“How much do you bench, bro?”
If you’ve been lifting weights for any period of time, you’ve been asked that question. A lot.
Well, like it or not, nothing gapes mouths and turns heads like an impressive bench press. And nothing seems to frustrate newbies more than a weak one.
There’s a reason why every well-designed weightlifting program includes the bench press as one of its core exercises, though. It deserves much of its mystique.
The fact is the bench press is one of the best all-around upper body exercises you can do, training the pectorals, lats, shoulders, triceps, and even the legs to a slight degree.
If you’re reading this article, that’s probably not news to you. You’re here because you want to get more out of the bench press, and I can help.
The first thing you need to know is although it looks simple enough, the bench press is a fairly technical movement. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll eventually hit a plateau…if you’re lucky enough to avoid injury.
Well, in this article, we’re going to break down everything you need to know about the bench press to get the most out of it.
Let’s start with a discussion of form.
- How to Bench Press With Proper Form
- Bench Press Variations
- Bench Press Calculator for Calculating One-Rep Maxes
- 10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Increase Your Bench Press
- A Simple and Effective Bench Press Workout
- The Bottom Line on the Bench Press
Table of Contents
The bench press looks simple enough.
You lie on a bench with your feet on the floor, unrack the bar, lower it to the middle of your chest, and press it back up.
There are many ways to do that, though, and unfortunately, many more wrong than right ways.
So, to learn the right way, let’s break down the lift into its different components, starting with the setup.
The Proper Bench Press Setup
A good setup precedes a good bench press, and the equipment you use has a significant impact on this.
First, stay off the Smith Machine if at all possible.
When it comes to bench pressing, the main drawback of using the Smith Machine is it produces smaller gains in muscle and strength than the free weight bench press.
One of the major reasons for this is the Smith Machine has a fixed, level bar that moves on a fixed, vertical movement path. The free weight bar, on the other hand, requires that you stabilize it to keep the bar level and prevent horizontal swaying.
I used to do all my bench pressing on the Smith Machine and never got higher than 245 pounds for a few reps. When I first switched to the free weight bench press, I struggled with 185.
That was several years ago and I’ve since built my bench up to 295 for 2 to 3 reps. (Not outstanding by any means but respectable.)
The Power Rack is your best friend.
A standard free weight bench press station is fine if you have a spotter, but if you don’t, you’re probably not going to be able to push yourself as hard as you want for fear of dropping the bar on your face.
Even if you have a lot of weightlifting experience and a good feel for your body and when you’re going to fail, there are going to be times where you either could have squeezed out another rep but didn’t go for it or where you do go for it and get stuck.
Enter the Power Rack. Here’s a fantastic one made by Rogue, which I highly recommend:
The safety arms are what make it so useful. Set them at the right height and they will catch the weight when you fail. Here’s how to do it:
Your bench and barbell matter too.
While we’re talking equipment, let’s talk benches and barbells.
You want to make sure your bench is large enough to support your entire upper back and remain stable while you press (12″ wide is a good rule of thumb).
Again, I highly recommend Rogue’s bench:
You might think a barbell is a barbell, but I recommend you pony up for a high-quality bar with sleeves that can spin independently of the bar. That is, the plates should be able to rotate without torquing the bar, which can put a lot of strain on your wrists.
I like Rogue’s Ohio Bar personally:
How to position your body properly for the bench press.
Once you have your equipment ready, it’s time to get your body in the right position to press. The first two steps are:
1. Lie down on the bench and adjust so your eyes are under the bar.
2. Raise your chest up and tuck your shoulder blades down and squeeze them together.
You should feel tightness in your upper back, and you want to maintain this position throughout the entire lift.
3. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
Hold the bar low in your hands, closer to your wrists than your fingers, and squeeze it as hard as you can.
Your wrists should be straight up and down, not cupped (bent toward your head). This prevents wrist pain.
A good way to check your grip width is to have a friend get behind you (looking at the top of your head) and check the position of your forearms at the bottom of the movement.
You want your forearms to be as close to perpendicular to the ground as possible. That is, straight up-and-down vertical, like this:
As you can see, the position on the far left is too wide, the middle is too narrow, and the far right is correct.
