Although deceptively difficult to excel at, the bench press has become synonymous with upper bodyweight training. Whether as a casual gymgoer, a powerlifter looking to increase their total, or a bodybuilder trying to pack on more muscle, the bench press is one of the first exercises to be written into a program — but understanding how to program the bench press can make or break your progress no matter what goal you’re pursuing.
Therefore, we’re laying out five bench press programs to help you build a bigger, stronger chest, as well as diving into some of the science behind sound program design.
Best Bench Press Programs
Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength is a great introductory strength training program designed to take advantage of a “young” training age. Being new to lifting usually means a rapid (and borderline unfair) speed of progress. The Starting Strength program harnesses frequent increases in bar weight to speed the trainee through their “newbie gains” as quickly as possible.
Starting Strength is a full-body, barbell-centric linear training program. While linear progressions can be implemented for a reasonable amount of time, the overarching goal is to acquire the easy, early gains from strength training without adhering to classical periodization tenets that may be obtrusive to new trainees. Starting Strength builds full-body strength utilizing two workouts performed three days per week in alternating fashion.
- Squat: 3 x 5
- Bench Press: 3 x 5
- Deadlift: 1 x 5
- Monday: Workout A
- Wednesday: Workout B
- Friday: Workout A
- Monday: Workout B
- Wednesday: Workout A
- Friday: Workout B
The beauty of Starting Strength is in the simplicity. Warm up and complete the prescribed working sets as listed above. Each time you work out, add five pounds to the bar until it is no longer possible to do so.
A natural next step once newbie gains have been exhausted is to begin dabbling in periodization models. Periodization means that a structure behind set, repetition, and weight selection is in place to ensure you won’t get overwhelmed by increased workout difficulty that may outpace your ability to recover. Block periodization is one example of implementing a periodized approach.
One form of block periodization increases the weight lifted per session while decreasing the number of repetitions. This style requires a more experienced trainee to know (or estimate) their 1-repetition maximum (1RM) on the bench press to program their workouts accurately.
Block periodization applies to the bench press (or other major compound exercises) specifically, leaving ample room to tailor a custom workout around the other exercises you may also need to see progress.
- Week 1: 3 sets of 12 repetitions with 65% of 1-repetition max.
- Week 2: 3 sets of 10 repetitions with 70% of 1-repetition max.
- Week 3: 3 sets of 8 repetitions with 75% of 1-repetition max.
- Week 4: 3 sets of 6 repetitions with 80% of 1-repetition max.
- Week 5: 3 sets of 5 repetitions with 85% of 1-repetition max.
- Week 6: 3 sets of 3 repetitions with 90% of 1-repetition max.
- Week 7: 3 sets of 1 repetition with 92.5% of 1-repetition max.
- Week 8: 2 sets of 1 repetition with 95% of 1-repetition max.
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program is a no-frills brute strength program designed around the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press. The major selling point is that it takes the guesswork out of your programming similar to Starting Strength but accounts for a more advanced trainee’s necessity to recover more between workouts.
5/3/1 is a weekly undulating periodization program that changes the load and volume of each exercise progressively over three weeks before allowing for a deload (lighter) week. As straightforward as it seems, it is recommended that you do not deviate from the main and accessory lift prescriptions, as it is tightly calibrated to do one thing — make you brutally strong.
Note: All %1RM calculations are actually based on 90% of your true one-rep-max. This is referred to as a “training max,” a weight you could reliably hit on most days in the gym.
- 5 repetitions at 65% of training max.
- 5 repetitions at 75% of training max.
- 5+ repetitions at 85% of training max.
- 3 repetitions at 70% of training max.
- 3 repetitions at 80% of training max.
- 3+ repetitions at 90% of training max.
- 5 repetitions at 75% of training max.
- 3 repetitions at 85% of training max.
- 1+ repetition at 95% of training max.
- 5 repetitions at 40% of training max.
- 5 repetitions at 50% of training max.
- 5 repetitions at 60% of training max.
Once you’ve completed all four weeks, increase your projected 1RM, which your training max is based upon by five pounds, and start back at week one. Continue until strong.
Daily undulating periodization places frequency at the forefront of your bench press training. Many people may benefit from increased frequency to help pack on muscle or improve strength on the bench press, yet stick to programs that have them benching only once per week.
That isn’t to say it doesn’t work, but increasing frequency could play a big role in breaking bench press plateaus by increasing proficiency and building more upper body muscle at the same time.
A daily undulating program does not have to be complex. A simple example could be training your bench press heavy, medium, and light once per week for a total of three workouts.
While the bench press volume may be increased over the course of the week relative to other programs, it should still leave plenty of room for you to structure other exercises into your days to account for building a well-rounded training session.
- Day 1 (medium): 5 sets of 5 repetitions.
- Day 2 (light): 3 sets of 12 repetitions.
- Day 3 (heavy): 3 sets of 3 repetitions.
Note: Medium, light, and heavy refer to the intensity relative to your one-rep-max. Effort should still be relatively high on a set-by-set basis since you’re performing different rep ranges.
Another programming method is the concurrent style of training — where multiple goals are pursued within the same session. Where in strength-orientated programming, you may train the bench press using heavier weights almost exclusively, concurrent training methods would see you train the bench press for strength before training the chest itself through a range of muscle-building exercises. These are also some of the guiding principles found in many power-building routines.
To create a concurrent-style of program, first, choose a periodization method to guide your bench press routine. From there, add in additional exercises prioritizing chest size and strength to complement the bench press, such as dumbbell presses or pec flyes.
