The bench press. This is one of the original rite of passage exercises that many lifters spend countless hours, often too many, perfecting. When you’re a beginner, you’ve probably done two main exercises: the bicep curl and the bench press. Then the love story begins.
The bench press is a powerful upper body movement – it builds power, muscle and strength in the chest, shoulders and triceps due to several factors.
- The fixed range of motion and relatively straight pressure path allow you to lift heavier weights.
- Plus, lying on a weight bench gives you the stability to make it all happen.
During this quest to create more and more 1RM, plateaus and pain will eventually occur. You’re stuck and may see no way out of your bench press purgatory – eight trainers who love the bench press as much as you give you expert advice on how to improve it.
Now, these tips are designed so that you only try a few at a time to find what works for you. If they do well, you have found a solution. If not, try the next one to see if your bench press performance will eventually plateau.
1. USE FAT GRIPZ
Kevin Mullins Jr. CSCS, BS Kinesiology, University of Maryland, Director of Product Development – The St. James
For years weightlifters, strength athletes and bodybuilders have used fattening tools to increase the demand on the forearms and, in some exercises, the biceps and triceps during major lifts. And it works.
Yet many miss the benefit of using Fat Gripz on their bench press – a common mistake since you don’t accurately “grip” your dumbbells or barbell during pressing movements as much as you’re under the fulcrum of the charge.
However, using a larger grip point can dramatically increase pectoral muscle recruitment during your bench press – an epic trick of the trade to stimulate hypertrophy or improve muscle recruitment before more maximal effort.
How to do:
- The body has something known as the “radiation concept,” a scientific principle that states that muscle contraction in one location impacts contraction in other areas. In its simplest explanation, the entire body is linked to improve total force production and distribute stress equally and appropriately to the various muscular systems. Great for max effort deadlifts, squats or stealing a new PR pullup…
- Not so beneficial for targeting (isolating) muscle tissue and creating greater sensation.
- Being able to wrap your entire grip around a barbell or dumbbell increases tissue recruitment in the triceps and forearm, removing some of the load placed on the shoulder complex and, finally, on the pectorals.
- Fattened grip handles decrease your ability to use lower and upper arm muscles and transfer more force into the pecs, lats, and posterior deltoids (during the lowering phase). This will spice up your training effect without the need to add excess weight.
For muscle growth: Try three sets of 8-10 reps with a 4-2-1 tempo (eccentric, isometric, concentric) on your next flat or incline bench press. Go lighter and accentuate the feeling of breakdown instead of just moving the resistance.
For strength: Try five sets of 3 reps at 80% of your 1RM to increase sensation and kinesthetic awareness. Press the same way you’ll perform your biggest lifts, and rest about 45 seconds between sets in the Fat Grip version.
2. USE YOUR FEET
Allan Bacon, Ph.D., an online personal trainer specializing in training weightlifters and body composition clients
If you want a bigger bench, watch your feet! Perfecting the leg drive on the bench press allows you to be stronger, maintain upper back position, and protect your shoulders simultaneously.
How to use your feet for a better bench press
- Find a comfortable foot placement. It will be either with flat feet or pressing on the ball of the foot.
- “Screw” or lock your feet into the ground.
- Keeping your feet locked and starting with your torso higher on the bench, slide down the bench as far as your foot will allow and is comfortable to establish tightness. It usually ends with your shins vertical.
- Angle your hips up and back toward your shoulders (keeping your glutes in contact with the pad) while simultaneously retracting and lowering your shoulders.
- To maintain tightness through the “leg push,” use your feet to push both down to the floor and forward toward your toes (or away from you) to lock your whole body in place. In a flat foot stance (which I recommend), focus on pressing down and away with the outside of your heel.
- Maintain tightness throughout the lift, from legs to hips to shoulders.
A special note about setup: if you find it excessively difficult to push both down and out, your feet are probably in the wrong position. If you feel like you can push down but not out, your feet are too far from your shoulders. If you feel like you can push off but not down, your feet are placed too far in front of you.
3. KEEP YOUR BUTT ON THE BENCH
Andrew Heming, MS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, former college head coach, teacher and coach
If you want to compete in powerlifting, you have to keep your butt on the bench. If you want to brag about what you can do on the bench, you have to keep your butt on the bench. If you want to know if the weight you add to the bar makes your upper body bigger and stronger, you need to keep your butt on the bench.
How to keep your butt on the bench:
- You can start by playing with the position of your feet in your set-up.
- If your feet are too narrow or too high, you will increase the risk of your buttocks popping out. However, you can also use the trick I learned years ago to give you helpful feedback and fix this problem.
You can use this technique with your regular bench press training – no special exercises, no extra time.
4. PRESS ON BOARD
Chris Cooper, strength and nutrition coach at NerdFitness
This variation of the bench press involves placing a wooden board or board across your chest to shorten the range of motion. The hardest part of improving your bench press is getting past the friction points on the lift. A common sticking point is when the bar is closest to the chest. Think about the last time you wrestled on the bench.
