Opinion

How Many Times a Week Should You Bench Press for Strength and Mass?

Unlike some movements, the bench press usually responds best to higher training frequency!

The bench press is an unusual exercise when it comes to training frequency — and for good reason. 

Over the last two decades, training frequency has been a hot topic across every strength and conditioning circle. The question of, “how much (any movement) is enough?” is a hugely popular Google search, and the volume of those searches has had a huge spike in the last five years alone.

We’ve written about workout frequency from a broader standpoint on multiple occasions with articles like “Is there an optimal training frequency?“, “How to individualize training frequency,” and many others, but again: the frequency you can (or perhaps should) train the bench press seems to be different to the ideal frequency for training lower body lifts.

Figuring out the minimum effective dose is usually the reason people ask about training frequency: the idea of doing just enough of something to facilitate growth without overdoing it and wasting energy. 

For this article, we’re going to dive into the nitty-gritty details of bench press frequency and discuss ways to think about how much is enough for strength, size, and power. 

Bench Press Bend the Bar

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

The Bench Press Is a Skill

Before diving into bench frequency, I think it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge how we think about this exercise.

In my opinion, we underestimate barbell movements and forget that they’re highly technical skills that require coordination, practice, and precision. The bench press, in particular is far more complex than most people imagine. Compound movements are skills and they need to be sharpened like a fine-tuned golf swing. 

If you keep the enormous complexity of a great bench press in mind, then it can help shape how you think about frequency. I like to think about it this way: how many times a week do you need to swing a golf club to be great? There’s no perfect answer, obviously, but definitely more than once, especially if you’re really trying to improve.

Now, you can improve your bench press by only training this movement pattern once a week — you might even be able to improve your bench without benching at all — but this article is tailored for lifters who want to push their bench press to the front of their goals list and emphasize strength and mass. The questions we want to approach are tailored to individuals who have very specific goals for their bench press, and want to maximize their growth on a weekly basis. 

Generally speaking, the bench press responds best to higher frequency — certainly more than once a week. If I had to guess, a lot of that has to do with how technical the movement is, and research tends to support this suggestion. 

What Does the Research Say on Bench Press Frequency?

While there hasn’t been a ton of research performed isolating the bench press and training frequency, some studies have included this exercise into a broader net that was cast on the topic. 

Training Frequency for Strength

Strength gain is interesting because it’s a variable that will be highly relative to one’s training age and history. What does that mean? Well, if you’re following a well-written program that takes basic training principles into account like overload, specificity, variation, and so forth, then you’ll get stronger in a movement more or less indefinitely.   

Plenty of programs will get you stronger benching once a week or several times a week because strength gain for one exercise will depend on multiple factors, and if your numbers are increasing on a week-to-week basis — whether it’s weight, volume, intensity, or another metric — and you’re doing the right accessory exercises, then there’s an argument to made that you’re getting stronger. Remember, strength is not always the result of simply adding more muscle. For example, an increase of weight on the bar could be a result of neurological adaptation and skill acquisition. 

But to avoid going down a rabbit hole, let’s frame strength as simply getting more weight on the bar.

Bench Press

1 Day a Week Versus 3 Days a Week

In a 2000 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, authors had 25 recreationally trained subjects follow a consistent workout program and split them into two groups (1). One group trained once a week, while the other group trained three times a week, and volume was equated for both groups to isolate the variable of training frequency.

Subjects performed a variety of exercises for the upper and lower body (the bench press being one of them) and had multiple metrics recorded before beginning the 12-week testing period, including body density, percent body fat, body part circumferences, and 1-rep maxes. 

After the 12-week testing period, authors re-rested the above metrics.

  • First, both groups improved their strength over the 12-week time frame, however, the 3-day group improved their upper and lower body 1-RMs to a greater degree.
  • What’s even more interesting is that subjects’ upper body 1-RMs improved to a relatively larger degree (1-day 53% vs 3-day 62%) compared to the lower body group’s 1-RMs (1-day 58% vs 3-day 63%).

