If you tell anyone you lift weights, at some point they are going to ask you “so – what do you bench?” The bench press epitomizes weight training for many people and even those who have never set foot in a gym will have a rudimentary understanding of the bench press.
The bench press is actually a relatively new exercise that has only been in existence for around 75 years. Prior to the invention of the bench press, presses were done standing, lying on the floor on your back or in a sort of wrestler’s bridge. Fast forward to today and every gym the world over has at least one dedicated bench press station and Monday is national bench press day everywhere from Aberdeen to Adelaide!
The popularity of the bench press lies in the fact that it’s a (seemingly) relatively simple exercise to learn and it targets the muscles a lot of guys want to build, namely the pecs, deltoids and triceps. It’s also the second lift contested in powerlifting competitions and is even used in the NFL as an indicator of upper body pushing ability – maximum reps with 100kg being a compulsory test.
So, as the bench press is all but unavoidable, you may want to improve your bench press ability!
For such a seemingly simple exercise, there is a lot going on when you bench press – or there should be if you do it right. Although you may be fine sticking with your current bench press technique, a few tweaks can add kilos to your performance.
- Drive your upper back into the bench as hard as you can and squeeze your shoulder blades tightly together; this reduces your range of movement and therefore the distance the bar has to travel.
- Position your hands so that your forearms are vertical when the bar is on your chest.
- Grip the bar as hard as you can to activate your stabilizer muscles and minimize bar wobble which wastes energy.
- Keep your wrists straight and rest the bar on the heel of your hands. Wrap your fingers around the bar and do not use a false, fingerless grip. Wrist wraps can be useful with heavy weights.
- Arch your lower back and lift your chest toward the bar to further reduce the distance the bar has to travel. Keep your butt on the bench though.
- Drive your feet into the floor and make sure your legs, glutes and lower back stay tight throughout your set.
- Inhale prior to lowering the bar and only exhale once you have pushed the bar up past your sticking point.
- Lower the bar to the highest part of your chest to minimize the distance you have to lower the bar.
- Have a spotter on hand whenever you bench press with heavy weights or use a power rack with the safety bars in place.
- Practice these techniques each and every time you bench press – including your warm ups.
To get better at bench press you need to bench press frequently enough to improve your technique and build your pressing muscles but not so frequently you end up with shoulder issues or overuse injuries. For most people, this is twice a week.
Follow this programme for six weeks and you’ll see a marked improvement in your bench press ability – both in terms of strength and reps performed. Workout one e.g. Monday
- Two-count pause bench press 4 sets of 6
- Speed bench press 5 sets of 2
- Max reps bench press 1 set of as many reps as possible
For the two-count pause bench press, lower the bar to your chest and hold it there for a two-count before driving the bar back up to full extension. Do not relax between reps – stay tight the whole time. This exercise is designed to help make you more explosive off the chest. Rest 120-seconds between sets.
For the speed bench, use a light to moderate weight. Lower the bar as normal but then explode it off your chest as fast as you can as though you were trying to throw the bar through the ceiling. If you cannot do this exercise at maximum speed, it’s too heavy. Rest 60-seconds between sets.
For the max reps bench press, load the bar with 60, 75, 90 or 100kg and do a single set of as many reps as possible. Make a note of how many reps you do and try and beat that score next week. Keep the weight the same for each workout. Workout two e.g. Thursday
- Touch and go bench press 5 sets of 5
- Dead stop floor press 3 sets of 8
- Incline bench press 1 ½ reps 2 sets of 6
For the touch and go bench press, lower the bar and then drive it back up as soon as it touches your chest. Do not bounce the bar off your chest though – it should only touch down lightly. Rest 120-seconds between sets.
For the dead stop floor press, do your bench press lying on the floor. Lower the bar until your elbows touch the ground and pause for a second. Drive the bar up to full arm extension and repeat. Rest 90-seconds between sets. This is an excellent triceps builder. For the incline bench press, lower the bar to your chest, push it half way up, lower it back to your chest and then push it all the way up – that’s one rep. This places a lot of tension on your chest but also makes the exercise very difficult so use a light to moderate weight. Rest 90-seconds between sets.
Following this bench press specialization workout will add kilos to your bench press and inches to your chest and triceps. Balance up all this chest work with plenty of rowing-type movements to keep your upper back strong.
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