Can’t improve your bench press? Read this.
Following on from my last couple of articles about getting started in fitness training. Understanding a little more about what it’s all about and hopefully picking up some useful advice and tips, as to how to start to go about things in a way that right for you.
Continuing the theme of understanding how to start to exercise properly but on a slightly more advanced level. Today’s article is all about the bench press.
The bench press is one of the most popular exercises amongst lifters everywhere. Walk into a gym at peak hours and I can almost guarantee there will be a queue for the bench press. Granted, most of these guys would probably be better spending some time in the squat rack instead, but that’s another article entirely.
Back to my original point. With bench press being such a popular exercise, rest assured that every time you get under the bar you are being judged by someone else in the room. In their eyes, your value as a man (or woman) is defined primarily by the amount of plates you’re able to rack onto the bar. It’s a load of rubbish in an attempt to satisfy their own egos, but like it or not, it happens.
The first (and best) solution to this problem is to forget about what other people think. This is YOUR journey, so who cares if people are comparing themselves to you? It’s their inferiority complex, after all, so let them deal with it.
The second solution is to transform yourself into a monster on the bench press.
If you choose option 2, keep reading.
How to improve your bench press
We can argue the pros and cons of the bench press all you like, but when performed correctly, it is undoubtedly one of the best movements on the planet for building strength and size in the chest, triceps and shoulders. The reason it doesn’t work for a lot of people is because it is often performed too heavy, for too few reps, or (most commonly of all) with sloppy form.
If you want to get better at benching, the first place to start is by improving your form. By doing so, you will increase your power output at every stage of the lift and at the same time achieve much more well-rounded physique development.
Most people half-ass their reps when benching, not going deep enough to truly engage the pecs at the base of the lift. Whilst they may be able to rack more plates onto the bar, they’re not going to get any true size gains if they don’t perform the exercise properly.
It is for that reason we must always remember the reason we are training. We’re chasing hypertrophy, not numbers in a workout diary. As you get stronger, the numbers will inevitably increase; but if you want the size gains to come along with them, you need to go back to basics and start with proper form.
This means you’ll probably have to start by dropping the weight to begin with, and focusing on performing 8 – 12 reps per set with perfect form. That means deep, piston like reps in a continuous smooth motion, with no elbow lock out at the top of the movement. Lower the bar with control, then explode upwards, making sure to engage your chest, shoulders and triceps as you do so.
You can also start using resistance bands or chains in order to improve strength at your weakest point of the movement. For most people, this is the final third of the lift. For this reason I strongly recommend using chains for 3 – 4 week blocks to help improve this part of the movement.
Chains work by wrapping round the side of the bar, adding additional weight. As we lower the bar the chains naturally fall into a pile on the floor, reducing the weight at the deepest point of the movement. As you move the weight back up, the chains come off the floor with the bar and make the weight heavier at the top of the movement.
By doing so, the chains help us learn to accelerate out of the start of the lift and improve the lockout as we finish. They also deload the shoulder stress from the bottom of the lift, which is the main reason people often get injured when benching. Remember, you can’t get big if you’re constantly getting hurt.
Once you have mastered the bench press with impeccable form, you’ll be in a great position to start moving up through the weights. Just be sure to keep your form impeccable throughout in order to activate the muscles properly and decrease your chance of injury.
Remember, greater muscle activation equals faster size gains. If you can’t feel a muscle working, the chances are it’s probably not. Focus on squeezing every rep through your chest, using your triceps and shoulders for stability. Faster size gains will inevitably lead to faster strength gains – and you’ll be well on your way to a monster bench press in no time.
Breaking through plateaus
Even with impeccable form, there will inevitably come a time when you hit a plateau. Here’s my advice for dealing with it when the time comes.
First things first, you’re going to want to take a few weeks off benching. I recommend switching between 4 – 6 week blocks of dumbbell pressing and bench pressing to give the muscles sufficient stimulus to grow stronger. The body soon adapts to doing the same thing week after week, so it’s important to keep your training varied if you want to force your body to change.
Dumbbell pressing is also much less taxing on the central nervous system (CNS) which can soon become frazzled with too much benching and adversely affect your strength output.
What’s more, dumbbell pressing allows a more natural movement path and can help recruit the smaller muscle fibres that do not engage with a standard barbell bench press. This in turn will add greater strength when you return to the barbell bench press.
When you return to the bench press, don’t expect to go straight back in to the same numbers you were pressing beforehand. Drop the weight by 10% - 15% to ease yourself back in and perfect your form. Increase the weight in 5% increments until you reach your previous plateau, which should now feel much easier. You’ve then got a blank canvas to start increasing the weight again until you reach a new plateau, when you can repeat the process.
I also recommend taking a week off both bench and dumbbell pressing every 6 – 8 weeks. On this week, focus on your mobility. After all, no matter how strong you are, you’ll never be able to reach your full potential on your lifts if your mobility sucks.
During this period I recommend bodyweight exercises such as push ups, dips and handstands. Horizontal cable flyes are also a great way to target the chest in isolation, especially the inner pectorals which are often neglected with a barbell bench press.
Last but not least, it’s important to make sure you have sufficient strength in your back and abdominals to get maximum results from your bench press. Whilst not directly involved in the pressing movement, they are key for balance and stability to allow you to recruit the pressing muscles more efficiently. So don’t neglect them in your quest for a bigger bench!
Follow the tips above and you’ll be well on your way to a monster bench press in no time.