A Chronicling of my Journey to a 400+ lb. Bench Press
On September 16, 1993, for reasons upon which I’m not prepared to expound, a little light went on in my head and a spontaneous decision was made. I knew from that moment on that I would begin lifting weights in earnest and that I would not stop. Thus began the journey - and a new lifestyle - a new way of thinking.
I was 30 years old when I “officially” started lifting weights. I’m not sure why I remember the exact date, except that the decision to start and never stop was so clear to me that I had purposed in my mind to remember. I had lifted off-and-on as a younger person, but never really stuck with it for more than a few months at a time. By the time I was several months into my first “official” year, I’d become aware that it was altogether a different approach - a different “way of being” than in my younger days.
I was a lanky 6’ 1” (or so) and was built more for agility than for brute strength. Having reached 6 feet by the age of 14, at which time I weighed a spindly 139 lbs., I considered myself somewhat fortunate as a person of slightly above-average height. From the age of 20 years through 30, I had always weighed a very consistent 180 lbs. There was a brief exception of a few months, during which time I had dieted down to 160 lbs. (around the age of 22) in order to solidify my slam-dunk on a regulation basketball goal. But that’s another story.
Back to 30: Within my first year, just from consistent weightlifting and rigorous walking routines, I had packed on a solid 20 lbs. of muscle. I had been unable to do any kind of heavy lower body exercises as it was around that time that I began to experience problems with my knee joints. One right after the other, they both simply “went bad”. I’ll not put much into explaining that, but it was painful and debilitating for a short period of time. Since then, the meniscus in both my knees has been just a little bit better than useless.
Early Goals* - Far Beyond Current Ability
It didn’t take long to realize that weightlifting was really changing my appearance. Coworkers and friends began to comment that I had evidently been packing on muscle in both my upper and lower body areas. This was a big part of the pay-off for all the work I’d been doing.
It was on September 16, 1994, my one-year anniversary, that I decided to lay out my first real concrete goals associated with numbers. I exercised all the major muscle groups, but focused on the bench press, since it is, apparently “that lift” - the one definitive lift by which lifters seem to consistently want to distinguish themselves and others. Besides, it was then, and continues now to be, the one lift I most wholeheartedly enjoy, in spite of the pains and strains.
The first bench press “big number” I had purposed to reach was the elusive and all-defining 300. And this number would be all the more definitive if not for the fact that the number 315 has it well overshadowed. This is because of the “standard” configuration of 315 lbs. on an Olympic-style barbell - three “big plates” on either end for a total of six (big plate = 45 lbs., US std.). At a certain point of a bench pressers progression, the 315 number looms large in his eyes - grips him and defines his next goal in brilliant blazing all-out effort.
So, yes, my first truly big bench press goal - big at least in my eyes, at the time - was 300* lbs. But my first big “really important” goal was 315*. I’ll mention the other “defining numbers” here - the ones that come before all others for most men on the bench - and they are 200 and 225. On the average, 200 is the first round number we come to on the bench that we’re not initially able to attain to when we first start out. And standard configuration for 225 lbs. on an Olympic-style barbell is 2 big plates on either end - a big visual and psychological highlight. Because I had reached both of these on the bench within the first couple months after starting, I’m not listing them among my personal big goals. I’m defining my “big goals” as those which, at a given point subsequent to becoming well and fully conditioned, were far beyond current ability.
So my first firmly-established big goals for the bench press were 300, 315, 360, 400 and 405. Some of these I ended up skipping right over in deference to higher weights. And some of them, the middle one in particular, took a lot longer than I had ever imagined they would. But I’ll get to all that eventually. Let it suffice to say that the long process of setting and reaching weightlifting goals has been filled with ups and downs (pun intended), bruises and blessings, frustrations and elations. By and large, my experiences with weightlifting, averaged all together, equate out to something somewhere between mild gratification to full-on self-satisfaction.
I recall a workout within my first two years in which I had benched more weight than I ever had previously for a set of two repetitions. There was a gentleman close by who’d been watching and who had commented that it looked like a lot of weight. When he asked how much weight I was lifting, I responded “two-sixty-five”. To this very day, I recall that moment as a stand-out among moments. It was then that, for the first time, I realized that I was doing something that put me “beyond the average”. I don’t wish to indicate that weightlifting ever became my top priority in life or that it “defines who and what I am”. But as a guy who’s always had difficulty setting and sticking by meaningful goals, weightlifting has become a significant aspect of my life.
