With new and stronger squat suits and bench shirts hitting the market, more attention has been given to training the lockout. It seems most experts believe that since the lifter is doing most of the work at the top, then range of motion should be trained the most. Although common sense tells us that the suits and shirts will get us out of the bottom of the lift, I have modified my belief somewhat.

My bench has always been low, and it’s something I have struggled with since I began lifting. I started training using Westside methods around three years ago, and my squat and deadlift blew up. However, my bench press only went up 20–30 lbs. All of my board work continued to climb, but I still had no raw bench. In fact, there was a 70 lb difference just between my two-board and one-board. It made sense to me that as my raw bench went up, my shirted bench would go up. But, although I tried a few different things, I had little success.

I’ve always done speed work. I read over and over that if you cannot get out of the hole, you are too slow. My problem wasn’t speed; it was my strength. I press very fast, so fast that I either destroy the lift or it destroys me. I tried dynamic bench with mini-bands, chains, straight weight, with a pause, drop and catch, on the floor, nearly everything. Dynamic work had done wonders for my squat (400 lbs in three years), but it did nothing for my bench press. I soon found the long awaited answer.

Sometime around March, I was lucky enough to talk with Bill Gillespie (Liberty University). He explained to me his philosophy on the bench press. He believed that people did too much lockout work and needed to concentrate more on starting strength. His thought was that great starting strength plus knowledge of the shirt equaled gliding through the lockout. This made perfect sense to me.

A couple of weeks before I talked with Coach Gillespie, I went to train at Donnie Thompson’s gym. He helped me with my shirt and noticed that I was pressing the bar in two phases. He told me to press with more force at the bottom instead of letting the shirt do the work and then taking over. The problem was that I did not have the strength to press with any force from the bottom of the lift. I knew if I fixed this problem, my bench would shoot up.

Coach Gillespie gave me a couple of tips to help me out. But the one that left the biggest impact was his suggestion to incorporate the soft touch bench press into my training. For this exercise, you bring the bar down and barely touch your T-shirt. Then, press it back up. You shouldn’t even make an indentation in your T-shirt. Performing these gave me incredible power off my chest.

Over the course of the next six months, I moved my raw bench to 400 lbs. I incorporated the soft touch bench in place of dynamic bench day. I would usually do sets of five or occasionally sets of three. Normally, I wouldn’t go over 315 lbs on this day because I wanted to be fresh for max effort day. The result was an 85 lb meet PR (535) at my last meet and a near miss with 550. I am now a huge believer in creating a great deal of starting strength.

In December of 2004, I squatted 800 for the first time. I had used more and more band tension along the way leading up to that squat and thought that more should be better. So, for my next meet, I used even more band tension. During my circa max phase, I used two blue bands on each side whereas before I had only used a blue and a green. The result was a much lighter bar weight, but my starting strength went in the crapper. I decided to open at 800 at my next meet because I was much stronger (according to the mythical band tension), and 800 had looked like an opener at a prior meet. However, I missed 800 twice and bombed out of the meet. I couldn’t get out of the hole!

During this time, my deadlift also went down. I went from pulling an easy 633 to struggling with 600. I was embarrassed. I had pulled at least 650 before, but now 600 was hard. I knew I needed to change some things. The first thing I did was six weeks of straight weight work with the SSB and no gear. After this initial phase, I did the typical dynamic work but would work up to a heavy double every other session. I did more work with the green bands and less work with the blues. During my circa max phase, I used a blue and a green, and kept the bar weight pretty high. The end result was an 845 lb squat, which constituted a 45 lb PR. I even left weight on the platform, too. With my back cramping from benching, I pulled 620 with a power bar. I know if I had not experienced the cramps and had pulled with a deadlift bar, I would have hit a huge deadlift PR as well.

Take home points

·   Don’t neglect starting strength. Speed may not be enough to get you out of the bottom. Use more full range movements.

·   Don’t go crazy with band tension all the time.

·   Use chains and straight weight more often.

·   Don’t neglect your raw work!

·   Train the bottom of the movement with pauses, soft touch, or both.

Bands and chains are great. Powerlifting gear is even better. But don’t neglect your raw starting strength. It will have a positive carry over to your meet lifts. It might also cause an increase in muscle mass, which is always a good side effect.