By Greg Zulak Photography by Michael Neveux
if you look a poll at your gym as to everyone’s favourite exercise, undoubtedly most would say the bench press.
Oh, sure, you may find a few masochists who will say squats or deadlifts, and some may choose barbell or dumbbell curls, but for the vast majority it’s the good old bench. It’s truly the king of upper-body exercises.
And why not? You get to lie on a padded flat bench and lift heavy weights in relative comfort. What more could a bodybuilder ask for?
Most bodybuilders take pride in how much they can bench, and who can deny that it’s a boost to your ego to lift 50 to 100 pounds (23-45 kg) more than your body weight after just a couple of
years of training? Most advanced bodybuilders can bench double their body weight for eight to 10 reps and multiple sets.
The bench is the number-one exercise for increasing the size and thickness of the pecs while building die triceps and rear delts at the same time. A few months of correct heavy benching can transform a persons upper body. No other upper-body exercise does so much for a physique.
Benching is fun. You don’t experience the type of painful, I’m-going-to-throw-up-any-minute hard work done on squats, deadlifts, power cleans, bent-over barbell rows and T-bar rows. Nor do you experience the white-hot burn you get in the
target muscles when doing calf and forearm work. No, benching is generally a much more pleasant and enjoyable type of training.
It makes the process of building your pecs seem less painful than training other muscle groups.
While I’m not suggesting that you sleepwalk through your bench presses, it does seem that many bodybuilders experience excellent results with less than maximum intensity on the exercise because of the amount of weight that can be used for sets of six to 12 reps. Perhaps it’s because the pecs are close to the heart that they are easier to pump. Or maybe it’s the amount of weight the exercise lends itself to or a combination of both.
BENCH PRESS ROULETTE
Thats not to say that you cant screw up in performing the bench press or that every bodybuilder gets great results from benching.
Who hasnt seen some idiot arching his back a foot off the bench and bouncing the bar off his chest? While many legendary bodybuilders found that the exercise made their pecs thick and full Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Sergio Oliva, Chuck Sipes and Serge Nubret come to mind Reg Park had to stop benching because it made his pecs too big.
Still others, such as Rill Pearl, Chris Dickerson and Ken Waller, got little chest development from the barbell bench press. They relied on dips, dumbbell bench presses and incline presses, flyes, pullovers and cable crossovers for developing their pecs.
Larry Scott never did standard bench presses. He used a special
variation bench presses to the neck along with wide-grip dips done with an inverted grip and his own special version of dumbbell flyes to develop his chest. Vince Gironda, the Iron Guru, said standard bench presses were 90 per cent front deltoid and that they overdeveloped the lower pecs out of proportion to the upper pecs. He insisted that his members do only bench presses to the neck, wide-grip dips, dumbbell flyes and round-the-world cable flyes.
Probably 50 to 60 per cent of bodybuilders do not experience good pec growth from bench pressing because they’ve never learned how to do it properly to place the mechanical load on their pecs. I was one of them even though I benched in what 1 thought was good form: no arching of my back, elbows wide, lowering the bar high on my chest and no bouncing of the bar.
Maybe its because the exercise seems so easy to perform that people are fooled by its simplicity. It makes me laugh when I read instruction on how to bench in magazines like Men’s Health or some training manuals. It goes something like this: “Lie on the bench, lake a wide grip on the bar. Ixnver the bar to your chest. Press upward to full extension. Repeat for three sets of 10 reps It all sounds so simple. It’s also completely wrong.
Folks, I’m here to tell you that is not how you do a bench press. The bench is actually one of the most complex exercises. Unfortunately, the way most people perform it puts most of the work on their front deltoids and triceps. Very little stimulation goes to their pecs, and what does goes only to the lower pecs, which, as mentioned, gel too big and out of proportion, drooping and sagging like female breasts.
To get wide, flaring pecs that start at the clavicles and are well-shaped and balanced, you have to bench in a special way that works the entire pectoral major. Most often when bodybuilders get too much lower-pec development, it’s because they’re hung up on using the heaviest weights possible. They arch their
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back off the bench and bounce the bar off their chest to drive it through the sticking point. People are in such a big hurry to get big that they cheat too much and train in a way that reduces pectoral stimulation, innervation and pump the most important factors for muscle growth.
I low do you know when youre benching too heavy? When you lose the feel for the pecs, and when youre forced to cheat and bring secondary muscle groups into play.
Your number-one goal during a set of bench presses or any exercise is to learn how to isolate your pecs, innervate them and maintain innervation throughout a set. Innervation is described in my medical dictionary as “the increased supply of nerve fibres or nerve impulses to a body part, usually a muscle” Increased nerve impulses, or nerve output, means stronger messages sent via the brain through the neuromuscular pathways to the muscle, resulting in harder contractions and increased stimulation. If you cannot feel a muscle as you train it, or feel the sensations of ache, burn and muscular fatigue, then it is enervation, which is “characterised as muscle weakness or numbness” Such a muscle will not grow optimally. You must learn to concentrate harder as you train and realise that workouts require as much mental energy and effort as physical energy and effort.
