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Day by day we toil among our fellow iron warriors, heaving weights thousands of times over the course of our training journey. At its best, our progress is measured in a sliver of new muscle here, a hard-fought extra rep there. Occasionally, workouts end with nothing more than a towel ripe with sweat and a check mark in the training journal.
That our physiques transform into carved sheaths of muscle mass is a gradual reward, one well worth pursuing. Yet, nestled within this steady drumbeat of ongoing effort is a unique opportunity for a moment of sheer bliss—one born of all that hard work that came before it.
Picture this: one day you stride to the bench press station, warm up with a few sets, then slide more weight on each side of the barbell than you ever have before. Confidently, you lie down, grasp the bar, guide it out of the supports with the help of your training partner, then smoothly push out one clean, impressive, glorious rep. Sitting up, you catch your breath as you take a second to marvel at your feat—your best bench press ever. Consider it instant gratification years in the making.
Akim Williams—aka the unofficial titleholder of “world’s strongest bodybuilder”—has experienced just those types of moments. The 5’10” 290-pounder originally from Grenada has hoisted a 550-pound bench press, just one of many feats of strength that have made him a gym legend, all the while racking up 14 top-10 open-class bodybuilding finishes over his five years in the IFBB Pro League.
Williams has learned a lot through trial and error as he honed his power while also maximizing his size and shape. His lessons can guide anyone looking to increase their one-rep bench max, with these five tips leading the way:
1. Skip the Singles When Preparing for a New Personal Best
While it may seem counterintuitive, Williams recommends going no lower than three reps when training for a new max, instead of regularly doing single-rep sets. “During a single, you’ll be going all out and pushing explosively,” he points out. “But a three-rep set is different—you want to maintain full control of the weight on the way up and down, so you’re sure you’re building true strength and not just generating momentum.”
2. Embrace the Powerlifting Trio
Williams also suggests doing not only bench presses but also squats and deadlifts, since these big moves engage the whole body in stabilization efforts while also providing you additional experience in regularly handling heavy loads.
3. Exchange in Negative Behavior
Advanced athletes should try extra training techniques to ensure they’re reaching complete muscle failure. “Negative reps are a solid tool for breaking through a plateau, because the muscle can handle more weight on the way down than it can on the way up,” Williams says. “You can acclimate to a new weight by doing a set of two to three negatives with a training partner, or add two to three negatives to the end of a set after you hit positive failure.”
4. Stop Short Sometime
Partials are another good tool to battle sticking points. “You can use the safety rods in a power rack for squats or presses and work through just the top third or middle third of the range of motion, or just finish a set with partials to failure,” Williams says. “They can help strengthen the muscle at that point you’re getting stuck.”
5. Or Lighten the Load
“If you’re stuck on a plateau for a certain lift, sometimes the best option is to take a week or two and do higher reps for that exercise, as many as 15 per set,” Williams says. “The blood flow you get from the pump will help push nutrients into the muscles, and the break from the really heavy weights will allow them to recover.
Apply Williams’ tenets to the following three-days-a-week program by Elliott Hulse, C.P.T. Over eight weeks—focusing on form and pushing your reps to failure on every working set—you could add up to 35 pounds to your max bench. Yes, it’s an aggressive goal but also attainable. Your moment of “instant gratification” awaits.
Perform each of the following three workouts once a week for eight weeks, prioritizing chest and triceps by doing Workout 1 the first every week. Rest at least a day between each session—for instance, you can train on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Keep in mind, the chart lists only working sets, in which you should be handling a heavy load that causes you to hit failure at the prescribed rep count. Beforehand, you should do warmups as needed, anywhere from six to 15 reps per set with a light weight that pulls blood into the muscle but brings you nowhere close to failure.
Try to increase the poundages you use on the first exercise of each workout every week (except during Weeks 4 and 8). Instead, use light weights and perform 12 reps on every exercise; do not take these sets to failure. Each workout will take about 35 minutes. At the ninth week, consider testing your one-rep max or determining your new 1RM by finding your 10RM—the most weight you can do for 10 clean reps—and multiplying that number by 1.33.