The first question anyone asks when they find out a person lifts weights is always the same:
“What do you bench?”
A growing number of meatheads at local gyms are spreading the trend of bench press being the most important exercise everyone should do.
Even though I believe that's far from truth, I will agree that it’s an important component for upper body strength development, and can help to establish a size foundation in novice lifters. The problem is, most people have no idea how to program or execute the lift and thus it results in minimal strength gains.
Trust me, after you read this article, you won’t be one of those people.
A Few Ground Rules
This article is going to focus on the flat barbell bench press – as traditional as they come. I’ll save incline or dumbbell variations for another article.
There are basic rules to follow that will save you from just plain looking stupid when you step into the gym.
Given you’re healthy, bench pressing involves taking the bar off the rack, lowering it to contact your torso, and then pressing the bar back up to lockout for a full repetition. No half reps. Your feet are on the ground, and not lifted off or tucked towards your upper body.
In my opinion, you’re not really bench pressing if the above isn’t being followed - just so we’re on the same page.
Benching 101: A Simple How To
The video below will walk you through the correct way to bench press.
If you notice unwanted shoulder or elbow stress or a limited amount of “drive” you can produce under heavier weights, then you’re likely having issues with your setup.
Keeping physics on your side through the setup is half the battle to getting a stronger bench press, utilizing all of the chest musculature, and achieving the size and strength you seek.
Tools of the Trade
Now that you’ve gotten a lesson on how to do the lift, it’s time to put some sure-fire methods to use so you can amplify your gains.
The truth is, during the workout, your work sets are the most important component, so don't spend too much time on things that will take away from them. That being said, lets address my first point - the warmup.
Other than basic mobility drills to get the fluids going in your shoulder joint, you should be focused on stabilizing the scapulae.
Personally, I find it helpful to start my chest workouts by doing some lightly weighted row variations to tighten up the shoulder retractors and depressors. Any rows work – seated, inverted, bent over, single arm, even band-resisted - you name it.
The goal is simply to get blood in the upper back to limit the-range of scapular protraction, since having too much can the quality of the lift and your shoulder health. Once you’ve done a set or two of 15 reps, it’s time to start your ramp up sets.
To properly ramp to your work sets it’s important to listen to your body.
Don’t make excessively small jumps that accrue fatigue but at the same time, don't make excessively large jumps until your body is prepared for them. Also, stay in a repetition range that stimulates your central nervous system, but doesn’t affect your muscular fatigue levels. You should exit each ramping set feeling strong – like you could have done much more.
As an example, imagine you have a heavy bench workout comprised of multiple sets of 3. To get to your work sets, you need to ramp your way up to the working weight. If your true 8 rep max bench press is 200 pounds, then you should hit it for 3 or 4 reps if you plan to go up.
Here’s my personal ramping method used in a recent heavy chest workout:
- Empty bar x as many reps as needed
- 135x as many reps as needed
- 185x6 reps
- 205x5 reps
- 225x4 reps
- 255x3 reps (This is my normal 8-10 rep max)
- 275x3 reps
- 295x3 reps
- 305x3 reps
- 315x3 reps
- 325 – first work set of 3 reps
As you can see, with lower weights on my ramping sets, I never lift for reps that encroach on muscular fatigue, as doing so would take away from the quality of my work sets.
The above protocol seems like a lengthy warmup, but I’m also not recommending a full 2-3 minute rest between each set. Due to the parameters set above, resting for inside 1 minute at lower weights is perfectly fine.
Remember, it’s well below your actual threshold. The point of a warmup is to practice the pattern, and to get warm.
Secondly, we must also keep in mind that time spent under tension is another important variable. The more you can increase this number under safe circumstances, the more potential you’ll give your body to get bigger and stronger – especially your chest.
There are a few ways of increasing your total time under tension:
- Increase the number of reps performed in a given set
- Increase the number of sets performed for a given exercise
- Manipulate the tempo of your repetitions
The first two options are both perfectly fine and quite effective, but I favor the third option, since it serves more than one purpose.
When using a slower tempo – especially on the eccentric portion of your bench press – you can train the type IIB muscle fibers (your strongest ones) to work harder to control the load as it descends.
Besides having major implications for your strength development, the added time spent under contraction helps to release more key hormones for growth.
Above that, the psychological benefits from this method are fantastic as well: it creates the illusion of light weight feeling heavy and increases general fortitude within the set (mind over matter!).
Finally, using finishers can be important both for hormone release, blood circulation, and muscular degradation required for proper growth. After your final work set, lower the weight to approximately 60% of what you just lifted, and “rep it out” with a spotter.
Here's an example from one of my previous workouts:
Finally, the meat and potatoes. Use these two bench press workouts, once weekly in an alternating fashion over an 8 week phase to see huge gains in your bench press strength and an improvement in your chest development.
|Workout 1: CNS Loading||Sets||Reps||Rest|
|BB Flat Bench Press*||5||3-5||3|
|DB Incline Press||4||12-15||2|
|Standing High Pulley Cable Fly||4||12-15||2|
|*Finish with a single burnout set as described above.|
|Workout 2: High Volume/Tempo Training||Sets||Reps||Rest|
|BB Flat Bench Press (with 40x0 tempo)||8||8||90sec.|
|DB Incline Fly||4||12||90sec.|
|Standing High Pulley Cable Fly||4||12-15||2|
|Seated Chest Press Drop Set*||1||5,7,9||2|
|*4 rounds. Select the heaviest weight you can lift for 5 reps. Immediately rest and drop the weight by 20% and lift it for 7 more reps. Drop the weight once more by 20% and perform 9 reps.|
|Optional: Add Cumulative Weekly Volume|
|Two more times per week (on days of your choice), simply perform 4x12 ring push-ups for added chest stimulation and some shoulder stability work. You can rest as much as needed. The added forward protraction of the shoulder blade will actually prove beneficial for the health of the shoulder girdle as the scapulae won’t be pinned to a bench in order to do these. You can add them to the end of your other body part split workouts. If you really want to amplify your growth, add these in, and let the SAID principle take its toll.|
Bench or Bust...
Thought I was about to split the atom with this article?
Well, maybe I blew a few reader's minds, but the simple truth is that it only takes a few small tweaks to kick start your way to strength and size. If you’ve mastered your technique, then strategically applying some strategies from this article is just what you need to take your gains to the next level.