One of the most horrifying trends in powerlifting in the modern era is the tendency for most lifters to adopt the program du jour and then proceed to suck at lifting along with every other weak sauce candy ass blindly performing the reps and sets outlined therein. Conscious thought among the average lift in powerlifting is completely dead, and it’s been replaced by dogmatism reinforced by scientific jargon that ultimately is as meaningless as the unused piece of flesh dangling between the knees of the male segment of those automatons. Anecdotal evidence has become passe, and they’ll only do it if there exists a spate of peer-reviewed studies claiming that untrained lifters get some benefit out of whatever mysteries are contained within.
In short, most modern lifters are little more than robots with access to the modern internet but only outfitted with the hard drives and processors of Apple IIes, so their capabilities are limited to the first 256kb they could download. They’re illiterate mongoloid children in search of the meaning of life inside the Library of Congress and insisting that the meaning for which they were searching is contained inside the only book they were actually able to somewhat read. They’re cripples, and someone needs to smack them in the face with a set of goddamned crutches. Luckily, I happen to have a pair handy.
Dogmatism about training methods and aversion to anecdotal evidence in training are about as sensible as booking a flight over the Ukraine. Thus, I thought it prudent to dig up a couple of lifting routines from lifters who managed to press 500 or more in ultra-strict form, just to give everyone an idea of how disparate methods could be to achieve the same lofty goal. Notice, this is not an article about how a couple of choads cracked the 300 barriers, because frankly no one should really give a crap about that for more than a day or two. 400 is, of course, an incredibly elusive number for a lot of lifters, but 500 is really the number where jaws start to drop- 5 wheels clanging against each other as they conspire in a quarter-ton attempt to crush the person fighting them and gravity into a paste. As you’ll see, it’s not the assholes who enter the gym with a 90 lb. bag filled with $1000 in trendy prehab and rehab equipment, foam rolling their way to glory as they brandish their Chuck Taylors in a futile attempt to at least look the part- it’s guys who enjoy lifting and do things their own way who eventually slam 500 lbs. to arm’s length in ultra-strict form.
Two of the guys who immediately sprang to mind when I think of 500 lb. bench presses are from two different sports, but hail from the same era of flat-backed, elbows-flared, ultra-strict bench pressing- Serge “The Black Guy from Pumping Iron” Nubret and powerlifting legend Mel Hennessey. Not only were their training routines completely unlike each other’s, their chest days were so markedly dissimilar you’d find it almost impossible that Nubret was capable of a 500 lb. bench press at 212 and Hennessey a 571 at 228. This, in turn, should show you quite plainly that there is more than one way to skin the powerlifting cat, and that anyone who tells you otherwise is a goddamned moron.
Simply because I’m an asshole and want to make you people wait for the powerlifter’s program like your Rwandan refugees in a Ugandan aid camp waiting for food, I’ll start with the program you’re not going to try- that of Serge Nubret. At 6’0 and 212 lbs. with arms that hung practically to his knees, the “Black Panther” boasted the leverages that would have any Redditor screaming to the heavens that even a 300 lb. bench press was out of the question. What Nubret lacked in r/weight room-approved leverages, however, he made up for in weightlifting volume and intensity that smacked of insanity and could be construed as auto-terrorism. Nubret trained six days a week, and while most of his contemporaries consigned themselves to a mere four hours a day of training, Nubret went a bit further. According to Frank Zane:
“THERE WERE TIMES,” RECALLS FORMER ONSTAGE ADVERSARY FRANK ZANE, “WHEN HE WOULD WORK OUT ALL DAY — LITERALLY. HE’D GET TO THE GYM AT 8 OR 9 A.M. AND TRAIN UNTIL NOON OR SO. THEN HE’D GO FOR LUNCH, AND THEN HE’D RETURN TO THE GYM TO TRAIN FOR ANOTHER FEW HOURS. AFTER THAT HE’D GET DINNER AT 5 P.M. OR SO AND COME BACK FOR HIS NIGHTTIME WORKOUT. IT WOULD BE A 12-HOUR DAY CENTERED ON TRAINING” (PERINE)
Nubret trained chest twice a week, and although he never really had a set routine, he generally stuck to high reps and low weight, for tons of volume… and when I state he did tons of volume, I mean that literally. Nubret was famous for doing 40 sets of 25 with 225, or even higher reps with 200 lbs. (Perine).
