Bench is a favorite amongst bodybuilders and powerlifters alike. When it comes to adding size and strength to the upper body, it’s hard to beat.
Building a big bench comes from mastering your technique, solid programming, confidence, and putting forth the effort.
Many get frustrated, finding bench gains don’t come as quickly as they once did, or as rapidly their squat or deadlift ones do.
Patience is key.
Many big benchers will tell you, the smallest change can lead to big time results. Little tweaks can be the difference in getting stapled or smashing big-time PR’s.
Here are 5 simple yet unconventional tips to break through plateaus and take your bench to the next level.
Program for Success
Specificity is key.
Programs promising to add a ton of weight to your bench without actually benching are unlikely to work if you already have a decent baseline level of strength.
If you want a big bench, you have to bench. If you’re a powerlifter, perform most of your work with a competition pause and close the gap between your paused and touch and go bench.
Follow up the main work with supplemental and assistance movements that address weak/sticking points.
Three great supplemental movements for developing strength off the chest are Dead bench, 2-5 second paused bench, and Spoto press. Build big triceps and a strong lockout with board presses, bench against chains/bands, and close-grip board presses.
Follow up the supplemental movement with assistance movements or hypertrophy/bodybuilding work to pack on more muscle and further address any weaknesses.
The frequency or amount of times you bench each week depends. As I’ve learned from renowned strength coach and youngest man to bench 600 pounds, Josh Bryant, easy gainers will generally need to bench less frequently and hard gainers will want to bench more frequently. Basically, if you have a hard time building your bench, you may want to bench more often, get more volume and practice. If it comes fairly naturally to you, you may benefit from benching less often, with lower volume — prioritizing recovery.
Perform a majority of the work in the 55-85% range to work on building your 1RM. Lots of submaximal repetition work, executed explosively.
Benching too heavy, too often — constantly testing your max instead of building it can lead to stagnation, or worse, injury.
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford
A lot of lifters have a mental barrier with the bench press — a self-limiting belief they will never be good at it.
Just like you build strength, you build confidence. Destroy this limiting belief with some simple, actionable steps:
1. Don’t miss reps
Missing reps does nothing towards building strength, and it’s a major confidence killer. On the flip-side, hitting your reps builds strength and boosts confidence. Keep the momentum going in the right direction. Choose weights wisely — always be confident enough to bet $100 you’d hit what’s on the bar.
Use a training max, not: the most you’ve ever done, something you hit years ago, what you’d like to hit, but a weight that you’re confident you can always hit with good technique.
2. Train explosively
Blast through your sticking points. If you’re a raw lifter, you need to get that bar moving off your chest. The goal is to get from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Descend at your normal/controlled pace, and always press the bar as explosively off your chest as possible. You’ll recruit more muscle fibers, drive through sticking points, and make the weight feel lighter. You can even test the difference. Take a light weight and drive it up explosively five times, then take the same weight and do the same thing slowly. You’ll notice the difference immediately.
Whether you’re going for a warmup or max, intend to move it fast. No more just muscling the weight up. Produce maximum force – attack the bar, your intention matters.
3. Tight grip
SQUEEZE the bar like you’re trying to choke the life out of it.
This one’s simple and effective. There’s a big difference between holding the bar, and squeezing it.
Maintain a relatively neutral wrist position for a tighter grip. A crushing grip allows you to activate more muscles to move more weight. Squeezing the bar hard also mentally prepares to handle a heavy load. I’ve always found that the tighter my grip, the lighter it feels.
A tight grip with straight wrists keep the bar more in-line with the wrist and forearms for a more balanced and efficient press.
Top Grip: Bad. Bottom Grip: Good
4. More sets than reps
Setup is key for a big bench press.
3×10 vs. 10×3 — same total volume. The latter allows more practice setting up and more first reps — the only ones that count in a powerlifting competition.
A better setup allows you to dial in and master your technique — a key factor for building strength, developing a big bench and staying healthy for longer.
Try doing more sets, fewer reps, with shorter rest periods for more first reps and to improve your technique.
Whether you’re lowering the bar down, or pressing up, always think “up”.
Actively pull your chest up to its highest point to meet the bar. When you lower the bar, pull your chest up to meet it.
This reduces the ROM and increases upper back tightness for a more stable pressing platform.
Aside from a more stable and powerful press, thinking “up” the entire time improves your mindset. Instead of bringing the bar down, worrying about the weight bearing down on you — you’re always thinking about completing the lift.
Have a Consistent Unrack Routine
A good setup requires a lot of practice and hard work. But a sloppy unrack/handoff can easily undo all that work.
Avoid lining up too far up or down the bench — reaching too far for the bar and losing upper back/shoulder position. If you’re too far up the bench and close to the spotter, you risk pressing into the J-hooks.
Have a spotter hand you off. Coordinate with them. Decide on a 3-2-1, head nod, or whatever you like. If you’re working with someone new, take the time to teach them a proper spot/handoff — it only takes a minute and benefits both of you.
Straighten your arms and pull it out of the rack like a skullcrusher/pullover, so you’re able to keep your shoulders pinched and back arched. Don’t compromise position by pressing the bar out, rounding the shoulders forward and flattening out on the bench.
Take your air and bring the bar out to the point right above where it will touch — the bar should have a straight path down to the sternum.
Control the bar and let it settle before you begin the descent.
Look Like a Big Bencher
Big bencher’s look like big bencher’s. But it’s more than just looking the part.
Not only does a bigger muscle have potential to be a stronger muscle, but a thick, muscular chest and back will reduce the ROM and give you a stable platform to press from.
A muscular physique is more the just for show, it’s for function. Here are some great exercises for packing on muscle mass.
When it comes to building a big chest and back, the basics never fail. For building your upper body musculature, you can’t go wrong with a steady amount of pressing/repetition work with the barbell and dumbbells.
Pack on upper body mass with dips — lean forward to emphasize chest development or upright for more triceps. Target your chest with flyes – use dumbbells, cables or chains.
For building a wider, thicker back, go with a heavy dose of pull ups/chin ups, pulldowns, and all types of dumbbell, barbell and chest supported rows.
Barbell and dumbbell extensions are staples for bigger, stronger triceps. Chain triceps extensions is a great variation that easier on the elbows.
Barbell and dumbbell overhead/military pressing and various types of lateral raises are great for shoulder growth.
Here’s a great cluster set to blow up your shoulders.
Hit your rear delts with facepulls, band pullaparts, reverse pec dec and bent over flyes – I generally like to keep rear delt work in the 10+ rep range.
Hypertrophy work is fast pace and high energy.
Rest periods are shorter and the focus is on working and fatiguing the muscle. With the powerlifts it’s about intending to move the weight fast and efficiently.
The intention for hypertrophy work is to feel the muscle being worked – the intention is different, but equally important. Focus your mind to connect on the muscle you want to be used – this is the mind muscle connection.
Develop your upper body musculature and watch your bench press grow with it.
Sample Powerbuilding Workout for a Bigger Bench
Bench Press – 1×3 @ 80%
Speed Bench Press – 5×3 @ 65%
Dead Bench w/45 sec rest – 4×1 @ 60%
Dips – 60 reps in as little time as possible
Single Arm Row – 3×6/side
Straight Arm Rope Pulldowns – 4×15
DB flyes 3×12
DB Hammer curl w/2 sec hold at 15 and 80 degrees – 3×8
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.