Somewhere along the way, I came about a “max formula” that continues to serve me well to this day. When I had benched the 265 lbs. for two reps, it was then that I knew that 300 lbs. was attainable and not too far off. Applying the formula to what I’d just accomplished, I could accurately project that my 300 was just a few weeks ahead. And the formula did not disappoint!
I cannot recall where or when I had first heard about a particular formula for determining what one’s maximum bench press should be, but I’ve continued using it across the years to consistently and accurately determine the maximum weight I’m able to bench at a given time. The formula goes like this: Take the highest weight that can be benched at least four times. For each rep, including the first one, add ten pounds to determine your max. Here are two examples:
225 X 4 reps = max of 265, whereby 225 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 = 265
355 x 7 reps = max of 425, whereby 355 + 10 + 10+ 10+ 10+ 10+ 10+ 10 = 425
So this max bench press formula would likely help most anyone who’s trying to determine what is reasonably attainable as a maximum. It has been so consistently accurate for me that I have yet to fail a max attempt when this formula has been used to predetermine the outcome.
Warm-ups, Pyramids and Burn-downs
An indispensable part of any safe and effective bench press workout routine is the warm-up. A warm-up routine will typically consist of one or more bench press sets of light weights and around 10 repetitions. Number of warm-up sets and reps may vary depending upon personal preferences. A lot of (typically young and less-experienced) bench pressers skip the warm-up altogether, but this is a mistake! Warm-ups and stretching are integral to a safe and optimal bench press workout. A typical bench press warm-up may look something like this:
135# x 10, 135# x 10, 185# x 10
Most of my bench press gains have been made using one sort of pyramid-type routine or another, whereby bench press sets would consist of decreasing numbers of repetitions and increasingly heavier weight. This type of routine is generally considered to be more effective for strength increases than “straight set” routines in which the weight is not increased with each set and repetitions are not decreased (e.g., 205# x 10 for 4 sets). A classic bench press pyramid routine (after warm-up) may look something like this:
225# x 10, 245# x 8, 265# x 6, 285# x 4
Many bench pressers who use this type of routine also include one or more “burn-out” or “burn-down” sets after completion of a warm-up and pyramid routine. The burn-down sets are used to further exhaust the muscles (mainly the pectorals, triceps and anterior deltoids) and to optimize growth. Burn-down sets may be taken without much rest between sets as they’re designed for muscle exhaustion and to increase “pump” and “pump-size”. Using the above pyramid routine as a reference, a typical subsequent burn-down routine may look something like this:
225# x 8, 185# x 10, 155# x 9, 135# x 8
The above bench press workout routine represents a typical approach and approximates the workout routines of many of the bench pressers which I have observed over the years.
My personal warm-up, main workout and burn-down routines do not look like the above example routines. For the last approximately one year (as of the date of this writing), during which time I’ve made excellent bench press gains, my bench press workout routines have looked something like this:
135# x 10, 185# x 10, 225# x 10, 275# x 8, 345# x 8, 395# x 2 or 3, 285# x 12
Warm-up routines ough some bench pressers use workout routines that are less like a pyramid and
As of the time of this writing, I’m using a sort of pyramid-ish scheme that I wish I’d have used much earlier. Rather than being mainly weight-centric, my workout is now mainly rep-centric. 10, 10, 10, 8, 8, 10-11
The Dreaded Plateau – Causes and Cures
Don’t get stuck on a number! If there’s any one secret I can pass on that will make a big difference for increasing bench press, it is just that. Guys get fixated on a particular number and they never move successfully beyond it. The number guys are commonly stuck on the longest is 315. Once a guy finally bench presses that magical 315# one time, typically he’ll fixate on that number, wanting it to become the main ingredient of his workout.
I’ve seen it dozens and dozens of times over the years. The guys who are fixated on 315# are easy to spot. They’re in every gym in great numbers, and each is a more-or-less identical clone of the other. They rush through their warm-up and skim over the most important parts of their workout just to get to get those six big plates on the bar. Then they’ll do a set or two of 315# for three or four reps and that’s all the heavy sets in their routine. That’s not enough!
