Lessons Learned in Pursuit of a Bench Press PR

by Rijad Pekmez

People were cheering as a bar loaded with 370 pounds hovered above my chest. If I were to drop it, I’d be in serious trouble. Knox College was hosting a collegiate powerlifting meet and I was on my last bench press attempt of the day.

After a controlled descent, I held for a quick pause then got a “press” call from the referee. I gave it all I had. The bar threatened to stall about halfway, but I turned my elbows in and it continued up its path. After reaching full extension, a “rack” call was given from the head referee. I set the weight back.

The other powerlifters cheered as I sat up. I looked around the rack and saw 3 white cards in the air indicating a Good Lift. It was an amazing feeling. Though it wasn’t a world record, it was a personal record – the best I had ever done. And I’d worked hard for it. This one had extra meaning to me.

I am a coach. I have coached football and powerlifting, and worked as a strength coach with hundreds of athletes. Coaching allows me to view things differently – I can no longer just get up and ‘do it’ – I have to show people how it is done. This requires patience. This requires thoughtful explanation. I have to help people work through their individual issues in order to reach their potential. Experience helps with that. When I hit a bench press PR in the Knox College weight room that day, the thoughts swirling through my head were all regarding the process – my own process, and how I would share that process with my athletes.

The experience has allowed me to understand the value of consistent training. Consistency is one of the first standards I share with my athletes. You have to show up and work. There’s no getting around it. In preparation for this meet I improved my diet, hydrated, and paid attention to what I was fueling my body with. As I paid more attention to my nutrition, my mental and physical performance increased. I became more consistent with my sleep. I made sure to get between 8-9 hours per night, and woke up feeling refreshed. Consistent habits led to better energy and mood which made consistent attendance and effort in the weight room far easier. 

I’ve been training since high school and, like everyone, I feel myself hitting plateaus now and then. In order to avoid this, I had to get Creative. At certain points in my preparation, I included supramaximal training within my bench press. This training emphasizes the eccentric phase (the “down” portion) of the bench-press while having more than 100% of the 1RM loaded on the bar. Safety first. Before all else, the guard rails have to be set up on the rack, and the spotter’s hands remain on the bar at all times to ensure safety. In my case, I had a spotter on each side, one behind me, and a bar loaded to 115% of my 1RM. After a slow and controlled descent, I received assistance from my spotters on the press (the concentric or “up” phase). By doing so, I was able to control a heavy load and build confidence. I believe this provided not only physical, but significant mental benefits. In competition, I wasn’t intimidated by the plates on the bar – I had felt that pressure before in training. With the help of a spotter, I was able to manipulate a weight well above my max.

The slow and controlled descent of supramaximal eccentric training allows for a unique set of benefits. Eccentric training emphasizes muscles lengthening while they are under tension. This portion of the movement takes approximately 3-5 seconds, with special focus on a clean and controlled bar path. During the eccentric phase, the muscles in the chest and shoulders lengthen while the weight on the bar creates significant tension. The time spent under tension during this training causes more muscle fiber damage when compared to concentric training. Additionally, I found that during traditional concentric training, I would sometimes gloss over weaknesses (form, tricep strength, etc.) – the slow and controlled nature of the movement exposed these weaknesses. For example, I hit a sticking point around ¾ of the way through the press – I worked on my triceps and my lockout by supplementing with floor press. I wouldn’t have done any of this if I would have stuck with traditional concentric bench press. By getting creative and adding supramaximal eccentric training, I received a physical and psychological boost alongside technical enhancement.

Support is another standard I preach to my athletes. I can assure you that without it from the other athletes, the day would not have been as successful. Powerlifting is unique in that way. In an atmosphere like the ones created at Good Athlete Project Powerlifting events, other lifters, including the ones in your weight-class, are shouting your name and cheering you on. Whoever wins will win because of their training. There is no room to root against an opponent. You either lift the weight or you don’t – and the people in attendance like to see success. 

The medal I received for top Bench Press of the day was great – but as we always say, if the lesson dies on the platform, then it wasn’t a “life lesson.” As a coach, I reference my own experiences and bring three important ideas to my athletes: be Consistent, get Creative, and Support those around you. The method works. I’ve seen it in action. Most importantly, those three qualities apply not only to powerlifting success, but success in life – and that’s what we’re really after. 

The next powerlifting meet I’ll be at in in February, again at Knox College. I might be helping out as a referee, or I might be going for another PR… follow the progress on instagram at @coach.pekmez