So yes, both groups improved their strength, but it appears the upper body experienced a slightly larger degree of improvement.

And if we look at the bench press specifically, then we can see that the 1-day a week training group improved by 10% over the course of 12-weeks, while the 3-day a week group improved by 27%. Again, this could be due to the technical nature of the bench press because upping frequency would increase the practice of this skill, which would result in greater gains/comfort under the barbell. 

Pulling In the Bench Press
Photo By Igor Simanovskiy / Shutterstock

Outside of that study, we can also look at what other athletes suggest for bench press training frequency and strength. For example, Ben Pollack has written a piece for us discussing the bench press and how his body responds best to training this movement 3-4 times a week with both a barbell and dumbbell variations.

He points out that training frequency, volume, and variations (exercise selection) all play a role when it comes to success with multiple weekly bench press sessions — and this speaks to the idea that technical movements like the bench press need to be practiced like any other skill in sport.

From this study we can suggest a few takeaways for bench press frequency and strength:

  1. A higher training frequency for the upper body/bench press (when volume is equated) could be better for strength improvement per the study above compared to other exercises that might improve at a steady rate with lower frequency (like the deadlift). 
  2. Strength improvement can be a result of several variables, including muscle gain, neural adaptations, and skill acquisition.
  3. A well-written program with consistent effort is always the best bet for continual progress. Outside of higher training frequency, variables like intensity, volume, and exercise selection should all be accounted for and one variable alone will not yield the best results. 

Training Frequency and Upper Body Mass Gain

Let’s not beat around the bush here: increasing body mass — especially if the goal is to increase mass in a specific area of the body — depends on a lot of factors, and it’s incredibly tough to gauge the amount of growth caused by one exercise in one area of the body. It’s influenced by general muscle hypertrophy, diet, current lean body mass, sleep, and much more can play a role. 

Bench Press Pec Muscle MassBench Press Pec Muscle Mass
Photo by: By Jasminko Ibrakovic / Shutterstock

For the sake of argument, and because research is a little limited for body mass increase in specific areas on the body and training frequency, we’ll look at a couple of studies that assess lean tissue mass and muscle thickness with different frequency training protocols.

Training Twice a Week Vs. Three Times a Week

The first study we’ll look at for training frequency and lean muscle mass comes from 2007 and was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2). In this study, authors had 29 untrained men and women follow a 6-week full-body training program and split them into two groups. The first group trained twice a week, while the second group trained three times a week, and similar to the study above, volume was equated for and made equal. 

Authors assessed lean tissue mass and 1-RM strength for the squat and bench press pre- and post-exercise intervention. After the 6-week exercise intervention, authors noted that both groups improved their 1-RM strength for the squat and bench press, however, the bench press saw more improvement with more frequency (22% for two days vs 30% for three days) than the squat.

In terms of lean muscle mass, both groups saw improvements, but there was a small — if not especially significant — trend suggesting that the higher frequency group had better results.  

5x a Week Full Body Program Vs. Split Program

Arguably one of the best studies to date on training frequency and muscle mass/thickness was published in 2019 in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research (3). For this study, authors had 18 healthy, resistance trained men split into two groups that trained five times a week with two different training programs. One group followed a total body workout for five days a week, while the second group followed a split workout.

Variables outside of frequency were held constant, and authors assessed multiple metrics before and during the 8-week intervention, including 1-RM strength for the bench press, back squat, and close-grip machine row, along with muscle thickness at the elbow flexors, vastus lateralis (outside quad muscle), and triceps. 

Each group improved their 1-RM strength in the bench press, back squat, and row, but the total body group — those who trained bench more often — saw a slightly greater increase in bench press 1-RM strength.

Additionally, the total load lifted over the 8-week testing period was higher for the total body training group compared to the split group. In terms of muscle thickness, both groups saw an improvement, however, the total body training group saw a greater improvement in overall muscle thickness at the three points authors recorded. 

