Q: I’m a bodybuilder first, having trained hard for three years, but I still want a big bench. Can you give me a few months of bench-press specialization workouts that won’t compromise my size?
A: I am all for bodybuilders getting strong. Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger were as strong as they looked, and other superstars such as Sergio Oliva, Bill Pearl, and John Grimek could really move the iron. On the other hand, I have personally witnessed three Mr. Olympia winners who could not bench press 315 pounds for more than six reps in the off-season. Likewise, Mike McDonald, a powerlifter who broke world records in the bench press in four different body-weight classes, did not possess the upper-body development that would standout at any physique competition at any level.
The concept of specificity states that the best way to train for maximal strength is not necessarily the best way to train for maximal hypertrophy. Having said that, if you use only higher-rep protocols, you are limiting your total muscle development potential because you will not be increasing the size of the fast-twitch, type IIb fibers. At the very least, going on an occasional strength cycle will interject variety into your workouts to help you avoid training slumps.
The three-month upper body workout I’m about to share with you will help you get your bench up, along with packing on some size to your chest, shoulders, and upper back. Perform each of these workouts once every five days for a total of six workouts. So, you’ll perform six workouts from Phase 1, then six workouts from Phase 2, and finish with six workouts from Phase 3. Each workout builds upon earlier workouts, so it’s important to perform them in this order.
A1 Seated DB Press, 4 sets x 6–8 reps, rest 90 seconds
A2 Subscapularis Pullup, 4 x 6–8, rest 90 seconds
B1 Flat Bench Unrolling Flye, 3 x 8–10, rest 75 seconds
B2 Elbow-Out One-arm DB Row, 3 x 8–10, rest 75 seconds
C1 Elbow-on-knee DB External Rotation, 3 x 10–12, rest 60 seconds
C2 Prone Trap-3 Raise, 3 x 10–12, rest 60 seconds
This may seem like an odd workout to improve your bench press because there are no bench presses in it! Its primary purpose is to create structural balance. If all your muscles are not in balance, the opposing muscles (antagonists) could shut down. That’s why a trainee who has an extreme case of structural imbalance but corrects it could increase their bench press without performing any bench presses!
One exercise I need to spotlight here is the subscapularis pullup, because I seldom see it performed correctly. In this variation of the pullup, assume the starting position of the wide-grip pullup and pull yourself to the bar until your upper pecs make contact with the chinup bar. At that point, you push yourself away from the bar, lowering yourself under control. It’s challenging, but when performed properly it is unquestionably one of the most effective upper-back exercises you can add to your training toolbox.