Maniacal as Nubret was (he was reported to do all kinds of workouts ranging from 20 sets of 20 and up to an hour of continuous benching with 135), Nubret himself stated that the following was more of what he normally did (Perine). What follows is far more like what most guys in the 1970s did- over 30 sets per bodypart, and enough reps to rival pumps in a marathon sex session by a couple who both had Parkinson’s.
Nubret busted that workout out twice a week, usually on Monday and Thursday, and they did his bench press assistance work for shoulders and arms on Wednesday and Saturday. Resting only 30 or so seconds between sets, Nubret would blaze through the gym like a goddamned forest fire, which makes it all that more incredible that he would remain in the gym if he did as often as he did. Nevertheless, Wednesday and Saturday were a festival of pain from the rotator cuff downward, and looked like this:
As I stated above, Nubret was not wedded to a program or routine designed for a long-dead foreigner living so unlike his own it may have well from another star system, and he rarely did the same workout from week to week. This, then, is simply an outline of what a typical day might have looked like, all of which assumes The Black Panther didn’t get a bug up his ass to train his brachialis for 6 hours while singing patriotic French songs and nibbling on bits of horse.
We come, then, to the other side of the coin- Mel Hennessey, who stood a mere 5’5″ but competed at 220 and 242 and moved some ridiculous poundage’s with what was by all accounts the most deliberate, slow, and precise form ever witnessed on the bench. Interestingly, Mel Hennessey is described, physically, not unlike Nubret. According to Verne Hollister, “incredibly and massively muscled that he could be a competitor for the most muscular title in a physique contest,” and according to Anthony Ditillo, “when it comes to thick, dense, heavy muscular development plus pleasing shape and the power to match, Mel Hennessey stands above ALL his contemporaries of the present day and his competitors of the past when it comes to physical impressiveness.”
Though he never competed as a bodybuilder, Hennessey didn’t train unlike a bodybuilder. He trained between three and six days a week, alternating what amounted to powerlifting and bodybuilding days. If he was training six days a week, Hennessey would do all three power lifts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then assistance movements on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (Ditillo), and if he was training four days a week, he’d train heavy on Tuesdays and Thursdays and do “light” bodybuilding stuff on Thursdays and Sundays” (Hollister). As you’ll see, “light” is an exceptionally relative term when it comes to Hennessey’s training, and no matter what the day, Hennessey always had the bench press in mind- it was his baby, and he treated it like a tiny little baby Jesus with bones made of glass and the brain of Stephen Hawking.
Despite always having his bench in mind, Hennessey’s routines were as esoteric as those of The Black Panther. Whatever he was doing on the heavy days, Hennessey would focus on the big three lifts, but he’d never know if he was doing low reps, high reps, or attempting a new max until he goes to the gym. Unlike some of the people you’ll read about who apparently never laid in bed at night and wondered, “what could I put up off the platform”, Hennessey was all about living in dreamworld like he just slid off the paint-spilled set of What Dreams May Come, and hit 590 on the bench in the gym right around the time he hit 571 in a meet. Likewise, he bested his meet best on the squat (690) with a massive unwrapped 740 and pulled a full 45 lbs. more in the gym than he did in a meet, all while casually demonstrating an easy set of ten with the 150s any time he decided to show off a bit and do some dumbbell clean and presses (Parrillo).
For his heavy work, Mel liked to mix it up like he was the unnamed founding member of Girl Talk. After completing anywhere from 10-20 heavy sets on the big three, he would utilize partials in the rack, negatives, isometrics, and heavy supports (Ditillo Milo). As he did with all his movements, Hennessey kept his reps incredibly strict and deliberate, though that is not to say he didn’t train like a manic. In the power rack, he’d pick a “zone” in which to work and would begin by doing rep sets in that range of motion. Over time, he would gradually increase the weight used in that “zone”, keeping his reps just as high until he was doing extremely heavy partials for high repetitions in what had formerly been weaker than a WHO aid worker in Liberia a week after their suit punctured. Staying in the three to five range year-round is a mistake, according to Hennessey- high rep partials bring far more benefit than low reps due to their positive effect on tendon and ligament strength, and don’t come with the same joint pain and stiffness that low reps will give you (Ditillo Milo).