Oftentimes, these workouts start with heavier weights before stacking many more sets, repetitions, and moderate training loads to fully train the chest across a spectrum of challenges within the same day.
- Bench Press: 3 sets of 5 repetitions with 85% of 1RM (block periodization style).
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
- Cable or Machine Flye: 3 sets of 12 repetitions.
- Push-ups: 2 sets of as many repetitions as possible.
Note: If this looks similar to a bodybuilder’s chest day, that’s because it is. Concurrent training is one of the guiding principles found across the various disciplines of resistance training.
Bench Press Alternatives
While the bench press offers substantial benefits for training the chest, it really shines as a developer of overall upper body strength. As with most barbell exercises, the main stabilizers and skilled execution of the bench press itself may break down before any individual muscle group receives enough training stimulus to optimize size and strength gains.
If your goal is to lift heavier weights in the bench press, you’re going to have to perform the bench press. However, many of the principles and programs outlined apply to other exercises that may provide a better mind-muscle connection, be less aggravating on your joints, or be more fun to train.
Dumbbell Bench Press
Performing the bench press movement with dumbbells is the closest cousin to the iconic barbell lift. Separate, independent movement of the arms allows for a more personalized technique and may be more comfortable on the shoulders or elbows. However, even a good pair of adjustable dumbbells are not as acutely loadable as a barbell, so certain progression pathways may not work as well.
Incline Bench Press
Whether with a barbell or set of dumbbells, the incline bench press is a phenomenal upper chest builder. The inclination of the bench can slightly — or significantly, if that’s your cup of tea — alter the resistance path and resulting training response. The incline bench can fit into a standard bench program if you’re after more upper pec development or stronger delts. Note, though, that you will not be able to lift as much absolute weight.
The weighted dip is a significant step up in difficulty from the calisthenics classic performed on a set of gymnastics bars or at a machine station. It is possible to apply linear or undulating progression blueprints to this exercise, but many external variables may impede smooth, consistent progress. That said, a set of dips with one or two weight plates attached to your waist will definitely turn heads at the gym.
How Getting Strong Works
Strength is an expression of full-body coordination and force production. To lift as heavy a weight as possible, every muscle involved needs to be synchronized in executing its role. If not, missed repetitions, plateaus, or injuries may occur.
During the bench press, your prime movers (the chest, triceps, and shoulders) must be able to exert force to move the barbell maximally. Stabilizers (the core, rotator cuff, back, and legs) must be engaged to prevent unwanted body movements during the exercise.
To skillfully execute the bench press, ample practice is required under the right training loads. Designing periodized training programs will allow for this practice to be effective and ensure that the muscles involved can recover between each training session adequately.
Getting strong requires a long-term commitment to technical practice and moderate to heavy loading to accomplish those two tasks. If a strong bench press (or big chest) is your goal, committing to the exercise for the long haul is a must.
The Benefits of a Stronger Bench Press
As with most barbell exercises, many of the benefits of successfully performing the bench press are actually achieved by the work you do to become a good bencher in the first place. Benefits such as improved mobility, joint stability, and upper body size and strength are all involved in building the bench press, and bleed into other aspects of your fitness.
To perform the bench press successfully and for a long enough time to see real progress, you must first gain the required hip, trunk, and shoulder mobility to perform the best possible bench press technique. This often requires the addition of hip flexor, pec and lat, thoracic spine, and shoulder warm-up drills to be involved in bench press training and thus carries over to many other exercises.
Increased Joint Stability
Being strong is intimately tied to the ability to stabilize your body through only one range of motion — that of the bench press. Having adequate joint stability is necessary to prevent plateaus in the bench press from elbows and wrists losing position, or the legs wobbling around uncontrollably during hard attempts.
Improved Upper Body Size and Strength
Everyone who has a strong bench press, and thus a strong chest, has probably realized that to keep seeing progress, they need to build more muscle. Ultimately, a bigger torso (back, shoulders, arms, and chest) gained by building the upper body musculature translates into a bigger bench by cushioning the joints and providing more muscle to produce force.
Types of Progression
Increasing strength and size is not an accident. Applying structured intensification to a training program helps to ensure that steady progress can be made while limiting risk of injury or plateau. There are several methods of periodization, all of which modify total sets, repetitions, or load prescriptions for your main exercises (in this case, the bench press) over time.
Linear periodization is the most fundamental method of progression. It calls for an increase in repetitions with the same load week over week, or, an increase in load with the same repetitions. It is well-suited for beginners or trainees who enjoy simplicity in their programs.
Non-linear / Undulating Periodization
Unlike linear periodization, non-linear or undulating periodization often requires a change of multiple training variables (sets, repetitions, or load) week over week or even within the same week. 5/3/1 is an example of undulating periodization, and fluctuations in loading parameters can be especially useful once you’ve got a few years of training under your belt.
Block periodization for strength training typically involves two to four week “blocks” of workouts designed around specific, progressive parameters. Often, the training emphasis per block flows from hypertrophy to strength and finally peaking. Block periodization is particularly applicable to anyone preparing for a competition or interested in testing their strength in the gym.
Strength development may seem like a far-off goal with many winding roads. However, it is better to think of the various methods or programs as tools in a toolbox. The key difference, though, is that no individual program or principle is a Swiss army knife.
If you want to build a herculean bench press or grow your pecs to rival Arnold, picking the right program is the first step on your journey. Once you’ve planned out where you’re going, all that remains is to hit the gas pedal.
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