The second-most-important factor for maximum muscle growth is to increase blood flow to the muscle group considerably as you do your sets. That has to happen if you’re going to have
rock-hard pumps. I am a big believer in Dennis DuBreuil’s Blood Theory, which recognised a direct relationship between how well a muscle pumps and how well it grows. The better and easier a muscle pumps, the better and easier it grows. The less a muscle pumps, the less it grows, if it grows at all. Muscles that are hard to pump do not grow well. I’m sure if you think about it, you’ll acknowledge that the principle holds true for your body.
As mentioned previously, I didn’t get optimal result from bench presses even though I benched strictly and with what I thought was good form. Most of my development went to my lower pecs, front delts and triceps.
I couldn’t understand it until I met John Parrillo in Cincinnati in 1988. Steve Brisbois the ’86IFBB World Amateur Bantamweight champion and I went to Cincinnati to learn from Parrillo, as he had a lot of unique ideas about building muscle, including fascial stretching.
John told me there are two types of bench pressers, ‘delt’ bench pressers and ‘pec’ bench pressers. I was a delt bench presser. He explained that I was flattening my chest at the top of the movement and pushing the bar
through with the strength of my front dells instead of my pecs.
John said that in order to become a pec bench presser and gel full pec development, I had to set my pectoral girdle before beginning my sets. Only then, he said, would the mechanical advantage be placed squarely on my pecs. It was that idea the proper setting up of the pectoral girdle and the benefits it brought that led John to develop specially arched benches that correctly position your upper body to isolate the pecs. The arches drop the shoulders while pushing up the chest as high as possible for correct pectoral positioning. They work fantastically well. You can’t bench incorrectly because your delts are down and your chest is arched; so it’s virtually impossible to flatten your pecs in the top position. Your pecs have to do most of the work.
Few people have access to Parrillos arched benches, so I’ll tell you how to become a pec bench presser on a standard bench. Lie on the bench and take a wide grip on the bar outside your shoulders. Next, roll your delts down and hack and under your torso. It helps to feel as though you’re pushing your rear delts down toward your glutes and into the bench. Maintain that feeling throughout the set, as it causes the sternum the breastbone to rise, which is what you want.
Thrust your chest forward and upward and begin your set. The more you keep your rear delts down and back, the more your sternum and chest will pop forward. Lower the bar slowly to your middle chest. As you push the bar upward and lock out your elbows at the lop, push through with your pecs, and squeeze down with your rear delts as well as your lower lats and pecs minor.
One last thing: The bar does not travel in a straight up-and-down motion, as most assume. It actually travels up and back at the same time. The bar does not finish over your chest. It finishes over your eyes. That causes the pecs to contract forcibly.
If you bench that way, you will feel your pecs working even up into your upper pecs. Every fibre of your chest will work.
I suggest that you practice the motion with light weights before attempting it on heavy sets. It’s actually easier to learn the vital
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positions shoulders down and back, chest and sternum thrust forward and upward on a seated bench press machine. Really roll and work those rear dells down and back, and arch your chest as much as you can. As you do that, notice how little your front delts are involved in the motion. Once you get the correct feel on the seated bench press machine, take that feel to the bench.
LARRY SCOTT-STYLE BENCH PRESSESTOTHE NECK
Vince Gironda calls these “neck presses.” They work the upper pecs
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BENCH PRESS ROULETTE
as well as the subclavius, the muscle right at the top of the chest, below the collarbone. Believe me, these are killer for the upper pecs.
Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia, recommended doing them in a Smith machine so you don’t have to worry about balancing or controlling the bar. Lie back on the bench, and cross your legs over your body. That prevents you from arching your back. The key to doing Scott-style bench presses to the neck is the way Larry held the bar. Rather than holding the bar so his palms faced forward and the knuckles back, Larry held the bar so it ran diagonally between his forefingers and his thumbs.
The forefingers and thumbs should actually point at each other as you do your set. This unique grip forces the elbows wide and to the side and greatly increases upper-pec stretch.
The second key point to getting die most from this exercise is to keep your elbows as high as possible throughout the set. Never let them come down even a little. They should be higher than your shoulders at all times. Even with the bar at your throat, keep those elbows high.
Larry says it’s important to stay in the pain zone, that part of the rep when your upper pecs ache and burn the most. That causes maximum upper-pec stimulation and innervation and greatly increases the pump. Do your reps fairly slowly and with great concentration and deliberation.
The diagonal grip and high elbow position ensure that your pecs and subclavius muscles work very hard. Do sets of six to 12 reps for three to five sets, depending how advanced you are. By the way, you can use the same diagonal grip when doing incline Smith-machine presses.
If Scott-style bench presses to the neck don’t help you develop good upper pecs, I don’t know what will. You can try pre-exhausting your upper pecs by doing low-incline dumbbell lives before the Scott-style bench presses for three supersets. That will cause maximum pump and innervation in the upper pecs. Larry often did that superset himself.
If you apply the information provided here, your pecs will improve in size and mass, especially those hard-to-develop upper pecs. Go for it!
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