Perfecting Your Program: Add Pounds to Your Bench Press

I see far more lifters struggle with bench than with squat or deadlift, and I include myself in that group. My bench is by far my weakest lift, and although it’s improving, it’s improving slowly. It’s a tricky movement for several reasons.

First, and probably most importantly, there’s just a lower ceiling on the bench relative to the lower-body lifts. Unless you’re a bench-only specialist, you probably don’t bench nearly as much as you squat or pull. That’s not a problem, exactly, but it means that you’re working with a smaller margin of error in your program design. In other words, when you’re starting out, it’s a lot harder to add 5 pounds to your 1-RM bench of 275 (a 2% increase) than it is to add 5 pounds to your 1-RM deadlift of 500 pounds (a 1% increase).

Second, it’s far more difficult to grind on upper-body lifts. You’ll see plenty of guys who can grind out rep after grueling rep on the squat or deadlift, and while their form might start to break down a bit, they still move the weight. That’s much rarer with the bench press, and again, that’s because you’re working with a smaller margin of error: the lift involves lighter loads, a shorter range of motion, and smaller muscle groups relative to the squat and deadlift.

When lifters struggle to increase their bench, they’re usually not accounting for those factors. It’s natural when you’re struggling to just try harder and assume that will fix the problem, but unfortunately, and especially on the bench, it’s more likely to lead to overreaching or even injury.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

So, if you’re plateauing on bench, more intensity is rarely the answer. Instead, take a look at some of the other variables involved in your programming: frequency, volume, and variation. I find that the bench press responds particularly well to higher-frequency training. I think that’s directly related to the idea of the lower ceiling: when you’re using less weight – even if you’re training at relatively high percentages of your 1-RM – you’re putting less overall stress on your body.

Less stress means faster recovery; faster recovery means that you can – and should – train more frequently. This also explains why beginner programs often involve full-body routines to be performed 3 days per week: beginners aren’t yet strong enough to need several days of recovery after performing a single movement.

Personally, I like to train the bench press 3 or 4 times a week. That’s a lot, and if you’re only benching once or twice a week, I don’t suggest you jump all the way to 4 – that’s a great way to get hurt. Instead, start by just pressing one additional day per week (and make sure that you reduce your volume on each pressing day so that you’re not performing too much additional work all at once). If that helps, you can try adding another day; or try adding some extra volume on the days you’re currently training.

If you are benching 3-4 times a week, then you might find that you start to feel a bit stale – either physically or mentally tired of performing the same exercise so often. That’s a great opportunity to experiment with some variation in your bench training. There are plenty of movements that are very similar to the competition-style bench, but aren’t exactly the same: close grip bench presses, incline presses, board presses, bench presses with a Slingshot – and you can probably think of a lot more.

All of these movements will strengthen the muscles involved in the bench, but they’ll also allow you to enjoy a little more variety and to focus on weak points. For example, if you find that your sticking point is always somewhere around lockout, adding close grip benching to strengthen your triceps is a fantastic idea. The trick here is to choose variations that strengthen your weaknesses, and that can be tricky, sometimes.

In our example above, maybe your poor lockout isn’t caused by weak triceps at all, but rather by a slow pressing speed off the chest. In that case, you’d be better off incorporating some long-pause presses or speed presses. Unless you’re working closely with a knowledgeable coach, there’s no perfect, easy way to choose the right variations for you. You’ll have to experiment by trying one variation at a time, and sticking with it for at least 3 or 4 weeks to see if it helps.

Find Your Sweet Spot

It’s very important to remember that no matter how you choose to train the bench, consistent progress requires consistent adaptation. In fact, that’s true of any movement, but again, with the bench press, I find that most lifters have to be especially cognizant of how their bodies respond to training.

There’s no simple way to determine the appropriate amount of volume for you at any given point in time, but there are a few guidelines you can follow to figure it out:

1. First, remember that the bench (and the upper body in general) tends to respond a bit better to higher-frequency training, and that higher-frequency training generally allows you to use a bit more total volume than lower-frequency training does. In fact, I find that I can often train with twice as much volume on the bench as I would on the squat and deadlift.