If you reduce the range of motion using a plank, you can push more weight, reinforcing the friction points where you struggle. You can also use the 2-plank press when the full range of motion presses bothers your shoulders. This way we can continue to achieve a training effect without compromising the joint.
How to do
- Prepare as you would for a regular bench press with the addition of a plank to your chest.
- If you train with a partner, he can keep it for you. otherwise, putting it under your shirt works well.
- Unhook the bar and lower it to the tray, then press down.
The 2-plank press can be used as your primary strength lift for the day in place of your programmed bench press if strength is your goal. If more muscle is the end goal, put the 2-plank press in your program as an accessory exercise aiming for more than 8 reps.
5. ASSISTED BENCH PRESS AND RESISTED BAND
Travis Pollen, Ph.D., exercise science teacher and personal trainer
The weak point of many bench pressers is their locking. Two of the best solutions to attack this weakness are assisted and resist band pressing, which allows you to overload the upper range of motion (ROM).
How to Do the Band Assisted and Resisted Bench Press
- In the band-assisted variation, you loop a resistance band around your arms (like a fitted powerlifting bench shirt).
- The band stretches as you lower the bar, providing plenty of support at the bottom of the rep. The band allows you to use a heavier load on the bar than usual because you only feel the full load at the top of the ROM when the band is stretched to the minimum.
- In the resistance band variant, you hold a looped resistance band in your hands and wrap it around your upper back.
- The band provides additional resistance to the top of the ROM in its stretched position. Band tension decreases as you lower the bar, lightening the overall load (bar plus band) at the bottom of the rep.
Choose one of the variations and spend four to six weeks working on it once a week, either as your main bench variation or as an accessory. Three working sets of 6 to 8 repetitions will do the trick.
6. PIN PRESS WITH FEET UP
Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., a metabolic fitness professional, strength trainer and educator specializing in tailoring nutrition to each individual’s needs
Pin press with feet up works great if your grip point is down or a few inches from the bottom since 1) You do it with a long pause to reduce soft tissue contribution in the stretched position so the muscle has to work harder. 2) You do it with a flat back, so there is an increased range of motion for a greater training effect as an incidental movement.
How to Do the Pin Press with Feet Up
- Install it in a power rack with safety pins in the lower position.
- Lower the bar to the pins with your feet on the bench so your lower back is also pushed into the flat bench (no arch or leg workout).
- After a lower pause of 5 seconds, bring the bar back up.
Best as an accessory move after more specific bench work; it can be the same day or a different day. Repeat for repetitions around the 5 -12 range for 2 to 4 sets.
7. 1.5 REP BENCH PRESS
Korey Van Wyk, CSCS Business and Professional Acquisitions Editor for Physical Activity
The 1.5 rep bench press can increase your bench press in several ways. If you are weak in the lower half of your press (from the chest to mid-rise), it will strengthen that part of the lift and make you a more efficient presser by improving your technique. Repeating the lower part of the lift allows you to practice hitting the right spot on your chest and ensure your bar path is on track.
How to Bench Press 1.5
- Set up as you normally would for your standard bench press; lower the bar towards your chest, but instead of pressing it all the way down, you’ll press it halfway down and come to a stop. Halfway through, pause for at least a second. This is an essential aspect of the lift as it will require you to have proper wrist/elbow alignment and proper bar tracking.
- As for the exact stopping point on the way up, you have a little wiggle room. It doesn’t have to be exactly halfway, but where you feel weakest in your press ROM. After the pause, come back down to your chest and pause again. This second pause is another technical checkpoint, as explained above. Finally, after the second pause, blow the bar off your chest explosively to lock in.
Warming up is one of my favorite ways to incorporate this movement into a program. Rather than mindlessly pumping reps with lighter weights, use this time to refine your technique and warm up simultaneously. Use it until you reach a weight that would tire you out from the number of reps you do. Then, move to regular reps for the rest of your warm-up and working sets. This alone could be the spark you need for new gains!
8. SHOULDER TORQUE FOR BETTER DEVELOPMENT
Dr. Bo Babenko, a physical therapist and strength trainer specializing in strengthening the mind, body and soul
So, are you ready to take your bench press to the next level? The concept of torque is one that any physicist will surely discuss for hours or so, but it is sometimes lacking in the later stages of strength training. I’ve heard of top lifters who set world records and use the torque concept.
Understanding these concepts can lead to improved shoulder mechanics and fewer injuries. Getting better at “splitting the bar” is weak, hanging fruit that you can integrate as you progress in your pushing ability.
How to do:
- When you do the bench press, it’s simply a matter of rotating your thumbs toward each other, which can also be considered a supination (like holding a bowl of soup in your palm).
- With the right elbow, we speak of external rotation of the shoulder.
By doing so, you improve your shoulder stability and power. Include them in your warm-up to prime the muscles with three sets of 12 reps at a weight below 90%, and consider including it between sets that build up to maximums or weights above 90%.