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 podcast).
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 podcast, 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.
Lastly, if you want to support the show, please drop a quick review of it over on iTunes. It really helps!
Would you rather read about how to increase your bench press? Then check out this article!
Mike: [00:02:02] Hello, hello, welcome to another video podcast. I am Michael Matthews from Muscle For Life and Legion Athletics. And this time around, we are going to have a very important discussion. We are going to talk about how to bench more weight. Specifically, I am going to share with you eleven evidence-based tips for increasing your bench press.
And as you will see, many of them will immediately increase your bench press. Some of them will take some time to really have an effect, but many of them will help you out right away.
[00:02:40] So let’s get right to it. The first tip is to get pumped up, to get focused. Yes, it does matter. There is a reason why many powerlifters and strongmen go through what looks like a satanic ritual of sorts before stepping underneath or walking up to a very heavy barbell.
And of course, you don’t have to do the same thing, but getting a bit hyped up and particularly getting focused on what you are about to do is going to help you increase your force production, which ultimately will mean more strength. And this has been demonstrated in scientific research.
[00:03:24] There was a study conducted by AUT University with elite rugby players that found that if they pumped themself up before a bench press, their force production improved by about eight percent on average. And if they distracted themselves before their forced production decreased by about 12 percent.
[00:03:45] So what does that mean practically? You got to go stomp around like a raging bull before you hit a heavy lift? No, you do not. What I like to do is two things. One, I like to use music. So I will have songs, these days it’s usually heavy metal that make me want to lift heavyweights.
And I like to take 10 or 15 seconds or so before I am going for a particularly heavy lift to just visualize it in my mind, really focus on what I’m going to be doing, how I want my body to feel, and to just see a successful set – that helps. There’s research on that as well. That’s another discussion, but that is also a valid technique in and of itself.
[00:04:32] Okay, the next tip is to mix up your rep range. And if you want an in-depth explanation as to why this can help you get stronger than check out the podcast that I just recently recorded on muscle hypertrophy. I’ve also written articles about it on both Muscle For Life and Legion Athletics. But for the purposes of this video podcast, I’m just going to keep it short and sweet.
If you are new to weightlifting, if you don’t have at least a year of proper heavy compound weightlifting under your belt, this tip doesn’t apply to you. However, if you are not a newbie, if you are no longer in the beginner phase, but you are an intermediate or advanced weightlifter, then this tip does apply to you.
Now I’m gonna be writing and recording stuff on periodization in the next month or two, so I don’t wanna go into all the details here, but what you can consider doing is mixing up the rep ranges of your bench pressing. So, for example, you can do some very heavy pressing one week. Let’s say you’re working in the two to three rep range, some around 90, 95 percent of your one-rep max.
And then you could work in the four to six rep range for a few weeks, with something around 80 to 85 percent of your one-rep max. And then in the, let’s say, 8-10 or 10-12 reps range with something around 70 to 75 percent of your one-rep max.
[00:05:53] Okay, so the next tip is to lift explosively. And on the bench press that includes the descent. It’s not just the ascent. I’m not just saying explode the bar off your chest, which you should be doing. You should also be lowering the bar fairly quickly. Now, lifting in this way produces two different benefits. There is the psychological and the physiological.
So as far as the psychological goes, you are probably going to find it easier to move heavy weights if you lift this way. So we’re talking with the bench press here, so it’s again, it’s a rather quick descent, maybe a second or so, a slight pause, not bouncing the bar off your chest, touching your chest, it’s a rapid ascent and then it quickly slows, slight pause, and then rapid explosive ascent.
So if you do that, you, again, are probably going to find heavier weights, just feel more manageable. And it’s probably mostly psychological.
[00:06:53] Now, as far as the physiological goes, research shows that lifting explosively in the way that I just described, can result in additional power production over time, versus a slow descent, pause, and rapid ascent.
[00:07:10] Now, quick little caveat there. You do not want to simply drop the bar toward your chest or just drop it onto your chest. You want to visualize, you want to feel like you are pulling the bar down toward your chest, which we will talk more about in a minute.
[00:08:50] Okay, so the next tip here is to give the bench press priority in your workouts. And you might be surprised how often I hear from guys who complain about having a weak bench or just being stuck on their bench who are doing it later in their workouts. They’re doing it after dumbbell work, after dips, and so forth.
