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How one man sought to boost his bench press by training to the maximum
If it weren’t for the terrifyingly real strain in my arms and shoulders, I’d swear I was having a nightmare. But there’s 100kg poised precariously above my neck, threatening to crush my throat at any moment if my arms falter. And there are hundreds of spectators looking on in raucous anticipation as I fight iron and gravity while wearing a bright blue, one-size-too-small, nut-snuggling singlet. The name of my reality is Power Palooza, an annual powerlifting meet in York, Pennsylvania, where I’ve somehow become a competitor in the ultimate test of strength: the bench press.
“Bench!” yells the judge, issuing the starting command. I lower the barbell to my chest, my teeth clenched and body trembling against the force of gravity. “Press!” comes the command to complete the lift. The beating in my ears almost drowns out the frenzied shouts of encouragement from the crowd, but one voice cuts clearly through the din. It belongs to Gene Rychlak Jr., my mentor and coach and quite possibly the strongest man on earth. “Push!” he yells in a baritone that I could pick out of a crowd just as easily as I could spy his neon-yellow mohawk and tractor-trailer physique. I push like hell. A bead of sweat forms on my forehead. And then, ever so slowly, the bar creeps off my chest.
I’d first met Rychlak some three months earlier at his converted two-car hot rod garage. A space that now serves as one of the premier powerlifting facilities. Or rather, I met him shortly after a heart-stopping welcome from his three pit bulls, Southside’s unofficial greeting party. “Don’t mind the gym mascots,” he says as the first one lunges for my face and licks me from chin to eyebrows. For a moment my entire view is obscured by Rychlack. At 1.85cm and 156kg, he’s a mountain of muscle and flesh. And behind him I see a group of gargantuan men, all heavily tattooed.
One of them is benching 227kg. Others are shouting encouragement over the death metal in the background. This isn’t your typical health club. Indeed, “health” has little to do with what goes on here. Everything is devoted to one purpose – the development of superhuman strength – and anything that doesn’t play a role in reaching that goal is ignored. There are no mirrors, for example. “What’s the point?” asks Rychlak. The behemoths populating the gym’s Spartan collection of three benches and three squat racks couldn’t care less about “mirror muscles”. They’re here to build power in its beefiest form, and their bodies reflect their focus. These guys are built like whisky barrels. They couldn’t be more unlike me. I’m 1.9m and 80kg, and generally athletic, but no one has ever called me big (“wiry” is how I’m usually described). But I share at least one thing in common with these not-so-gentle giants: I want to push the limits of my bench press. My goal: 100kg. In all of human history, only an exquisitely small group of men have ever pressed more than 450kg. Rychlak was the first. In 2006 he amazed the world by benching 458kgs at a competition in Lake George, New York. Although he’s now retired from competing, he still organises events and trains aspiring powerlifters in the three main events: the bench press, the dead lift and the squat. “Let’s teach you to bench,” says Rychlak, brushing away the dogs as he leads me into the gym. I try to explain that we can skip the introductory stuff since I already know how to do it. “Not like this you don’t,” he says. Powerlifting lives and dies with form. As with traditional weightlifting, proper technique ensures consistent gains and fewer injuries. But in powerlifting, poor form can have even more catastrophic consequences – detached biceps, dislocated shoulders, herniated discs, blown knees. And there’s no reason to increase the danger in a sport in which a bad day often means an express ride to the hospital – regardless of whether you’re lifting with proper form or not. But Rychlak doesn’t give me time to ruminate on the risks. He thrusts me right into a warm-up that focuses on my rotator cuffs – groups of muscles that stabilise the shoulders and play a critical role in the bench press. “Overload your cuffs when they’re not ready and your first lift can be your last,” he says. Once on the bench, I receive more instruction. “Arch your lower back and squeeze your shoulder blades together,” says Rychlak. He also tells me to keep my feet flat on the ground and “drive” through my heels as I press up the weight. “You know you’ve had a good day when your legs are as sore as your chest,” he says. Next, I begin practising with a naked bar (no weights). “Keep your elbows tucked in and lower the bar in an arc to below your chest,” instructs Rychlak. For a guy like me who’s used to pressing the bar straight up and down – the way most guys bench – Rychlak’s technique feels awkward. But there’s no denying its effectiveness; the best powerlifters bench three to four times their body weight. But first I have to establish a baseline. Rychlak gradually adds weight to the bar to determine my one-rep max, the heaviest weight I can lift only once.
My starting point is 84kg. That’s a good 136kg pounds less than anyone else at Southside. Powerlifting workouts typically follow three guidelines: lift heavy (you should barely be able to complete the last rep of each set), rest a lot (sometimes up to 15 minutes between sets), and forget variety. Here at Southside, one day a week is devoted to bench-pressing, another to squatting, and two more to back and shoulder exercises. “To become strong, you need to hit each lift only once a week,” says Rychlak.“Most regular gym goers overdo it.” Powerlifters have also developed freakish ways to push their bodies. Three weeks into my programme, for example, Rychlak drapes long chains over the bar. The effect is dramatic. As I lower the bar, the chains pile up on the ground, lightening the load. But as soon as I begin pressing it back up, the chains lift off the ground and the load increases. “That makes you better at pushing through “sticking points” so you don’t stall out,” says Rychlak. Three weeks later, he anchors resistance bands between the floor and the bar, making the lift about as stable as a mountain of jelly. The benefit is twofold: I strengthen my stabilising muscles, and I learn to enlist them even when the bands aren’t there. “Switching things up every three weeks keeps your muscles adapting so they never plateau,” says Rychlak. There is a method to his madness, and it produces results: after just six weeks, I crack 90kgs. “You’re doing PowerPalooza,” he says. And that’s that. I hadn’t considered competing when I signed up, but you don’t argue with a man who can bench five times your bodyweight. “You’ll go for your personal best in front of hundreds of other powerlifters trying to do the same,” he says excitedly, as if that’ll sell me on the idea. “And you’ll need a singlet.”
“You got it!” The yells of encouragement come fast and furious, almost overpowering the Megadeth in the background. But the bar doesn’t budge. A weight like 100kgs doesn’t shake in your hands. It just sits there, unyielding. The only place it wants to go is down. I tell myself I won’t let it. I press it another centimetre. But the weight and I eventually reach a stalemate. It won’t let me push it up; I won’t let it fall down.“The lift is no good,” the announcer proclaims. Rychlak looks at me sympathetically.“You would have been able to do 99kgs. Come to my gym next week and you’ll do 100.” You don’t argue with Rychlak. That very next week, I hit my mark.