4. Slightly arch your lower back and plant your feet on the ground, directly under your knees, shoulder-width apart.
You don’t want your back flat on the bench and you don’t want it so arched that your butt is floating above it.
Instead, you want to maintain the natural arch that occurs when you push your chest out.
5. Unrack the weight by straightening your arms and then moving it horizontally until it’s directly over your shoulders.
You’re now ready to press.
Set up the same way every time you bench press, whether you’re just warming up or going for a PR.
It’s a good technique-building habit that will pay off in consistently better lifts and a lower risk of injury.
How to descend properly.
The first thing you should know about the pressing movement is how to tuck your elbows properly.
Many people make the mistake of flaring them out (away from the body), which can cause shoulder impingement. This mistake alone is the main reason why the bench press has a bad reputation as a shoulder wrecker.
A less common mistake is tucking your elbows too close to your torso, which robs you of stability and strength.
Instead, you want your elbows at a 50- to 60-degree angle relative to your torso. This protects your shoulders from injury and is a stable, strong position to press from. Here’s a helpful visual:
In the bottommost position, the arms are at about a 20-degree angle relative to the torso, which is too close. The middle position is the ideal one–about 60 degrees–and the topmost is the common mistake of 90 degrees.
So, now that you know the proper position of the elbows, let’s get back to the movement itself.
Keeping your elbows tucked and in place, lower the bar to the lower part of the middle of your chest, around your nipples.
Yes, the bar should touch your chest–no half-repping!
You should lower the bar in a controlled manner but shouldn’t be deliberately slow about it. (Super-slow reps aren’t better for building muscle.) About 2 seconds down is correct.
How to ascend properly.
Once the bar has touched your chest (touched, not bounced off of), you’re ready to push the bar up.
Although it’s called the bench press, it’s better to think of the ascension as pushing rather than pressing.
That is, picture that you’re pushing your torso away from the bar and into the bench instead of pressing the bar away from your torso. This will help you maintain proper form and maximize power.
The bar should move up with a slightly diagonal path, moving toward your shoulders, ending where you began: with the bar directly over your shoulders, where it’s most naturally balanced.
Lock your elbows out at the top–don’t keep them slightly bent lest you drop the bar on your face.
When ascending, nothing changes with anything else you’ve learned thus far about body position. Your shoulder blades remain down and pinched, your elbows tucked, your lower back slightly arched, your butt on the bench, and your feet on the floor.
How to rack the bar properly.
Don’t try to press the bar directly into the hooks because if you miss, it’s coming down on your face.
Instead, finish your rep with the bar directly over your shoulders and your elbows locked and then shift the bar horizontally into the uprights.
Putting it all together.
Alright, that’s quite a bit to visualize so a good video is in order. Here’s what it all looks like in action:
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The good ol’ flat barbell bench press is a staple in many weightlifting programs but is usually accompanied by several variations.
Let’s review the most common variations here.
The Dumbbell Bench Press
While it’s not a direct replacement for the barbell bench press, the dumbbell bench press is a worthwhile exercise.
One of the problems people have with the dumbbell bench press, however, is getting heavy dumbbells into position.
Here’s how I do it:
For example, I’ll do a routine like 3 to 4 sets of incline dumbbell presses, 3 to 4 sets of flat dumbbell press, and 3 to 4 sets of weighted dips for eight weeks and then switch to a routine of 3 to 4 sets of flat bench press, 3 to 4 sets of incline bench press, and 3 to 4 sets of flat dumbbell press for the next eight weeks.
The Close-Grip Bench Press
The narrower your grip on the bar, the more work your triceps have to do.
This is undesirable when you’re focusing on training your chest, but it’s one of my favorite ways to train the triceps. And, incidentally, stronger triceps means a stronger (regular) bench press.
When doing a close-grip bench press, your grip should be slightly narrower than shoulder-width and no closer.
You’ll see many guys place their hands just a few inches apart, and this is a bad idea—it puts the shoulders and wrists in a weakened, compromised position.
The rest of the setup and movement are the same as the regular bench press: the shoulder blades are “screwed” into the bench, there’s a slight arch in the lower back, the feet are flat on the floor, and the bar moves down on a slightly diagonal path, touches the bottom of your chest, and then back up.