From these studies we can suggest a few takeaways for bench press frequency and body mass.

  1. Higher frequency tends to bring about a larger increase in muscle thickness and lean muscle mass, however, this could vary greatly for the upper body from individual-to-individual. 
  2. The bench press generally responds better to higher training frequencies, so if you’re trying to increase muscle thickness of the upper body, then increasing bench frequency could be a great way to do so.
  3. If strength is increasing, then generally, muscle thickness will as well. This was a common trend suggested in all three of the studies above.

Choosing Incline, Decline, and Flat Bench Press

Practical Takeaways

At the end of the day, everyone responds a little differently to training volumes, frequencies, intensities, and so forth, but we can make a few suggestions based on the research above and how other athletes program the bench press. In terms of programming for frequency and adaptations, I think it’s important to rank training variables in a hierarchy fashion once you figure out your ideal training frequency.

For example, let’s say you want to train the bench press three times a week and you have a specific adaptation that you want to aim for. If you’re training to increase bench press strength, then you’ll probably want to rank intensity, specificity, frequency, and volume as the main driving training variables, similar to what’s below. (Then I’ll add a program so you can get an idea as to what ranking these qualities looks like in practice.)

Goal: Strength Improvement

  1. Intensity
  2. Frequency
  3. Volume
  4. Specificity

Conversely, if you’re training for mass, then you might want to rank volume, variation, and intensity as the main driving factors — basically, it’s going to vary, and this is where great programming comes in. 

Goal: Mass Increase

  • Volume
  • Frequency
  • Intensity
  • Variation

Programming for Strength

For the examples below, we’re only going covering the first movement for a training day — your actual workouts will have more than one exercise.

3x/Week Example

Exercise Sets, Reps, and Intensity
Day 1: A1. Bench Press4 x 5 @8
Day 2: A1. Dumbbell Bench Press3 x 7 @7-8
Day 3: A1. Bench Press 5, 4, 3, 2 (finish the 2 @9)

4x/Week Example 

Exercise Sets, Reps, and Intensity
Day 1: A1. Bench Press4 x 4 @8
Day 2: A1. Dumbbell Bench Press 4 x 6 @7-8
Day 3: A1. Bench Press With Bands3 x 6 @8
Day 4: A1. Bench Press (Tempo: 3110)3 x 5 @7

Programming for Mass

For the examples below, we’re only going to cover the structure of the first movement for a training day.

3x/Week Example

Exercise Sets, Reps, and Intensity
Day 1: A1. Bench Press4 x 7 @7
Day 2: A1. Dumbbell Bench Press3 x 10 @7
Day 3: A1. 1 1/4 Bench Press 4 x 6 @8

4x/Week Example 

Exercise Sets, Reps, and Intensity
Day 1: A1. Bench Press4 x 7 @7
Day 2: A1. Incline Bench Press 4 x 8 @7
Day 3: A1. Dumbbell Bench Press (Tempo 4010)3 x 10 @7-8
Day 4: A1. Decline Bench Press 3 x 10 @7

Author’s Note: Again, the above are just examples for programming bench press frequency when trying to improve upper body strength and mass. 

Wrapping Up

Training frequency is a hot topic in strength and conditioning circles because like every other training variable, it’s best uses are highly dependent on multiple factors. If your goal is increasing bench press strength and upper body mass, then generally speaking, it appears that upping your bench press frequency to 2, 3, 4, and maybe even 5 times a week can be a powerful tool to help you achieve your goals. 

References

1. Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days Per Week of Equal-Volume… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. (2019). LWW. Retrieved 18 October 2019.

2. EFFECT OF SHORT-TERM EQUAL-VOLUME RESISTANCE TRAINING WITH… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. (2019). LWW. Retrieved 18 October 2019.

3. Zaroni, R., Brigatto, F., Schoenfeld, B., Braz, T., Benvenutti, J., & Germano, M. et al. (2019). High Resistance-Training Frequency Enhances Muscle Thickness in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research33, S140-S151.