Powerlifter Big Jim Williams bench press assistance work article by Marty Gallagher

Bench Press Assistance Work

“The best assistance exercise is the one that most closely resembles the exercise itself.”
Hugh Cassidy

Jim Williams was the greatest bench presser in the world. His unofficial 720-pound raw bench press in 1971 was 100-pounds ahead of the rest of the world. Never has a bench presser been further ahead of his competition. Williams loved to bench press and would often bench four times a week – super heavy, low reps. He was a monstrous man 6-3 and 370-pounds. He benched strict: no tricks or gimmicks all pec-shoulder-triceps. Note lack of leg tension as he blasts 675 to arms-length.

Up until the mid-1960’s, the overhead press was the benchmark for upper body strength. The bench press supplanted the (clean and) overhead press starting in the late sixties. Hard as it is to believe, weight benches with upright supports were rare before 1970. The bench with uprights began appearing regularly in the early 1970s.

The rise of bodybuilding was critical to bench press popularity. With all its umpteen variations, the bench press became the most practiced and celebrated of all bodybuilding exercises. Chest and arms have always been the most coveted and trained of bodybuilding body parts. No one wanted to look like an American Olympic weightlifter, they wanted to look like Arnold hitting his ungodly side-chest pose.

The overhead press was the strength benchmark for fifty years. It was finally and irrevocably dethroned by the bench press for several justifiable reasons: cleaning a weight from the floor to the shoulders proved problematic. The requisite clean made the overhead press a two-part exercise. Many a good presser was limited by how much they could clean. Strength that could have been used for pressing was sapped and zapped by a heavy, tough clean. A clean “pre-fatigued” pressing power.

The final nail in the overhead press coffin came in 1972 when the press was unceremoniously dropped as one of the three Olympic lifts. The clean and overhead press became passe. Pressing out of the power racks, seated pressing, dumbbell pressing, pressing behind the neck, were all retained as the core shoulder exercises. Overhead pressing took a back seat to bench pressing as the premier upper body exercise.

Flat bench pressing, and chest work, became preeminent – the favorite exercise was used to work the favorite body part. The bench press quickly became the single most popular progressive resistance exercise in the world. Improving the bench press has become a small cottage industry. Experts inform us as to how best to improve bench press performance, thereby increasing the muscle size of upper and lower pectorals, front and side deltoids, triceps, and even lats (to a lesser degree – stimulated with the “braking” action triggered with the controlled lowering of the barbell.)

The rise in popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, in both bodybuilding and film, created a chest-training craze. Arnold’s pec development was as freaky good as his famous peaked biceps. As clever critics have noted, Arnold built all his gargantuan size by age 21, this through powerlifting (Austrian Champion) and power eating. Arnold created the giant chunk of muscle, flesh, and fat early on. Over time, he whittled down into the hard, fat-free Farnese Hercules of bodybuilding and film fame. All of which he built with barbells and dumbbells.

Resistance machines came into widespread use in the late 1970s. Many mimicked the bench press. Resistance bench press machines cannot improve the free-weight bench press. It is a physiological impossibility for a variety of reasons.

Over time, resistance machines have become increasingly more sophisticated and complex. Machines took the awkwardness and instability out of resistance training. Resistance machines enable the bencher to sit upright on a plush seat, pushing handles along a ball-bearing smooth pathway. A bench press machine makes benching comfortable, easy, and fun.

However, comfort, ease, and fun are factually detrimental in resistance training. The goal should not be to make resistance training easier; machines lessen the resistance in resistance training. When it comes to stimulating muscle fiber, awkwardness and instability force muscle stabilizers to fire.

Machine pathways are frozen and allow muscle stabilizers to lie dormant. Less than optimal if the goal is maximum muscle fiber stimulation and growth. The crudeness of wrestling with a barbell, or pair of dumbbells, makes them physiologically superior to the ball-bearing smooth plushness of pushing a modern resistance training chest press device. How best to improve the bench press?