If your shoulders or wrists feel uncomfortable at the bottom of the lift, simply widen your grip by about the width of a finger and try again.
If it’s still uncomfortable, widen your grip by another finger width and repeat until it’s comfortable.
Here’s a good instructional video:
The Incline Bench Press
The “upper chest” debate is one of the many “controversial” aspects of bodybuilding.
Do you need to do chest exercises specifically for building the upper chest? Or do all chest exercises stimulate all available muscle fibers? And even more to the point, is there even such a thing as the “upper chest?”
Well, I’ll keep this short and sweet.
There is a portion of the “chest muscle” that forms what we call the “upper chest.” It’s known as the clavicular pectoralis, and here’s what it looks like:
While this muscle is a part of the big chest muscle, the pectoralis major, the angle of the muscle fibers is quite different. Thus, certain movements can emphasize the main head of the pectoralis and others can emphasize the clavicular head.
Notice that I said emphasize, not isolate. That’s because all movements that emphasize one of the two do, to some degree, involve the other.
Nevertheless, proper chest development requires a lot of emphasis on the clavicular pectoralis for two simple reasons:
- It’s a small, stubborn muscle that takes its sweet time to grow.
- The movements that are best for developing it also happen to be great for growing the pectoralis major.
The best way to ensure your upper chest doesn’t fall behind the rest of your pec major in development is to do a lot of incline pressing.
Reverse-grip pressing is helpful too, and we’ll talk about that soon.
When doing this exercise, the angle of incline in the bench should be 30 to 45 degrees.
I prefer 30 degrees, but some people prefer an incline closer to 45. I recommend that you try various settings ranging between 30 and 45 degrees and see which you like most.
The basic setup and movement of the incline bench press is just as you learned for the regular bench press, with a small exception:
The bar should pass by the chin and touch just below the collarbones to allow for a vertical bar path.
Here’s a video that shows proper form with the barbell:
The Decline Bench Press
The decline bench press is popular among some people but I’m not a fan. Thanks to its reduced range of motion, it’s just less effective than incline and flat pressing.
A common argument made for doing decline presses is working the lowest portion of the pectoralis major, but I prefer dips for this.
The bottom line is you can never do a single set of decline bench press and still build an outstanding chest.
The Reverse-Grip Bench Press
The reverse-grip bench press is an often-overlooked variation of the bench press that has merit.
It involves flipping your grip around on the bar (so you palms face you) and not only is it easier on your shoulders but it also is particularly effective for targeting the upper chest.
Here’s how to do it:
The only 100%-accurate way to know how much weight you can bench press for a certain number of reps is to actually do it…but there are equations that can predict results with a fair amount of accuracy.
Use the calculator below to predict your 1RMs.
And in case you’re wondering how your numbers measure up, here’s a handy reference guide.
The following numbers are standards that can be reasonably expected from people at various levels of training experience.
The “untrained” column shows what you would expect from someone who hasn’t bench pressed before.
The “intermediate” column represents the expected strength of someone that has been bench pressing for up to two years.
The “advanced” column represents a reasonable strength standard for someone with multiple years of bench pressing under his or her belt.
And the “elite” column is someone with competition-level strength (in the top 1% of weightlifters).
Just knowing proper form isn’t enough to keep adding weight to the bar over time.
You’re going to hit bench press plateaus along the way and these 10 strategies will help you overcome them.
Get in the Right State of Mind
The right mental preparation can make a significant difference in your all of your lifts.
Don’t approach a set lethargically. Get pumped up and excited (the right music can help a lot).
Research shows that doing this can increase force production. The same study also found that distraction can significantly decrease force production.
So, before you start your set, put your headphones on, tune out your mind and the rest of the gym, and pump yourself up.
Another simple but effective mental “trick” for increasing strength is visualizing successfully performing your reps before you do them. I know, I know–it sounds woo-woo but research shows it actually works.
Lift Heavy Ass Weights
Ronnie Coleman said it best:
How heavy is “heavy,” though?
Well, the “strength” spectrum of the rep range usually starts around 80 to 85% of your one-rep max, or the 4 to 6 rep range, and go up in terms of 1RM from there.
