The ‘off season’ is the time for experimenting

Build a stronger bench press! In my world, ‘in-season’ refers to the preparation phase leading up to a powerlifting competition. The ‘off-season’ refers to any time-period that is not in-season. Competitions are report cards, snapshots in time that offer a cold reality check: where exactly are you, insofar as current strengths and capacities? It is one thing to post big lifts in the comfort of your home gym and it is quite another thing to do it in competition, in front of judges that insist on clean, legal lifts.

When lifters are in the deepest part of the off-season, experimentation is the name of the game. In the off season, the idea is to get as far away as possible from the way in which strength was peaked leading up to the competition. In the competition phase, training volume is minimal, training intensity is maximum.  In season, all three lifts are done in the same session, using super-low reps and berserker mental intensity.

In the off-season, new goals need to be conceived of and then set into a timeframe. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once observed, “A goal without a plan is a wish.” The off season is the time to head in the opposite direction, seek to create training contrast. A nutritional element is always incorporated. Food volume and food content are modulated and modified, based on individualized goals: eating and training are always integrated and coordinated.

The first order of business is to establish a realistic off-season goal. A typical goal for a serious off-season weightlifter would be to bring up a lagging lift. The smart lifter initiates a specialization program, one designed to focus and concentrate on a lift in need of help. While the other lifts are not ignored, they are done minimally. The lion’s share of time, energy and effort are devoted to the lagging lift. Contrast is created on a multitude of levels…

  • Instead of all three lifts, stress one lift
  • Increase training volume for the specialized lift
  • Less intensity: volume and intensity are always proportional
  • If choosing to increase the bench press, set a realistic goal
  • Add assistance work: various grip width benches, biceps, triceps

The 10-week emphasis will be on one lift, the barbell bench press. Benching is done once a week. To create contrast, multiple sets of ‘competition grip’ bench presses are done with a static poundage. Each successive week the static set poundage is increased. Wide-grip paused bench presses and narrow-grip touch-and-go bench presses are done after the competition grip static sets.

As my strength mentor once noted, “The best assistance exercises are those that most closely resemble the lift itself.” Ergo, flat benches of various grip widths, or using dumbbells, are the closest to regular flat benching. Arm work is done with an emphasis on the triceps. Additional tricep strength aides in locking out limit bench presses.

10-week Bench Press Specialization Program

Our hypothetical athlete is coming off a successful competition and looking to bring up his lagging bench press. His plan is to add bodyweight, ten pounds in ten weeks, and move up a weight class. Because he will preferentially train his chest, shoulders and arms, most of the new bodyweight will added to his underdeveloped (relatively speaking) upper front torso.

To dramatically increase his bench press, more muscular horsepower is needed. At his height of 5-5 and weighing 165, he has gone about as far as he’s going to go, insofar as natural, raw bench pressing. He’ll likely break the 300-pound bench barrier staying at a 165-pound bodyweight, but that might take five years.

He wants more, and he wants it quicker. He is desirous of becoming larger and more muscular, particularly in his underdeveloped pecs, shoulders and arms. The challenge will be to maintain his current 11% body fat percentile while adding the 10-pounds of new bodyweight in 70-days.

There is no sense adding ten pounds of bodyweight if it is blubber, thanks to poor eating. To maintain leanness while adding size requires the lifter attain the metabolic “sweet spot,” i.e. a perfect balance between eating and exercise that jacks up a lifter’s metabolism and enables him to stay lean while adding bodyweight.

To stay lean while adding size requires the lifter engage in high intensity cardio on a near daily basis. Optimally the cardio is done first thing in the morning, pre-breakfast. Glycogen stores (emulsified carbohydrates) are at their lowest after sleeping for 5-8 hours.  A cardio session done after sleeping burns through residual glycogen. When glycogen is exhausted the body begins burning through it’s second favored fuel: stored body fat.  Morning cardio should be lung-searing, sweaty and intense.

Regular cardio done in the morning will have zero negative effect on progressive resistance training done in that same afternoon or evening. Cardio is combined with “clean” eating.  Pizza, candy, beer, chips, sweets, fast food, industrial food, all are jettisoned. Copious eating of heathy, natural, nutrient-dense power foods is used to create the requisite caloric surplus needed to fuel hypertrophy.

