With the advent of the modern powerlifting era, technique and specialization became the hot topic of gym culture. Where the big lifts were previously just tools, little more than a poorly kept secret for quick size and strength gains, now they were being regarded as skills to be mastered, just like a shot-putter's spin or a gymnast's dismount. Previously, the big lifts took a 'bottom up' approach, where they were trained frequently along with a number of other exercises in the pursuit of some physical quality that they developed. Eventually, if a certain level of development was reached, one could demonstrate their accomplishments with a loaded barbell in front of a crowd.
A generation of eager new powerlifters soon flipped this on its head, starting at the top and prioritizing mastery of the lift first while putting on the back burner the general acquisition of strength and size. In the late 90's early 2000's, bench records were being set left and right, with the 800lb mark falling in 1999 and jumping to over 1,000lbs by 2004!! Non-powerlifters couldn't recognize the difference between a typical gym bench press and the equipped monstrosities that allowed for these numbers. All they knew came from the muscle rags of the day that featured spreads from the strongest benchers in the world promising that 'the key' to handling world record weights was skill and specialization; something the bros would never get.
"As popular as accommodating resistance is in modern strength-culture, it is strangely absent from the training logs of those who occupy the top 10 list."
Green lifters were practicing scapular retraction and high arches before getting their first 45lb plate on the bar. Guys who couldn't do body weight dips were attaching mini bands for their dynamic effort work. Flys, the go-to builder of the pecs, were actually labeled as 'useless' when it came to building the bench!
See, the competitive setup for a bench press, as with all competitive lifts, has one goal in mind: allowing for the most weight to be moved from point A to point B within the confines of the rules. It doesn't care about it's developmental properties, or even about how impressive the feat will actually be to other people. Whether the bar moves a foot and a half or three inches, if it goes from the body to lockout it count towards a total. The new era of specialization prioritized this goal and had more lifters taking the technical nature of the lifts seriously than ever before. Unfortunately, the notes they were taking were from equipped benchers.
Not surprisingly, there was a new problem that arose: the same setup that optimized leverages and ensured maximal poundages with a bench shirt in contest actually didn't create the muscle mass and strength that came with the previous 'non-technical/non-shirted' approaches. In fact, the setup and training that was used in a geared bench press, which supplements the pectorals with a denim or canvas shirt, completely ignored the role of the pecs as a main mover.
Two of the best geared benchers ever, Kennelly and Mendelson, with elbows tucked, bellies high, and a super low bar position.
Since the geared powerlifting movement has diminished in favor of more open access tests of strength, gym culture has gone retro. Lifters are now looking to before the geared era, and the decades of bad advice that came with it, to find how 600lb benches were hoisted before such thing as a supportive shirt existed. When we look at the biggest enequipped bench feats of all time, from Pat Casey's first 600lb bench in 1967 to Eric Spoto's 722 in 2013 (and Sarychev's 738 soon after), we see a different trend. Presses tend to travel through a more complete range of motion. Variations that build the pectorals and bottom-end range are prioritized over pure lockout work. Basic bodybuilding work is plentiful. And reps are done. Reps on reps on reps.
If the goal is to develop impressive bench pressing ability that can be displayed without a myriad of supportive gear, training principles have to reflect that goal. That being said, these are the 4 key principles for building an impressive raw bench.
Full Range of Motion
There are numerous strength programs that will each emphasize the main lifts differently. Some will entirely focus on the contest movement with little room for other exercises, and some will have the contest lift be a small piece of a larger, more complex training program. Westside-style templates, which began as a more specialized style of equipped training, actually dedicate quite a bit of time and energy to accessory work: if 30 working sets were done in the day, only 3-6 of them were done with the main lift or a close conjugate. The rest of the working sets worked to build up other areas that were vital to the movement, but not necessarily developed by the movement.
The range of motion of two overly-techincal bench pressers compared with the range of the best ever (Sarychev and Spoto).
But consider a more purist powerlifting protocol like Shieko. A very high volume of work is done throughout the week almost exclusively in the main lift. What happens when the only volume your upper body gets every week is through a limited range bench press with tucked elbows and a high arch, with no supplementary work to fill in the gaps? The answer is diminished growth. Range of motion is one of the oldest principles regarding growth and, while partials have their place, the framework of a big upper body is not going to be set unless the muscles run through a full stretch/shortening cycle.
Bench pressers of yesteryear typically have a setup that deemphasizes the arch and puts the bar through a substantial range. While, at first glance, this may seem like a big disadvantage when compared to a more technical lifter, the fact is that an entire training life of full range benches has developed more actual physical ability than any technical wizardry can make up for. Simply put, the guys who press the bar more than a few inches with each rep get stronger, and stronger lifters move more weight.
Build the Pecs
Physiologically, it is impossible to move the humerus closer to the mid-line of the body without using the pecs. I don't care what Dave Tate says, pecs in a bench press are like quads in a squat or glutes in a deadlift; if they are underdeveloped, the lift doesn't work.