If you’re currently doing the majority of your bench pressing with lighter weights–the 10 to 12 rep range, for example–you’re going to benefit greatly by emphasizing heavier lifting instead. You don’t have to stop the 10- to 12-rep work but save it for after your heavy lifting.
For example, here’s how I would go about it in a workout:
Incline Bench Press: Warm up and 2 sets of 2 to 3 reps (~90% of 1RM)
Incline Bench Press: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps (~80% of 1 RM)
Flat Dumbbell Press: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
Flat Bench Press: 2 sets of 8 to 10 or 10 to 12 reps (~70% of 1RM)
Training this way is known as “periodizing” your workouts, which you can read more about here.
Many trainers promote super-slow reps as best for building muscle and strength, but research shows otherwise.
- A study conducted by scientists at the University of Sydney found that subjects following traditional “fast” training on the Bench Press gained more strength than slow training.
- A study conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut found that very-slow training resulted in lower levels of peak force and power when compared with a normal, self-regulated tempo.
- A study conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin found that even in untrained individuals a traditional training tempo resulted in greater strength in the Squat and greater peak power in the countermovement jump.
- A study conducted by researchers at the University of Oklahoma found that 4 weeks of traditional resistance training was more effective for increasing strength than super-slow training.
Furthermore, research shows that, when bench pressing, lowering the bar quickly (1 second) and, without pause, then exploding it upward results in greater power gains than a slow descent followed by a pause and explosive ascent.
Don’t make the newbie mistake of bouncing the bar off your chest at the bottom of each rep, though. This is both “cheating” and asking for injury.
Pull the Bar Down and Apart
This is another old-school powerlifting tip that has been scientifically validated.
The idea is simple:
1. Don’t start the descent by letting the bar just drop toward your body.
Instead, imagine you’re pulling the bar down toward your chest in a controlled manner. This will help you maintain the proper body position for generating maximum vertical force.
2. As you descend, try to actually bend the bar in half or “pull it apart.”
This requires keeping your shoulder blades pulled in their proper position (pulled in toward each other).
Applying lateral force in this way also helps you generate more vertical force when you ascend, which is one of the reasons you can move more weight on the barbell bench press than dumbbell. You can’t generate lateral force with dumbbells as they would simply move away from each other.
Bench Press More Frequently
The ideal training frequency for building muscle is a heated subject. What we can know for certain, though, is this:
If you want to get better at an exercise, you want to do it frequently.
This is why every powerlifting program worth a hoot has you squatting, deadlifting, and/or bench press 2 to 3 times per week. Many bodybuilding program, like my Bigger Leaner Stronger program, do as well.
You see, while building muscle strength is an integral part of building size, muscles can get stronger without getting bigger.
This is mainly due to neuromuscular adaptations. Muscle fibers can “learn” to fire more efficiently and forcefully and, like with any type of physical activity, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
So, if you’re currently bench pressing once per week, simply bench pressing twice or even three times per week can improve your strength.
That said, when you increase the frequency of an exercise, you have to be careful to avoid overtraining.
Check out this article to learn more.
Vary the Width of Your Grip
This too comes from the world of powerlifting and there’s research to back it up as an effective way to help increase your bench press.
Studies show that a grip several inches wider than your shoulders emphasizes the larger chest muscles whereas a narrower grip emphasizes the smaller muscles like the triceps and shoulders.
By incorporating both wide- and close-grip bench pressing in your workouts, you’re able to help target and strengthen each of these muscle groups. This, in turn, can help you break through sticking points.
Make Sure You’re Eating Enough
Whenever someone complains about not gaining weight, size, or strength, my first suspicion is they’re not eating enough food. And I’m very often right.
You see, here’s a simple fact of muscle growth that many people don’t understand:
If you want to build muscle and gain weight as quickly as possible, then you need to eat enough calories. If you don’t, you won’t build any muscle or gain any weight to speak of.
For example, I know that I need to eat somewhere between 3,300 and 3,600 calories per day to consistently gain weight. If that sounds like a lot of food to you, it is. It’s fun at first but gets old after a while.
I can’t complain, though because I’ve seen much worse. I’ve worked with hundreds of skinny guys that couldn’t gain a single pound until their daily intake exceeded 4,000 to 4,500 calories per day…seven days per week (no missing meals on the weekends!).
