Bench Press

Build Muscle: Top 5 MUSTS!

How is it some build muscle with, seemingly, little to no effort? Putting meat on the bones comes easy for some: they’ll do a couple curls and drink a glass of milk then BAM, they’re swole.  For the rest of us, it can feel like we have to grind and suffer day in and day out for an ounce or two of muscle.  The methods used and the advice given can sometimes become overwhelming.

Do this program... “Take these supplements... Eat 22.75 grams of protein every 76 minutes... Train each bodypart once every ten days.”

Sometimes you’ll hear fitness experts give advice that can be contradictory or confusing, or just plain unreasonable for you and your lifestyle.

Amongst the sea of information on the quest for building muscle out there, here are my top five tips for beefing up.

1. Make Strength a Priority

If your goal is purely to build muscle and you couldn’t care less about your deadlift max, that’s great!  Good for you, and to each their own.  However, understand that as you get stronger you can increase the muscle building stimulus by utilizing greater loads.  We know we need time under tension via resistance training to stimulate growth, but if you continue using the same loading schemes over a period of time your body will eventually adapt and the stimulus dies.

How do we avoid this?  Focus on getting stronger!  Have a handful of “indicator lifts” to use to track progress.  These lifts are ideally big compound lifts that you strive to become stronger in.  Personally I use the the biggie compound exercises: back squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press to track my progress in strength.  Other good options to use are any squat exercise variation (front, box, goblet), push-ups, pull-ups, single leg movements, row exercise variations, prowler work, or farmer’s walks.  Heck, if your goal is to grow enormous biceps focus on getting stronger at the curl.

The point is we want to look back at our own records after months and years pass and see that we are capable of throwing more weights around.  If you make awesome improvements in strength over a significant length of time I’d be willing to bet that you’ve made progress in your lean body mass as well.

2. Volume

This is where we see a big difference in the typical comparison of how a bodybuilder trains versus how a powerlifter By joining a RED franchise, you could earn in excess of ?1,300 more per year than at other national truck driving schools – and significantly more than if you choose to operate as an independent instructor. trains.  The bodybuilder, whose primary goal is to build muscle, will utilize a ton of volume into their training.  A bodybuilder"s workout for his (or her) chest may do something along the lines of the following:

Bench Press


DB Incline Press


DB Flyes


Pec Deck


The powerlifter, on the other hand, may work up to a heavy single on the bench, do a few sets of rows and go home.

Now this is a very simplified comparison of the two training disciplines but you get the message: if mass is your goal, you need more volume in your workouts.

More volume, however, does NOT necessarily mean that you have to be lifting in the 10-20 range for each exercise.  If you did that, you’d be sacrificing too much tension to get those reps in.  Try some different set x rep schemes that will allow for significant volume with moderately heavy weight.  7 sets of 4, 5 sets of 5, and 4 sets of 6 are all good options, especially for your “main movement” of the day.

3. Eat Better

This is a problem for a lot of younger athletes that stay very active year-round.  You need food to live, and you need food for energy, but you need even MORE food to build muscle.

Be honest with yourself!  You want to be bigger and stronger but all you had for breakfast was… nothing?!  Re-think that strategy.

The nutritional side of muscle gain is underestimated too often, and it needs to be a consistent effort everday.  If you eat like an infant all week, but binge at a Chinese buffet on Saturday it doesn’t count.  Eat a lot of good food every single day.

Sometimes it’s not an issue of eating enough food, but eating enough of the right foods.  A diet consistent with cookies and cokes probably won’t be the key to building a big strong body that you work so hard for.

Keep a food log and make sure you’re eating right.  If your still confused and overwhelmed, just have Kelsey analyze your diet and she’ll tell you everything you’re doing wrong.

4. Aim for a Horomonal Response

Your hormones are the key to growth.  Without them we’d be nothing.  No need to go into a complex physiology lesson right now, but here are some quick tips you should keep in mind.

Testosterone: Stimulated by lifting heavy weights.  Hit it hard and heavy, and get adequate rest between sets.

Human Growth Hormone: Stimulated by moderate weights, higher volume and lower rest periods.

Cortisol: Evil. Catabolic stress hormone that doesn’t want you to gain muscle.  Keep it low by getting enough sleep and doing whatever helps you de-stress your life.

