Without a doubt, the most respected lift in the iron game is the barbell bench press. Ironically, no other lift is the source of so much frustration.
Sticking points and plateaus seem to trouble nearly everyone at one time or another. People often spend months or even years benching the same poundage with no improvement at all’but it doesn’t have to be that way. With a few small changes in your technique, hard work and some patience, a 300-, 400- or even 500-pound bench press is within your reach. If you’d like to say good-bye to sticking points and finally smash through the plateaus that have plagued you, then these 15 powerful bench-boosting principles are the answer. Use even a few of them and you’ll notice the difference immediately. Use them all and you’ll send your bench press soaring into new territory faster than you ever believed possible.
1) Position your body properly on the bench. The first step in boosting your bench press is also the simplest. Maintaining proper body position and alignment can increase leverage, improve mechanical advantage, decrease the distance the bar has to travel and provide a powerful foundation for your press. There are four steps to getting into the proper body position:
a) Lie on the bench with your eyes in line with the bar. If you slide too far up the bench, the bar may hit the uprights as you press. If you’re too far toward the foot of the bench, you’ll have to struggle just to get the bar off the rack. Even with a lift from a spotter, you’re still wasting strength, and an awkward liftoff could throw you off-balance.
b) Place your feet firmly on the floor and close to the bench. Putting your feet up on the bench, straightening your legs or just letting your feet lightly brush the floor are cardinal benching sins’they can all reduce your power and throw you off balance. If your feet are planted firmly on the floor, you can draw power by pushing from that base when you hit the sticking point. With your feet close to the bench, it’s also easier to maintain the arch in your back.
c) Keep your shoulder blades tight, retracted and firmly planted on the bench. If you want to bench-press big weights, it’s important to create stability. With your chest lifted up and your shoulder blades retracted, your back stays firmly in contact with the bench, providing the solid foundation you need.
d) Maintain a tight torso and a slight arch in your back. Keep your torso tight and your chest raised and expanded. Your lower back should be slightly arched, not pressed into the bench. Excessive arching or thrusting your hips in the air can injure your lumbar spine. A raised chest with a slight arch in the lower back is safe and reduces the distance the bar has to travel. The shorter the distance the bar has to go, the more weight you’ll be able to lift. Australian strength coach Ian King says, ‘Arching is probably the most powerful of all benching techniques and can give you as much as 20 percent extra on your one-rep max.’
2) Get a firm grip. You can increase your bench press simply by improving your grip strength. Grip the bar tightly; imagine squeezing it so hard that you leave your handprint in the steel. The tighter you grip the bar, the more control you’ll have. Always wrap your thumbs around the bar. There’s no advantage to a thumbless grip; if the bar slips out of your hand, you could suffer a serious injury.
The most common grip mistake is holding the bar too high in your palms, near your fingers, which causes your wrists to bend backward. Instead, grip the bar low in your palms, toward the heels of your hands, and keep your wrists straight. Straight wrists enable you to transfer the power of your chest, deltoids and arms directly through to the bar. A locked wrist also helps prevent injury.
3) Maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses with the proper grip width and arm position. The dreaded sticking point is usually caused by a weakness in one muscle group compared to the other muscles used in the lift. When the lift approaches the point where the weak muscle is most involved, the bar stalls. For example, the most common sticking point in the bench press is the midpoint, where the front deltoids are involved less and the pecs and triceps take over. If your pecs and triceps are weaker than your front delts, you’re more likely to get stuck. One remedy is to use a grip width that minimizes your weak muscles and maximizes your strong ones.
Because people have different body sizes, limb lengths and strong points, the ideal grip width and arm position can vary greatly from one individual to the next. In The Complete Guide to Powerlifting, Fred Hatfield identifies several critical anatomical factors for which you must adjust your benching style:
‘Long arms: elbows out, wider grip
‘Short arms: elbows in, closer grip
‘Weak pecs: elbows in, narrower grip
‘Strong pecs: wider grip, elbows out
‘Weak front delts: elbows out, wide grip
‘Strong front delts: narrower grip, elbows close to torso
‘Weak triceps: elbows out, wider grip
‘Strong triceps: elbows in, closer grip
4) Use assistance exercises. Adjusting your form to accommodate a weak muscle group is important, but in the long run it’s little more than a Band-Aid. The ultimate solution is to bring up your weak areas with assistance exercises. If you want a stronger bench, you must build strong triceps, deltoids and lats, not just strong pecs.
