“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
3 months earlier at Southside
Iron, his converted two-car
hot rod garage in Boyertown,
Pennsylvania, a space that
now serves as one of the premier powerlifting
facilities on the East Coast. 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 6' 1" and 345 pounds, he’s a mountain of muscle and flesh. And behind him I see
a group of gargantuan men, all heavily tat-
IN ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY,
only an exquisitely small
group of men have ever
pressed more than 1,000
pounds. Rychlak was the first.
In 2006 he amazed the world by benching
1,010 pounds at a meet in Lake George, New
York. Although he’s now retired from competition, he still organizes events up and down the
East Coast and trains aspiring powerlifters in
the three main events: the bench press, the
deadlift, 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 disks, 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 emergency room—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 warmup that focuses on my rotator cuffs—
groups of muscles that stabilize 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.
“To become strong, you need to hit
each lift only once a week,” says Rychlak.
“Most regular gymgoers overdo it.”
typically follow three guide-
lines: 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 shoul-
der exercises. “To become strong, you need
to hit each lift only once a week,” says Rychlak.
“Most regular gymgoers overdo it.”
Powerlifters have also developed freakish
ways to push their bodies. Three weeks into
my program, 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 jello.
The benefit is twofold: I strengthen my stabilizing muscles, and I learn to enlist them even
when the bands aren’t there. “Switching things
up every 3 weeks keeps your muscles adapting
so they never plateau,” says Rychlak.
There is a method to his madness, and it
produces results: After just 6 weeks, I crack
200 pounds. “You’re doing PowerPalooza,” he
says. And that’s that. I hadn’t considered com-
peting when I signed up, but you don’t argue
with a man who can bench five times your body
weight. “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.”
tooed. One of them is benching 500 pounds.
Others are shouting encouragement over the
death metal in the background.
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 practicing with a naked bar
(no weights). “Keep your elbows tucked in and
lower the bar in an arc to below your chest,”
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. I’d settle for one and a quarter. But first I have to establish a baseline.
Rychlak gradually adds weight to the bar to
determine my 1-rep max, the heaviest weight
I can lift only once. My starting point is 185
pounds. That’s a good 300 pounds less than
anyone else at Southside.
“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 225 pounds 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 inch. 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 220. Come
to my gym next week and you’ll do 225.” You
don’t argue with Rychlak.
That very next week, I hit my mark. j
Want to boost your own bench press? Just check
out this month’s workout poster for the ultimate
powerlifting workout plan.