Like it or not, the Bench Press is one of the primary lifts on which your strength is judged. Nothing turns heads faster in the gym than an impressive Bench Press, and it’s the first (and often only) lift people want to know your numbers on.
There’s a good reason for this beyond ego, though.
The Bench Press is one of the best upper body exercises you can do because, when performed properly, it trains not just the pectorals but the lats, shoulders, triceps, and even the legs (through a proper leg drive, as discussed later in this article).
Every chest workout or push workout should include at least a few sets of the Bench Press.
That said, like the other big compound lifts (Deadlift, Squat, and Military Press), the Bench Press is actually quite technical. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll quickly hit a plateau, which is not only frustrating but can set you up for injury as you try to break through it by compromising form.
So, in this article, we’re going to look at 11 safe, scientifically proven ways to increase your bench press and, in some cases, also reduce the risk of injury.
Table of Contents
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If you an experienced weightlifter, you know the importance of being mentally prepared for heavy lifts. You can psych yourself out or up and hit or miss a lift accordingly.
You’ve undoubtedly seen powerlifters go through what sometimes looks like a ridiculous, satanic ritual before attempting a lift, but did you know that pumping yourself up like that has been scientifically proven to work?
A study conducted by researchers at AUT University with elite rugby players found that when they pumped themselves up for a Bench Press set, force production increased by 8%.
Researchers also found that distraction significantly decreased force production–there was a 12% difference in force production between the pumped-up and distracted lifters.
The takeaway here is pump yourself up your for heavy lifts and concentrate on each rep as you perform it–no talking, being talked to, or mental wandering.
I don’t stomp around the gym like a madman to get pumped up. I find that the right workout songs help dramatically for getting pumped up.
Also, before I grab the bar, I like to take 10 to 15 seconds to focus on the lift I’m about to perform and visualize myself performing it successfully.
I know that sounds kind of silly but research shows that visualizing a successful lift before performing it can increase strength.
The subject of “ideal” rep ranges is complex, so I won’t dive into it in this article. (I do talk a bit about it on my article on hypertrophy, though.)
Instead, I’ll keep this short and sweet:
- If you’re new to weightlifting (you’ve been lifting for less than a year), this tip doesn’t apply to you. You should stick to the advice give in my article on the ultimate chest workout.
- If you’re an experienced weightlifter, however, you can benefit from working in different rep ranges, or periodizing your training, as it’s known.
I will be discussing periodization in more detail in my next book, and will be sharing a full periodized program for advanced lifters, but here’s a periodized chest workout that you can use to help increase your bench press:
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 reps (~70% of 1RM)
The 2 to 3 rep work provides maximal overload, which is crucial to building muscle and strength; the 4 to 6 rep work is the “sweet spot” for myofibrillar muscle growth; and the focus of the 8 to 10 rep sets is cellular fatigue, which also stimulates muscle growth.
While many people believe that slowing the weight down improves performance, research says otherwise.
This study demonstrated 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.
That said, don’t bounce the bar off your chest at the bottom of the rep. This isn’t only cheating, it can hurt quite a bit as the weights get heavier.
Don’t simply “drop” the weight toward your body, either–you want to feel as if you are pulling the bar toward your chest, which is something we’ll be talking more about soon.
You might be surprised how many guys write me concerned about their Bench Press being stuck, but who are performing as the last exercise in their workouts.
They usually start with dumbbell work, then maybe move on to Dips, and finally come around to the Bench Press for their final few sets.
This is why my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger workouts always begin with big, compound lifts like the Bench Press, Deadlift, Military Press, and Squat, and then move on to more isolation-type exercises like Dips, Dumbbell Rows, Side Lateral Raises, and Lunges.
Start your chest workouts with the Bench Press and you’ll be most likely to make progress.
Like “ideal” rep ranges, optimal training frequency is a hotly debated subject. The bottom line is it boils down to workout intensity and volume.
The lighter the weights and fewer the sets per workout, the more often you can train the muscle group. And, as a corollary, the heavier the weights and greater the sets per workout, the less often you can train the muscle group.
I’ve tried many different splits and frequency schemes, and what I’ve found works best is in line with an extensive review on the subject conducted by researchers at Goteborg University:
When training with the proper intensity (focusing on lifting heavy weights), optimal frequency seems to be about 40 – 60 reps performed every 5 – 7 days.
While training each muscle group 2 to 3 times per week is trendy right now, and while it’s workable (if volume is programmed correctly), it’s not necessarily more effective than training each muscle group once per 5 to 7 days, at the right volume.
If you do less than the optimal volume, as given above, you will be leaving some gains on the table. If you do more, you’ll probably end up overtraining.
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Yes, there is a part of the “chest muscle” that forms what we call the “upper chest.” It’s known as the clavicular pectoralis. Here’s what it looks like:
An underdeveloped upper chest not only looks bad, it compromises your overall Bench Press performance.
