The bench press is the single most popular upper body exercise for athletes because it develops tremendous strength in the pectorals, deltoids and triceps. To get stronger in this valuable exercise, however, it’s often not a matter of training harder, but smarter.
First, consider that although the bench press is used by bodybuilders and many bodybuilders can lift impressive weights in this exercise, their training methods are not the best way to develop strength. One of the goals of bodybuilding is to increase muscle size, and performing higher repetitions is more effective for developing size than strength.
Next, because the hands are placed on a bar (usually about shoulder-width apart), the pectoral muscles cannot move through their full range of motion. A better chest exercise for bodybuilders would be the dumbbell bench press – in fact, eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman can be seen on YouTube videos performing a dozen reps in this exercise with 200-pound dumbbells! However, bodybuilding is an aesthetic sport, which means that one focus of training should be on symmetrical development. Just ask Arnold.
Arnold Schwarzenegger had the most impressive chest development of his era. He could bench press 500 pounds for one rep, 405 for eight reps, and 225 pounds for 60 reps. In his book, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold said that in the early stages of his career he felt his upper pectoral development was a weakness. As such, he would begin his chest workout with barbell incline presses followed by dumbbell incline presses. “Only then would I go on to regular bench presses and the rest of my chest routine,” says Arnold.
When looking at the current standards in the bench press, consider that much of the progress in the sport is due in part to many powerlifting organizations allowing the use of gear such as bench shirts that help lifters handle heavier weights. For example, Scott Mendelson at one time held the “raw” world record in the bench press at 715 pounds (324 kilos), but with gear could do 1030 pounds (467 kilos). Currently, the raw record is 722 pounds (327.5 kilos) and the record with gear is 1102 pounds (500 kilos).
Finally, it’s important to discuss the risks associated with specializing on the bench press. Although there is concern that specializing on the bench press can significantly increase the risk of shoulder injuries, some research suggests otherwise.
In 2011 a study on 245 powerlifters representing 97 powerlifting teams was published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine. The body parts most likely to be injured were the shoulders and elbows. However, the injury rate was only .3 injuries per athlete per year, which translates into just one injury per 1,000 hours of training. In contrast, a CDC-sponsored study involving 100 high schools between the 2005-06 school years found that the overall average rate of injury for nine major sports studied was 2.44 for 1,000 athletic exposures (practices or competitions). So yes, the shoulders are among the most commonly-injured bodypart among powerlifters, but the injury rate is relatively small.
With that background, here are eight tips to give you a stronger bench:
1. Get off to the right start. Although it seems like a relatively simple movement, you need to strive to develop a consistence movement pattern to lift maximum weights. To do this you have to have to get into the right position to press. Here are some common technique tips to prepare you for lifting monster weights:
* Feet flat on the floor
* Shins vertical
* Knees aligned with the center of your feet
* Feet and legs pointed slightly out (as if you were in a squat position)
* Pull your back into a slight arch
* Tighten your lats
* Squeeze your glutes
* Point your knuckles towards the celling -- a cue that will help keep your wrists straight and in a stronger position to press
* Fine a reference point on the ceiling and keep your eyes focused on it during the movement
2. Don’t cheat! Cheating methods have their place in resistance training, but cheating during the bench press by bouncing the barbell off the chest to lift more weight places your shoulders at high risk of injury. Likewise with lifting your hips off the bench – this technique may help you lift more, but is against the rules in competition and places unnatural stress on the lower back.
3. Start your workout with bench presses. Just as Arnold would start his workout with presses on an incline, if a strong bench is your goal you should start your workouts with bench presses when you are freshest and can put more energy into the lift.
4. Specialize on the triceps. A key muscle group used in the bench press is the triceps, so it makes sense that doing a little extra work for this muscle groups might offer some benefit to increasing strength in this lift. Because it closely resembles the standard bench press, one of the best exercises for strengthening the triceps is the close-grip bench press. Most individuals should use a 14-inch grip in this exercise -- any narrower tends to create enormous strain on the wrists and elbows.
Another valuable triceps exercise to improve bench pressing performance are dips. Pat Casey, the first person to bench press 600 pounds (which he did without supportive equipment) could perform parallel bar dips with 380 pounds – a lift made even more impressive by the fact that he weighed 340 pounds!
5. Use chains. When performing the bench press you are stronger as you straighten your arms. Chains enable you match the resistance curve of the exercise because as the chains lift off the floor the resistance increases. Not only will chains work the muscles harder as they more appropriately match your strength curve, but will force you to drive the weight faster off the chest in anticipation that the weight will get heavier.
As for research, a study was published in 2010 Perceptual and Motor Skills using female volleyball and basketball players performing 16 workouts using either chains or conventional training. After 16 training sessions the group using chains increased their bench press 1RM 17.4 percent and the conventional training group 11.8 percent. More research is needed, of course, but these results are promising.
6. Use bands. Bands are also valuable because they not only increase resistance as the arms extend, but also increase the eccentric load during the initial descent. However, band training is especially taxing, and as such should be used infrequently to ensure adequate recovery between workouts. As a general guideline, don’t perform band workouts more than once a week.
7. Ensure structural balance. If you’re injured you can’t bench. One reason many individuals suffer injuries from bench pressing is that they have weaknesses in the muscles responsible for stabilizing the scapula. The problem is that during the bench press, the bench provides stability to the muscles of the upper back, shoulders and torso. One simple test to detect this imbalance is to stand relaxed, and if the back of the hands are facing forward, you have an imbalance. If this is you, then you need to perform corrective exercises, such as face pulls, to regain structural balance.
8. Invest in soft tissue support. An athlete who has devoted too much time to the bench press is likely to have some flexibility issues. In this case they should seek out a qualified soft-tissue therapist, such as an Active Release Technique™ (ART) provider. A qualified ART provider will be able to release the muscles that may be responsible for the flexibility issue. One muscle that is often in need of ART work is the subscapularis, a muscle that internally rotates the humerus (upper arm bone). Over time, too much bench pressing can cause shoulder impingement and can increase the risk of injury to the shoulder.
To reach the highest strength levels in the bench press you have to look at every detail, and consider that the training methods that worked when you were weak may not work that well when you are strong. Try to get some one-on-one coaching from experienced lifters and read everything you can about optimal bench pressing technique. Become a student of the game, because the more you know, the more your lifts will grow!