Of all the assistance work you can do, developing stronger triceps will probably have the greatest impact on your bench press. Work hard on the basics, including various types of heavy extensions and close-grip benches, both flat and incline.
Strengthening your front delts will also bring major improvements to your bench press. Assistance work for them should include military presses and all kinds of front raises (dumbbell, barbell, 45-pound plate, etc.).
Your lats are involved in the bench press to a greater degree than you might think. They help you maintain your arch and stabilize your torso. They also help you lower the weight by providing a ‘cushion’ to lower against and push from at the bottom. The best assistance exercises for lats are rows, rows and more rows! Barbell and dumbbell rows are the best assistance exercises for the bench press because they train the back through the same horizontal plane that the bench press uses.
5) Lower and press the bar through the optimal path. Always have a spotter lift the bar off for you’it conserves energy. Once the bar is over your chest, don’t just lie there holding the bar at arm’s length over your chest or you’ll waste energy. Go right into the lift. Do your psyching up before you lift off the bar.
Lower the bar to a point even with your nipples or slightly below them. Touching the bar low on the chest recruits the triceps and powerful front deltoids to the maximum degree to assist the pectorals. If you lower the bar too high on your chest, your arms tend to rotate externally, which puts more strain on your shoulder joints and reduces your leverage. You’ll have the best leverage if your hands are directly above your elbows.
When the bar reaches your chest, pause for about one second. Never bounce the bar off your chest. Not only can it cause an injury, but it’s also cheating’and it wouldn’t pass in a powerlifting meet. That’s not to say you should never bench quickly without pausing, but using the brief pause eliminates the momentum, overloading the target muscles more effectively.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so it seems logical to push the bar straight up. Louie Simmons is one of the many great powerlifters who point out that pressing straight up allows you to lift more by shortening the distance the bar has to travel, and it reduces the chance of injuring your pecs or shoulders. Most people, however, press the bar in a path that curves slightly back toward their face. It’s known as the ‘J-curve,’ and it occurs because you unconsciously change the path of the bar to accommodate your weak joint angles (the delts are usually stronger than the triceps).
So what’s the ideal method? The answer is whatever feels natural. Ultimately, you should work on developing the necessary triceps strength to press straight up, but don’t force yourself to follow any particular path if it feels unnatural.
6) Breathe out on every rep, but hold your breath briefly at the critical moment. Novice lifters are often afraid to hold their breath because they’ve been warned that it’s dangerous. Prolonged breath holding is dangerous (you could black out and wake up with a barbell wrapped around your head); however, you’ll never bench anywhere near what you’re capable of without proper breath control. Holding your breath at the right moment is critical because the increase in intra-abdominal pressure helps get you through the sticking point. It also gives you a feeling of confidence and stability during the liftoff. Without that psychological push, you’d feel as if you were being crushed under a heavy weight, which could blow the lift for you mentally before you even started the descent. As you begin to lower the bar, breathe deeply and inhale all the way into your belly’not just a shallow breath in your upper chest. Hold your breath as you change direction and continue holding until you’ve pushed upward through the sticking point.
Then breathe out and inhale again as you start the next rep.
7) Choose the optimal eccentric and concentric tempos.
It’s a general rule in bodybuilding that you should do your reps with a two-second concentric (lifting) movement and at least a three- or four-second eccentric (lowering) movement. Slowing down the eccentric part of the movement can increase the time under tension, decrease the use of momentum and isolate the target muscle better, all of which help to increase muscle size.
When you’re training purely for strength, doing negatives too slowly can be counterproductive. Resisting the weight with a slow negative requires more force, so it actually reduces the number of reps you can do. For example, if you can do three reps with 275 pounds using a five-second negative, you can probably get five or six reps with that weight using a one- or two-second negative.
