Starting Conjugate: Building the Raw Bench Press
Developing upper body strength is critical to the success of any athlete. The chest, back, arms, and shoulders play a tremendous role in many sports, especially in raw powerlifting. For an athlete to maximize their success as a raw powerlifter, the athlete must possess a strong bench press. With the totals you see in raw powerlifting today, failing to train the bench press properly will leave you short of your competitive goals.
At Westside, we have successfully built the raw and geared bench press for over 40 years. Lou was a master at building the bench press, having coached multiple 600lb+ raw bench pressers and too many 500lb+ raw bench pressers to count. When it came to the raw or geared bench press, Lou could always assess an athlete and quickly devise a plan to help them begin achieving their training goals.
A common misconception about Westside Barbell is that the training is 100% gear-focused. This is not true. When it came to geared lifters, Lou insisted that they train to become as strong as possible, raw and in gear. His mindset was that improving raw bench press strength and muscle mass would only help improve the shirted bench press. The success Lou had developing geared bench pressers proves that theory correct.
Westside Barbell bench press training aims to develop all aspects of the bench press fully. This includes absolute strength, explosive power, upper body muscle mass, and technique. We achieve this by instituting a variety of main and accessory exercises and training at various intensities, velocities, and volume levels.
Here is how we build the raw bench press at Westside Barbell:
Find the Weak Link
When evaluating the raw bench press, we will assess an athlete's max effort strength, accessory exercise strength and work capacity, and overall technical ability. This is important to allow us to get a clear picture of what the athlete is capable of and what issues the athlete may be currently dealing with that have not already been recognized.
To evaluate max effort strength, we will have the athlete work up to 85-95% and note which parts of the lift or muscle groups begin to struggle as training intensity rises. We will select different upper-body exercises to train and test all upper-body muscle groups involved in the bench press to evaluate accessory exercise strength and work capacity.
While this training occurs, we will keep an eye on each exercise to look for issues with technical execution in both the main and accessory exercises. Once finished with each assessment, we can begin constructing a worthwhile training program tuned for the individual athlete to allow immediate improvements in raw bench press strength and ability.
This training plan will include standard bench press and accessory exercises to maintain and build current bench press strength and skill, along with specifically selected exercises to address the weaknesses and issues currently holding the athlete back from improvement. A weakness in a lift is water leaking into the boat of strength. To be your strongest, you must identify and attack weaknesses regularly.
Don't be arrogant and think you have no current weaknesses. We all have weaknesses that need to be addressed to allow our lifts to improve.
Building the Chest and Anterior/Medial Deltoids
The first aspect of building a strong raw bench press is to improve the strength and mass of the chest and anterior shoulders. By improving the strength and size of the chest and shoulders, we can improve the amount of force we can apply to the barbell while reducing the overall range of motion of the competition bench press. This is a win-win situation.
Also, building the chest and shoulders helps prevent injury during the raw bench press. These muscle groups play a tremendous role in the bench press's eccentric and concentric portions. Failure to properly train the chest and anterior shoulders can result in a torn pec or injured shoulders.
When training the raw bench, many of our main exercise variations will be full range of motion pressing exercises to allow for the chest and shoulders to be properly trained. At the same time, some movements will feature a reduced range of motion to target specific joint angles. This will include exercises such as the bench press (various specialty barbells), incline bench press, close-grip bench press, pin press, board press, Spoto press, and floor press.
Our accessory exercise selections will aim to improve all involved muscle groups' strength, muscle mass, and work capacity. We will select exercises such as the flat and incline dumbbell bench press, standing chest press, dumbbell floor press, push-ups, overhead press, landmine press, dumbbell lateral raise, dumbbell front raise, and dips. Athletes will perform these exercises for 3-5 sets of 8-10, 10-15, or 15-20 repetitions.
Building the Arms
The next aspect of the bench press we focus on is the arms. The triceps, biceps, and forearms play a critical role in the raw and geared bench press. As you likely know, we place significant focus on the triceps. However, we also understand the importance of strong biceps and forearms. While strong triceps are essential to extend the elbow through the press, the biceps and forearms must also be strong enough to assist.
Aside from helping to control and apply force during both the eccentric and concentric portions of the bench press, the biceps and forearms also affect the quality of the grip you can apply to the barbell. A stronger grip leads to improved control and technique and a stronger bench press.
While our main exercise pressing helps to build the arms, our arm-specific training occurs during the accessory exercise portion of the training day. At Westside, much of our accessory work is similar to bodybuilding training, so many of the tricep, bicep, and forearm exercises bodybuilders use to improve mass, we use to improve strength and mass. It is just a matter of adjusted volume and intensity.
We go with movements such as rolling dumbbell tricep extensions, Williams extensions, skull crushers, press downs, and dips for triceps. We will select exercises such as dumbbell curls, hammer curls, cable curls, or preacher curls to train the biceps. Forearm training will include wrist curl using a dumbbell or band, reverse barbell curl, or Zottman curl. Athletes can perform these exercises for 3-5 sets for 8-10, 10-15, or 15-20 reps.
Additionally, we will perform heavy accessory work to improve tricep strength, using exercises such as the close-grip bench press, JM press, board press, pin press, or floor press. Considering the focus is on improving strength, we will perform these exercises for 3-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions, typically performed as a primary accessory exercise.
Building the Back and Rear Deltoids
The final aspect of the bench press we focus on is the back and posterior shoulders. In the bench press, much of the stability an athlete can maintain during the liftoff, eccentric, and concentric portion of the lift is affected by the strength of the mid/upper back and the posterior shoulders. Additionally, these muscle groups play a role throughout the entire bench press, helping to get the bar moving, keep the bar moving, and lock the bar out.
At Westside, we dedicate a significant amount of our accessory exercise training to developing the strength and muscle mass of the upper, mid, and lower back. Whether it is an upper or lower-body training day, we will probably include at least one back-specific exercise during the training day. However, we increase the focus on the mid and upper back on upper body training days.
We will utilize exercises such as barbell rows, dumbbell rows, lat pulldowns (various attachments), chest-supported rows, upright rows, shrugs, and pull-ups to effectively train the mid and upper back during upper body training days. Additionally, we will include exercises such as Y raises, rear delt flys, face pulls, reverse pec deck, and banded pull-aparts to target the posterior shoulders.
Each of these exercises will be performed for 3-5 sets of 8-10, 10-15, or 15-20 repetitions. Typically, the back exercises will be performed at lower rep counts with the intensity turned up a bit, while rear delt-focused exercises will be performed for 12-15 or 15-20 repetitions.
The Westside Way
The Conjugate method provides a strength coach with many ways to develop an athlete's absolute strength, explosive power, speed, work capacity, and durability. Whether you apply the methods to powerlifting and focus on the squat, bench, and deadlift, or you use the methods to train an athlete for sport, the result will be the same - success.
Our training methods are well thought out, with Lou leaving no stone unturned. His goal was to develop a training system that could address all aspects of strength and athleticism, which the Conjugate Method has achieved. The success Westside Barbell has had with developing the bench press is undeniable. From shirted bench pressers in the 900-1000lb range to raw bench pressers in the 500-600lb range, Lou's training methods have created some of the strongest bench pressers in the world.
Applying the Westside Barbell training methods to your raw bench press training will be one of the most beneficial choices you will ever make for your powerlifting career. If you are a lifter who has struggled with a weak or stagnant bench press, our training methods will help get you back on track and making gains.
Don't let anyone fool you; the Westside Barbell Way is the best way to train.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics