The bench press may be one of the most popular exercises in the gym. It may also be the exercise that gym-goers plateau on the most. Progress starts quickly as one learns the basic technique, but many a gym-goer and powerlifter alike seem to hit insurmountable walls after an all too short stint at progress.
Once the apparent choice of adding more bench press into your routine stops working, how can you break through these plateaus? These bench press variations specifically designed to attack our weak points may be the answer you (and your fellow gym rats) are looking for.
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Wide-Grip Bench Press
- Tempo Bench Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Spoto Press
- Swiss Bar Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Floor Press
Why Do It: The close-grip bench press extends the range of motion of each repetition as the arms are closer together. Since each repetition passes through a greater range of motion, the close-grip bench press extends the time with which the bench press technique must be maintained — sneakily training stability to a greater degree with fewer load requirements when compared to the standard bench press.
Exercise Tip: Assume a grip placement a few finger lengths narrower than the standard bench press but not so much that the forearm is angled towards the body. More simply put, you want your grip to be narrow, but not that narrow.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of six to eight repetitions.
Why Do It: In direct contrast to the close-grip bench press, widening the grip shortens the range of motion of each repetition but places all the muscles in a much more difficult position to work from. This allows the exercise to be effective with less weight than what’s needed for the standard bench press as the upper back must struggle to maintain the correct bar path.
Exercise Tip: Choose a grip width a few finger lengths wider than the standard bench press, but not so wide that unracking becomes the most challenging part of the exercise.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of six to 12 repetitions.
Why Do It: Altering the tempo with which you bench press helps reinforce control over the bar path and engagement of the often forgotten muscles of the torso and legs. When leg drive or a collapsed arch in the bench press is a problem, tempo work forces the lifter to spend more time in ranges of motion that train the durability and proprioceptive awareness necessary to break that plateau.
Exercise Tip: Start with a tempo of 3-1-1-1 (three-second eccentric, one-second pause, one-second concentric, one second between repetitions) to get the hang of it.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of six repetitions.
Why Do It: The incline bench press challenges a lifter’s ability to stabilize and control the bar path because the setup takes them out of the direct line of pull of gravity during the exercise. In a standard bench press, a person produces force in direct opposition to gravity, which requires the least amount of stability to perform. While incline pressing, the ability to stabilize is put on trial.
Exercise Tip: Start lifting from a lower incline and work your way up. This will allow acclimation and building of stability as opposed to being overwhelmed by the new challenge.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
Why Do It: The Spoto Press is essentially a standard bench press, but it requires that the lifter pauses with the bar about an inch or so above the chest. Popularized by the insanely strong Eric Spoto, the Spoto Press teaches complete control of the bar without losing body tension that may occur if the pause happens on the chest.
Exercise Tip: The Spoto Press should mimic your standard bench press technique as closely as possible with the addition of the pause.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of five to eight repetitions.
Why Do It: The swiss bar is a unique training implement that allows for various grip widths and hand positions — most specifically, it can facilitate a neutral-grip barbell press variation. In assuming a neutral grip, the lifter can manipulate their bench pressing away from being more structurally stabilized by our skeleton (e.g., using big arches and packing our shoulder blades). This shift in grip forces longer ranges of motion for both the prime movers and the stabilizers while keeping your shoulders safe.
Exercise Tip: Choose the grip width that best fits your body. Selecting hand placements between a narrow grip or standard bench press position is an excellent place to start.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of six to 10 repetitions.
Why Do It: The fact remains, not everyone has access to a barbell (or wants one). For those who prefer training with dumbbells, the dumbbell bench press is an acceptable option for adding strength and muscle mass to the pectorals. Lifting two singular dumbbells has the added benefits of A) training your stabilizer muscles to handle each load independently and B) in that same vein, allowing a weaker side of your body to play catch up to the stronger side.
Exercise Tip: Be careful about setting up and ending the dumbbell bench press. If you’re using very heavy dumbbells, sit down and have a partner hand you the weights one at a time. Then, fall back to the bench and simultaneously kick up one knee at a time to propel the dumbbells to your chest. Repeat on the other side. When you’re finished with your set, use momentum to swing your body back up and rest the dumbbells on your knees.
Sets and Reps: Three sets of eight to 12 reps.
Why Do It: The floor press has a lifter press a barbell (or dumbbells or kettlebells) while laying on the floor (ideally with a yoga mat under their back). Without a bench to lay on, the trainee’s range of motion is limited by the floor, and so this bench press variation focuses mainly on the top half of the exercise. Strength athletes (such as powerlifters and strongmen) can improve their triceps strength and top-end strength, which carries over to the standard bench press and other pressing variations.
Exercise Tip: Have a spotter help you load and unload the barbell. While a standard bench press apparatus has set pegs in relation to the bench’s height, setting up the floor press isn’t an exact science. You don’t want to miss the reload with a couple of hundred pounds hovering over your chest.
Sets and Reps: Five sets of three to five reps.
How to Bench Press
Any of the eight variations above requires a solid foundation of bench pressing knowledge. Here’s how to do the standard bench press. While the cues below may not perfectly apply to the exercises above, you’ll have a general idea of how to set up.
How to Bench Press, Step By Step
- Lay back on a workout bench and position yourself so that your eyes are under the barbell.
- Plant both feet on the ground and arch your lower back so that your upper back is firmly on the bench. Your head, shoulder blades, and butt should all be on the bench.
- Extend your arms and grab the barbell with both hands. Though grip varies, try starting with your ring fingers on the smooth knurling ring in the barbell.
- Twist your feet slightly, so you feel your leg muscles activate. Now unrack the barbell and hold it over your chest.
- Lower the bar to just below your nipples. Keep your elbows pointed out about 45 degrees.
- Pause for a brief moment and then explosively drive the bar back up.
Why Train Bench Press Variations
The bench press is notorious for stonewalling athletes with brutal plateaus. Once adding standard bench press frequency or volume has stopped working, adding in variations that specifically target our known weak points is the best way to crack through those plateaus. Otherwise, you run the risk of a pattern of overuse injury or staleness that can further contribute to, or even worse, regress, our bench press numbers.
How to Train Bench Press Variations
Training bench press variations can be done in tandem with or in place of our standard bench press. Some athletes prefer to keep at least one day of standard bench pressing involved in their training at all times, meaning that one or two bench press variations can be added to their program on an alternate day. Other trainees feel that they have mastery over the standard bench press in such a way that they can entirely forego training it until approaching competition, swapping out all of their standard bench pressing for variations. These choices are highly dependent on skill and experience.
The Final Word
The bench press will always be a double-edged sword of an exercise — one of the most common and beloved gym lifts while simultaneously being one of the most frustrating for those stuck at plateaus.
Escaping the mentality that the only way to improve the bench press is by adding more bench press volume and thinking critically about why a plateau is occurring may take some time but could ultimately serve as the next level of your progress. Take a look at your own bench press and see if these variations could be the ticket to breaking through your sticking points.
In the meantime, check out these other bench press-related articles from BarBend.
- Read Up On These 9 Proven Benefits of the Bench Press
- Five Bench Press Programs to Build a Bigger, Stronger Chest
- The Best Chest Exercises for a Big Bench and a Strong Bench Press
Featured Image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock