The Bench Press Wisdom of Ed Coan
35 years later and still using and recommending this bench press template
Gorilla-stance sumo deadlift: Ed Coan (above) at the exact instant of launching a deadlift, note the slight upward bend in the bar. Ed’s shoulders are over the barbell as he breaks an 833-pound barbell from the floor with his (1,000-pound squat) powerhouse legs. His techniques were the result of studied practice and slavish attention to detail.
In my humble opinion, the greatest strength training strategist on the planet is Ed Coan. When I say “strength strategist” a finer point need be put on the definition of strength. Strength has three generalized types. Absolute strength, best exemplified by powerlifting, is maximum payloads pushed or pulled for short distances with no regard for velocity. Explosive strength, best exemplified by Olympic weightlifting, uses moderate payloads that are pulled or pushed for long distance using maximum velocity. Sustained strength, best exemplified by mixed martial arts drills or an extended kettlebell session, uses light payloads that are moved varying distances for extended durations.
Ed Coan is the Grand Maestro of powerlifting and should be considered the final word on absolute strength. His training is simplistic sophistication and if used as intended, never fails to obtain results. Lessons from Ed? Firstly, Ed turned lifting technique into an art form. Even though the squat, bench press, deadlift, are simple mechanical movements, compared to the technical complexities of learning a full squat snatch or the clean and jerk, Coan established strict technical archetypes in each powerlift and sought to adhere to, (and refine) replicate, these signature techniques in every training session.
Another Ed lesson: Ed worked hard as hell in the “off-season,” defined as any time other than the 12-16 weeks leading up to a national or world championships. The better the off-season, he rightly reasoned, the better the in-season. Coan taught us to improve in the off-season, not go on vacation and get lazy and fat. Coan’s off-season philosophy was to get as strong as possible in a wide variety of exercises – without any supportive gear whatsoever, “not even a weight belt.”
He used the off-season to push his “ultra-raw” strength upwards to new levels. Ultra-raw is without any lifting gear, such as a bench shirt, none. Then, when the competitive training cycle began, Ed would slowly, incrementally “add back gear.” First, the powerlifting belt, then knee wraps, then his squat suit with the straps down, Ed saved “straps up” for the competition. This way, adding back a piece of lifting gear “meant something” when reintroduced.
Young Kirk Karwoski adopted this strategy. In 1994 Kirk worked his ‘no gear not-even-a-belt’ squat up to 750x5. The following week he put on his lifting belt and squatted 800x5 weighing 265. Over the next twelve weeks Kirk added knee wraps and a squat suit. He exploded 1,000x2 in training. He broke his own world record in the squat and total at the national championships two weeks after doubling 1,000. Ed taught Kirk to be an off-season ultra-raw advocate.
While Ed Coan’s training mostly centered around the core lifts, squat, bench press, deadlift, and press-behind-the-neck, he routinely performed a wide array of assistance exercises. Ed would take his time working through a long list of exercises in every training session. He practiced what I called a “powerbuilding.” He handled the core four lifts in classic powerlifter fashion, working up to a lone, periodized top set in the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press. He would then proceed to add a wide range of bodybuilding movements done with higher reps and greater “feel.”
His training template and frequency had a lot in common with the way 6-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates was training during his mass-building off-season. In a Muscle & Fitness article I called Yates’ Blood & Guts video the greatest bodybuilding training video of all time and described Yates’ training as “powerlifting with forced reps.” How cool that during the same timeframe the world’s strongest man and the world’s best built man were using training templates that were 90% the same.
Ed Coan’s “assistance work” feats are legendary. He would rep 845 in the no-belt stiff-leg deadlift, Ed would rep rows with 500-pounds, rep pullups with 200-pounds strapped on. Ed had to have two training partners stand on each of his feet to keep him from launching off the ground as he repped the entire stack in the tricep pushdown. He bench-pressed 550 for a touch and go shirtless double. All the feats mentioned were done when Ed weighed 225 or less. He did a press-behind-the-neck with 400x1 and 350x5. Ed deadlifted 900 in competition, this after squatting 955-pounds, a mere 90-minutes earlier, again weighing 219.
He was a training innovator. His approach to bench pressing is still ahead of its time. My mentor, Hugh "Huge" Cassidy first noted, “The best assistance exercise for any exercise is the assistance exercise that most closely resembles the target exercise.” Ergo, the best assistance exercise for the flat bench press is more flat bench presses using different grip widths. I mentored under Hugh for five years. We worked up to a big top set using our “power grip,” touch-and-go style and the two paused “back-off” sets with a (reduced) static poundage. Shoulder pressing and arms, biceps and triceps were always trained in the Cassidy approach.
I had a feeling of déjà vu all over again when I became exposed to Coan’s approach. The way Ed trained, and, as I learned later, the way Dennis Wright and Doug Furnas trained, were remarkably like how Cassidy acolytes trained. Our power tribes had far more similarities than differences: the strength truths discovered were the same when discovered in rodeo country Oklahoma, the southside of Chicago, or rural Maryland. All of us went where results led, and results led all of us to the same absolute strength destinations.