2. Second, remember the relationship between volume and intensity: the heavier you train, the less volume you should use. Again, this is true of all movements.

3. Finally, the best way to determine the ideal amount of volume for progress is to start small and progress slowly. If you’re only benching for about 25 working reps per week, for example, you might try increasing that to 30, and then to 35, and then to 40 – but you’ll need to do so very cautiously, especially if you also plan to increase the weights
you’re using, or the frequency of your training, or if you want to incorporate variations of
pressing movements. I recommend only changing one of these factors at a time, and
giving your body 3-4 weeks to adjust before deciding whether that change was beneficial.
Patience is key here.

4. On the flip side, if you’re already training with massive volumes, a big change can be very helpful. For example, if you’re training with 100 working reps per week, dropping down to 25 might be necessary for your body to recover from overreaching. It’s not always the case, but chances are, if you’re reading this article, you love to train, and to train hard. You’ll probably benefit a lot from holding yourself back just a little, so don’t be afraid to do less.

Again, above all else, remember that the bench press is typically slow to progress, and that the “right” way to train will very much depend on your individual nuances. Don’t get frustrated, stay patient, and stay persistent.

Find Your Golden Goose

If your program is on point, but you’re still struggling to progress, then a little more variation is probably your best bet. Oftentimes, in addition to a good progression scheme, lifters need to find that one perfect accessory exercise that has a high carryover to the competition lift. That’s your golden goose, and if you can find it, you’ll see big gains.

Keep in mind, that while I already mentioned the value of close variations to the competition lift, but there’s also a lot of value to creativity. If close-grip, incline, or board presses don’t work for you, then don’t be afraid to try something a little different.

Take me, for example. The mid-range is always the most difficult part of my bench press (and I think this is true of most raw lifters). Mid-range is generally the point where momentum off the chest is lost, and the load begins to shift from the pecs towards the front delts and triceps – much smaller muscle groups. Most people recommend board presses for this exercise, but I’ve always had a problem with those. In fact, I’ve suffered slight injuries on three different occasions when training with board presses, and in my book, three strikes is definitely an out.

So instead, I rely heavily on JM presses to strengthen those muscle groups, and I like to perform them using a safety squat bar. You’ll need to find an SSB that allows you to remove the handles, and the only one I know of is the Elitefts Yoke Bar (disclaimer: I’m sponsored by Elitefts, and there are probably other brands that have removable handles – I’m just not familiar with them.)

In the JM press, the bar is held in the same position as in the start of a competition-style bench, but is then lowered straight down towards the face, by pushing the elbows forward and slightly out – almost like a skullcrusher, or halfway between a skullcrusher and a close-grip bench. The JM press is a great movement, because it allows you to work the triceps with very heavy weights, and so typically has a great carryover to the competition bench. Unfortunately, it’s also really difficult to keep good form.

The safety bar solves that problem: you can use the pads of the bar as levers to keep the weight moving in a straight line and help keep your elbows in the proper groove. As an added bonus, safety bars are usually a bit thicker than regular barbells, and thicker bars tend to be a bit easier on the elbows and wrists. I find that using the safety bar, I can really load this exercise up – I’ve done a set of 5 with 335 pounds, which is about 75% of my best 1-RM bench press.

Because I do train it so heavily, I only incorporate JM presses once per week, on the same day as my heaviest bench press training. That gives me plenty of time to recover before pressing heavy again. I generally use 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps, in a waved fashion, like this:

Week 1: 4 sets of 8 reps with moderate load
Week 2: 5 sets of 5 reps with moderate-heavy load
Week 3: 5 sets of 8 reps with heavy load
Week 4: 3 sets of 5 reps with light load
(I use this same 4-week wave for many of my assistance exercises.)

Now, your golden goose probably won’t be the same as mine. That’s okay. Again, the key here is to stay patient and persistent. Try an exercise, stick with it for a month or so, and then reassess your progress. If the new exercise is a good one for you, trust me – you’ll know. If you’re not sure, that’s fine. Just try another exercise, and another. Eventually, the gains will come!

Feature image screenshot from Ben Pollack YouTube channel. 

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.