5. Be Aggressive!

Building muscle takes hard work and focus.  You can’t just casually hit the gym once every couple of weeks and expect huge gains.  Lift and eat with a purpose, and be stubbornly consistent.  If you hit a plateau, change something up and keep grinding.

Make your goal important, and put in the necessary effort it takes to make it happen!

Rate of Force Development Part 2: Training to Increase RFD

Last post, I went over some of the terms and definitions of rate of force development (RFD). I also mentioned motor units (MU) and if, at this point, you have no clue what I'm talking about, go back and read it. It's right here. Why should you care about increasing your rate of force development? Because power sports (which is every sport to some degree) is dependent upon the ability to produce high levels of force at any given moment, like running away from a T-Rex.

Good motivation for increasing rate of force development.

There are two main ways research and experience backs up to train RFD: explosive strength training (Newton et al. Med. Sciences Sports Exer. 1999) and maximal load training, i.e. picking up heavy stuff. (McBride et al, J. Strength and Conditioning Research 2002). It should be noted that most of the research has been done with isolated muscles/movements (it's a lot easier to test the quadriceps muscle in a leg extension machine than the various muscle groups in a deadlift) and so it can be a little tricky to apply to real life. However, where science has holes, the experience of coaches fills the gap!

First: force = mass x acceleration Keep this in mind...

Explosive training (speed work) is taking a sub-max load (say, 50% of your one rep max) and moving it as fast as possible, with good form obviously, for 1-3 reps per set. That's key- as fast as possible. Those high threshold motor units, the ones that produce the most force, are recruited to move that weight fast by contracting quickly. Even though the load is light, the acceleration is high. By challenging your system to move loads quickly, we increase the force production by increasing the acceleration part of the equation. This is one way to increase RFD. Typically at SAPT, we program 1-3 reps for 6-8 sets with a strict :45-:60 rest period. Why the rest parameters? We want to keep the nervous system "primed" and if the rest period is too long, we lose a bit of that ability to send rapid signals to the muscles.

Maximal load training, aka picking up some freakin' heavy weight, will typically be above 90% of your one rep max, also we keep the rep range between 1 and 3 (mainly because form can turn to utter poo very quickly under heavy loads if the volume is too high). This untilizes the other part of the force equation, mass. If the acceleration is low, the mass has to be high in order to have high force production. Once again, neural drive is increased and those high threshold MU's get activated. The threat of being crushed beneath a heavy bar can do that.

Recruit! Recruit! Recruit!

Bottom line: As the RFD increases --> the recruitment threshold of the more powerful motor units decreases --> more force is produced sooner in the movement --> heavier weights can be moved/athlete becomes more explosive in sport movements.

Think back on poor lifter B from last post who had a really low RFD during his 400lb deadlift attempt. Being the determined young man that he is, he trained intelligently to increase if RFD through practicing speed deadlifts (to get the bar off the floor faster) and maximal training, (to challenge the high threshold units to fire). Pretty soon, instead of taking 3 seconds to even get the bar off the floor, it only takes 1 second of effort and instead fo straining for 5 seconds just to get the bar to his knees, he's able to accelerate through the pull and get it to lock out in just under 4 seconds. Success!


For sake of the blog post, we could assume he always had the capability of producing enough force to pull 400lbs, but could produce it fast enough before his body pooped out. Now, with his new and improved RFD, 400lbs flies up like it's nothin.'

Another thing to keep in mind is the torque-angle relationship during the movement. Right... what?

All that means is the torque on the joints will change depending on their angles throughout the movement, thus affecting the amount of force the muscles surrounding those joints have to produce. For example, typically* the initial pull off the floor in a deadlift will be harder than the last 1-2 inches before locking out due to the angle of the hip and knees (at the bottom, the glutes are in a stretched position which makes contracting a little tougher than at the top when they're closer to their resting length.) Same concept applies to the bench press, typically** the first 1-2 inches off the chest are more difficult than the last 1-2 inches at lockout. The implication of all this being  the muscles will have different force-production demands throughout the exercise.

Knowing this, we can train through the "easier" angles and still impose a decent stimulus to keep those higher threshold motor units firing the whole time. How?

With chains and bands! Yay!