Bodybuilding writer Doug Santillo explains it like this:
A lot of emphasis in bodybuilding literature has been placed on lowering the weight slowly. For the purposes of hypertrophy, the majority of the time should be spent using slower eccentric speeds. But there are times when lowering the weight fast can be advantageous. In training for maximal strength, the primary goal is to force your nervous system to more efficiently recruit fast-twitch fibers. With a faster eccentric speed, you give the nervous system more of a break between explosions, since the tension is reduced. By doing this, your muscles must contract from a more relaxed position, thereby forcing your nervous system to adapt. For a bodybuilder, since his priority is gaining muscle mass, not maximal strength, a good choice would be to alternate between fast and slow eccentrics during his strength phases.
If you’re after size gains, your best bet would be a slow negative, but if you want more strength, use a faster eccentric speed’not an uncontrolled, cheating fast, but a ‘controlled’ fast.
Afterward, you want to explode the weight upward. Apply the maximum force possible. Hatfield has named the technique compensatory acceleration. If you’re using lighter weights, the bar will travel upward very quickly, so you’ll have to put on the brakes at the top of the movement. If you’re using heavier weights, the bar will be moving slowly, but no matter how slowly it seems to creep upward, you should still push as hard as you can through the entire range of motion.
One reason sticking points are common in the middle or top part of the bench press is that you don’t have enough velocity coming out of the bottom. Push up hard from the bottom and don’t push less or give up if the bar starts to slow down or stall. Make a conscious effort to accelerate and keep pushing hard through the entire lift. Practiced consistently, that technique can completely obliterate sticking points.
8) Do the ideal number of sets and reps’not too many, not too few. Overtraining is a major cause of bench press plateaus. When it comes to benching strength, more is not better. Cutting back on volume doesn’t mean doing one set to failure; it simply means you should reduce your volume to a level that allows you to gain strength consistently.
In the tradition of Arnold Schwarzenegger, most people follow high-volume bodybuilding routines that look something like this:
Bench presses 4-5 x 8-12
Incline presses 4-5 x 8-12
Dumbbell flyes 4-5 x 8-12
Cable crossovers 4-5 x 8-12
With the exception of genetically gifted people’like Arnold’that’s too much even for an advanced bodybuilder, but it’s way too much for building strength. Most powerlifters and strength athletes who bench 400 to 500 pounds or more use extremely simple routines, sometimes only one or two exercises per bodypart. Doing too many sets and exercises is a surefire way to hit a plateau. It may seem hard to give up your high-volume workouts, but you’ll be amazed at how much stronger you’ll get when you cut back.
Six to 12 reps is probably the single best rep range for building muscle size; however, if you want to get strong, you’re going to have to do a fair share of your training in the one-to-five-rep range. In his book The Poliquin Principles strength coach Charles Poliquin recommends the following parameters for strength gains:
1 to 3 exercises per bodypart
1 to 5 repetitions per set
5 to 12 sets per bodypart
3 to 5 minutes’ rest between sets
Charles should know: He’s trained more than 400 Olympic and professional athletes, and his clients are brutishly strong.
Rest about one minute between sets: That’s the standard guideline that’s been tossed around in gyms for years. It’s a good recommendation for bodybuilding or general fitness, but longer rest intervals are an absolute must for benching superheavy weights.
To use the maximum weight possible on every set, you must allow your muscular and nervous systems to recover fully between sets. The shorter your rest intervals, the less you’ll recover. The ideal rest interval for strength development is four to five minutes. Beyond five minutes isn’t effective because you start to cool off.
9) Warm up properly but don’t waste your energy. An important part of benching heavy weights is energy conservation. Of all the ways you could waste energy, excessive warmup is the biggest culprit. It’s important to warm up thoroughly to avoid injury, but if you do too many warm-up sets, you’ll squander your energy and become fatigued before you get to your work sets. That will limit the amount of weight you can use on the sets that really count. Your goal is to warm up without burning out.