  • Develop a more efficient technique: bodybuilders bench press to stimulate muscle tissue whereas powerlifters develop efficient bench techniques to push up more poundage. Classically, bodybuilders purposefully “flair” their elbows to “isolate the pecs.” Powerlifters will tuck their elbows in as they lower and push. In order to push more weight, the elbows are tucked, this technique allows the lats, front delts, and triceps to aid the effort. While isolating pec muscles is admirable, flared-benching compromises poundage handling ability to an unacceptable degree. Want a bigger bench? Want bigger chest, tricep and shoulder muscles? Bench press more poundage! Better 250 for 5-reps, tucked elbow style, then 185 for 5 sets of 10-reps, flared elbow style.

  • Reduce frequency and volume: most serious bodybuilders will bench press 2-3 times per week. Most elite powerlifters bench press one time per week. At his peak, Schwarzenegger worked his chest three times a week hitting five different chest exercises, 5-6 sets each, a total 75 sets per week for chest alone. By comparison, a world record bench presser will perform less than 20 sets of benching per week. A strong case could be made that to build a bigger bench press, bench press less! To bench bigger, cut back on the frequency and volume, slash the reps, increase the poundage.

  • Expand flat bench repertoire: according to strength grand maestro Hugh Cassidy, the best assistance exercise is the one that most closely resembles the lift itself: therefore, the best flat bench assistance work would be more flat benching using different grip widths. If the bench presser’s strongest grip width is 26-inches between the forefingers, benching with a wider and narrower grip is the surest way to bump up the bench press. There is no better bench press assistance exercises than wide-grip paused benches and narrow-grip touch-and-go bench presses. These core bench assistance exercises are usually done after the competition grip touch-and-go stye or competition grip paused-rep sets are completed.

  • Next best – incline benching: a long list of uber-elite bench pressers swear that the incline bench press is the very best bench press assistance exercise. 600-pound raw bench presser, Kirk Karwoski would bench press heavy and hit a heavy incline bench press session a few days later, Karwoski worked up to 445 x 5 without really psyching or getting excited. Monster bencher (633x2 raw) and master technician Ken Fantano favored heavy incline pressing with dumbbells 2-3 days after bench pressing on Sunday. Ken considered the bench press a “technique lift.” Two-200-pound dumbbells pushed for six reps in the paused DB inline press “give me the contraction I am looking for.” Bench God Pat Casey loved DB inclines, he also handled 200-pound dumbbells for reps.

  • Shoulder pressing: an army of elite benchers eschew the 45-degree incline press in favor of overhead pressing. Either the barbell or dumbbells, seated or standing. Amongst elite benchers the seated press-behind-the-neck is extremely popular. This exercise is done on a special bench that allows the spotter to step up and provide both a lift-off and spot to the seated athlete. Ed Coan and Joe Ladiner both were able to bench press 600-raw and both were able to perform 400-pound single reps in the press behind the neck weighing less than 230. Coan did an unbelievable 350x5 weighing 218. The premise is that by pushing up the seated or standing overhead press, using barbell or dumbbells, or by pushing up the PBN upward, the bench press automatically goes up. Increase a variation of the overhead press and increase the bench press.

  • Tricep work: increasing tricep strength pushes up bench press performance. Classically, historically, triceps are trained after bench pressing. In a classic power training routine, after blasting the bench press and all the bench grip width variants, the lifter segues right into triceps. The favored tricep exercises for building a bigger bench press? The top-rated tricep exercises would include narrow-grip touch-and-go bench press, weighted dips, narrow-grip “nose-breakers,” and single-dumbbell overhead tricep extensions. The big benchers don’t spend too much time on tricep kickback or reverse-grip pushdowns.

  • Gain bodyweight: one inconvenient truth is that one surefire way to increase the bench press is to latch onto an Old School bench press training routine and couple it with a determined effort to add bodyweight. As Zen lifting master Cassidy advised, “Eat your way through sticking points.” If you have been stuck bench pressing 300-pounds weighing 200, push your bodyweight to 210 and bench press 330. The bench press is a leverage lift: the thicker and fuller and man is the better his bench press leverages. One surefire way to improve leverage is to systematically push bodyweight upward. The quality of the bodyweight added is dependent on the quality of the food-fuel: low-grade fuel, low-grade results.

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About the Author - Marty Gallagher
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher Biography for a more in depth look at his credentials as an athlete, coach and writer.