Two weeks ago, I completed my first 400 pound bench press. This had been a goal of mine since the second I hit my first 315 press, which was a LONG time ago. The journey from the 3’s to the 4’s has been fun, but not without its share of ups and downs. Every struggle provided an opportunity to learn, however, and that’s what this post is all about.
Similar to my quest for a 600-pound deadlift, I learned some valuable lessons along the way. Here are 10 bits of wisdom from my first 400 pound bench press.
1. ENVIRONMENT IS HUGE
Perhaps the most interesting part about hitting 400 for the first time was that I did it following 3 hours of sleep and a 3 hour plane ride. Conventional wisdom would say it was a lousy time to hit a max lift.
That said, the environment is what allowed my performance to supersede fatigue. We were in Nashville for Greg Robins‘ bachelor party and we headed to Matt Poe’s gym for a training session. This was one of the most badass gyms I’ve ever seen. Hot as hell, heavy metal blasting, full of old rusty weights – my ideal environment.
This circles back to my approach to powerlifting: train in a low-arrousal environment (i.e. no psyching up, limited caffeine, etc.) and test in a high-arrousal environment (i.e. in competition). This lets you take advantage of the extra adrenaline only when you really need it.
2. TRAIN CHEAP, COMPETE FANCY
I got to test my bench on a Forza competition bench press. After training on a run-of-the-mill adjustable bench, the Forza made my setup feel incredibly tight and stable. Similar to the previous point, if you train on cheaper equipment and test on fancy equipment, you’ll get an extra boost when it matters most.
That said, lousy equipment should never be an excuse for poor training. Train your deadlift on a stiff bar with no knurling? A legit deadlift bar will feel like a twig in your hands. No monolift? If Captain Kirk can squat a grand for a double out of squat stands, you can walk out 225.
3. THE BENCH PRESS CAN BE TRAINED HEAVY AND OFTEN
The bench press can be trained heavier and more frequently than the squat or deadlift. You’ll beat yourself up a lot less benching heavy two or three times a week than if you tried to do the same with either of the lower body lifts.
In fact, the squat and deadlift compliment each other with training because the same muscle groups are involved. The bench, however, stands alone. Even the other big compound upper body lifts (overhead presses, rows, chin-ups, etc.) don’t have a ton of direct carryover.
Bottom line: if you want a big bench, bench heavy and often. Twice a week is best for most, but many can and should press three times a week for serious progress.
4. THE BENCH LIKES AMRAP/FAILURE SETS
I’ve spoken often about the drawbacks of training to failure, but in the case of the bench press, AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets near failure can be incredibly effective.
Like I said, benching is much less taxing on the body overall than squatting or deadlifting. There are fewer risks when you approach technical breakdown, and, assuming you have a spotter, failing on a bench press is much safer. Finally, benching presents a level of mechanical stress that you can’t achieve with dumbbells or bodyweight, which aids in hypertrophy of the shoulders and triceps.
I used a ton of AMRAP sets and rest-pause sets while building my 400 pound bench press. I mostly did them as backdown sets and/or subtle bench variations after my heavier sets (like the Spoto Press). I’d do them as heavy as 85 percent, which forced me to maintain perfect technique under heavy weight AND fatigue. Rarely did I hit complete failure, but flirting with it pushed my press to a new level.
5. ONLY PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Practice makes perfect? Nope. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
I often preach to beginner lifters to do the same lifts over and over. But sometimes, doing the same thing over and over builds bad habits. That was the case in my bench press.
I got lazy. I got in the habit of letting my elbows flare too early, of letting the bar sink too far into my chest, and of being too quick with my pauses. All these things led to a plateau and a nagging pec injury.
It wasn’t until I tightened up my technique and focused more on rep quality than rep quantity that my strength rebounded. Don’t let the monotony of repetition lead you into bad habits.
6. TRAIN YOUR DAMN CUFF, ALREADY
One of the biggest factors in recovering from my aforementioned injury was simply adding in more rotator cuff work. It’s boring, but it works.
As a coach at one of the foremost baseball training facilities in the world, you’d think I’d practice what I preach and take care of my shoulder. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for a long time.
Incorporating 2-3 sets of director rotator cuff exercises twice a week helped keep my shoulder stable at the bottom of my bench press. It didn’t take much to have a big impact. The Side-Lying External Rotation was my go-to exercise, and I never used more than 5 pounds.
7. RETHINK EXERCISES YOU THOUGHT WERE USELESS
Prior to the training cycle preceding my 400 pound bench press, I’d have told you board presses were useless for the raw lifter. I had no use for an ego-stroking, partial-range-of-motion exercise that did nothing for my weak points (or so I thought).
But that nagging pec injury refused to go away. Every time I benched using a full range of motion, the pec got irritated. Greg subbed in 1-board and 2-board presses for a few weeks. Lo and behold, pec pain gone, 400 press achieved.
Turns out every exercise has its place. In my case, the combination of overloading the movement and avoiding my painful range of motion was just what I needed.
Just because an exercise doesn’t target your specific weak point doesn’t mean it won’t help you. Keep an open mind.
8. TAKE AWAY YOUR LEVERAGES
Despite the previous point, when choosing accessory or supplementary exercises to strengthen your squat, bench press or deadlift, choose exercises that take away your leverages whenever possible. This means choosing an exercise that takes away a specific strength (i.e. feet-up bench press to take away leg drive) or exposes a specific weakness (i.e. close grip bench press to challenge your ability to keep the elbows tucked).
Don’t rely too heavily on overload exercises that don’t target a weak point. In the case of the bench press, movements like board presses, pin presses, and using the Sling Shot or reverse bands can teach you to handle heavier weights, but don’t do much to addresses technical flaws. Use them sparingly.
9. THERE’S ALWAYS A WAY TO TRAIN AROUND INJURIES
My friend Gary Reinl has a saying that “stillness is the enemy.” I firmly believe that doing nothing at all is almost always the worst course of action, especially when you’re hurt.
There’s always SOMETHING you can do. Active recovery jumpstarts the healing process, so any pain-free movement you perform can put you on the path to being 100 percent again.
While board presses ended up being my saving grace, I also cycled in plenty of pain-free pressing movements to keep inching forward. Push-ups and dumbbell presses proved particularly effective.
I’ve seen baseball players back in the weight room 14 days post-elbow surgery. If you’ve still got healthy limbs, you’ve still got stuff to do. Don’t push through pain, but keep training what doesn’t hurt.
10. DON’T HIT THE PANIC BUTTON
I find myself saying this to my lifters all the time: when things get hard, don’t freak out. Don’t hit the panic button and abandon the plan. Oftentimes the biggest payoffs are right around the corner from the biggest setbacks.
I missed a double at 375 on the bench seven weeks prior to hitting 400. I could have easily packed it in and figured I was nowhere near hitting my goal. But I buckled down, fixed some technique flaws, cranked up the volume and proved myself wrong.
When things get hard, keep working. Great things are soon to come.
LESSONS FROM THE IRON
Every victory or failure comes with valuable lessons to be learned. It’s your choice whether your acknowledge them and implement them into your training, or ignore them and miss out on a chance to get better. Take the time to reflect on lessons learned after each training cycle and I’m confident you’ll make massive strides in your training.