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Big Arms Workout
Wanna Big Bench Press?

By Chris Mason

Well, let's see what we can do for you. Unfortunately, we live in a society that focuses on certain things, quite often at the expense of others. This is the case with the bench press. To the layman, the bench press is the primary marker of a weightlifter's success. You know what I mean, how many people who don't lift (and even most who do) ask you how much you squat? A damn few, that's for sure. All anyone seems to care about is, "Whatcha bench?" Yes, the bane of our existence, unless we are naturally good at the movement. Another unfortunate circumstance for mankind is that we have egos. Especially us guys! We want to impress people when they ask the dreaded question. We want to be able to answer like this, "Well, on a good day, I play with 425 lbs." You see the look on the questioner's face, and you dream of the satisfaction you would have in saying that. This article is going to give you the opportunity to make that situation a reality. We are going to look at the two most important factors in increasing your bench, technique, and proper training. So, strap on your seatbelt, and put on your thinking caps, no not the dunce cap, the other one!

Proper Technique to Maximize Your Bench

If you want to push the greatest poundages possible for a given state of muscular development, you must use a technique that maxes out your personal genetic potential. You have a unique anatomical structure, this structure will require a specific technique on the bench press to max out the poundages. The laws of physics say so. There is no way around it. A great deal of the information in this section will be derived from a book written by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D. The book is titled The Complete Guide to Power Training, and has a lot of useful information in it. I recommend it as a good read. You do recognize the name, don't you? Maybe you recognize his other name, Dr. Squat. He was given that name after he squatted with over 1000 lbs, that's right, 1000 lbs! Now, a lot of what he has to say concerning training methods are incorrect in my opinion. Let me be more specific, I feel that some of his training methods are applicable to users of anabolics, not to natural trainees. I also feel that even those using the anabolics would do better using different methods than some of what he espouses. That being said, the information following is directly from his book, and I think, very applicable.

Enough of Fred Hatfield's technique recommendations, let's get to the meat on the bones. How do you train? Ah, a very good question, and one which stirs a lot of debate. First, let's take a look at how to increase your strength and what causes strength increases. I am going to dispel a common myth. A lot of people seem to think that a bigger muscle does not equate to a stronger muscle. There are various components of muscular size increases. The most important of them, based on a percentage contribution, and what you can alter with training , are myofibril content and mitochondria content. Myofibrils are the contractile elements of the muscle. In other words, they are what contract. If you have a greater mass of myofibrils, your muscle will be able to contract with greater force. Period. Mitochondria use oxygen to generate ATP. These two components, when you are trying to maximize strength, are somewhat mutually exclusive. I am going to use an excerpt from a web article to illustrate this to you. It is a little technical, but I think it gets the point across quite clearly.

Contrast Between Maximal Strength and Maximal Endurance

If we could build a skeletal muscle for the purpose of endurance, what would the recipe be? Since the heart is the supreme endurance muscle, let's look at it first.

Characteristics of Fatigue Resistant Muscle Cells

Heart cells are smaller in diameter than skeletal muscle cells. This results in very short diffusion distance between oxygen molecules coming from capillaries and the mitochondria where they are used.

The surrounding network of capillaries is extremely well developed. This characteristic also facililitates even and rapid oxygen distribution to all myocardial cells.

The mitochondrial density of heart cells is extremely high, 20-25% of cell volume in adults. Mitochondria use oxygen to metabolise food and produce ATP.

The cytoplasmic enzymes responsible for breaking down fatty acid molecules into 2 carbon fragments that can enter the mitochondria are present in high concentrations.

Contractile protein makes up about 60% of cell volume. The ATPase subtype found in heart is slower than that seen in skeletal muscle. Consequently, the rate of force development is slower, although absolute tension/cell diameter is the same.

Heart lactate dehydrogenase, the enzyme that converts pyruvate to lactic acid competes poorly with pyruvate dehydrogenase. This contributes to the very low lactate production in heart cells despite high metabolic flux.

So, heart cells display almost zero fatiguability due to the tremendous capacity they have to receive and consume oxygen. Fatigue resistance is traded for anaerobic capacity. This is why the heart has little tolerance for oxygen deprivation, or a heart attack. If we want to build a skeletal muscle that is highly fatigue resistant, it must resemble heart muscle in its basic features.

Now let's build a muscle that is optimised for brief efforts and maximum force production. Here are the characteristics needed.

Characteristics of Maximal Strength Muscle Cells

Each muscle cell should contain a high volume of contractile protein. Since oxygen diffusion is not a concern, making the cell diameter larger will help it hold more contractile protein (actin and myosin).

To make more room for actin and myosin, mitochondrial density should be minimized to that necessary to maintain resting cell function.

Since fat can only be metabolised aerobically, high levels of fat cleaving enzymes in the cytosol are also unnecessary.

The capacity for anaerobic glycolysis should be high to allow brief but high capacity energy production without oxygen. The capacity for lactic acid production should be high.

