15 Ways To Improve Your Bench Press
I think we can all agree that the bench press is a loved exercise.
It holds the status of ‘king’ amongst the upper body pressing exercises and even has its own day.
In fact, it’s so loved guys the world over enter the gym and flock to the bench press like metal drawn to a magnet in the pursuit of beach-worthy pecs.
Yet so many people fail to make the gains they deserve, struggling to add weight to the bar and improve on their personal best. With the 15 tips laid out below, I guarantee you’ll find a way to add weight to your bench press in your next session.
Use Micro-loading To Apply Progressive Overload
Sure, when you begin you’ll be able to slap more plates on the bar almost every session and the dream of pressing your bodyweight and more will begin to feel within your grasp. You’ll soon graduate to using your previous max as your new warm up, you’ll feel awesome, hell you’ll probably look awesome too and will be posting up respectable numbers before you know it.
However, as with all good things, this will come to an end and you will slow down.
It’ll take longer to add weight to the bar and that 2.5kg increase you were doing before will soon feel like a tonne of weight threatening to crush you where you lie. You'll begin to worry that if you can increase the weight how will you continue applying progressive overload?
Fear not, this is a natural progression of strength and the answer is actually pretty simple. Start micro-loading. This means instead of trying to add 2.5kg to the bar each time you hit your desired reps and sets, start adding 1.5kg, 1.25kg or 1kg instead. If you do this you can continue to make steady strength gains.
Warm Up Properly
Gone are the days of warming up on the treadmill and in are the days of warming up with movements specific to the exercise you’re performing. So instead of heading to the cardio zone for a casual jog, head into the weights room instead and warm up using the bench press instead.
Not only does this warm up the specific muscles you’ll be training but by using a progressive warm up you prep the body for the movement and the weight you’ll be using.
Here’s how to do it:
8 reps with the bar
1 min rest
5 reps with 50% working weight
1 min rest
3 reps with 70% working weight
1 min rest
1 rep with 90% working weight
1 min rest
That’s it, then if after the bench press you’re moving into a shoulder or triceps exercise there is no need to warm up further as you’ll be plenty warm by that point. However, if you move from the bench press to either a back or leg exercise then run through the warm up again for that body part.
Don’t Stretch Before You Lift
Stretching before a workout was considered a must-do for a long time but research now shows that this is not optimal for your performance in the weights room.
One research study (1) shows that static stretching before weight lifting causes a significant reduction in strength, even in stretches lasting as little as 45 seconds or less.
Another study (2) found that static stretching before working out decreased strength in lower and upper body exercises in both trained and untrained men.
Next time you workout forego the stretching until after you workout if you want to be at your strongest.
Visualise To Get In The Right Frame Of Mind
Never underestimate the power of the mind when it comes to lifting something heavy, a simple change in thinking from “no way, that’s too heavy” to “I’m going to crush this” can make a huge difference.
Research shows (3) that using tools like visualisation where you picture yourself completing the lift successfully can improve performance in strength training. In addition, an extensive review of the research (4) concluded that;
“mental practice has a positive and significant effect on performance.”
Further research (5) shows that negative imagery has been shown to deteriorate performance whilst consistent positive imagery has shown to improve performance, thus demonstrating the importance of removing thoughts of not being able to complete the lift or seeing yourself narrowly missing completion.
So, next time you’re lying on the bench between the warm-up and your first set, take some time to visualise yourself performing the next set, think about how it will feel and picture yourself completing the lift successfully.
You’ll be surprised at the effect this can have on your performance and will be crushing the bench press in no time at all.
Position Yourself Correctly
In order to give you the best lifting platform to press from you want to ensure that you are set up correctly before you start lifting.
Position yourself on the bench so that your eyes are beneath the bar
Anchor yourself to the bench by fixing your head, shoulder blades and glutes to the bench, creating a natural arch in the back and a solid base to un-rack the weight from.
Maintain the natural arch in your back, keep your chest high and your shoulder blades pinned to the bench.
Position the feet below the knees and focus on driving them into the floor to create a solid base to push from.
Un-rack the bar to begin
Squeeze your glutes and abs for stability
When benching it’s far too common of a mistake for people to collapse their lower back and drop their chest when lowering the weight.
This robs them of their stable base, only for them to try to re-adopt the position whilst trying to drive the weight back up. This invariably leads to injury and a decreased power output.
In my experience planting the feet is one of the most overlooked parts of the positioning setup with people often choosing to neglect what the legs are doing when in fact the legs can have a huge impact on your ability to lift heavier weights.
Get your setup right for a better all-around bench press and reduced risk of injury.
Change Your Grip Width
Research (6) shows that different grip widths place the emphasis of the bench press on different muscles. In fact, changing the width of your grip is a great way to help break through sticking points whilst continuing to train the bench press.
For example, a wider grip (just outside the shoulders) places more emphasis on the chest whereas a narrower grip will work the triceps more.
Squeeze The Bar & Pull It Apart
After you’ve positioned your hands to un-rack the bar for your first set, do you give them much more thought?
If the answer was no, then you should start paying attention to the hands too, as research shows (7) that applying lateral force to the bar when benching increases power output and improves strength. It’s a great and easy tip you can apply to eke out all the power you can, all you need to do is try and pull the bar apart as you perform the bench press.
