Building the Bench Press – Westside Barbell Style
Westside Barbell is the strongest gym in the world.
A quick review of their gym stats will tell you all you need to know; these men and women have the art of strength down to a science and are quite simply the best at what they do.
Having been fortunate enough to train with and become certified under Louie, I’ve experienced Westside’s system first-hand and truly want to provide everything I’ve learned in the simplest and most accessible form possible. Through writing numerous articles covering Westside Barbell and their methods I hope each and every individual can learn from and incorporate this information into their training in order to reach their ultimate goals in a safe and effective manner.
However, before I begin I need to make something abundantly clear:
Many people seem to mistakenly equate an “effective” method with an “easy” method. In the hope of satisfying their desire for the ultimate quick-fix they assume the best system must be the easiest system.
Do not fall into this trap. It is an awful train of thought and will eventually lead you to failure.
The Westside Barbell Conjugate System is one of the most efficient and effective methods you can employ in order to achieve your true potential in all things pertaining to strength. That being said, do not expect the training to be effortless, easy, or pain free.
Those who make this mistake are in for quite the rude awakening.
As I’ve heard Louie assert on countless occasions: “To Master Kung Fu, the training must be severe.”
If you’re willing, ready, and have the desire to put in the time, effort, and dedication to do what is necessary to realize your objectives then you’ve come to the right place.
If not…perhaps this website would be more to your liking.
Enough fluff-talk; it’s time to Build the Bench Press – Westside Barbell Style.
1) Incorporate The Maximal Effort Method
Seemingly every day I am accosted by one or more individuals and asked, “Jordan, I think I’ve hit a plateau, bro! When I first started training my bench skyrocketed but it hasn’t improved in months. I’ve been thinking about going on some Whey Protein but I don’t want people to think I’m on steroids, ya know? What should I do?!?”
Once my ears have stopped bleeding profusely I’ll ask them numerous questions regarding their current routine, only to find out that they don’t have one and rarely, if ever, lift heavy.
Now that’s what I call a recipe for success!
The Maximal Effort Method is defined as “lifting a maximal load against maximal resistance.” Of specific interest to us, the Maximal Effort Method is “considered superior for improving both intramuscular and intermuscular coordination and should be used to bring forth the greatest strength increments. (Zatsiorsky, 1995)
Considering I have extensively covered the Maximal Effort Method here and here, I’m not going to discuss it in any great detail in this article. However, I will briefly outline what I consider to be the most crucial aspects of successfully incorporating this method:
- Devote 1 day per week to working up to a 1-3 repetition maximum (RM) in a bench press variation (i.e. 1/2/3 Board Press, Floor Press, Incline/Decline Press, Close Grip Press, Fat Grip, etc)
- Wait a MINIMUM of 4-6 weeks before repeating a variation. When you eventually repeat a variation, make the appropriate jumps that will aid you in beating your previous record by 5-10lbs
- After working up to a 1-3RM, train your triceps, back, shoulders, and abs.
- Finish your workout within 60-70 minutes.
- After using this method, wait 72 hours before training the same major muscle groups again.
Lesson: Work up to a 1-3RM in a variation of the bench press every single week
2) Incorporate The Dynamic Effort Method
Above I told you that in order to bench big weights you need to lift heavy.
Well, now I’m going to go completely against what I just advised and tell you to devote a separate training session to using weights of roughly 50% 1RM.
The Dynamic Effort Method is defined as “Lifting (throwing) a non-maximal weight with the highest attainable speed.” (Zatsiorsky, 1995)
Basically, through properly incorporating the Dynamic Effort Method, one can drastically improve their rate of force development (RFD) and explosive strength, avoid the formation of a speed barrier and suffering the Law of Accommodation, and sufficiently recover from a maximal effort workout.
For a detailed description of how to incorporate the Dynamic Effort Method I suggest you follow this link. Below I will provide a brief explanation of what I consider to be the most important components of this method:
- Devote 1 day per week to bench pressing using the Dynamic Effort Method
- Use the same bench press variation for 3 weeks and then switch to something completely different
- Make use of ultra-close, close, and standard grips
- Perform roughly 9 x 3 repetitions using ~50% 1RM moving the bar as fast as possible
- Keep rest periods to a maximum of 60 seconds between sets
- Following the main move, train your triceps, back, shoulders, and abs
- Finish your workout within 60-70 minutes.
- After using this method, wait 72 hours before training the same major muscle groups
Lesson: Learn how to apply maximal force with sub-maximal resistance through the use of the Dynamic Effort Method
3) Incorporate The Repetition Method
You should have noticed that under the Maximal Effort Method and the Dynamic Effort Method I specifically advised training the triceps, back, shoulders, and abs. This “accessory work” is of the utmost importance when training to improve one’s bench press and is the perfect time to make use of the Repetition Method.
The Repetition Method can be used for improving “size, strength-endurance, and restoration.” (Simmons) At Westside, lifters are constantly training to improve their work-capacity and break records, even in the non-classical lifts. Through consistently developing and progressing in their accessory work they ensure their continued success as the strongest lifters in the world.
Below are some guidelines to follow while incorporating the Repetition Method:
- Train your weaknesses! If you need to gain size, use higher repetitions; if your rear-delts are weak, train them hard! No trainees are the same and therefore should not be training exactly the same way.
- Constantly aim to improve. Whether it’s with more weight, more time under tension (TUT), a greater range of motion (ROM), more repetitions, or a separate means of progression is irrelevant. If you want to get stronger you need to improve in everything!
- Rotate your assistance exercises at least once every 3 weeks. Personally, I rarely perform the same movements more than 2 weeks in a row. In doing this you can avoid the Law of Accommodation while continually improving work-capacity, strength-endurance, and training your weaknesses
- Don’t be afraid of training to failure! Many people in this industry depict training to failure as a horrible and unproductive method. Interestingly, the best benchers in the world do it at least four times per week. Hmmm….
