Building A Better Bench Press

by Chris on April 17, 2013


Ah, the venerable bench press. For half the lifters in the gym it is their love. Every Monday, without question, is bench day. Upon greeting a new member of the gym tribe the traditional greeting is of course “How much ya bench?”

Then there are the rest of us. For us, the bench press is the bane of our gym existence. No matter what you do this lift doesn’t seem to improve. To say it’s frustrating doesn’t even really begin to cover it, so instead you focus on getting stronger on other lifts and maybe neglect the bench altogether.

The good news is that if you fall into the second category you don’t need to lose all hope: there are things you can do to improve this lift. The first is pretty simple: gain some weight. Muscle that is. Simply getting bigger will give you more muscle to recruit and will actually improve your leverage on the lift. All this equals more weight on the bar.

Your other option is to improve your training strategy.

Take What Is Useful, Discard The Rest

For raw lifters (i.e. those who don’t use a bench shirt or other assistive gear) there is always going to be a need to perform the actual lift regularly in training. You need to develop technique and “grease the groove” for the lift and the more often you perform it the better this will be.

However, there are also different lifts that have a good carryover to the bench. These movements, when trained regularly will help improve your strength on the bench even though you’re not actually performing the traditional lift. While not everybody has the same carryover lifts there are a few common ones. A lift with the best carryover to the traditional bench should have a direct correlation to your bench performance. In other words when it gets better, your bench gets better and vice versa. That’s an important criterion to pay attention to. If you get stronger on the carryover lift, but don’t see a distinct improvement in your bench from it it’s pretty freakin’ worthless.

An example: since the Westside method has exploded in popularity and everyone seems to be using it the use of boards and chains has skyrocketed. But I’ve got some bad news for those of you who don’t wear a bench shirt: board presses and lockouts don’t usually translate to a better raw bench. Sure, they are fun because you get to move shitloads of weight and maybe you should rotate them in once in a while (I do like partials every now and then) but they aren’t going to build your full range bench press.

Ever see the guy in the gym who benches with half range of motion (or less)? He’s essentially doing a lockout (whether it’s on purpose or not)! How many of those guys have full benches that you’d be envious of? NOT A GODDAMN ONE

Partial reps build partial strength. And don’t even try that “It builds my lockout” crap. If you’re a raw lifter you probably don’t have trouble with your lockout. You are probably weak about 4 inches off the chest. So board presses above a 1-board aren’t going to help much.

What does help? That depends on you. I have had great success with dead stop benching about 1” off the chest. Basically it’s like a very strictly paused bench but I make some minor modifications:

  • Set the safety pins to a height about 1” off the chest
  • Unrack the bar like normal and lower to the pin
  • Pause on the pin for a SOLID 1-2seconds
  • Repeat

Why use the pins? For one it’s just safe and means you don’t need a spotter. Secondly, it means that I can take a significant pause without having a loaded barbell on my chest. No other lift has translated so well to my traditional bench press.

As I mentioned above different people have success with different lifts. My friend Paul Carter of Lift-Run-Bang is a big fan of using the incline bench press to improve his traditional bench. I, however, never noticed any improvement to my bench from it. One thing we both agree on: lockouts & board presses probably won’t help you much.

A Crap Program Will Yield Crap Results

This is another significant factor in improving your bench. Most people I hear from who have stalled bench presses tell me something like this: “I’ve tried X program, Y program, Z cycle, ABC program and so on – and none of them worked!”

Well step one is this: if you’ve tried all those programs, chances are you didn’t give any of them the time to work that you should have. The bench doesn’t improve like other lifts so you can’t reasonably expect to add 25lbs to it in a month or even in a couple of months.

Then again, there is always the chance that the program genuinely didn’t work for you. In that case you need to go back to the drawing board and find out what works. I’m a simple kind of guy. Big lifts, hard work and slow but steady progress.

If your workout begins with triceps kickbacks and finishes with partial range pushdowns you’re probably not going to get very far. Here’s an example of a solid bench workout:

A1. Paused Bench Press – 4 x 6

A2. Barbell Row – 4 x 10-12

B1. Pull-ups – 5 x 10

B2. DB Incline Bench – 5 x 8-10

C1.  Weighted dips – 4 x 10-15

C2. Face pulls – 4 x 15

Notice anything? It starts with a movement that has direct impact on the bench. It’s also made up of mostly (all actually) compound movements. There’s also an even emphasis on the muscles of the back and front. Obviously this is only one workout out of an entire program but knowing how to structure an effective workout is the first, and most important, step.

Setup: The Red Headed Step Child of the Bench

Let me tell you a story: one day while working at the gym I had a guy come ask me for a spot on the bench. As soon as he unracked 225 I knew I was in for some deadlift/upright row action on my part. Needless to say he got one half rep and then I ended up hoisted the next few. After he racked it I took a few minutes and walked him through a more effective set up. 10 minutes later he hit 235 for a couple of full reps. Magic.

Guys tend to rush the bench setup because they’re so eager to bro-out and bang out some reps. But taking a few extra seconds to set up well could mean the difference between struggling and a new PR.

A good bench set up looks like this:

  • Head, shoulders and hips on the bench
  • Back arched
  • Shoulder blades pulled together and weight on your upper back
  • Feet flat on the floor and placed underneath you

Sound a little different than what you do? Seem like a lot more work than you’re used to? If so chances are your setup could use some improvement.

If I wrote every tip to improve your bench this would go on forever. Ultimately, you need to find what works best for you, but here is a simple recap of things to help:

  • Find out what movements work to improve your bench. If it goes up but your bench doesn’t it’s not worth much
  • Get on a decent program that is specific to your goal. If you don’t wear gear your program needs to be based on that.
  • Improve your technique. I don’t care who you are or how much you bench, your technique can get better.

Working Out Doesn’t Have To Suck. Get Stronger, Leaner and Better with my Distance Coaching.

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