At age 62, "Big Bill" shares his wisdom to dominate one of the top strength marks.
If you are seeking advice on how to increase your bench press max, you’ve probably discovered that there’s no shortage of experts and theories for you to sink your teeth into, but when it comes to learning from the best, you can’t do much better than the teachings of a world record breaker. Bill Gillespie shocked the world in January when, at age 62, he lifted 1,129.9 pounds and became the champion of the equipped bench press before triumphantly retiring from active competition, thus completing a 50-year journey of trial and error that serves as a great blue print for lifters of all abilities.
M&F sat down with the man mountain from Virginia, to discover the “dos” and “don’ts” for besting the bench.
“Big Bill” was given his first weight set at 14, fueling a passion for powerlifting that he later passed on to his son, and fellow lifter, Cameron Gillespie. “I did pushups, situps, whatever I could do to get strong,” says the record-breaker. “As soon as I was old enough to know that there was such a thing as muscles, and being strong, I wanted to be strong.” It was a desire that his mom used to great advantage, having him do yard work and various household chores to keep those muscles working. That early hardcore training mentality served him well because not only did Gillespie make a career from strength, including a coaching role with the Seattle Seahawks, but he also now gets to share his knowledge with all types of athletes as a strength coach for Sorinex.
DON’T: TRAIN TO YOUR MAXIMUM LIFT DURING EACH SESSION
“Speed training and strength training go hand-in-hand,” says Gillespie. “When we come into the weight room, we get this bodybuilding confusion of what we do and we want to go and push the limits of the repetitions. So, when moving the weight, instead of doing it 6 times, we’ll go and do it 10 or 12 times. Yes, we can do it, and yes we might be capable, but the problem is that the last few reps are so slow that you are over straining, you are frying the nervous system and you are not training for speed and explosion. The secret to putting up big weights is to be able to exhibit your strength in a shorter period of time. The heavier the weight gets, the shorter amount of time you have to exhibit your strength”
Gillespie says that the sweet spot for making bench press gains is to practice three times per week. “Here’s the biggest mistake people make,” shares Gillespie. “If my training max is 400 pounds, and then all of a sudden, I hit 450 for my max, everybody goes to 450 for their new training max. It’s the worst mistake you can make. I would go to 402.5-Pounds. Because if
I’m making great gains at 400 pounds, I’m going to continue to make great gains as my body adapts to the work capacity. What people are doing is putting the cart before the horse. You want to focus on developing your work capacity by slowly progressing and making the body change and then the big numbers will come.”
DO: DEVELOP YOUR UPPER BACK
“Pullups are the key exercise,” shares Gillespie, who was coached by Ed Coan and found himself in awe of Coan’s own back development. “I looked at him, and I saw that upper-back he had, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve seen guys bench press a lot of weight with small arms and small chests, but all the great lifters have big backs!”
Bill Gillespie practiced his pullups six times per week, but never went above 6 reps so that he didn’t fatigue himself too much before a lift. “The more I did pullups, the more my bench went up,” shares Gillespie.
DON’T: WASTE YOUR ENERGY BEFORE A BIG LIFT
Many champion lifters pre-empt their lifts with a number of rituals in order to dial in, and focus themselves mentally. Some of these athletes have a war cry and others prefer to dance, to get themselves into the zone. For this record breaker, however, conserving your energy is more important than emotional outbursts.
“When people see me lift, they think that I’m not very focussed because I don’t get very outwardly emotional,” says Gillespie. “But I’ve learned that the bench press is a very high energy consumption exercise, and you have to watch your energy levels very carefully. The mental focus comes from the discipline of the preparation.”
DO: CONCENTRATE ON THE BIGGER PICTURE
The reality was that other factors were negatively impacting Gillespie rather than his genetics or the brief part of his day that was spent on the bench. A relatable drag on his lift was the 60 to 70 hours he was working in the day job. So, when Gillespie was hired by Sorinex, as a strength coach, he was able to dedicate more to his lift and essentially the bigger picture in terms of his lifestyle. “It gave me the opportunity to train, recover, and Sorinex supplied me with Thorne supplements. Now, with the whole package, things took off. At 59, my bench press went to 855, 900 and 1,000-plus pounds. At that point I realized, that if I dedicated myself, I’d have a chance [at breaking the record]. I poured everything I had into it, and I hurt lots, but I was determined even with everyone around me, telling me that I should quit.”
DON’T: CONVINCE YOURSELF THAT CHAMPION LIFTERS ARE ‘BORN GIFTED’
If you are just getting started with any type of weightlifting, but are feeling dejected because progress may be slow, don’t convince yourself that champion lifters are all born gifted.
“You know what? I was incredibly weak. I was not gifted at the bench press,” shares Gillespie. “By far, I’m not even the strongest guy that I’ve ever trained with. When I was in the ninth grade, I did 600 pushups per day, I worked out all the time, I was an All-American shot putter, so I should have been pretty strong. But I went to the first drug free nationals in 1983 and I bench-pressed 341 pounds that day. I sucked at the bench press and I just thought that genetically I had a weak upper-body. I wasn’t that gifted. At the age of 35, by bench was stuck at around 450 pounds. Never did I think, until about two years ago, that I was going to be the guy that would stand on top of that mountain with the number 1 bench.”
DO: KNOW YOUR OPPONENT
Bill Gillespie says that understanding how the weight moves, and practicing slight variations in your grips and positioning is essential for mastering the bench press. If you think that your only opponent is yourself, you might want to give a bit more credit to the barbell and plates that you need to lift.
Getting to know the weight and becoming familiar with each load is essential to your preparation. “You know, that 1,000 pounds doesn’t have a bad day,” says Gillespie. “You can’t do it reluctantly. If you do it reluctantly, you are going to get negative results. You’ve got to find a way to go in there, be positive, enthusiastic and maximize that moment.”
DON’T: GIVE UP (BUT SAY YOUR PRAYERS!)
The next day, Gillespie went into the “365 Strong New Year Power Bash” and missed his first attempt pretty badly. His second attempt failed too. But on the third attempt, he focused and prayed to God, thanking him for the 50-year journey with strength that he’d enjoyed to date. Big Bill moved his grip out an eighth of an inch and this time brought the bar down a little faster under the guidance of the good Lord, and with every ounce of energy and strength that Gillespie had in his soul, the strongman pressed the barbell skyward to shatter the world record at 1,129.9 pounds.