- Make use of movements such as: dumbbell presses, tricep extensions, dips, rows, lat pull downs, chins, shoulder raises (front, lateral, rear), ab roll outs, leg raises, standing crunches, and any other exercises which target the major muscle groups used in the bench press.
Lesson: Train your specific weaknesses using the repetition method following the main move of every day
4) Stop Focusing On Your Pecs
The myth that a big bench press is the product of bigger and stronger pecs is one of the most ignorant and ill-advised recommendations within this industry. If anyone ever tells you the key to a bigger bench press is to train your pecs, I strongly encourage you to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.
Question: If your pecs aren’t the key to a big bench press, what is?
Answer: Strong triceps (specifically around the elbow), mid/upper back and lats, shoulders, and abs. You need a strong lower-body too, but that’s a topic for another day.
Here are a several of my favorite exercises for each of these individual body parts:
- Triceps: Dips, Skull Crushers (elbows out and bar to the neck), all forms of tricep extensions (band, cable, dumbbell, barbell, etc.), pushups.
- Back: T-Bar Rows, Cable Rows, Dumbbell Rows, Kroc Rows, Scapular Retraction Rows, Lat Pull Down (all grips), Chins, Shrugs (all variations), Rear Delt Raises. Bilateral and unilateral for all exercises
- Shoulders: All variations of front, lateral, and side raises (band, cable, dumbbell, plate, etc), overhead press variations.
- Abs: Leg Raises, Wheel Rollouts, Standing Cable Crunches, Decline Sit-Ups, Standing Oblique Crunches.
Lesson: Train your triceps, back, shoulders, and abs hard after the main move of every [bench] day.
5) Keep Your Upper Back Tight/Shoulders Down and Back
All too often I see people flopped onto the bench, back totally loose, shoulder blades on either side of the bench, and shoulders rotating forward every time they push the barbell back up.
What does this mean? Well, if you continue benching like this (i.e. like most people) you will never come close to your true potential and you will almost certainly end up with a serious injury.
This is how we fix it: Sitting in your chair right now I want you to put your arms out in front of you as though you were about to bench press. Now, with your arms straight and your chest tall I want you to shove your shoulders down and away from your ears. Once you’ve done that try squeezing your upper back together as tight as possible.
Feel that? That’s exactly what your back should feel like throughout the entire movement. By keeping your back tight and your shoulders down and away from your ears you will:
- Limit shoulder rotation, thus keeping your shoulders in a safer position
- Create a larger and more stable platform on the bench, consequently reducing the total ROM
- Bench more weight. Yayyyyy!
Lesson: Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears while keeping your upper back as tight as possible
6) Push Yourself Away From the Bar
Understandably so, most trainees tend to view the bench press as an exercise in which they should push the bar away from themselves.
However, I have found that not only do individuals immediately bench press more weight, but their form and technique drastically improves upon trying to visualize pushing themselves away from the bar and into the bench.
To be honest, I’m not sure why this works so well, but I can truthfully say that this cue is by far the simplest and most effective visualization technique I have used with myself and my clients
Lesson: Visualize pushing yourself away from the bar and into the bench, opposed to pushing the bar away from you
7) Keep The Bar Directly Over Your Wrists and Elbows
This is perhaps the most obvious error made by the majority of trainees while benching, but most don’t realize it until it has specifically been brought to their attention.
The next time you’re in the gym I want you to analyze everyone’s bench press and take note of where the bar is in relation to their wrists and elbows. I guarantee you’ll inevitably see the majority of people trying to bench with the bar travelling towards their face, their wrists bent, and their elbows somewhat pointing to the wall in front of them.
In essence it will resemble a pseudo tricep extension.
Needless to say, this is an obvious mechanical disadvantage. So how do we fix this?
- Follow the directions layed out in number 5
- Grip the bar as tight as possible
- Keep your wrists locked out and straight during the entire movement
- Tuck your elbows
- Have a spotter watch from the side and tell you when the bar, your wrists, and elbows are all in one line
Lesson: Keep the bar in line with your wrists and elbows throughout the entire movement
8) Drive Your Heels into the Ground
Another name I use for National Bench Press Day (i.e. Monday in every gym across America) is Happy Feet Day.
For some reason, most people who don’t know how to bench press properly will either perform some sort of “happy feet” dance or put their feet on top of the bench during the movement.
I beg you…please do not do this.
One of the most crucial components of a strong bench is learning how to stay tight. But how can you stay tight if your feet are performing their own personal rendition of the Cha Cha Slide?
There are many ways to set up your feet during the bench press.
Some individuals put them very close together and directly beneath their butt:
while others spread them out as wide and far apart as possible:
Where you decide to place your feet is highly individual and ultimately depends on what works best for you.
However, the one common denominator regarding foot placement and the best benchers in the world is that they are all driving through their heels as hard as they possibly can.
By creating an enormous amount of pressure and driving through your heels throughout the entire movement you can produce an incredible amount of total body tension, thus making your body a strong and stable surface off of which you will be able to press an extraordinary amount of weight.
Lesson: Drive through your heels and stay as tight as possible throughout the entire movement.
It’s no coincidence that Westside Barbell is home to the strongest men and women in the world.
Despite being an absolute genius and creating The Westside Barbell Conjugate Method, perhaps Louie’s most incredible trait is that he will never be satisfied with his current level of knowledge and will always be searching for a better and more efficient way to train.
While I hope you learned a lot in this article and will be able to see a positive change in your bench press, I sincerely want to stress the importance of considering yourself a life-long student.
To quote Louie directly, “Just when you think you’ve got all the answers, you need to change all the questions.”
Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.