“How much do you bench?” A question that is synonymous with strength and success in the gym. This is because everyone wants an amazing bench press. It is generally the first exercise that many lifters and learn and is likely used throughout their career. It’s an awesome movement and is a true test of upper body strength; there’s a reason it’s one of only three movements performed in powerlifting. However, over time, progress on the bench press can begin to slow causing you to stale before you answer that infamous question. This article is going to cover what steps to take for some serious bench press gains.
- Muscles Used During The Bench Press
- Use These 8 Tips To Immediately Improve Your Bench Press Strength
- 1. Use Progressive Overload (And Understand It)
- 2. Use A Variation Of Loads
- 3. Use Bench Press Variations
- 4. Use “Special” Bench Variations
- 5. Identify Your Weak Points
- 6. Fix Your Setup & Form
- 7. Special Cues And Tips For The Bench Press
- 8. Increase Your Training Frequency
- Add Weight To Your Bench Press Now
- Frequently Asked Questions
Muscles Used During The Bench Press
The chest. Obviously. While the bench press does utilize the pectorals significantly, there’s a lot more going on. It is important to have a good understanding of what’s going and how the muscles are used so that you can identify problems.
1. Pectorals (Chest muscle) –The chest muscles contain two main heads; the clavicular head (upper) and sternal head (lower). Both are used in the bench press with activation of the head varying slightly on the angle of the bench and grip width (wider grip, narrow grip).
2. Deltoids (Shoulder muscles)- Although the shoulders have three heads, the bench press will primarily activate the anterior deltoid (front)
3. Triceps- The triceps are used heavily during the bench press; probably much more than you are aware. Try to find someone with a big bench who has small triceps. This because of the extensive flexion and extension which happens at the elbow. If you have a small bench, it may because of small triceps
Use These 8 Tips To Immediately Improve Your Bench Press Strength
1. Use Progressive Overload (And Understand It)
Progressive overload is the main tool we need to use to improve and increase strength. If you are unfamiliar with it, it simply refers to the process of gradually placing greater demands on a muscle to elicit adaptations. Basically, lift more weight; either through performing more reps or using heavier weight
As obvious as this sounds, many trainees simply don’t get stronger because they don’t actually put more weight on the bar, add reps, or sets. The best choice is to use the smallest weight increment that you have available. However, there are other ways to implement this basic idea is by way of utilizing variations of different variables. Some of these will be spoken about below.
2. Use A Variation Of Loads
Above we talked about progressive overload. Those who do understand the concept fail to grasp that this can occur over a variety of loads i.e. 90%1RM, 85%1RM, 75%1RM. Using a variety of different rep schemes can elicit more adaptations rather than only focusing on the strength. If you have been a basic 5×5 program and have stalled, drop the weight and work in the 8-12 reps scheme for a month. Then come back down. Or drop down to the 3 rep range.
A periodization program known as daily undulating periodization (DUP) does just this in that it varies the load on a daily basis. It has been proven to be very effective for long-term progress, particularly in strength performance which is exactly what you want! Regardless, using a variety of loads can be key to improving your bench press.
3. Use Bench Press Variations
Similar to number 2, using variations of the bench press can be very useful. It can hit the muscle in a slightly different manner and provide a new stimulus. At the very least, it can add some variety and interest to your program. If you have been stuck on the bench press for a while, put it aside and work on your incline press. Try to improve your incline press and then come back and work on your bench press again. Below is a short list of bench variations
- Incline Bench Press
- Flat Bench Dumbbell Press
- Incline Bench Dumbbell Press
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Wide Grip Bench Press
Notice these don’t even include any type of dumbbell bench press. Any of these movements can be used in addition to the classic barbell bench press.
4. Use “Special” Bench Variations
In addition to the ones above, there are other variations we’ll put under “special” bench variations. These are exercises that have the sole purpose of improving your benching strength. These movements are rarely seen outside of the strength world as they are really good at improving strength, but not much else (i.e. hypertrophy). Regardless, use these when you get in a bind.
- Floor Press: The floor press is one of the most widely used movements by powerlifters and strength athletes to improve their bench press. It is basically a bench press, except done while laying on the floor hence the name “bench press”. Now this will cause 2 things to happen. First, because your elbows are brought down the floor, it will take away some force from the stretch reflex. Second, it will take away any sort of assistance from leg drive or back.
- Pin Press: A pin press is performed by setting up a rack with pins at height above your chest. You then set the bar on the pins and start with the concentric portion first. This is a great movement to use to increase force production as there is zero stretch-reflex to use. Another benefit is that you can place the pins at any height you want. A typical practice to place the pins around the sticking point of the bench. Or, it’s common to use to help improve the elbow lockout. Here, the lifter will place the pins at a height so that there is only maybe 4″ to press.
- Board Press: To perform a board press, you’re going to need some type of sturdy object, i.e. aboard. Place the board on your chest where you usually bring the bar down. What this does is effectively shorten the range of motion and allows you to artificially use a heavier load.