Let’s suppose you have a 315-pound max. For maximal strength gains you need to work with at least 85 percent of your max, which would be 267 pounds. If you’re using a typical bodybuilding workout, you’re so fatigued before you reach that weight, you only get one set of three measly reps at 85 percent of your max’not a very effective workout for strength gains. Here’s a typical ineffective routine followed by a much better one. Workout A has too many high-rep warmup sets, so you tire yourself out before getting to your effective work sets and 265×3 is as heavy as you can go. Workout B conserves energy for the heavy work sets but still warms you up sufficiently.
1 x 15 reps x 135
1 x 12 reps x 185
1 x 10 reps x 225
1 x 8 reps x 245
1 x 6 reps x 255
1 x 3 reps x 265
1 x 8 x 135
1 x 6 x 185
1 x 5 x 225
1 x 5 x 265
1 x 3 x 275
1 x 3 x 285
1 x 2 x 295
10) Do singles’but don’t overdo them. One of the biggest benching blunders you can make is to max out at every chest workout. Seeing how much you can bench at every chest workout builds your ego, not your strength. On the other hand, it’s also a mistake to avoid singles completely. Maximum singles definitely have their place, but they must be used wisely.
The reason max singles help you bench more is that they develop neuromuscular efficiency and prepare your body psychologically for the ‘feel’ of heavy weights. Here’s what Poliquin says about them:
The nervous system is the forgotten component of bodybuilding, and training with maximal weights targets this area by improving the link between the central nervous system and the muscular system. By using this method, the trainee will learn to access a greater percentage of motor units in a given cross-section of muscle tissue.
Our suggestion is to do maximum singles on the bench press once a month. On assistance exercises you can use maximal weights more often, as long as you rotate the exercises regularly. Never max out on the same exercise week after week or you’re asking for an injury.
11) Use lockouts to get your body used to heavy loads, to strengthen connective tissue and to smash through sticking points. Lockouts are performed for the same reason as singles: to train your muscles, brain and central nervous system to handle superheavy weights. Lockouts also help to develop tendon and ligament strength. A lockout is simply a bench press performed with extremely heavy weights in the top third or quarter of the range of motion. Lockouts will help build your confidence in handling heavy weights and help you become stronger through the final quarter of the movement, where many people get stuck. For safety, make sure you have a very strong and competent spotter or do your lockouts in a power rack. You can do lockouts with near maximal, maximal or even greater-than-maximal weights. Because you use a partial range of motion, you can handle weights greater than your max. For example, if your max is 315, you could add 5 percent and do lockouts with 330 pounds.
The best way to incorporate lockouts into your routine is to add one or two sets of three to five reps at the end of your regular bench workout. Like singles, lockouts should be used sparingly. Doing them too frequently can quickly lead to overtraining and injury.
12) Train your chest once every five days and train no more than two days in a row. Overtraining can rear its ugly head in many ways. One way we already discussed is doing too many sets. An equally insidious form of overtraining comes from working out too often. Opinions on training frequency abound, and there’s no single best method because it’s a highly individual matter. One thing’s for certain: If you don’t give yourself enough recovery time between workouts, you simply won’t get stronger.
Complete recovery has two components, specific and systemic recuperation. Specific recuperation is the amount of time you allow each muscle group to rest between workouts. For optimal bench press gains we suggest using a split routine and working your chest once every five days. Some strength athletes train chest more often’up to twice a week. That can also be effective, but every workout should not be heavy; one session is heavy and the other is lighter, with a minimum of 72 hours between sessions.
Systemic recuperation means allowing your entire body and nervous system to recuperate by not training too many days in a row. Individual muscle groups need to rest between training sessions, but so does your entire body. If you train too often, it puts excessive demands on your central nervous system. To ensure complete recovery, two days in a row is the most you should train without taking a day off.
13) Apply the law of progressive resistance. You’ll amaze yourself at how strong you get when you systematically apply the law of progressive resistance, but few people have the patience or discipline to do it consistently. The law of progressive resistance says that a muscle will only grow and increase in strength in response to the ever-increasing demands you make on it.
There are many factors involved in building strength, but in the long run, the only thing that really matters is that you progressively overload your muscles. That’s the number-one key to gaining strength and muscle mass. There are many ways to overload a muscle, such as shortening rest intervals, increasing volume, slowing rep speed, increasing time under tension, doing more repetitions and using stricter form, but the granddaddy of them all is simply adding weight to the bar. The more weight you can lift in strict form, the bigger and stronger the muscle will get, period.
