Interviews

How Pete Koch Bench-pressed 500 Pounds

The former NFL defensive lineman was one of the strongest players in the league during the ‘80s. His strength led to success on both the football field and the big screen.

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Pete Koch
Courtesy of Pete Koch

Former NFL star Pete Koch doesn't need to bench press as often as he did during his playing days—just twice a month now, he says. He doesn't really need to, of course: The 55-year-old will forever be a member of the 500-lb bench club, and can still put up three plates quite easily.

Nowadays, Koch, who now spends his time showing audiences how to get fit “30 seconds at a time” on his Instagram page, has goals that no longer include roughing up quarterbacks. Instead, strong and pain-free shoulders are his objective.

Nearly three decades ago, Koch was one of strongest players in the NFL, which not only led to success on the football field but also launched a film career (his first role was playing Marine Swede Johanson in the 1986 Clint Eastwood flick Heartbreak Ridge.) Drafted in the first round in 1984 by the Cincinnati Bengals, Koch arrived in the league as the strongest player ever to come out of the University of Maryland—his personal-best 465-lb bench press was then a school record.

But 500 was another matter entirely, even for Koch. To get there, he turned to his friend and mentor, the late Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield, a world-renowned powerlifter in his own right most famous for squatting 1,000lbs. Hatfield and Koch met through a mutual friend when Koch moved to Southern California during the '86 NFL off-season. At the time, Hatfield was an editor at Sports Fitness magazine (which went on to become Men’s Fitness). The two trained together for two summers together, in what Koch called a “mutually beneficial partnership”. “I was looking to improve my overall strength and commensurate speed, and Fred needed a strong training partner as he was preparing for a major powerlifting competition,” Koch remembers.

From there, Koch focused on hitting the 500-lb mark in time to start the 1986 NFL season, when he'd be suiting up for the Kansas City Chiefs.

“The first thing Fred and I discussed was setting a realistic goal based on a number of factors, including how much I could bench press then and how much time I had before preseason test day,” says Koch, who's now filming the indie flick Rusty Tulloch, set for release in 2018.

Hatfield’s bench-press plan was based on the periodization principles of famous strength coach Tudor Bompa—a Soviet-based training system that focused on variable loads for optimal performance as opposed to a single training focus. One day focused on heavy benching while day 2 was a high-rep auxiliary workout using plenty of dumbbells. “I was careful to complete every rep—no failures and no forced or assisted reps,” Koch says.

One of the methods Koch followed was a form of linear periodization designed in reverse, a formula he said can be explained in Hatfield’s 1989 training manual, Power: A Scientific Approach. In this approach, Koch says, an athlete would “pick the date you want to hit your PR. Then, using that weight, you'd map out the weights you’d need to arrive at your goal.”

With 500lbs his set goal, Koch began the first three weeks of each training month with low sets/high reps, according to Hatfield’s program. (On Week 1, for example, Koch did three sets of eight reps.) Each week, Koch added a set while decreasing the reps by two. He then used the fourth week as a deload week, performing two sets of 10. In the final month, Koch performed three sets of heavy doubles. And when test day arrived, Koch loaded 500lbs on a bar and proceeded to set a Chiefs bench-press record.

What was most remarkable about the strength milestone, Koch believed, was that during training he was also doing football-specific sprint work three to four times a week—an almost unheard-of combination for strength athletes.

Koch then went on to have best season of his career, starting all 16 games for the Chiefs. He recorded five sacks in 1986 and helped lead the Chiefs to their first playoff appearance in more than a decade.

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