How to Increase Your Bench Press Without Benching

Let’s say, for instance, that you can bench 250 pounds, but you’ve been stuck at that particular weight since the Bush administration. Your 3-plate goal seems about as likely to be realized as the proverbial pigs are to fly.

How can you fix that?

Lack of progress in any given lift can often be traced back to the existence of protective mechanisms. And this is more common than you’d imagine. Your body will actually make efforts NOT to add load on the bar in order to protect (reckless) you from injury. Your body would rather maintain structural integrity than add plates on the bar.

Overcome Your (Neural) Inhibitions

Would you feel confident driving a Lamborghini at 200 mph knowing it is equipped with the brake system of a Skoda? Probably not.

This is exactly why your body places neural inhibitions into action. It serves the purpose of preserving your joints. If your biceps are too weak to protect your elbow from the blunt force of throwing a powerful punch, then your elbow is in trouble. And the body simply won’t allow that to happen.

This means certain strength ratios need to be maintained between muscles in order to allow optimal performance – this is what I call structural balance.

And I can tell you that throughout my 40+ years in the strength and performance business, I’ve often seen that an athlete’s plateau in strength development can be traced back to a faulty structural balance.

Once balance is re-established, strength levels can “magically” raise again.

Shoulder Press to Improve Your Bench Press

One time at the Arnold Classic, I was having dinner with multiple time world powerlifting champion Ed Coan. I commented on the fact that he had recently made an impressive jump in his bench press performance. When asked what he attributed it to, he replied that he had brought up his press behind the neck. He felt that his “weakness” in the shoulders was inhibiting performance growth in the bench press.

This is EXACTLY it!

Ed Coan is one of the most kinesthetic athletes I know. Actually, he is a genius in that department. He came naturally to the conclusion that he needed to bring up his overhead press to assist the bench.

“I used behind the neck presses. Seated. I felt like it mimicked my triceps and shoulder involvement perfectly. Numbers on the overhead press just went up as my bench did.”

[Watch a young Ed Coan total 1,021kg with a torn bicep here!]

Well, Ed might be kinesthetic, however I have a thing for numbers and I keep detailed training logs for all my clients. Since I have trained a considerable number of elite athletes over the last 4 decades… I’ve put the data to use!

I have established norms that indicate how much an athlete should be able to lift relative to his other lifts if he aims at optimal strength development, longevity and wants to stay away from pain.

Because longevity is, I would argue, one of your biggest assets in the strength game. Building strength is a life-long endeavor. Therefore, injuries and nagging pains are the nemesis of lifters.

Strength Ratios for Bench Press and Overhead Press

As it turns out, shoulder pain and injuries are rampant. And as you might have guessed if you were paying attention, one of the most common problem that causes shoulder pain is faulty structural balance.

Joint alignment can be thrown off if the strength ratio between two muscles is wrong. For example, if the strength ratio between pecs and the external rotators of the humerus (teres minor and infraspinatus), it may cause you to feel a sharp pain in the superior anterior portion of the upper arm.

Also, training only the bench press pathway often causes the subscapularis muscle to shorten and unbalance the shoulder joint.

There are lots of other examples of off-set muscle/strength ratios, of course but explaining them all is beyond the scope of this article.

What is important to know is that, still based on the normative data I have collected over the years, I was able to identify a strong correlation between shoulder pain and lack of overhead strength.

Jake Boly sitting on bench

Training overhead pressing strength can improve your long-term shoulder health.

And the corollary is true as well. Namely that that the ability to perform behind the neck overhead press is sign of a healthy shoulder. Of course, other parameters exist, but overhead press strength is a great predictor.

And for our conversation on the bench press there are two ratios of interest:

1. The ratio between seated dumbbell overhead presses and the bench press.

The weight done for 8 reps on each dumbbell should represent 29% of the close grip bench press measure.

In other words, a man able to close grip bench 100 kg for a single would use a pair or 29 kg for 8 reps in the seated dumbbell overhead presses.

2. The ratio between the behind the neck press and the bench press.

The weight for 1 R.M. press behind neck from a seated position should represent 66% of the weight used for 1 R.M. in the close grip bench press.

Note: That load is done from a dead stop position with the bar resting on the traps, not from a weight handed off in the lock-out position.