Additionally, squeezing and pulling the bar helps to engage the lats which will improve your stability, make the lift more comfortable and secure. So, next time you’re benching give the hands a second thought.
Strengthen The Weaker Muscles
When bench pressing, the primary mover is the chest and when lifting this should be your focus, you want to try and create that mind to muscle connection and concentrate on how the pecs feel throughout the movement.
However, they are not the only muscles working, your triceps and shoulders are also active as secondary muscles in the lift.
Being smaller muscles than the chest you’ll find that you’ll get to a point where your triceps and shoulders begin to fatigue before your chest, which will inhibit your ability to lift more weight.
It’s at this point you want to start building up the strength of these secondary muscles to improve their ability to contribute to the bench press.
Good exercises for improving shoulder and triceps strength are heavy-load, low rep work with;
Close grip bench press
Then mixed in with some moderate load, moderate rep work using;
Bench Press More Often
Whenever it comes to learning a skill, you’re told practice makes perfect. Weightlifting is no different, it’s a skill, one you must practice to perfect.
You must learn the movement, hone your form and then do it over and over to get better.
Try benching pressing twice a week to improve your skill and add weight to the bar. You’ll find that by benching more often you’ll be able to refine your form and increase your proficiency. This will allow you to accelerate your progress and increase the weight you’re lifting.
Focus On Lifting Heavy Weights
To add weight to the bar you need to get stronger and to get stronger you need to train for strength.
A research study (8) set out to see what number of repetitions would result in the fastest improvement in strength.
They took 199 male college students and split them into 9 groups. Each group trained with different repetitions per set from the following set of repetitions; 2RM, 4RM, 6RM, 8RM, 10RM & 12RM.
They were tested before and after completing a 12-week progressive programme and researchers concluded that the optimum number of repetitions for strength was between 3 and 9 reps.
What does this mean?
Train using 75%+ of your 1RM in the 3 - 9 rep range whilst maintaining good form and increasing the weight lifted over time using progressive overload.
Research shows that receiving verbal feedback can increase power output (9) in well-trained athletes particularly in the later sets of an exercise.
The athletes who received verbal feedback saw a “1.8% and 1.3% increase in mean peak power and velocity when averaged of 3 sets.”
Although this may not seem like a huge amount, when combined with the other tips in this post it can help contribute to a significant difference in your ability to bench heavier loads.
So, next time you’re bench pressing get yourself a coach or buddy to have a look at your form and provide some verbal feedback and encouragement and you could find yourself powering through the last couple of sets.
Lift With Explosive Power
You’re probably used to being told that to get a strong bench press you to take it slow and spend more time under tension. Research now shows this may not be the ideal and to improve the bench press you need to work explosively.
Research (10) looking at the effect of lifting tempo and its effect on power output and found that “tempos with a fast eccentric [(lowering)] phase and no bottom rest produced significantly greater PO [(power output)] and repetitions” when combined with maximal concentric contractions.
They also found that a slower eccentric phase or increase bottom rest did not significantly affect power output or repetitions performed.
This doesn’t mean you should go dropping the weight and bouncing it off your chest in the name of explosive lifting, but it does mean you spend some time working on a fast, controlled descent following by an explosive concentric contraction to return the bar to the starting position.
Prioritise The Bench Press
If you want to add weight to the bar and getting better at the bench press then you need to prioritise it by putting it at the beginning of your workouts. Several research studies (11, 12) show that the sequence you perform your exercises in, can negatively affect your performance, with exercises being completed towards the end of your workout is more difficult than those at the beginning.
For this reason, it’s advisable to make the bench press the first exercise you do when you are at your freshest. This will help you to add weight to the bar more regularly.
Stay Away From The Smith Machine
The smith machine is a bit like marmite, you either love it or you hate it. However, when it comes to the bench press it doesn’t matter how you feel. If you want to improve your bench press then you should steer clear of it.
Research (13) found that the free weight bench press created greater muscle activation than the smith machine bench press and is superior for the development of upper body muscle mass.
Research (14) also shows that strength is significantly greater when performing the bench press as a free weight exercise in comparison to the smith machine bench press.
Breathe The Right Way
Far too often I see people neglect their breathing pattern when benching, often choosing to hold their breath for rep after rep or simply inhale and exhale without any thought of how it might be influencing their performance.
The truth is that the correct breathing pattern can help provide stability to your lift and enable you to lift heavier weights.
Inhale once you’ve un-racked the bar as you begin to bring the bar to your chest
Hold the breath to provide rigidity and stability
Forcibly exhale as you perform the concentric portion of the movement to return the bar to the starting position
Once you reach the lockout position inhale again as you start your next rep
Continue in this fashion until you’ve completed your set
If you get the breathing rhythm right then you’ll find you can produce more force during the concentric movement and feel more stable through the lift.
There you have it 15 ways to get a bigger, better, stronger bench press.
You now have a choice, to take action or to do nothing…
For those of you looking to make noticeable improvements in your bench press, this article was written as a resource, something you can print out, refer to and use to make progress as soon as your next session.