(Almost) everyone wants a big bench press. Whether you’re a powerlifter on the prowl for a huge total, a bodybuilder looking to beef up their pecs, or simply hit the gym to feel good and perform well in other areas of your life.
Hitting the bench hard, keeping your nutrition in line, and maintaining a restful lifestyle outside the weight room are all useful, sure. However, you can certainly dive deeper into mastering the finer details, including picture-perfect technique and sound programming habits, as well.
So, if you want the best tips, tricks, and techniques for blowing up your bench press, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s how to build your bench press so you can break through plateaus and set records on records.
- How to Do the Bench Press
- Best Bench Press Cues
- Bench Press Tips and Tricks
- Best Bench Press Programs
First things first, you need to know how to press properly. An everyday gymgoer’s bench and one performed by a competent powerlifter are miles apart. If you want to bench big, you need to follow the proper procedure — it starts before you ever unrack the bar.
Step 1 — Set Up
Lay down on a flat bench with your feet firmly planted flat on the ground. The bar needs to be racked at a height that allows you to comfortably reach it with your hands without rounding your shoulder blades off the bench.
Coach’s Tip: You shouldn’t have to “push” the bar out of the rack to remove it. If possible, set the bar high enough that you can narrowly “pull” it out.
Step 2 — Grip and Unrack
A wider grip will reduce your range of motion, but may also place more stress upon your shoulders. A closer grip will create more range of motion, but may shift the load from your chest to your front delts and triceps.
Coach’s Tip: While grip width is determined by preference, if you’re concerned with pressing the most weight possible, you should generally take a fairly wide grip to reduce your range of motion.
Step 3 — Load and Lower
Once the barbell is unracked (it should be directly above your shoulder joints), inhale deeply into your belly and squeeze your body from head to toe. Once you’ve loaded up on air and tension, lower the bar down to your chest in a controlled fashion.
Coach’s Tip: As you descend with the barbell, try to keep your elbows underneath the bar the entire time. Your wrists should also remain mostly straight.
Step 4 — Press Up, Powerfully
Once the bar has lightly kissed your chest, press the bar upward and back slightly. Depending on your proportions and grip width, your barbell may have drifted forward during the lowering portion. As you press, make sure you return it back to its original position over your shoulder joints.
Coach’s Tip: Remember to finish by snapping your elbows into extension, rather than pushing your shoulders forward off the bench.
When it comes to lifting weights, cueing is equal parts art and science — it’s how you direct your body to perform certain actions or move in a particular way. The right bench press cues can take your press from good to great. Here are a few common bench press cues for you to implement during your chest workouts.
“Bring Your Chest to the Bar”
Your spine shouldn’t be flush against the pad when you perform the bench press. Arching your back while you press can help maintain a rigid, locked-in shoulder position and can reduce the range of motion of the exercise as well.
To accomplish this, think about bringing your chest up to meet the bar during the lowering portion of the exercise. This may help you maintain your “arch” as you slowly lower the bar down to your pecs.
This cue helps you fight off the urge to collapse your chest or compromise your braced position, which may dampen your power output. Note that you aren’t actually moving your torso; you’re just thinking about it.
“Push Yourself Into the Bench”
If you struggle with keeping your shoulders pinned back and stabilized while you press, you might want to give this cue a try. Thinking about pushing yourself into the bench — as opposed to pushing the barbell upward in space — may help you keep your shoulders locked in.
If you’re too concerned about moving the barbell, you might accidentally unpin your shoulder blades as you try to push your actual shoulder forward. This is both a technical error and may also put your glenohumeral joint at risk of injury.
“Use Your Legs”
The bench press may be an upper-body exercise, but proficient powerlifters know how to involve their legs as well, without even moving them.
To incorporate leg drive into your bench press, make sure your hips are firmly pinned to the pad. You can ensure this by placing your feet behind the edge of the bench, rather than out in front. This places your hips into firm extension.
When you go to press the bar off your chest, think about “kicking” yourself backwards towards the rack itself with your legs. This will transfer force from the floor, through your hips, and up into the bar. It also ensures your ribcage remains high and your shoulders depressed.
Note that your body doesn’t actually move when you do this. Adding leg drive to your bench press can help tremendously with the amount of weight you can lift, but it’s also a fairly advanced technique. Take your time learning it and don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t feel natural right away.
When it comes to elevating your bench press strength, the devil is in the details. You should have the nuts and bolts of your form worked out; once you do, it’s time to dive in and explore all the nuances behind getting stronger. Try out some of these tips and tricks the next time you hit the weights.
Implement Technique Work
To get a better bench press, it is not enough that you have strong chest and triceps muscles. It is important that you have good control and consistency when executing the skill of the bench press itself.
Generally speaking, technique work involves low-volume, low-to-moderate intensity bench press days. You can work on the bench press itself, or implement variations that specifically target lacking elements of your execution.
For example, performing the bench press with a dramatically-pronounced eccentric tempo can help you maintain your posture and ensure you’re moving the bar properly. Exercises like the Spoto press, Larsen press, or pressing from a board also serve to address different elements of the movement.
These exercise variations put you in a position that encourages control and positioning. They also punish you if you do not execute them well. Avoid training too close to failure during your technique-oriented training, as it can defeat the purpose of streamlining your technique.