But don't just take my word for it. Look at the pattern of training that makes up an overwhelming majority of the worlds best raw benchers.
Pat Casey, the first to bench 600lbs, was also known for being able to carry the 200lb dumbbells to the bench, perform a set, and return them without rest.
Bill Kazmaier (661 at SHW) did several different versions of full range bench pressing, all focused on hitting the pecs from multiple different angles. This is an example of his typical bench press day, just one of TWO bench workouts in a single work week.
Jeremy Hoornstra (675 at 266lbs body weight) structures his training off of body part instead of lift, a direct contradiction to modern wisdom regarding specialization. He discusses his twice a week, light/heavy split that is extremely common among top level pressers:
"I have a four-day split that either takes 6 or 8 days to finish based on my work schedule. I have a heavy chest with lots of volumeday, then a heavy leg day, a shoulder, light chest and triceps day, then last is a heavy back day with traps"
Lets not discount the accidental powerlifters, every bodybuilder who achieved a 600lb+ bench by doing more dumbbell work, chest flys, and machine presses than actual flat benching (Coleman, Efferding, Jackson).
The simple fact is it does not matter how strong your lockout power is if you cannot accelerate the bar off of your chest, and this is largely accomplished by the pecs. Any lifter who can blast 99% to lockout only to be pinned at the chest by 101% would immediately benefit from a dramatically increased volume of wide grip, paused, and dumbbell bench presses, along with any number of fly variations.
Big Overhead Press = Big Bench Press
Shoulder pressing accessory work has been deemphasized over the years as a primary accessory exercise for bench pressing. This is odd, considering arched and tucked benches rely more heavily on the front delts than the pecs, since the bar lands further away from the shoulder joint. This makes getting the bar going something like a max effort front delt raise. For whatever reason, front raises became the go-to delt movement and all forms of barbell overhead pressing went on the back-burner. A secret that Strongmen (who prioritize overhead pressing ahead of bench pressing) found out long ago is that bench pressing doesn't do jack for your overhead press, but building your overhead up puts your bench through the roof! Just ask Eddie Hall, who many think could be the next person to own the all-time bench record. Eddie set the all time axle press record by STRICT PRESSING 476lbs overhead.
I can cite the same lifters as before; Kaz, Young, Casey, Hoornstra, all did (or do) regular heavy overhead work. There's even a video of Ed Coan from the 1990's hitting a behind the neck press with 405lbs and Sarychev, currently the best ever, doing seated SMITH presses after benching! The delts provide an essential role in getting the bar going, especially in more technical setups, and nothing builds the delts like a high volume of strict shoulder presses.
Probably the biggest problem that came out of the era of specialized training was the insistence that rep ranges must be specialized as well. Shorter, simple movements like the bench press began to be trained like longer, more complex movements like the clean or snatch. The idea is that by prioritizing heavy rep ranges (90% up) year round, the lifter could stay peaked year round and develop more thoroughly the specific qualities required for maximum performance. The problem is that, like so many other areas related to the bench press, specializing doesn't build other qualities that are necessary for performance. In the bench, size moves weight, plain and simple, and size is built on volume.
The physique of two former world-record holders in the bench press, both built on high reps and multiple sets.
In the same vein as the Kaz, Doug Young (612lb bench press in the 275s) talked openly about bodybuilding accessory work making up a big chunk of his normal routine. This routine is reported to have taken his bench press from 305lbs on January 26, 1973 to 540lbs on October 1, 1973, a period of only 8 months!
Eric Spoto, the first to upset Scot Mendelson's long standing 715lb all-time record, is another twice per week bencher, using this scheme as his main heavy day:
"On Friday the speed part is the bench and close grip bench I tend to lift everything faster than average, but the rest of the exercises are more focused on pump and deep stretch."
This is directly in line with Kaz and Hoornstra's 'light/heavy' approach as well as Leroy Walker's 'high-rep speed work' approach. Walker, best known for a very narrow miss at 700 along with numerous successful attempts in the high 600's, gets most of his work in the form of flat and incline bench pressing. His working sets routinely get as high as 10 on an individual exercise for sets of 10-15 reps with a special emphasis on speed off the chest.
In the short term, a novice/intermediate lifter will grow dramatically when they are introduced to strength phases for the first time. But long term, this training becomes stale and ceases to yield the progress it did in the beginning. Taxing other systems by increasing time under tension, intensifying fatigue, and even building up slow twitch fibers via higher rep training are all viable, if not essential, ways of improving pressing power.
Other considerations must be taken into account when discussing the long term development of a raw bench press. Setup needs to cater to the lifters build and exploit their strengths. Maladies such as muscle tears and joint inflammation must be prevented. Weaknesses that develop over time must be treated and trained on a case-by-case basis. Above all, to build a bench press worthy of recognition, the foundation of your training must be set with sound, simple principles based on growth and physical development.