Aside from looking totally awesome, chains provided added resistance during the "easier" portions of the exercise to encourage (read: compel) muscles to maintain a high force output throughout the movement. Watch Conrad, The Boss, deadlift with chains:

At the bottom, when the torque-angle relationship is less favorable, the weight is the lightest and as he pulls up, the weight increases as glutes must maintain a high  level of force output to complete the deadlift. No lazy glutes up in hea'! Bands produce a similar effect. Check out the smashingly informative reverse band bench post Steve wrote here.

There are other ways, but quite frankly this blog post is reaching saga-like proportions so I'm going to cut it here. And remember kids:

*unless your name is Kelsey Reed and you have a torso 6 inches long... but can't lock the pull out.

** unless your arms a crazy long.

Bench Tips!

Far too often I hear people bash the bench press.

“It’s not functional.”

“It’s for egotistical gym-bros.”

“When do you have to lay supine on your back and press a load up in sports?”

“It’s bad for your shoulder.”

“It’s stupid.”

“Do you even squat.”

Blah blah blah… I’m not here to defend the bench press, because I don’t necessarily believe it needs defending. It’s awesome and if you disagree, good for you. This post is for those that ignore the hate (and are healthy enough) and want to improve their bench press. Maybe you compete in powerlifting, or you want a strong upper body, or you want to turn heads on Mondays at your commercial gym when you bang out some clean, full range reps with huge weights. Whatever your reason is, here are some tips to help you add weight to the bar.

Learn to Bench

Just lay down and press right? Wrong! There are so many technical aspects to the bench that are simply ignored, resulting in sub-par benching. The bench should be considered a full-body lift, by using your legs to drive yourself down into the bench, staying tight through your hips and abs, and squeezing your upper back hard to stay rock-solid during the lift. Your set-up on the bench will be very individual. Everything from grip width, back arch, foot placement, and even head movement will vary between lifters. The key is to find your perfect set-up and practice it over and over.

Use Your Lats! If You Don’t Have Any, Build 'em!

This is huge. The lats play a crucial role during the bench press, creating a strong foundation to push off of and controlling the bar bath. After you unrack the bar, you shouldn’t simply let gravity take over and let the bar fall to your chest. You should be actively pulling the bar down under control, concentrating on flexing your lats hard. A good cue here is to think about “breaking” the bar in half (external rotation torque!) as you lower it to your chest.

If you can’t feel your lats working during the movement, chances are you just need more lat work. Pullups, chinups, lat pulldowns, and rows all fit the bill. Keep pulling to improve your push!

Do Overhead Work

I believe that overhead work is extremely beneficial to improving your bench. The increased strength in your shoulders, triceps, upper back and scapular stabilizers you will build with vertical pressing will all go a long way in helping you push more in the horizontal plane. That being said, straight barbell overhead pressing is not for everyone. Some may lack the mobility to perform the movement or it just hurts to do. Never fear, there are always options. If you find that overhead pressing with a barbell bugs your shoulders or your back, try landmine pressing. You can still get in some quality overhead work with a more joint-friendly angle.

Straight Weight

Drop the bands and chains for a while and stick with straight weight. I think accommodating resistance is a great addition to your training, but if you’ve become accustomed to benching with chains and bands, it may be to your benefit to run a few cycles of training strictly using straight weight. By over-utilizing accommodating resistance you end up avoiding that bottom-range tension when the bar is on your chest. If your goal is to bench big numbers you can’t avoid that tension forever. Perform your heavy work, rep work, and even speed work with some straight weight for a while and rest assured that your strength and power won't wither away without the extra bells and whistles on the bar.


I firmly believe that the strong drive out of the bottom position is KEY to improving your bench press. Even if your sticking point is fairly high up in the range of motion, doesn’t it make sense that if the explosion from the bottom was better you could ride that wave all the way up to lockout? I admit I have been one to analyze a bench press, take note of the sticking point and say “well, it looked like the sticking point was somewhere around a 2-board, so the best way to improve would be a ton of 2-board work.” Board work is great, but you can NEVER be too strong out of the bottom. One of the best ways to increase the strength out of the bottom is paused bench pressing, where you lower the bar to your chest, stay tight and hold it, then press it back up. By coming to a dead stop you kill some of the elastic energy you may have been relying on. Throw in some paused benching to your routine, and although you will undoubtedly have to cut down on the absolute load, you will not be disappointed!

Till next time, keep pressin' on!