Warm Up Thoroughly
A good, well-rounded warm-up will enable you to perform at your best and get you mentally focused as well. Effectively warming up for the bench press will also increase your core temperature and prime your nervous system to press powerfully and decisively, especially with heavier loads.
Your warm-up routine should be tailored to your personal needs, but a good place to start is with some brief dynamic stretching and movement drills. For example, you can perform shoulder circles to loosen up your shoulders before grabbing a resistance band for some pull-aparts.
You can also weave in some soft tissue work, such as rolling your back over a foam roller to help open your thoracic spine up, which may help you get into a more comfortable arch position before you lift.
Once the relevant joints are nice and warm, your warm-up should get specific to the task at hand. Take at least one set with the empty barbell and perform a high number of repetitions to grease your groove and remind yourself of your bench press technique before you load up.
Vary Your Intensity
If you want to bench heavier weights, you’re going to have to, well, bench heavier. Meaning, you should get comfortable working with high percentages of your 1-rep-max on a regular basis if you want to boost your strength. However, that doesn’t mean you need to work at high intensities during every single bench press session.
Varying your intensity — sometimes called undulation — is necessary for long-term progress, particularly if you already have a few years of training experience. If you thrash yourself every time you bench, you might be training harder than you can reliably recover from and adapt to.
Instead, consider alternating your intensity each time you perform the bench press. If you bench twice per week, you could dedicate one day toward low-volume, high-intensity lifting, and then do the opposite on the subsequent session. Both approaches will contribute to your overall strength.
Select the Right Accessory Exercises
Building a big bench is a team effort. Training the standard barbell bench alone may not be enough to push your strength past a certain point. Intermediate and advanced athletes in particular rely on a wide array of accessory movements to shore up weaknesses and maximize the value of their training.
You should select from both single-joint isolation movements and other compound lifts when choosing your bench press accessories. Isolation exercises like the pressdown or reverse curl are great for increasing your work capacity and muscle mass. Compound accessories, such as the close-grip bench or dip can help strengthen specific muscles or ranges of motion that you can’t access through your standard bench.
You should pay heed to how you breathe while you bench. Proper breathing protocols for high-effort lifting involve filling your chest with air and bracing your core as though you were about to be punched in your stomach.
This maximizes pressure in your abdominal cavity, creating stability throughout your torso and shoulders. You’ll need this robust stability to stabilize the bar, particularly while you lower it down to your chest, so you can then focus on pressing as hard as possible.
Try to hold your air until the bar leaves your chest, and then exhale forcefully as you straighten your elbows to finish the movement.
Mind Your Recovery
Good technique and a great training program are essential, but your rate of progress will ultimately depend on the quality of your recovery outside of the weight room. Poor or inadequate sleep, for instance, will reduce the rate at which your muscles (and mind) recover from training.
You’ll also need sufficient nutrition to fuel your training. In practical terms, this means eating enough calories to replenish what you lose through strenuous exercise and ensuring that you aren’t distracted by hunger during your bench workouts.
There are plenty of reliable pre-written programs available online for you to try out. A good program tailor-made toward beefing up the bench press will skyrocket your progress. However, you need to make sure you’re picking the right routine for you.
Greyskull Linear Progression
Greyskull Linear Progression (LP) is a solid option for beginner lifters who want to build up their bench press. It relies on simplicity and ease-of-use, making it fantastic for anyone who recently picked up the barbell for the first time.
You’ll alternate between bench pressing once per week and twice per week and work with a linear progression, meaning the loads you lift are incrementally raised session-over-session.
Greyskull also invites you to test your strength via the occasional “AMRAP” set, where you push out as many reps as possible and allow yourself to fail intentionally. AMRAP sets allow beginners to progress quickly, since they can recover from intense training faster than more advanced benchers. You can find a Greyskull template pretty easily online if you Google a bit.
5/3/1 requires you to have a known 1-rep-max before you begin; the program then builds your prescribed weights off of that number. So, you should probably have some training under your belt already and are capable of testing your bench max before you begin this one.
The Texas Method
This program is a three-day per week program that includes a heavy day, a light day, and a medium day for the bench press. It also relies on linear progression on a weekly basis, but also involves a daily undulating periodization model where across a week the intensity changes.
The Texas method is a great program for intermediate individuals, who want to practice the bench press more frequently with more volume and want to have a day to push for personal bests.
If you’ve run the gamut of powerlifting or strength training programs and want to really test yourself, you might consider the brief but notoriously-intense Smolov Jr. This program is an offshoot of the Smolov squat regime, compressed down to just three harrowing weeks.
Most athletes run Smolov Jr. to set a new personal record in the bench press in the short term. The program requires that you put just about every other big compound movement on the back burner — you have to bench four times per week, for three weeks, with no deloads.
This routine is not for the faint of heart, nor is it appropriate for beginner or even intermediate gymgoers. Make sure you have the time, energy, and recovery resources to spare before you undertake it.
Blast Your Bench
There’s no secret technique for magically increasing your bench press. Like every other dimension of muscular strength, it’s all about incorporating high-quality practice over a long enough time frame.
You’ll likely need to experiment a little to find the exact right technique, cues, and program that move the needle for you. Once you have those elements locked in, though, all you have to do is stick to your guns and work hard.
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