Powerlifters have been using different grip widths for many years and studies back this up as an effective method for increasing bench press strength.
Research has shown that a wide grip (several inches wider than shoulder-width) emphasizes the larger, prime mover muscles (the pectorals), whereas a narrow grip (right at shoulder-width, or slightly narrower) emphasizes the smaller muscles involved, such as the arms and shoulders.
By varying your grip widths, you’re able to focus on each of these muscle groups and strengthen each, which can help you break through sticking points.
The Bench Press gets a bad rap for ruining shoulders, but that’s not the whole story. It’s bad for the shoulders when performed incorrectly, and the biggest mistake people make is flaring their elbows out as they ascend.
Research has shown that keeping your arms at about a 45-degree angle relative to your torso, and using a medium grip, is the best way to protect your shoulders.
(And don’t worry, including some wider- and narrower-grip work isn’t going to get you hurt. Just ensure the majority of your bench pressing is done with a normal, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.)
The reason why is simple: the Smith machine simply activates less muscle fibers than the free weight Bench Press.
If your gym doesn’t have a free weight Bench Press station, change gyms. If you can’t, then you can begrudgingly use the Smith machine (it’s better than no bench pressing at all).
This is another old-school powerlifting tip that has been scientifically validated.
The idea is simple: as you descend, pull the shoulder blades together and try to actually bend the bar in half or “pull it apart,” and maintain this position and tension as you ascend.
You should feel like you’re pulling the bar down toward your chest, and doing this not only increases shoulder stability, it also accounts for a fair portion of the upward force.
This, by the way, helps explain why you can’t dumbbell press as much weight as you can bench press. More stabilization is required with dumbbells, but more importantly, you can’t generate this lateral force as it would cause the dumbbells to move away from each other.
An improper setup can bleed a surprising amount of force on the bench press, and this is why powerlifters are very deliberate with their positioning under the bar. The major points are these:
- “Screw” your shoulder blades into the bench by setting up onto your upper back, with a lower back arch big enough to fit a fist in between it and the bench.
Don’t lose this position when you lift the bar off the rack and maintain it throughout each rep.
- Create a stable lower body base by placing your feet directly beneath your knees and forcing your knees out, which will tighten your quads and activate your glutes.
This allows you to push through your heels as you ascend, creating the “leg drive” that you’ve probably heard of.
- Grip the bar as hard as you possibly can.
What do you think about these tips on how to increase your bench press? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
- Duffey MJ, Challis JH. Vertical and lateral forces applied to the bar during the bench press in novice lifters. J strength Cond Res. 2011;25(9):2442-2447. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182281939
- Schwanbeck S, Chilibeck PD, Binsted G. A comparison of free weight squat to Smith machine squat using electromyography. J strength Cond Res. 2009;23(9):2588-2591. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b1b181
- Schick EE, Coburn JW, Brown LE, et al. A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. J strength Cond Res. 2010;24(3):779-784. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cc2237
- Green CM, Comfort P. The affect of grip width on bench press performance and risk of injury. Strength Cond J. 2007;29(5):10-14. doi:10.1519/00126548-200710000-00001
- Lawrence MA, Ostrowski SJ, Leib DJ, Carlson LA. Effect of Unstable Loads on Stabilizing Muscles and Bar Motion During the Bench Press. J Strength Cond Res. August 2018:1. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000002788
- Trebs AA, Brandenburg JP, Pitney WA. An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles. J strength Cond Res. 2010;24(7):1925-1930. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181ddfae7
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- Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sport Med. 2007;37(3):225-264. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737030-00004
- INFLUENCE OF EXERCISE ORDER ON MAXIMUM STRENGTH AND MUSCLE THICKNESS IN UNTRAINED MEN, JSSM-2010, Vol.9, Issue 1, 1 - 7. https://www.jssm.org/vol9/n1/1/v9n1-1text.php. Accessed September 24, 2019.
- Romano N, Vilaça-Alves J, Fernandes HM, et al. Effects of resistance exercise order on the number of repetitions performed to failure and perceived exertion in untrained young males. J Hum Kinet. 2013;39(1):177-183. doi:10.2478/hukin-2013-0080
- Pryor RR, Sforzo GA, King DL. Optimizing power output by varying repetition tempo. J strength Cond Res. 2011;25(11):3029-3034. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31820f50cb
- Richter J, Gilbert JN, Baldis M. Maximizing strength training performance using mental imagery. Strength Cond J. 2012;34(5):65-69. doi:10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182668c3d
- Argus CK, Gill ND, Keogh JW, Hopkins WG. Acute effects of verbal feedback on upper-body performance in elite athletes. J strength Cond Res. 2011;25(12):3282-3287. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182133b8c