Ed developed a friendship with then rising powerlifting superstar Doug Furnas. Doug mentored under multi-time world champion Dennis Wright. The strength training truisms that Doug had learned from Dennis mostly matched those Coan had arrived at on his own. The two men exchanged training ideas. When I was introduced to the Coan/Furnas approach, I was struck with the similarities with Hugh’s system. The major discrepancy was volume: Cassidy did all the lifts twice a week whereas Coan limited each exercise to once weekly. (Ed would do some light ((for him)) benches later in the week.)
Over the years (decades, actually) our bench press template has morphed slightly from Ed’s original design, due to strength equipment differences and available time constraints. Still, we feel we have stayed true to the strategies that characterize the Coan template. His approach consisted of bench pressing, assistance exercises, and arm work, spread over two training days set at opposite ends of the training week. Our interpretation of the Coan template has some elasticity…
Day 1 - Bench Press
|Competition grip||touch and go (work up to)||one top set||based on periodized schedule|
|Wide grip||paused (no warm-up needed)||one top set||drop 20-30 pounds, rep out*|
|Narrow grip||touch and go style||one top set||drop 20-30 more pounds, rep out|
Day 2 (2-3 days later)
|Press behind neck or incline press||use barbell and barbell/dumbbells for inclines||one top set|
|Biceps||pick a curl type||3-4 sets alternated with triceps|
|Triceps||pick a tricep exercise||3-4 sets alternated with biceps|
*Rep out – push until velocity slows – grinding reps are saved for the final four weeks of a 12-week training cycle. If, by way of example, a lifter was ‘repping out’ 205 in the narrow-grip bench press, the athlete would terminate the ‘rep out’ when the bar speed slowed.
For me, the essence of the Coan approach is the use of the three grip widths, each has a slightly different purpose, muscular impact, and end-result…
- Touch-and-go style: this is an “overload” strategy. Ed works up to a touch-and-go top set, using his strongest grip width. He would hit whatever reps and poundage his periodized schedule called for. Touch and go style, using his strongest grip enabled the use of the heaviest bench press poundage.
- Touch and go bench pressing allows the athlete to bench more in training than in competition, where reps must be paused. Doing more than needed acclimatizes the lifter to the weight and dispels fear.
- Wide grip paused bench press: Ed would drop the poundage (and using a slightly wider grip width) pause for the same number of reps used on the touch-and-go benches. The wide grip paused bench press stresses pectorals to near exclusion and builds “start power” off the chest.
- Wide-grip paused bench presses are dead-stopped on the chest and almost exclusively use pectoral muscles. Mastery builds massive pecs. The wide grip paused rep creates “launch power” off the chest.
- Narrow grip touch-and-go: after touch-and-go power grip and pause benches, Ed reduced the weight again and finished with a set or two of close-grip bench presses using a shoulder-width grip. The narrow-grip bench press stresses the triceps and builds lockout power. Exaggerate the lockout to amplify results.
- Narrow-grip touch and go bench presses build “finish power,” lockout power, and uses triceps to near exclusion. Off the chest is easy. The results lie in attaining a “hard” lockout on every narrow-grip rep.
Two to three days later, Ed would train the seated press-behind-the-neck. He would periodize this lift and felt that by pushing up his PBN his bench press improved. Kirk Karwoski was unable to perform the PBN without discomfort. We substituted the heavy 45-degree barbell incline press for the PBN. Kirk eventually worked his paused incline bench press up to 455x5. His bench press at the time just under 600-pounds. Like Ed, Kirk also worked his arms once weekly. I cannot finish an article on Ed Coan without mentioning his reverence for the 5-rep set. “5s” were the predominate rep range, in-season or out-of-season, Ed felt the 5 was the best combination between low rep power and strength peaking, and higher rep hypertrophy. Not coincidentally, the 5-rep set was favored by Cassidy and Dennis Wright. Kirk turned 5-rep sets into a religion. Great minds think alike.
How does the Coan approach mesh with our ultra-minimalistic low volume approach? Lacking the seated PBN device, our once-a-week strength trainer will commence the workout with the standing overhead front press. We use the same grip width as on our overhead press working up to a top set. The poundage and reps guided by the periodized template. Our once-a-week trainers then strip 20-30 pounds off the barbell and “rep out” in the standing PBN. Onto squat with warmed up shoulders and our lightest lift out of the way.
After squats the lifters will bench press, working up to the periodized top set, touch and go style. They cut 20-30 pounds off the bar and, using the same grip width, rep out, this time pausing every rep. Cut another 20-30 pounds and rep out in the narrow grip bench press. After finishing with deadlifts, our once-a-week lifters will hit 3-4 sets of biceps alternated with triceps. We routinely finish the entire workout in 90-minutes. Done for the week.
One final thought: few folks are aware that at the start of Ed’s career he was bench pressing 500-pounds weighing 180-pounds. At the time the world record was 540. Ed tore a “quarter-size” hole in one pectoral that zapped his strength, insofar as benching. This injury prevented Ed from ever realizing his full bench press potential. Put differently, had Ed Coan not torn that gapping hole in his chest, in addition to a 1,000 pounds squat and a 900-pound deadlift, he would have posted a 625-pound raw bench press – weighing 219. Coan is the undisputed King of absolute strength.
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 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 here.