Hennessey’s light days resembled Nubret’s workouts more than your average “screw machines and the goddamned horse they rode in on” powerlifter might expect- Hennessey focused as much on appearance as he did on performance on those days. He’d generally start with his “day brighteners”, which would include things like the good morning, working up to a single heavy set of five with 325, and then move onto his favorite lift- the close grip bench press, on which he works up to 360 for a set of five, jump setting with high rep lat pulldowns (Hollister) for between eight and rep reps of around twenty sets. Yeah, that’s right- 20 or so sets of 8-20 reps, or between 160 and 400 reps on lat pulldowns.
Nor is he done there- sticking with his method of using ultra-strict form, just as he does on the bench press, Hennessey then loves onto lateral raises, starting with the 70s and working his way up to the 150s, and then polishes off his day with sit-ups and barbell curls with around 125 for 3 sets of 6 (Ditillo, Hollister). Though the exercises were never consistent, Hennessey always used a wide variety of dumbbell movements because they allowed much greater range of motion, which Hennessey believed would “give the muscular areas and joints will promote flexibility which will enable a more forceful contraction and explosion during the performance of a lift” (Ditillo). They also allowed Hennessey to achieve his ultimate goal, which was a physique without any weak links- by training as a bodybuilder and working at a variety of ranges of motion, angles, and planes of movements, Hennessey ensured that there would be no tiny neglected muscle groups that would impede his progress due to omission, or the haughty shirking seen amongst powerlifters and American Olympic weightlifters these days, most of whom seem to think they’re too good and too strong to touch a cable or a Hammer Strength machine (Ditillo).
As this is an article about bench pressing, I suppose I might as well divulge Hennessey’s favorite bench press assistance exercises, lest you guys decide to abduct and behead me like I’d suggested to an ISIS fan that a caliphate in the 21st century was a stupid idea. The movements Hennessey used to increase his bench were not unlike those found in any 1970s bodybuilding routine- heavy front dumbbell raises, ultra-heavy side lateral raises, lying laterals for rear delts, dumbbell concentration curls, dips, lying and standing triceps extensions (on which he worked up to a ridiculous 300 lbs.), pushdowns, pulldowns, and bent over rows with dumbbells, on which he always started out light and finished with a set of 5-10.
Not unlike what some current powerlifters do, Hennessey would front-load his program with assistance work and then gradually reduce it as the contest drew near, to allow for heavier bench pressing. He felt that the assistance movements initially hold back your one rep max in the bench, but they build a very strong foundation, so when you reduce the assistance movements and focus more on the heavy singles, the increased mass from dumbbell work allowed him to handle far bigger poundage’s (Ditillo). That is the problem with most lifters, in Hennessey’s mind- most guys avoid the assistance work at the beginning and focus too heavily on training the big three exclusively, which just leads them to hit their limits faster and limits their overall gains. Training the way, he did, however, steady and consistent gains over time were always coming.
So, there you have it- two examples of guys with completely disparate goals and physiques, yet they both managed 500 lb. bench presses without the aid of dead Russians, stupid internet programs, form check videos, or ultimately useless information from Pubmed. Instead, they built their badass bench presses through brutally hard work, doing what they enjoyed, and actively thinking about, modifying, and adapting their training to their needs. Lemmings don’t bench press 500. Badasses do. Stop being a tiny goddamned rodent and get your honey badger on.
Ditillo, Athony. The training wisdom of Mel Hennessey. Milo. 1997 Mar; 4(4):96-99.
Hollister, Vernon. Mel Hennessey, Bench Press King. The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban. 21 Jul 2008. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2008/07/mel-hennessey-bench-press-king.html
Leistner, Ken. History of powerlifting, weightlifting, and strength training- part 36. Titan Support Systems. 13 Sep 2013. Web. 10 Jul 2014. http://titansupport.com/blog/history-of-powerlifting-weightlifting-and-strength-training-part-36/
Overhead Pressing with Barbells and Dumbbells: The Once and Future KING of Shoulder Development. Parillo Performance Press. 26 Sep 2008. Web. 17 Jul 2014. http://www.parrilloperformance.com/2008/09/26/overhead-pressing-with-barbells-dumbbells-the-once-future-king-of-shoulder-development/
Perine, Shawn. The late Serge Nubret. Musclemag. Web. 21 Jul 2014. http://www.musclemag.com/the-late-serge-nubret/
Pride, Victor. Serge Nubret’s Old School Workout Routine. Bold and Determined. 2 Feb 2011. Web. 31 July 2014. http://boldanddetermined.com/2011/02/02/serge-nubrets-old-school-workout-routine/