Most of us want to lift heavier and heavier weights, and also stay in the game for the long term. I’ll use bench press as an example as we work through how to get there.
First, set a goal that matters and be committed to it. It can make sense to modify goals as you work towards them, but pick one that excites you and gets your nerves a little fired up. Think big!
As an example, my current bench press goal is to press my own bodyweight at next year’s Nationals, which are about nine months away at the time of writing. It means an increase of approximately 20%. For a more experienced lifter, this would be ludicrous, but I feel that I have not yet come close to my actual potential…so for now at least, that’s my goal, and I’m sticking to it!
Work a Plan
To get there, you need to work a plan. This should be a minimum period of two months to see how your body responds to that style of training. (The exception would be during competition preparation, when you will hopefully have dialled in a very specific, week-by-week plan leading up to a certain date.)
Remember that your upper and lower body may respond best to very different types of training plans. For example, the upper body probably recovers more quickly, and may respond better to higher-rep, higher set programming, whereas the lower may need heavier sets with longer recovery within a session or the programming week.
I have one client who recently added 24% (for him, 40 lb) to his bench press over a period of three and a half months with an approach called “density training.” While not an experienced lifter, he was overall strong, and compared to his lower body, so far two other training methods had led to continual stalling on his upper body strength. We chose a target weight for his bench with which he could complete 5 reps moderately comfortably, as well as a weight for his seal row. Once a week, we set the timer for 12:00 and see how many reps he can crank out of each. When we hit 20% more reps within that time period, up goes the weight. (To be complete, we then follow it with an 8:00 segment of reverse flys and pushups.)
In contrast, his lower body advances best with a four-week formula where we increase sets through weeks 1 and 2, with week 3 including a plus set that tells us how much to load on the bar for his subsequent cycle. Week four is always a deload week.
For the Do-It-Yourself Lifter
If you’re new to programming and can’t afford to hire a trainer to do it, there are many templates available. Again, make sure you use them for a good 6-8 weeks before passing judgement. I love Wendler’s 5-3-1 for its simplicity and clarity. The StrongFirst Reload program is good for occasional cycles.
Any good program will build in deload weeks somehow – if your program doesn’t, switch the program! As soon as you’re working at any intensity, you *must* take deload or active rest weeks, or some combination of burnout and injury will result.
Off season is a perfect time to experience with things like eccentric work or complementary physical activities. I will be playing with eccentric-focused training, as well as isometric and explosive tempos — so basically, anything except for the regular concentric style of lifting — over the next six weeks.
Track your results. One-rep max tests tell you what worked and what didn’t, and that information is golden as it accumulates with the years. Beginners are safer doing a mathematical one-rep max based on higher-rep lifts, and there are a ton of charts around and even apps now to help you gauge this.
Obviously, you want to have good technique. Preferably, you can hire a trainer with experience in the realm. Video of your lifts can be very helpful, both to send them between sessions and to keep for future reference.
You want every training session to be of as high quality as you can make it. The right time of day makes a huge difference — I’ve actually made changes to my workday to prioritize lifting in the morning, which is my “power hour.” Proper nutrition and hydration are huge factors in your ability to train well. Make sure you leave adequate rest between sets that you can finish your next one properly. Once you are warm and into your working sets, that is often around the three-minute mark.
The final basic is to make sure you are using the proper equipment. Some gyms have safeties on your racks, and some even have safeties that are the right height for you. Pretty much anything will do for squats, but bench press takes more fiddling. Smaller increments usually work best, unless you hit the jackpot and are the exact right body proportions if the equipment uses larger increments. If you can’t manage the right height of safety, either bench elsewhere or make sure that you have a competent spotter with you who is paying attention the whole time. Sorry to be a downer on this, but people have died while bench pressing… I’m putting that in the category of “definitely not worth it.”
Mobility and Stability
My FMS background has me repeating the mantra: “Mobility before stability.” Okay, to be sure, then the DNS approach sort of flips it around, but the big takeaway is: You want to be working with joints that are as mobile and healthy as possible. Hopefully this will be a lifelong priority, but at least as you prepare for each lifting/benching session, you will need some mobility prep for the joints in question. For bench, that’s the mid to upper back and the shoulders.
And Now You’re Ready to Lift
To discuss anything above, please contact me. My next post will address strength building during the actual set of lifts: full intent and full-body tension.