How much ya bench? If you’re like most of us the answer to that question is “not enough.”
The bench press can be a frustrating exercise. A small percentage of lifters are naturally able to press a ton of weight, while the rest of us struggle to hit 225 pounds for reps. Is there anything you can do to improve your bench press numbers? Absolutely.
Read on. The following 20 tips are guaranteed to help. They certainly helped me. My bench press started at a paltry 95 pounds for reps and peaked at nearly 430 pounds years later.
Tip #1 – Row The Bar
Row the bar? Yes, row the bar. Row the bar towards your chest. We all know that keeping a tight back is an essential aspect of good form. To help achieve a tight back, concentrate on rowing the bar towards your chest as if you were performing a barbell row or lat pull down.
Tip #2 – Plant Your Feet
One of the hidden keys to a bigger bench press is leg drive. Stop shuffling your feet, and learn to plant them firmly in a position of leverage and power. Start each bench press rep by driving fromthe floor. If you focus on turning the bench press into a full body exercise, your pressing numbers will improve.
Tip #3 – Be Patient
Stop expecting to add 20 pounds to your bench press each month. This isn’t going to happen. Instead, focus on small steps like trying to knock out an extra rep per set. Over time these small steps add up to big gains. You’re better off pushing for consistent improvement rather than putting an extra 50 pounds on the bar and trying to grind out forced reps.
Tip #4 – Get Racked!
No spotter? Bench press in a squat rack. Adjust the pins to a safe depth that can catch the bar a hair below chest level if you fail on a rep. And if you have no squat rack and are without a spotter, avoid the Smith machine at all costs. You’re better off doing dumbbell bench presses.
Tip #5 – Beef Up Your Back
When training for a big bench press you also want to build up your back strength. A powerful back assists your pressing drive, and will also help prevent injuries. When you only train “push” movements and ignore “pull” movements, you create muscular imbalances. The back is your bench press table. Beef it up with heavy rows.
Tip #6 – Squeeze The Bar
After finding your proper grip width, squeeze the bar and pretend you are trying to bend the ends of the bar inward towards your feet. This will help you keep your elbows in a better position, improve your eccentrics, and assist with keeping your upper body tight and strong.
Tip #7 – Don’t Forget The CNS
The CNS, or central nervous system, plays an integral role in moving heavy iron. If your CNS is not properly warmed up, the weight will feel overly “heavy”. There is a way to help make a weight feel lighter. Instead of adding a lot of weight to the bar for each warm up set, jump by smaller increments - say 30 pounds - and perform only a few reps per warm up set. This will help prime, or prepare your central nervous system for your heavier sets.
Tip #8 – Take Your Time
Take your time in between heavy sets. It may be necessary to rest as long as 3-5 minutes between each intense effort. When training heavy, give your body a chance to recover before having at it again. Remember, you are training for strength and not for speed or endurance.
Tip #9 – Eat!
If you want to get strong, stop undereating and worrying about your abs. Add some food to the plate. No one is asking for you to get fat, but you do need to eat enough daily calories and protein so that you can properly build strength (and muscle).
Tip #10 – Train Your Triceps
The bench press is not just a chest movement. To be a strong presser you also need to have powerful triceps. When working the triceps directly make sure you use quality compound exercises such as close grip bench presses and board presses. Even exercises such as dips will help build tricep strength, and are a much better choice than tricep extensions or dumbbell kickbacks.
Tip #11 – Don’t Max Out
You don’t need to max out each and every session. In fact, you really don’t need to max out at all. Pick a rep range you enjoy, generally between 5-12 reps per set, and focus on doing more reps per set each workout. This will build strength. Once you have built a substantial amount of strength it may be beneficial to use lower reps, but until that point, stop maxing out!
Tip #12 – Bench First
Sounds like an obvious tip, but it needs to be stated. If you want a beefy bench press, make sure it’s the first lift you perform that training day. Devote all your energy and strength into the bench press, and then move on to other exercises.
Tip #13 – Eyeball The Ceiling
After unracking the bar, keep your eyes on the ceiling. When completing each rep try to press the bar back to the same spot on the ceiling each time.
Tip #14 – Stop Flaring Your Arms
This is by far and away the biggest bench press mistake. Stop flaring your arms! This is horrible on the shoulders, bad form and not good for strength. It is far better to have your elbows at approximately 45 degrees from your torso. This is a good starting point, and minor form adjustments can be made from here.
Tip #15 – Focus On Form
If you want to get strong, stop trying to “feel” your chest working when pressing. Train the lift, not the muscles. When you focus on chest, and only chest, you are taking your attention away from proper form. And when you stop thinking about form, you open yourself up to decreases in strength and the possibility of injury. No one ever masters form. You must be giving form your constant attention. Forget about the “mind muscle“ connection and train the bench press as a lift.
Tip #16 – Explode!
Power involves speed, and speed requires an explosive force. Stop trying to baby or power each rep up. Instead, focus on pressing the bar in an explosive manner. This will not only help complete an extra rep or two, but will also help build strength in the long run.
Tip #17 – Practice Proper Alignment
When the bar is at chest level, your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor. Also, make sure your wrists are directly over your elbows, and that your knuckles are pointing towards the ceiling. This is proper bench press alignment.
Tip #18 – Work Your Sticking Points
Where are you the weakest? Is it off the chest, or do you have a hard time locking out each rep? Learn to train your weaknesses. If you are weak off the chest, try using pause-reps. If you have a weak lockout, incorporate some board presses or pin presses.
Tip #19 - Gain Some Perspective
Youtube is full of videos featuring powerlifters benching 800 to 1000 pounds. These guys are using bench press shirts that add hundreds of pounds to their lifts and are competing in non-drug tested meets. For a natural trainee a 300 pound raw bench press is a great accomplishment. A 400 pound raw bench press is rare, despite all the bro-speak and posturing on forums.
Tip #20 – Work The Rear Delts And Traps
Don’t forget the rear delts and traps. Small and weak upper body muscle groups can limit your pressing power. If you want to bench big, build stronger rear delts and traps.