I don’t need to mention the over-glamourized attention that the bench press gets among men at virtually any classic gym. I’ve written plenty of articles about that.
I also don’t need to write an article about the proper technique or setup for a successful, safe and strong bench press. I’ve written plenty of articles about that, also.
What does deserve mention, however, are useful assistance movements to use if your goal is to have a stronger bench press – because the answer is more than just “more bench press variations”.
Sure, practicing the move itself and others like it can have a positive effect on your skill, but a weak foundation will still be a weak foundation, and there are other ways to attack that.
Though the bench press isn’t the major focus for most of my clients, here’s what we like to do when such a situation arises.
1. Inverted Rows (or many other rows!)
I can’t get into a “stronger bench press” article without mentioning the importance of rows and their variations. Since good form and safe shoulders relies on the strength of the upper back in this movement, it’s vital that the upper back is properly trained and has appreciable strength and mass.
Personally, I recognize that any pull movement is going to have a positive impact on scapular stability training when it’s done well, but I like to take things a step further and find a hand position that more closely mimics that of the standard conventional bench press.
Sometimes a close V-Grip can encourage the shoulder blades to slide away from one another, which defeats the purpose of the movement. Using a wider, shoulder-width grip (underhand or overhand) in an inverted row or seated row can be just what the doctor ordered to get the proper contraction necessary.
One more thing: A proper bench press setup asks for thoracic and mild lumbar extension when in position. Within reason, this should be a natural capability of the back and something practiced in training.
People who don’t believe that pulling exercises should incorporate slight arching and back extension don’t have a sound understanding of human biomechanics. For back muscles to contract (and for the scapulae to move towards each other), the thoracic region, and even the lumbar region to some degree, should extend.
Keeping a rigid and straight torso with the abdominals fully engaged will only work to negate the lift and forfeits plenty of back activation that a lifter can potentially achieve. Remember this the next time you hit the row machine or get under the bar.
2. Pin Press
If you have trouble with sticking points in your bench press (and we all do, which is why we all have PR’s), then an example of smart training would be to segment your lift into different portions and train it while zeroing in on that weak spot.
The pin press does just that.
By setting up in a squat cage with the pins at a certain level above the chest, the pin press removes any momentum from the bar transferring forces since it settles on the pins between each rep. Now you get to create a full force contraction without the aid of kinetic energy. That makes things harder, but better.
The other benefit of the pin press is that you can train as heavy as or heavier, for a higher volume than a typical bench press for a certain reason: There’s no negative rep. You can let the bar crash down to the pins without having to control and tempo it down for your safety.
That lack of eccentric tension is a huge sigh of relief for the central nervous system, and a way to focus only on the “lifting” component of the exercise. To parallel this as an example, Olympic weightlifters drop the barbell after each lift both in training and competition for similar reasons.
First, it’s a big injury risk to lower that kind of weight from overhead. Second, it gives the CNS a bit of a break allowing for more training to be done under heavier loads.
Focusing on sets of 3-5 reps is my favorite way to program the pin press, And I like setting it up at different points off the chest: 3 inches, 6 inches, and even 12 inches for lockout strength.
It probably sounds a bit strange to include push-ups in the discussion about ways to get a stronger bench press. But as I mentioned in my first subheading, there are things that a proper bench press setup asks of the body. One of those things is to have a rigid trunk and pinned shoulder blades. Over time, this can wreak some havoc, especially if you bench press a whole lot.
The area I’m trying to touch on here is called scapulohumeral rhythm. That sounds complicated, but it’s not. Simply put, a healthy shoulder blade should move as the upper arm moves away from your body. When this happens, there will be fewer chances for dysfunction and development for chronic pain or acute injury.
A bench press disallows this rhythm to happen since the shoulder blades remain in one place the entire time as the arms press the weight away. That’s a blessing for safe benching, but a curse for overall shoulder health. It’s one reason why the barbell flat bench press doesn’t take too much priority with my clients in our programs.
Push-Up variations allow for the proper function of the scapula to be trained, since they’re one of the only chest-dominant exercises where your back is free from a back support or bench. With that said, I encourage lifters to practice scapular mobility for shoulder health by allowing the serratus anterior muscles to pull the shoulder blades away from one another as the lift progresses.
And it’s made even better when you don’t just stay married to conventional push-ups. It’s a bodyweight calisthenic movement, so you can play around with them. Exploit this very skill by using different hand positions and even different foot positions. This is as much a trunk stability and shoulder health exercise as it is a chest movement, and more people need to take advantage of it.
If you want a better bench, this is one of those exercises where big results will come from change.
Most people struggling with their bench press have weak backs, bad form, and shoulder issues. Nip all three of those things in the bud by following the advice in this article, and being honest with yourself about what you can lift, and just what matters at the end of the day.
The minute you do, you’ll unlock plenty of gains you wish you’d gotten sooner.