There’s an adage in the sport of weightlifting that if you incorporate the bench press into your program, your lifts will be doomed. Well that’s just simply not true. Would doing ten sets of ten reps on the bench press be wise the day before working up to a heavy single in that snatch? Absolutely not. In a sport where specificity is king, assistant work needs to be supplemented carefully, and as long as it makes sense in your program, you can enjoy having pecs again. Before you answer the instinctual call to bench this Monday, there’s a few things you should consider before adding bench press to your weightlifting routine again:
- Mobility maintenance
- Volume and frequency
The most common argument against bench pressing as an Olympic weightlifter is that your pecs and shoulders will get tight and this will ruin your catch position for the snatch. If you can currently snatch perfectly fine, then you will be just fine. There is a big difference between being an intermediate level weightlifter in their mid-20s versus a forty-year old who has achieved an elite level powerlifting bench press after twenty years of competing. The latter person will definitely have a hard time transitioning into weightlifting, but if you’re the former, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re the latter.
The truth is that mobility is pretty easy to maintain if you’re a weightlifter. Performing snatches and cleans frequently is not only highly specific to your sport, but those lifts in itself provide fantastic mobility work. If you started benching more and gave up snatching, then you might have a hard time getting back to snatches after a long break, but as long as you’re still frequently performing the competitive lifts then relax, your mobility isn’t going anywhere.
Volume and Frequency
Adding an additional lift, especially a heavy one, will require some adjustments to your programming. You have to remember that while every rep you perform contributes to increased strength and performance, it also contributes to increased fatigue. That being said you need to make sure your volume and frequency for the bench press makes sense.
If it’s been awhile since you performed bench, you will need to start very light, regardless of your current strength levels. In addition, you’ll definitely want to stray away from getting anywhere close to failure. For the first month I highly suggest aiming for a weight that leaves about 3-4 reps left in the tank at the end of each set (an RPE goal of 6-7). This will spare your pecs and shoulders for the rest of the week since those muscles might go through the big damage response that comes with a new stimulus (looking at you, DOMS). I believe this is another reason many weightlifters are against benching. They try to bench for the first time in a while and do three sets till failure which results in being tight and sore for an entire week so they blame the movement rather than poor programming.
For frequency, I would suggest starting with just once a week, and then slowly transition into twice a week. Since the bench press isn’t a lift tested in weightlifting competition, I prefer once a week of flat bench and a variation later in the week. It’s important to realize that having sore pecs, anterior delts, and triceps will affect your overhead position acutely (relax, I said acutely), so I normally bench the same day I snatch at the end of the session since the next day will be more focused on cleans or other lifts that won’t be effected by the bench press.
As I mentioned earlier in the article, specificity is king in the sport of weightlifting. In order to improve your snatch, you need to snatch. Therefore you have to consider when you can get away with more bench pressing and other accessories and when you need to buckle down the specificity belt. If you’re in off-season mode, bench pressing is certainly fine. Your volume is probably higher and intensity is lower, so you can get away with some variation. Once you’re more in competition mode, you’ll need to back off from the bench press since it is a heavy lift that contributes to your overall fatigue and will need to replace it with more snatches and clean and jerks. Personally, I still want to benefit from the increased pressing strength bench pressing gave me so will do some push-ups explosively, but far from failure, to try to maintain some of the useful adaptations I obtained from benching in the off-season.
To wrap things up, don’t be afraid of bench pressing. You have the mobility already, it’s not going anywhere. If it has been awhile, take it light at first. Make sure your volume and frequency make sense and it’s the right time of the year. The bench press isn’t the sacrificial lamb for the sport of weightlifting, it just has to be done appropriately.
Sample Off-season Weightlifting Cycle