Female athlete overhead press

The overhead shoulder press is, sadly, not a popular lift anymore.

It was until the mid-seventies, but then the press was dropped from Olympic competition, and it fell out of favor.

I’d say that ego drove the last nail into the coffin. Overhead press is a challenging lift and you can’t lift as much as with bench press.

If you are not close at all to being able to achieve these ratios. Then it is time to back off the bench presses and specialize on overhead work.

The program outlined here would be perfect.

Jake Boly bench pressing

Improve Your Bench Without Benching in 12 Weeks

Here’s how this works. Build your training around a five-day cycle that looks like this:

  • Day 1 Shoulder/Back
  • Day 2 Legs/Abs
  • Day 3 Off
  • Day 4 Arms
  • Day 5 Off
  • Repeat

You can fill Day 2 and Day 4 with whatever leg/ab and arm exercises you like. We’re just going to tell you what to do on Day 1 for the next 16 cycles, which will wrap up in a little under 12 weeks.

12-Week Specialization Phase

Cycles 1 to 4

A1- Overhead Press Seated Unsupported DB Neutral Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
56-840X090 sec

Note: Increase the amount of resistance by 4 to 5% each workout, while simultaneously reducing the number of reps by one each time.

Cycle 1: 8 reps @ 80 lbs
Cycle 2: 7 reps @ 84 lbs
Cycle 3: 6 reps @ 88 lbs
Cycle 4: 8 reps @ 84 lbs

A2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Mid Supinated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
56-840X090 sec

Note: The chin clears the bar. Notice you don’t have to fake having 14 extra cervical vertebraes to validate the lift.

Cycles 5 to 8

A1- Overhead Press Seated Unsupported Std BB Mid Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
65,5,3,3,2,231X0120 sec

Note: Weight goes up with each double

i.e:

Set 1: 5 [email protected] lbs
Set 2: 5 [email protected] lbs

A2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Pronated Narrow Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
63-540X0120 sec

 

Cycles 9 to 12

A1- Overhead Press Standing Std BB Narrow Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
35 (eccentric)8010120 sec

Note: Place your dominant leg about 10 to 12 inches forward. This diminishes pressure on the lower back compared to standing with your feet-aligned. If your lower back strength is poor you will find it hard to stabilize the trunk during this exercise. If so it might be time to commit some time to lower back work.

A2- Chin-Up Canted Std Bar Pronated Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
3230X1120 sec

B1- Overhead Press Standing Std BB Narrow Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
3340X0120 sec

B2- Chin-Up Canted Std Bar Pronated Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
33-530X0120 sec

Cycle 13

A1- Overhead Press Behind Neck Standing Std BB Mid Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
35×1*40X0120 sec

* Note that these are cluster sets — read more about them here.

A2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Neutral Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
32-44010120 sec

B1- Overhead Press Behind Neck Standing Std BB Mid Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
33-530X0120 sec

B2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Neutral Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
33-530X0120 sec

Cycle 14

A1- Overhead Press Behind Neck Standing Std BB Mid Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
45×1*40X0120 sec

* Cluster sets

A2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Neutral Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
42-44010120 sec

B1- Overhead Press Behind Neck Standing Std BB Mid Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
43-530X0120 sec

B2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Neutral Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
43-530X0120 sec

Cycle 15

A1- Overhead Press Behind Neck Standing Std BB Mid Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
55×1*40X0120 sec

* Cluster sets

A2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Neutral Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
52-44010120 sec

B1- Overhead Press Behind Neck Standing Std BB Mid Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
33-530X0120 sec

B2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Neutral Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
32-44010120 sec

Cycle 16

A1- Overhead Press Behind Neck Standing Std BB Mid Pronated Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
61,1,2,2,3,3*40X0120 sec

**1 [email protected]

2 reps @3-4 RM

3 reps @4-5RM

A2- Chin-up Regular Std Bar Neutral Mid Grip

SETSREPSTEMPOREST
61,1,2,2,3,3*40X0120 sec

Wrapping Up

So, “strength is in numbers” indeed!

If you take the time to test yourself and take the necessary steps to ensure structural balance. Then I guarantee you a long and prosperous lifting life. Injury risk will be dramatically reduced and progress will come easier.

Don’t wait any longer and make the overhead press another weapon in your training arsenal!

Yours in strength,
Charles R. Poliquin

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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