A training journal is an absolute must for tracking your progress. Keeping a training journal allows you to plan every workout in advance and to go to the gym with a goal for every session.
Adding weight at every session can sometimes seem like an insurmountable task, but the best way to achieve the goal is to make tiny, incremental increases consistently over time. Don’t attempt large jumps in weight loads too quickly. If necessary, aim for adding just 2 1/2 to five pounds at every workout. During a strength phase you must make progress in some form at every single workout or you’re wasting your time. You may not be able to increase the weight at every workout, but you must do at least one more rep with the same weight. If you’re not going to add more weight or do more reps, there’s no sense in even going to the gym’you might as well stay home and watch TV.
14) Practice your technique with light-to-moderate weights until it is perfect. Did you ever notice yourself starting to squirm, twist or lift your butt off the bench when you hit a sticking point? That might help you get another rep, but it won’t help you get stronger. Using sloppy form or momentum to lift a weight takes the stress off the areas you’re supposed to be targeting. It also increases your chances of getting hurt. Sloppy form and cheating will get you nowhere.
Stay with light-to-moderate weights until you’ve mastered all these techniques. It’s more productive to use moderate weights with perfect form than heavy weights with sloppy form. If you have to, unload the bar and start all over again with the proper form. Then gradually build your poundage back up again with your newly acquired perfect form.
15) Harness the powers of your mind. Sometimes it’s your mind-set you need to change, not your benching technique. Benching is a mental feat as much as a physical one. Visualization, the practice of mentally picturing the lift in your mind’s eye first, is incredibly powerful. Your mental pictures always become your physical reality. Everything you achieve happens in your mind first before it happens in the real world. You always act on your mental pictures, and you become the mental pictures you hold of yourself. If you can see yourself benching a particular weight in your mind first, your body will soon follow. If you can’t visualize yourself benching that weight, you’ll never bench it in reality.
You’re probably familiar with the story of the three-minute mile: For thousands of years people believed that it was physiologically impossible to run a mile in less than four minutes. Roger Bannister didn’t set any mental limits, and he proved everyone wrong’but that’s not the best part of the story. Within one year after Bannister broke the three-minute mile, 37 other runners did it too! How do you explain that? Nothing changed in the runners’ bodies; nothing changed in the laws of physics; there were no new breakthroughs in running techniques. The only thing that was different was the runners’ belief of what was possible’the mental barrier was broken.
Be a no-limit person! Don’t succumb to the awful habit of setting mental barriers. There are certain thresholds such as 300, 315, 400 or 405 pounds where it’s all too easy to tell yourself, ‘This is heavy!’ or ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ Have you ever been guilty of saying to your spotter, ‘Watch me; I’m going to try for five reps’? Never ‘try’ anything’do it! The things you say to yourself before and during your workouts have a tremendous impact on your performance. Change your negative self-talk to positive self-talk. Instead of saying, ‘This is heavy,’ say, ‘This weight is child’s play!’ Repeat the affirmation, ‘Light weight, light weight, easy weight, easy weight!’ Repeat statements such as, ‘I’m gonna toss this weight around like it’s nothing!’ and ‘I’m gonna destroy this weight!’ Then, after you conquer it, say, ‘That was easy!’
Editor’s note: Tom Venuto is a writer, competitive bodybuilder, certified strength and conditioning specialist, health club manager and personal coach who’s been helping people develop better bodies since 1987. You can visit him on the Web at www.fitnessrenaissance.com or send e-mail to him at [email protected] Richie Smyth is a successful bodybuilder, powerlifter and personal trainer whose clients include movie stars such as Joe Pantoliano and Olympia Dukakis. A former Mr. Eastern USA champion who has also won the North American Bench Press Championship, Richie has bench-pressed 460 pounds at a bodyweight of 181. You can contact him in care of Empire Fitness Club, 605 Washington St., Hoboken, NJ 07030; (201) 222-3000. IM