Clean eating, cardio training and a specialization bench press program are combined: the goal is to add 10-pounds of lean muscle mass in ten weeks. If the current 11% body fat percentile is retained, a 40-pound increase in a lifter’s best bench press is realistic. Ten pounds of pure muscle has a profound impact on strength.

10-week bench press cycle

The goal is to push the lifter’s lean bodyweight up from 165 to 175 and simultaneously push the off season (raw) touch-and-go bench press upwards to 320-pounds

Power-grip bench        wide-grip         narrow-grip     body #

Week 1 (after 3-4 warmup sets)         220 for 3 sets of 5       195 to failure   175 to failure   166

Week 2                                                230 x 3 x 5                  205                  185                  167

Week 3                                                240 x 3 x 5                  215                  195                  168

Week 4                                                250 x 3 x 3                  225                  205                  169

Week 5                                                260 x 3 x 3                  235                  215                  170

Week 6                                                270 x 3 x 3                  245                  225                  171

Week 7                                                285 x 2 x 2                  255                  235                  172

Week 8                                                295 x 2 x 2                  265                  245                  173

Week 9                                                310 x 1 x 2                  275                  255                  174

Week 10                                              320 x 1 x 1                  285                  265                  175

Bench press    power grip       after warm-up sets, three sets of 5 reps (initially)

Bench press    wide-grip        reduce poundage, one set to failure

Bench press     narrow-grip     reduce poundage, one set to failure

Triceps                        single-dumbbell overhead tri press, dips or lying nose-breakers

Biceps             curls of various types

Details: every Sunday our hypothetical lifter comes in and begins warming up for the touch and go bench press. After 3-4 warm-up sets, he ties into the session’s meat-and-potatoes: three sets of five reps. Our “jump in weight” is 220-pounds is a walk in the park for a man that benched 280 in competition.

After three sets of power grip benches with a static weight, the poundage is dropped, the grip width is widened (two inches per side) and the reps are paused. Drop the poundage roughly 10% and “rep out,” perform paused reps until you cannot perform another rep. No need for a warm-up set. Wide grip benches with a pause build bench press “start” power, the explosion off the chest.

After a single rep-out set of wide-grip bench presses, perform one set of narrow-grip touch-and-go style bench press. The grip width for narrow-grip benches is shoulder width. Do not have the hands too close together. These touch-and-go reps require a hard lockout on every rep. narrow grip bench presses done without a pause build lockout power. The lockout is emphasized.

Note: in our lexicon, ‘go to failure’ does not mean to fail with a rep; it means rep until you know you cannot do another rep. No need to eat a rep, just know that the next rep would fail. More accurately, this strategy is ‘failure minus one rep.’

Every Friday morning our hypothetical lifter has his official weigh-in for the week. It is his duty to eat enough and supplement enough to make sure the weekly one -pound weight gain occurs. If the cardio is intense and consistent and the diet made up of quality natural calories and potent supplements, weight gain will be lean muscle, not laden with body fat. The body# column is logged each Friday. This weight listed in the column is the bodyweight goal for the week. We could have added a cardio column, had space allowed.

The usual course of action after a successful bench specialization phase, is to switch to a leg or back specialization phase.  There is great logic to the idea of rotating specialization routines on a regularly reoccurring basis in the off-season. This is an ultra-basic Periodized approach and has been used by strength athletes for decades.

The overarching idea is simple: take performance and physique to the next level. Center your weight training and eating towards improving a specific lift.  Done in conjunction with a highly regulated eating and high intensity cardio regimen and stay lean while adding size. Handled just right the payoff is huge: increased lean muscle mass and a monster bench press. But that means no bobbles, mulligans, false starts or falling off the wagon.  At the end of ten weeks, 70 days, your body is magnificently reconfigured.  A goal without a plan is a wish. Figure out your goal, we’ve just shown you how to plan. Why not lock down something significant for 2018?

About the Author
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 numerous 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 here.