[00:09:13] Well, several studies have shown that the order in which you do your exercises in your workouts significantly impacts the rate at which you progress on them. Which, of course, makes sense, anybody who has lifted weights for a while knows that you are freshest in the beginning of your workouts, you have the most energy to give to the first exercise or two, and then things start to taper off.
And that’s one of the reasons why all of my workouts for men and women in my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs start with compound exercises. The number one goal I have for guys and gals in my programs is to increase their whole body strength.
And really what that means is getting strong on a few key lifts like the bench press, the overhead press, the deadlift, and the squat, which is why most of the workouts start with one of those movements and then progress toward less important exercises, usually isolation stuff to just fill in development. So the point here is when you are going to bench press, start those workouts with the bench press.
[00:10:22] Okay, so the next tip is to make sure that you are not overtraining or under training. And of course, we were referring mostly to just the chest. So if you are overtraining in general, yes, that is going to hinder your progress on the bench press as well as everything else. If you are under training in general, that is not necessarily going to get in the way.
However, if you are under training your chest and under training your bench press, that’s going to get in the way. And if you are overtraining your chest and overtraining your bench press, that’s going to get in the way as well.
[00:10:51] What does that mean exactly? Well, I don’t want to get into a long-winded, tangential discussion about rep ranges and what is ideal, because it really depends on intensity, and it depends on frequency, and it depends on how you’re eating, and how you’re living.
The general rule, though, is the lighter the weights are and the fewer hard sets you do per training session, the more often you can train a muscle group. And the heavier the weights are and the more sets, more hard sets you are doing per training session, the less often you can train a muscle group.
[00:11:27] And while training muscle groups very frequently is kind of trendy right now, a number of studies have come out over the last few years that have shown that volume is more important than frequency. Meaning the number of hard sets that you are doing, assuming that you are taking them at least semi-close to the point of technical failure, that number is more important than how you are splitting them up into individual training sessions.
So much so that if you were to do all of your volume in one workout per week, you probably wouldn’t see much of a difference in terms of gains than if you took that volume and broke it down into three training sessions per week. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that breaking the volume down into three training sessions is a bad idea or is always unnecessary. Again, it really depends on where you’re at and what you are trying to do and what your schedule looks like and what you prefer.
[00:12:25] But for the sake of this discussion, I’m to keep it simple and just give a guideline, which is if you are doing 40 to 60 heavy reps for your chest every five to seven days or so, you are going to do just fine. And all of those reps could be the bench press or some of them could be the bench press. Again, it depends on what you’re doing. I personally like to do both barbell and dumbbell pressing. And I’ve found that getting stronger on the dumbbell press has benefited my barbell bench press.
[00:12:58] Okay, so the next tip is to include some work in your chest training that emphasizes the upper portion of your chest. So what am I talking about? Well, if you look at the anatomy of your chest muscle of your pectoralis, it has two distinct parts, there’s an upper part and a lower part. So the upper part is up here and it kind of cuts down this way.
And then you have the lower part, which is here, and it kind of comes in this way. And because of the difference in the orientation of the muscle fibers and how they insert, you can emphasize these two parts separately in your training. So, for example, incline bench pressing tends to emphasize the upper part of the chest, more than flat bench pressing.
And reverse grip bench pressing does as well. Now, the reason why I recommend including some incline pressing, doesn’t have to be bench pressing, it could be double pressing, and or some reverse grip bench pressing, is not only does having an underdeveloped upper chest look kind of off, it also will compromise your overall bench press strength.
[00:14:11] Okay, next tip is to vary your grip width. This is something that powerlifters have been doing for a long time and swear by and it also has scientific research on its side. So what we know is: the wider your grip gets in the bench, the more your pecs have to work and the narrower it gets, the more your arms and shoulders have to work.
So what you can do then is include both some wider and some narrower grip bench pressing in your routine to help strengthen all of the muscles that are involved in producing a very strong, regular bench press.
[00:14:48] And specifically, what that means then is: you could include maybe one to two wider grip bench press sets after your normal bench pressing in an individual workout. And so you know, this is just like a couple inches wider than normal. So normal is about shoulder-width in terms of grip, you go a couple inches on either side outside of that, you don’t go all the way to the plates.