Some people are just “high-burning” types and require a lot of calories to support the weight and muscle gain process.
So increasing calorie intake is an easy way to get your numbers, both weight and strength, moving up.
What you don’t want to do, however, is increase your food intake willy nilly. Get out of hand and you’re going to gain a lot of fat a lot faster than you’d like.
Here’s how to do it right.
Do Rest-Pause Sets
I’m generally not a fan of “fancy” rep schemes like drop sets, supersets, giant sets, and the like because you’re better off doing heavy, straight sets instead.
That said, one “unconventional” rep scheme actually worth including in your routine is the Rest-Pause Set. Here’s how it works:
You perform an exercise until you fail (can’t get another rep) and then rest for a short period before doing it again. You then take another short rest, do another set to failure, and so forth.
Like many of the tips shared thus far, this one comes to us from powerlifters and research shows that it’s an effective way to increase strength.
A few tips for incorporating Rest-Pause Sets into your routine:
- Do them with heavy weight. Think 80%+ of your 1RM.
- If you’re using 80 to 90% of your 1RM, rest 20 to 30 seconds in between each set. If you’re using over 90%, rest 45 to 60 seconds.
- Don’t do more than one “cluster” of 3 to 4 Rest-Pause Sets per workout. They’re very taxing.
“Microload” Your Weights
When you want to build muscle and strength, your number one concern should be adding weight to the bar over time.
The bottom line is if you want to get bigger, you have to get stronger.
A good way to do this is to work in a given rep range, like 4 to 6, and once you hit the top of the range, move up in weight. That is, one you get 6 reps with a given weight, you add 5 pounds (dumbbell) or 10 pounds (barbell) and work with that new weight until you get 6, move up, etc.
This simple process, repeated many times, is how you make progress.
Sometimes things get sticky though and you find yourself stuck at a given weight and rep count for several weeks. This is where “microloading” can help, which is simply a fancy term for adding less than 5 pounds to the bar.
For example, let’s say your bench press has been stuck at 185 pounds for 5 reps for several weeks now. You’ve tried increasing to 190 pounds but this just stalls you at 2 reps.
Using “fractional plates,” you can microload the bar by an additional 2.5 pounds, to 187.5 pounds. Let’s say you do this and are able to press it for 4 reps.
Then, a few weeks later, you’re pressing 187.5 pounds for 5 reps, at which point you microload another 2.5 pounds. And again you’re able to get 4 reps and continue building your strength.
It’s a useful strategy.
Here are some high-quality fractional plates I recommend:
Build Stronger Supporting Muscles
Many people blame their chest for a stalled bench press but don’t realize their shoulders and triceps are what’s actually holding them back.
Well, the anterior (front) delts play a vital role in getting the bar off your chest and the triceps are heavily involved in the upper half of the movement.
If either of these muscles are lagging, so will your bench press. Strengthen them and your bench press can start progressing again.
- The best exercise for building all-around shoulder strength is the military press. You should be doing this at least once per week.
- My favorite exercises for building triceps strength are the close-grip bench press, skullcrusher, seated overhead triceps extension, and triceps pushdown. You should be doing at least 2 to 3 of these exercises once per week.
Before I sign off I want to leave you with a simple and effective bench press workout that will help you build a bigger and stronger chest.
Here it is:
Incline Barbell Bench Press: Warm up and 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps (80 to 85% of 1RM)
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Flat Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Close-Grip Bench Press: 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Flat Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps (70 to 75% of 1RM)
Seated or Standing Military Press: 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps
Yup, that’s it–just 15 heavy sets of chest work per week. It might look easy but give it a try–heavy lifting is harder than you might think.
Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between each set.
This will give your muscles enough time to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight.
For instance, if you get on the incline bench and push out 6 reps on your first set, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can press it for 6 reps, and so forth.
When done properly, the bench press is one of the most rewarding and best things you can do for building upper-body strength.
When done improperly, it’s not only frustrating and ineffective, but dangerous as well.
So take the time to learn and practice proper form, apply the strategies given in the article to keep making progress, and stay patient. It takes several years to build impressive strength even when you’re doing everything right.
What’s your take on the bench press? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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