If you, like so many gym-goers, are in pursuit of impressively developed and qualitatively chiseled pectoralis muscles, then you will most probably have made the classical barbell bench press a part of your workout routine. This is a good thought: the bench press can be a truly strong ally in your quest for a well-developed chest. I still remember the very first time I enjoyed a thorough chest pump – and it was the direct result of having mastered the bench press for the first time.
The use of the word “mastered” above was deliberate. This is what I want to stress today: if you want to use the bench press as a way to develop your pecs in a visually impressive manner, then you must master the exercise in question so that it allows you to achieve a good pump and really target your pectoralis muscles. In order for this to happen you will have to lift the heaviest weight there is on the gym, namely your ego. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said: “Don’t let your ego get in the way”. This is very true and very important if you want to achieve maximal results at the gym, especially if you are in pursuit of a chiseled and defined look.
When speaking of different feats of strength one of the most commonly asked question is “how much do you bench press?” It is unclear why this certain exercise is granted such focus and attention in this regard. It could just as well has been the biceps curl, the military press, the lats pulldowns or any reasonably designed exercise that triggered this often put question. Of course, this, like most things, is a matter of taste and personal preferences. If you are interested in bench press maximum lifts, then by all means, you should go for it and design your routine accordingly. If, however, you are more interested in building qualitative pecs muscularity, then the first thing you will have to press is your ego. You will have to ignore the risk of being asked how much you bench press. For the fact is that, in this exercise, maximum weight and maximum muscle response are two very different things.
It is all about employing the exercise (any exercise) in a manner that corresponds with your goals. I have never aimed for a big 1RM in the bench press. Partly because I always, without exception, train alone (in other words, there is no one there to save me if my PB attempt turns out to have been somewhat optimistic…), but mostly because I have always felt that training in the 5 to 12 reps range is the most rewarding for me, both physically and mentally. Of course I make exceptions. I perform sets with both fewer and more reps, but I’d say that 75% of my training has always been within that range. This is a matter of personal preferences. I’m not saying that it is the only way to train, either for strength or for muscle mass. It is how I personally like to get it done. Any regular reader here at Penandbarbell.com knows that I strongly advocate personal customizing of one’s training. Furthermore that I consider the concept of strength to be debatable - there is no absolute definition of strength. One gets good at what one does – and little else.
In my opinion you know that you have mastered an exercise when you can get a good pump (or at least a mental satisfaction) from it, “on demand”. If you, regardless of preparation and what kind of day you’re having, can adapt the exercise in question so that it triggers the right responses in your muscles, then you will have mastered its techniques (yes, in plurals – when you have truly mastered an exercise you will most often have different ways of performing it – which will be a huge advantage).
So, the next time you go through a chest workout that involves the bench press, try going down in weights and up in volume (sets and reps). Focus on technique, using different grip widths and achieving mucle contact. Make it an exercise for the pecs, not the whole body. And don’t stop until you have reached a good pump. Forget the question of “how much…”. Forget your PB. Instead make sure to lift the weight with the use of your pectoralis muscles. Don’t bounce the barbell against your chest. (It is not even important to go all the way down, remember that this is not a powerlifting competition, this is you training your pectoralis muscles.) Don’t prioritize momentum, instead prioritize full engagement. Put emphasis of the part of the lift that put the most stress on your pecs, namely the lower part. Don’t let the ego get in the way.
If you find it hard to even ponder going down in weights the next time you bench press – do it anyway. Try it out – and be prepared to never again want to go back. Try the following chest routine and let the pump convince you:
1. Bench press, barbell, 6x8-12.
2. Flyes, 4x8-12.
3. Inclined bench press, barbell, 5x6-10.
4. Bench press, barbell, No 2, 3x12-15
Be prepared to use light weights (lighter than you think, if you are used to performing mainly sets of 1-6 reps). Defeat the ego and conquer results!