortunately, my love of bench pressing has cost me as well. There have been times where I couldn’t bench for months due to a moderate pec tear that later gave me chronic pain. This was likely due to overuse, sub-par form and poor rehab after the fact, all of which are treatable. From this, my training has become much more methodical and I question everything I do. I am writing this now to reveal what did and did not work well for me over the years so you can be in the fast lane for a bigger bench press. Even if you aren’t overly interested in increasing your bench press max, much of what I will be covering is still applicable to strength training in general, so without further ado, here are my tips to increase your bench press.
Tip One: Incorporate the SAID Principle
Correct use of the SAID Principle, in which SAID stands for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands, is the bread and butter of resistance training. This is so much so, that I consider the SAID Principle and overload (which will be covered in Part Two) as the two most important ideas that were hammered into me the most during my enrollment as an Exercise Physiology student. Simply put, the SAID Principle states that the body will adapt to the stress that is put on it. In the case with lifting, the body adapts to exercise (the stress) by becoming stronger until the load is no longer so demanding. Our body can do this by increasing neuromuscular efficiency, causing favorable metabolic adaptations, and most dramatically, by muscular hypertrophy.
In order to effectively incorporate the SAID Principle into our strength training protocol, we must have a clear goal in mind and our training must reflect that. Any deviation from this and we risk less than stellar results. For example, riding my bike around the neighborhood, which isn’t similar to the bench press at all, isn’t likely to increase my bench. In fact, it can actually decrease it! This occurs because our muscles are made up of different fiber types, with each best suited for a particular type of activity. For the purposes of this article, there are three major types: Slow Oxidative (SO), Fast Oxidative/Glycolytic (FOG) and Fast Glycolytic (FG). As their names suggest, SO and FOG fibers rely upon oxygen to perform at their best. These fibers have capillaries running throughout to transport blood. Have you ever wondered what gives dark meat its color? This is due to a pigment in Myoglobin, a protein found in the blood, which carries oxygen to the muscle. This is relevant because Myoglobin is only found in large quantities in SO and FOG fiber types, meaning that when we look at a piece of dark meat, we’re looking at a piece that contains predominantly SO and FOG fibers. Because of their reliance on oxygen, both SO and FOG fibers are also heavily involved in aerobic (with air) activity, also known as cardiovascular exercise.
FG fibers, on the other hand, are not oxygen dependent and are said to be anaerobic (without air) in nature. This is because activities performed by FG fibers are so intensive and the demand for oxygen is so great, that they need another way to harness usable energy. Instead, they rely upon the energy of glucose, a sugar, which can also be turned into glycogen — a polysaccharide of the sugar glucose that is stored in the liver and muscle tissue. This process is known as anaerobic glycolysis. FOG fibers are well equipped to play a role in both anaerobic respiration and aerobic respiration, making these fibers important for nearly all physical activities, unlike the more specialized FG and SO fibers. Fiber types can also be classified as fast twitch or slow twitch depending upon their rate of contraction. Under this classification, FG fibers are considered fast twitch and SO slow. FOG fibers fall somewhere in the middle and therefore could be classified as either depending upon the circumstances.
Although it may seem like I went off on the deep end, a basic understanding of the physiology behind our body is crucial to making intelligent decisions throughout our lifting career. All three of the muscle fiber types discussed adapt to stress as theorized by the SAID Principle. When the stress of an aerobic exercise such as running becomes too significant, the body is going to adapt by various means such as increasing the size and number of mitochondria in SO fibers as well as elevating myoglobin levels in the blood. While this may not significantly harm our efforts to increase our bench press, another common adaptation from aerobic exercise does. With repeated bouts of endurance training, the body can adapt by altering the composition of muscle fibers we have. Essentially, FOG fibers can become SO fibers and FG fibers can begin to mimic FOG fibers through aerobic activities, hardly the kind of adaptations you would want when trying to increase your bench press! Conversely, through anaerobic exercise, our muscle fiber composition can shift the other way, which is much more beneficial when trying to increase your bench press. After all, would you rather have explosive and powerful FG muscle fibers or the slow and weak SO fibers when going for a personal record on bench press?
A proper understanding of the SAID principle is also critical during exercise selection. Choosing exercises that are drastically different from the bench press will do little to increase your bench press. Do you think tricep kickbacks or cable flies will increase your bench? If your answer was yes, consider the disparities these two exercises have from the bench press. In neither of these, are you holding a bar with both of your hands, lying on your back or even pressing an object! To the body, this is a drastically different stimulus and as such, we should expect nothing more but a different adaptation! Not one to give up, you may argue, but won’t kickbacks and flies still increase strength through muscular hypertrophy? While you would deserve some brownie points, exercise economy must be factored too as we only have so much exercise we can recover from in a single workout. With that in mind, would you rather add in more tricep kickbacks and cable flies or more of bench press. The kickbacks and flies might add a little bit of muscular hypertrophy, while the more bench pressing is guaranteed to increase your strength and add muscle in a way that we know is optimal to increasing your bench press. To me, the choice is obvious.
To increase your bench press, you should focus on the basics such as the bench press and similar exercises such as the close grip bench press and dumbbell bench for low to moderate reps. If in doubt, another acronym, KISS, will do wonders (no tricep kickbacks or cable flies required). There may be a time for extravagant exercises like the paused slingshot benching against chains, but for most, the time is not now. Trust in the basics and exhaust the tried and true before turning to elaborate and unnecessary methods.
Although the shrewd application of the SAID principle will get anyone far, eventually the human body will adapt to the stress being thrown its way, leading to the dreaded plateau — a place where nobody (yes, not even that crazy uncle of yours) wants to be. Gains will become hard to come by, finally to a grinding halt. You may even get weaker! Frustration, confusion and anger may set in as you wonder what went wrong. If this has ever been you, I have the solution. This is where my second tip to increase your bench press and overload come into play. Stay tuned for more in Part Two of Tips to Increase your Bench Press!