Experience Life Magazine

How to Increase Your Bench Press, Working Out Sore, and Are Dietary “Cheat Days” OK?

Jen Sinkler, our editorial director for fitness content, wrangles leading experts to address your most perplexing workout quandries and conundrums.

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Q1: How to Beef Up Your Bench Press

About a year ago, I started running, climbing stairs, doing yoga and lifting weights. I’m down 20 pounds, but my bench press is exactly the same as it was when I started. I do three sets of 10, three times per week. How can I improve it?

A: “Impressive progress so far!” says John Romaniello, renowned fitness writer and strength coach based in New York City who’s covered this topic extensively. “Now ask yourself if you’re looking to increase the amount of weight that you’re benching for muscular development or because you want to be stronger. The answer is going to radically affect how you train,” he says. “If you’re just looking for a bigger chest, adding more weight to the bar will help, but increased muscular size isn’t solely a function of load — you’ll also want to manipulate volume, time under tension and frequency of training.” Instead of three sets of 10, you could try four sets of eight with slightly more weight, thus doing 32 reps instead of 30, and with extra pounds.

If you’re looking for max strength, on the other hand, you’ll want to increase the weight even more, which will require that you substantially drop the number of reps. “I recommend using a template that will allow you to gain strength while building some muscle: the classic five-by-five protocol,” says Romaniello.

Instead of benching for three sets of 10 reps, you’re going to shoot for five sets of five reps. The goal is to complete all sets with the same weight, achieving a total of 25 reps. Due to neuromuscular fatigue, you will most likely not be able to get five unassisted reps on your fourth or fifth set when you first start out, but eventually, you should be able to do all five sets with five reps. Once you can, bump the weight up and start over. Perform this twice per week, resting at least two days between workouts.

“While there are many advanced methods of increasing strength, ranging from alternating ‘dynamic-effort’ with ‘max-effort’ days all the way up to using accessories like bands and chains, you have the luxury of being able to make progress without needing to use those yet,” adds Romaniello. “You’ve only been training for a year, so you’re still going to make progress simply by manipulating sets, reps and weight.”

One final (and very important) tip: Never attempt a rep that you can’t complete by yourself. Use a spotter.

Q2: Should You Work Out Sore?

Should I wait until my sore muscles recover before working them again?

A: “The quick answer is yes,” says Scott K. Lynn, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at California State University in Fullerton, Calif. “Having appropriate rest between workouts and work cycles is essential to accomplishing training goals — it’s during the recovery and regeneration period that your muscles heal themselves.”

It’s also crucial you get proper nutrition and sleep. “You can speed the regeneration process by doing ‘active recovery’ such as low-impact exercise and hydrotherapy [e.g., range-of-motion drills in the pool and alternating hot-cold baths],” adds Lynn. “Self-massage using foam rollers, sticks, tennis balls or golf balls can also loosen tight spots.”

Most experts recommend alternating movements and muscle groups each day to allow certain muscle groups to rest while working others. Consult with a fitness professional to create a long-term strategy.

Whole truth? I hardly ever wait until I’m no longer sore, and I’ve suffered no ill effects. But you should keep the experts’ advice in mind, and experiment to find out what gives you the best results.

Q3: Are “Cheat Days” OK?

I am following a pretty strict dietary regimen. Is it OK to observe a weekly “cheat day”?

A: “I dislike the term ‘cheating,’” says Diane Sanfilippo, NC, HLC, certified nutrition consultant and founder of BalancedBites.com. “If your diet is so impossible to maintain that you feel the need to ‘cheat’ regularly to keep your sanity, then perhaps that way of eating isn’t right for you. That said, I do believe that occasional treats are totally fine. Enjoying a glass of wine and some dark chocolate won’t typically cause problems. It’s frequently indulging in foods like bread, pasta, pizza and bagels that can send a person into a downward spiral with regard to digestive function and suppressed immunity.”

Achieving your fitness and nutrition goals is like taking a long road trip: You can stop as often as you’d like along the way, Sanfilippo says, but it’ll take you that much longer to reach your destination. Some stops may be worth it; others are simply a waste of time.

Cindi Lockhart, RD, weight-loss coaching program manager for Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minn., is of a similar mindset. She points to the 80-20 rule, which promotes adhering to a solid nutrition foundation 80 percent of the time and straying no more than 20 percent of the time. “If you eat three square meals per day, this would mean you need to be on your ‘A-game’ for 17 of your 21 meals in the week, which would theoretically allow you a full cheat day once a week,” says Lockhart. “But with an average of six to seven hours of sleep and — if we’re lucky — an hour of exercise, that leaves 16 to 17 hours per day to screw up your nutrition. And let’s be real: How many of us are actually eating protein with every meal, nine to 11 servings of fresh vegetables and fruit each day, limited starches and grains, enough healthy omega-3-fat sources and no processed foods? In effect, we ‘cheat’ our nutrition each and every day.”

If your goal is to lose weight or get leaner, Lockhart encourages more of a “cheat meal” versus a day once a week to allow some flexibility in your plan. The exception? “If you’re already a healthy weight and body composition, you probably have more leeway for a full cheat day,” she adds.

Fitness Fix: Keep It Moving

A sluggish lymphatic system can slow your body’s ability to detoxify (and recover between workout sessions). Here’s how to improve your flow.

The lymphatic system is an elaborate combination of vessels, ducts, capillaries, nodes and fluid (called lymph) that closely cooperates with the circulatory system to flush excess fluid, dead blood cells and toxins from tissue, keeping you healthy. An efficient lymphatic system is the best school janitor you’ve ever known, working to keep the halls clean and tidy, even as children rollick all over the place. When the lymphatic system isn’t functioning as well as it should, however, you’re left feeling puffy and sluggish. “Lack of activity and too many acidic, congesting foods such as baked goods, cheese and sugar can lead to sluggishness of the lymphatic system,” says Elson Haas, MD, founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, Calif. “You may notice you get sore throats more easily.”

For a high-functioning lymphatic system, Haas says all types of exercise help. “Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump — it depends on us to move our bodies and thus circulate lymph.” Muscle contractions squeeze lymph vessels, so try jumping rope or bouncing on a trampoline, climbing stairs, stretching, lifting weights, and doing other full-body activities to kick the process into high gear. Haas also recommends lymphatic massage, a variation of Swedish massage, to keep fluid moving.

Got a fitness question? Email ‘em to askjen@experiencelife.com.

This article was originally titled “Your Qs:” in the print issue of the magazine.

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