A bench presser has got to give his muscles something to respond to – something to do besides the 315# - something besides the seemingly magical number that the brain gets fixated upon. Another way of stating this is that muscles “get bored”. Muscles become accustomed to a regular routine and eventually stop responding optimally. When this happens, it’s time for a change. If a bench presser has been stuck on a particular weight for an extended period of time, this is referred to as a plateau.
It’s aggravating and discouraging to continue the hard work of weightlifting when gains are no longer being made. In most cases, a plateau is something that can be surmounted by a change of routine. Until this is fully realized and accepted, a plateau may last for months or, as in my case, even years.
Like many bench pressers, I had become so fixated upon the number 315 that I couldn’t see my way past to the next level. I had tried and tried and tried for months on end and still could not move beyond a certain point. That 315# pinnacle in actuality had become a 315# curse. I was so determined to continue using 315# for my heavy sets that I completely missed picking up on other much more effective strategies for making gains on the bench press. Rather than elevating my bench to a new lofty level, reaching 315# on the bench actually ended up costing me countless hours and days and weeks and months and, yes, years of frustration and lost potential.
What I should have done – what I had long suspected I ought to have done – was to do what bench pressers are loath to do under most any circumstance. I should have lowered the weight. Let me emphasize that…
I should have lowered the weight!
I should have lowered the weight and increased the repetitions. I should have been willing to accept the fact that I wasn’t yet ready to focus on 315#. Rather than doing 2 or 3 or even 4 sets of 3 to 4 repetitions with 315#, I should have dropped down to at least as low as 295# or perhaps even lower and worked my way up from there. Why? Because 2 or 3 or even 4 sets of 3 to 4 repetitions with any amount of weight is not enough! This falls short of exercising the muscles in optimum fashion.
Rather than bench pressing 315# x 4 x 4 (this was before I started using pyramid-type workouts), I should have been doing something like 295# x 7 x 4. The difference between these two examples, as a total, is a whopping 3220#. That’s how much more total weight I should have been pushing. I was cutting myself way short of what my muscles could have and should have been doing.
Muscles need to pump up, break down, recover and (re)build in order to continue optimal growth. If a lifter simply pushes as much as he possibly can 3 or 4 times and then quits, he’s wasted much of the potential existing in the muscle. He’s failed to utilize energy that could have and should have been used for growth and for strength-building. By bench pressing 2 or 3 or even 4 sets of 3 to 4 repetitions with 315#, week in and week out, I had reduced my workouts to little more than repeated 90% max sessions. And how mach could a lifter possibly gain if all he ever did for a workout was something close to his max all the time? He’d likely gain nothing!
More than once I’ve heard guys say that they’ve continued their workouts faithfully but have stopped gaining or have even lost weight from their once-higher max bench press. Almost invariably, I’ve heard this from guys who’ve gotten stuck on a number like 315 and haven’t been “able” to move beyond. In fact, they are – we all are – more able than we realize.
Overtraining is another no-no that folk sometimes fall prey to. Overtraining occurs when more exercise is performed than the body is able to recover from. More often than not, this is simply due to inadequate rest. In order to allow muscle to recover and (re)build adequately, there must be ample time for rest between workouts.
You tear down in the gym.
You build up in your sleep.
If a guy is pushing heavy on the bench every other day, there is no way that his muscles, particularly the pectoral muscles, will have enough time to completely recover and grow before being torn down again. High-protein food intake and adequate rest are needed – sleep is extremely important and is integral to muscle growth – and are indispensable contributors to continued gains.
Overtraining, in particular, is a sort of double-whammy in the sense that it not only equates to more work for less payoff, but it also puts the body further behind as than it would be with a more efficient and optimal workout routine. Want to avoid a lot of wasted time and energy? Avoid common pitfalls like prolonged plateaus and habitual overtraining.
Supplements – What Works and What Doesn’t
In short, Nitric Oxide works for muscle endurance, Creatine works for strength-building and Protein supplements work for recovery, muscle (re)generation and growth. Many of the other supplements available simply are not as effective. More to come on these and other supplements, what brands and compounds I recommend and when and how to take them...
First unassisted 405 lb. bench press
425, 450, 455, 475, 495, 500
As of the time of this writing, 425#-435# is well in hand. With consistency and efficiency as my bywords, the rest should come right along as well, each in turn.