What you should notice is that these two lists are exactly opposite. The optimal muscle for endurance CAN NEVER be maximally strong. And the muscle fiber that produces the most force CANNOT be optimally developed for endurance as well. The two conditions are mutually exclusive. This is one of the most important concepts to understand when designing a training program.

Three Points to Remember:

There are identifiable proteins in the muscle that contribute to its ability to produce high force at high rates (strength and Power).

There are also identifiable proteins and structural characteristics that confer high fatigue resistance (endurance).

There is no identifiable specific protein or structure that confers the quality "Strength-Endurance". When we train for strength-endurance, what we are really doing is training in a way that fails to stimulate either strength or endurance adaptations optimally. An example of this "best of neither worlds" approach is circuit training.

As a coach/athlete, your success begins with your ability to accurately understand the muscular demands of your sport. Then, a training program can be designed that will result in muscular development suited to the combination of strength and endurance that your sport requires. The above excerpt can be seen in its entirety here. Do you get the point? If you want to maximize your strength, you do not train in a manner that encourages endurance. So, you must train in a manner which will optimise the myofibril content in your muscles. In other words, you gotta get 'em BIGGER. Increasing mithochondrial content in the muscle will make it bigger, but it won't help you to maximize your strength. The best way to do that is to train in a HIGH INTENSITY FASHION. To train in this manner, you must perform a minimum of sets on an infrequent basis. You must also train to muscular failure. Sure, stopping short of failure can stimulate gains, but why sell yourself short? If muscular stimulation is a quantifiable phenomena (i.e. you can stimulate the muscle to varying degrees), why not stimulate the muscle to the greatest degree possible? I know, you are saying, "Well if that is true, won't more sets equal greater stimulation?" Yes it will, but the problem is that the increased volume of work may also deplete your body to the extent that it does not have sufficient reserves to repair the body and create a situation where super compensation (or an increase of myofibrils) can occur. Is it all making more sense now? Train to failure (and beyond using forced reps and negatives), use a minimum number of working sets, and allow the body enough time between workouts for both full recovery and super compensation. The minimum number of sets will vary from individual to individual, but most people will require 2-4 working sets for the larger muscles and 1-3 for smaller ones.

Now, it should be rather obvious that if you wish to progress in the bench press, you must perform the bench press. However, to maximize the bench press, assistance exercises are also a good idea. Remember in the first section when you looked at your relative strengths and weaknesses? Pick some exercises that will help to strengthen your weak points. For example, if you have weak triceps, make sure you train your triceps in a high intensity manner. The same would hold true for your deltoids, lats, pecs, and even trapezius. I normally recommend a whole-body concept with regards to weight training, but if you really want to max out your bench, you should minimize your training for any bodypart not directly involved in the bench press. I recommend that you center your training around performing the bench press, your relative weaknesses in muscles directly involved in the bench press, and include squats (1-2 sets only) during the period that you are specializing your training for an increased bench.

There is one more training factor that I need to discuss when we are trying to max out bench press poundages. That is the concept of power. Power equals force times distance over time (P=fd/t). What this translates into is that power equals how quickly you can move the weight. The force in the previous equation, when one is weightlifting, is provided by your muscles. The speed with which you can contract your muscles is dependent on two factors, the amount of fast and intermediate twitch fibers in the muscles involved in the bench press, and neurological factors. All people have three basic fiber types in their muscles. Fast twitch, intermediate twitch, and slow twitch. It is interesting to note that all three fiber types can contract with the same degree of force, the only difference in their output involves how quickly they can contract. The fast and intermediate fibers are both capable of quick contractions, the main difference between the two is that the intermediate fibers are more adaptable, and with training can become greater in endurance capacity than a fast twitch fiber. So, once again, the point is that you cannot train your muscles for endurance if you want maximum power. Science has yet to prove that slow twitch fibers can be converted to fast, so for now, we must assume that we are stuck with whatever mix we have. Something that you have some control over is neurological recruitment of muscles fibers. You can train your nervous system to recruit fibers more rapidly. Now, this is a tricky and potentially dangerous proposition, so remember, it is a component of maximum strength and not the entire pie. So, be careful, and only do it at your own risk. The way that I recommend you train in order to maximize neural recruitment, is to perform your last set of the bench press in the following manner: Take a weight that you can perform 10 repetitions with. Now, lower the weight under complete control to your chest, pause, and then explode the weight up as quickly as possible. Make sure to attempt to push the weight as quickly as you can throughout the entire movement. You will obviously need to slow the movement at the very end in order to not throw the weight out of your hands. This will help to increase your contraction speed, your power, and therefore the total poundage you can lift.

I am sure that a lot of you want for me to recommend an exact number of sets, specific exercises, and frequency of training in this article. I could do that, but if I did, I would be doing you a great disservice. I cannot tell you (unless I personally trained you) what exact rep range etc. is best for you. What I can do, is make you understand some of the basic principles of the body as it relates to strength and training, and then encourage you to experiment for yourself with the above variables and come up with a program that will make you the best bench presser you can be, and possibly, one of the best ever!

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