And then you can also work some close grip bench pressing into your routine. I personally don’t do it on my chest days or my press days or push days, whatever you wanna call them. I like to do my close-grip bench pressing on an accessory kind of arms day because it is a really effective triceps exercise.
[00:15:30] Okay, so the next tip here is to keep your shoulders tucked to protect your shoulders. Now I know this isn’t necessarily a great tip for benching more weight, because if you do flare your elbows, you probably will be able to bench a little bit more weight. But it is going to be at the risk of a shoulder injury, which is going to mean not benching a lot of weight, possibly for a long time.
And so what you want to do here is keep your elbows at about a 45-degree angle to your torso throughout the entirety of the lift. That means all the way down and all the way up. You want to make sure that your elbows are close-ish to your sides, they don’t have to be tucked in right at your sides, but they need to be close-ish. About 45 degrees is a good, sweet spot for most people.
[00:16:20] Okay, so the next tip is to stay off the Smith machine. I know this probably doesn’t need to be in the video podcast, but I figured I’d say it anyway. Do the traditional classic free barbell bench press because it has been shown time and time again in study after study that it beats the Smith machine for muscle and strength gain period.
And if your gym doesn’t have a bench press, change gyms. Seriously, if you can, just get to a gym with a proper bench press, with a proper squat rack or power rack, and a proper deadlift setup of sorts. It doesn’t have to be a fancy platform necessarily, but at least where they have a good bar and enough weight to get strong on the deadlift.
[00:17:05] Okay, the next tip is to try to pull the bar apart. And this is another powerlifting trick that works and has scientific evidence to back it up. So the idea here is simple: as you are descending, as you are lowering the bar to your chest, you want to get the idea of bending it or pulling it apart.
And what that will do is it’ll force your shoulder blades toward each other, which is going to help maintain tightness in your upper body, and it’s going to help you maintain the slight arch in your back, it’s going to keep you in the maximally stable, powerful position that you want to be in for the press.
And if you do it right, you should feel like, and you can think with this, too, to try to try to get this feeling, but you should feel like you are pulling the bar down towards your chest, like I mentioned earlier. And research shows that if you do that if you execute this properly, you will not only improve your shoulder stability, but you will also increase the amount of force that you can produce on the way up.
And this, by the way, is one of the reasons why we can move more weight on the barbell bench press than we can with dumbbells. With dumbbells, you can’t apply that lateral force like. Yeah, they do require a little bit of additional stabilization, but the biggest reason why we can move more weight in the barbell bench press is we can apply that lateral force to it. With dumbbells, you can’t.
[00:18:33] Okay, the final tip here is to set up properly and then maintain that position throughout the entire lift. Very important. Now, this is why many competitive weightlifters and people who just take their weightlifting seriously are very deliberate in their setup on their big lifts. An improper setup can really bleed force and if left uncorrected, stick you in a rut.
[00:18:57] So what does this look like on the bench press? Well, the first point is: you want to feel like you are screwing your shoulder blades into the bench by setting up on your upper back and you want to have an arch in your lower back large enough to fit about a fist between your lower back and the bench. And of course, your butt needs to be on the bench.
And it’s very important that you maintain this position throughout the entire lift. Sometimes you’ll see people get into a good position, in the beginning, un-rack the weight, and then start to slump their shoulders or lose their arch, or kind of unscrew their shoulder blades from the bench. You don’t want to do that. You want to maintain that tight screwed in position throughout the entire lift.
[00:19:43] Now, another important point is creating a stable, lower body base to press from, because when you do this right, you are able to transfer a bit of extra force from your lower body into the bar and improve your performance. And how you do it is: you place your feet on the floor directly beneath your knees, and when you are performing your reps, you press your knees outward.
You spread your legs forcefully and you drive your feet into the ground. And what you will find is when you do that, your quads will become activated, your glutes will become activated, and you will feel an extra boost of strength. And the final point of the setup is: squeeze the bar as hard as you can throughout the entire set.
Every rep you should be squeezing the bar with maximum force, your fingers should be white. Sounds silly, it makes a difference, try it.
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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