For all of these, you want to use a heavier load and few reps (<5). Performing 15 reps of pin presses aren’t going to help you increase your strength. Further, go slow. Don’t rush these reps.
5. Identify Your Weak Points
As mentioned a few times already, you need to try and pinpoint what exactly it is that is holding you back from lifting more. This could be a certain muscle group or perhaps a specific segment of the lift that is holding you back (which was addressed above with using pin presses). Again, if it’s a muscle that’s holding you back, it is most likely your triceps as mentioned above. What you would then want to do is add some triceps-specific exercises. Below is a quick list of the top movements to use to increase your triceps.
- Close grip bench press. This movement is obviously the most similar and has a lot of transfer. When you use a narrower grip with the bench press, you cause more flexion of the arm as well as changing the movement of force. With the close grip bench, you are pressing with your arms going vertically which places a direct force on your triceps.
- Skull crushers. When it comes to triceps isolation exercises, skull crushers are a favorite for both hypertrophy and strength athletes alike. Be sure to include these wherever they fit in your program
- Dumbbell neutral grip press. This movement can be thought of as the dumbbell press equivalent to the close grip bench press. it’s simply performed as a typical dumbbell press, except you hold onto the dumbbells with a neutral grip (palms facing inwards) and your elbows closer to your side.
6. Fix Your Setup & Form
Another big issue can be found in an improper set-up which results in lower force production. The entire body is used when performing the bench press so having proper body position is key to a strong bench pressing.
- Be sure to keep your feet planted. This can allow you to utilize leg drive and maintain a stable body. Too many new lifters lose control and lift afoot. Keep your feet flat on the floor
- Tuck your legs. In addition to keeping your feet planted, tuck your legs back some as well. This will instantly create a much more solid foundation. It will also help create an arc (see below) as well as enable leg drive
- Create a slight arch with your back. This doesn’t need to be anything outrageous but you should have a minimal arc when training for strength. Ideally, you should be able to have a friend put their hand between the bench and mid-lower portion of your back. An easy way to do this is to grab the bar and lift your back some and then pull your shoulder blades back. Now plant your upper back into the bench firmly
- Use leg drive. Now that your back is firmly planted, push with your legs as if you’re trying to drive your upper back through the bench. This takes some time to perfect so give it time.
- Use a J-Curve when pressing. Most new lifters will push the bar straight up because this the shortest path. This is true for most lifts but not the bench press. We bring the bar down to the nipples so if we press straight up, the bar has a distance from the shoulders location. This distance creates an inferior mechanical advantage. Instead, the bar should start straight above your shoulders and then come down at a curve to your nipples. When you press up, the bar follows the same path and goes up and towards your head.
7. Special Cues And Tips For The Bench Press
Cues are little signals and tips we give to increase the performance of a lift. Below are a few for the bench press.
- Squeeze the bar. This is an extremely easy and effective practice. While it’s not quite clear how or why it works, it is believed that squeezing the bar during the press results in more muscle activation and greater neural control. Sounds crazy but it works.
- Bend the bar. This refers to taking your hands, and imagine you are trying to pull the bar apart. What this does is activates your lats to a higher extent which is needed for maximum force
- Push your body away. This cue can change the way the lifter looks at the lift. Instead of trying to push the bar up, imagine you are pushing your body down. This can help improve form and create maximal force.
8. Increase Your Training Frequency
Be sure to include a bench press workout at least twice a week; three may even provide better benefits but wait to see how your body reacts. This will instantly increase your volume and performance. How this can help is you can train bench press one day, and then one of the “special” variations the second day. In fact, there are a ton of ways to train this but definitely have some variety between those two days.
Add Weight To Your Bench Press Now
These are the most basic and effective alterations to make for fast bench press improvements. Using these will definitely going turn things around with your bench press. Remember not to get frustrated with your numbers. When you have been training for a while, it takes a lot longer to add weight to the bar so it’s not you, that’s just how our bodies work. And sometimes, it might even help to just put it aside for a while if it’s bringing you down. Just keep working it and don’t stop and soon, your barbell bench press will start seeing the numbers you’ve wanted.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long should I rest between sets?
Anywhere from 2-7 minutes. In reality, as long as you need. When you are training for strength, you want as little fatigue as possible to be present during your lifts. Therefore, make sure you take adequate rest. This will most likely be around 3-4 minutes for most people who are working in the 3-5 rep range but may go higher.
How to avoid damaging your shoulders when performing the bench press?
The shoulders can be injury-prone but you can reduce the risk of injury dramatically simply by keeping your elbows tucked. The most common cause for shoulder injuries during the bench press is improper form, specifically with the lowering portion of the bar. When lowering the bar, be sure to have your elbows tucked down towards your side. It should make about a 45-degree angle. DO NOT flare your elbows meaning you allow your elbows to be out straight. Secondly, go slow and controlled on the eccentric phase (going down). Letting it come down too fast and uncontrolled can generate excessive force.