If you're serious about getting strong, you need to master the bench press. This article provides bench press tips so that you can maximally train your arms, chest, and shoulders for strength and performance.
#1: Lift Fast To Get Strong Fast
To get strong fast, bench press with a fast tempo. Haphazardly changing the time you spend on each phase of a lift is not ideal, nor is using a random, self-selected tempo.
In one study, researchers compared the effect of letting trainees self-select tempo with giving them the instructions to "lift as fast as they could." They used a load of 85 percent of the 1RM. After three weeks of just six training sessions, the fast tempo group increased bench press strength by 10 percent. They also increased the speed with which they could perform the lift by 2.25 percent.
How did they do it?
When you lift fast, you produce more force. This leads to greater recruitment of motor units, particularly the type 2 fast-twitch fibers.
When lifting with a fast tempo, pretend you are trying to pull the bar apart (rip it in the middle). This has been shown to increase the activity in the triceps so that you can lift more weight.
#2: Push Volume to Gain Strength Fast
To master the bench press, try bumping up your volume for a training phase. The superiority of multi-set training is well established for strength in anyone but complete novices.
A classic example is a study that compared the effect of 1, 4 or 8 sets on strength gains. The squat was used in this study, but outcomes are relevant to the bench press.
Results showed that the 8-set group achieved the fastest gains. They increased 1 RM by 18.5 kg at three weeks. By the end of the study, the 8-set group increased 1RM by 37 kg. In comparison, the 1-set group gained 17 kg, and the 4-set group gained 21 kg.
All things being equal, you will have better strength results with more sets and a higher volume. Be sure to periodize your bench press training, switching set-rep schemes every 2 to 6 weeks to continually elicit adaptations.
#3: Train The Incline Bench Press For Athletics & Functional Strength
The incline bench press should be the upper body exercise around which you design your program.
The pressing angle of an incline bench press translates to most sports due to the shoulder joint angle in relation to the trunk. Whether it’s a boxing punch, a start from the blocks in track, tennis, handball, or the vertical drive to the basket on a layup, the upper arm is near a 45-degree angle upward in relation to the trunk.
Use all variants in body position to master the bench press. The incline press recruits the upper pectoral more than the flat bench, which favors the middle pec fibers and triceps. The decline press hits the lower fibers more than the incline press.
#4: Use A Close-Grip to Avoid Stress on the Shoulders
Grip variations affect muscle activity in the bench as follows:
- A wide grip favors recruitment of the pectoralis. In contrast, a narrower grip increases triceps activity at a small expense to the pec. However, the difference in muscle activation is small. Your sport or a functional needs analysis should dictate the grip used.
- A supinated grip increases activity of the biceps and the upper head of the pec more, with no change when grip width is altered.
- The bi-acromial width, which is the distance between the two bony prominences on the edges of the shoulders, places the least stress on the joints and is the most natural movement.
- A wide grip places the most stress on the shoulder joint. If trained chronically with heavy loads, it may cause degeneration, increasing injury risk.
Use a neutral grip dumbbell bench press if you want to take stress off the shoulder. Training with dumbbells also increases stabilization requirements in the shoulder, which has been shown to decrease pain and muscle soreness in athletes who tend to suffer from overuse.
#5: Train Free Weights Rather than the Smith Machine
Train with barbells and dumbbells instead of the Smith machine to master the bench press. For instance, a study that compared muscle activity and 1RMs in different chest press exercises found that a greater average load was lifted with the standard barbell press (106.4 kg) compared to the Smith chest press (103.6 kg).
Muscle activity showed that the pectoralis, deltoid, and biceps were activated to a much greater degree with the free weight trial than the Smith machine because you have to control the path of the bar. Researchers discourage use of the Smith because the unnatural path will put unnecessary stress on the joints, while causing reduced muscle activation.
When training for power, the Smith is also a bad choice. A new study shows doing a bench throw on a Smith to build explosive strength leads to lower peak force, power, and velocity. Avoid it!
#6: Train on Stable Surfaces to Build Strength, Muscle & Power
Despite the appeal of colorful physio balls, stick to the stable bench press. Add variety by including dumbbell and barbell presses and varying tempo rather than lifting on unstable surfaces.
Studies show that when you lift with a heavy load in the 6RM range on a Swiss ball, muscle activity in the pectoralis major and triceps is about 80 and 69 percent, respectively, of the activation experienced on the stable bench. Power is even more compromised when instability is introduced to the exercise.
Unstable surfaces can be useful during rehabilitation to exert lower levels of stress on an injury-susceptible joint. Because unstable training will lead to greater activation in stabilizing muscles, it can promote motor control when a part of the body is weaker.
#7: Train for Structural Balance For a Bigger Bench
A dislike of training assistance lifts is a weakness a lot of us have. To master the bench press, it’s time to get over this aversion. You also need to know which lifts target your weaknesses.
One study showed that the most common assistance exercises led to over recruitment of the upper trapezius, causing forward head posture and scapular dysfunction. Prone flexion and abduction (commonly called “I’s” and “T’s”) produced at least 60 percent muscle activation of the entire trapezius and serratus anterior, which is not ideal for overall functionality.
Using these exercises overemphasizes the upper traps, while under training the lower traps that tend to be weaker. If the upper trap is stronger or there is dysfunction in the shoulder, the upper trap will take over and do all the work. You need exercises that principally recruit the weaker muscles, but have a very low level of upper trap activity for optimal balance.
Use the bent-over trap 3 lift that promote balance in the lower regions of the trapezius. For rotator cuff health, start with seated, 45 degree internal rotation work.
#8: Vary Bench Press Tempo To Get Shredded & Improve Power
One cool thing about the bench press is you can use it in a training program to get shredded.
A recent study compared the following four protocols performed to failure:
- Muscular endurance, 55 percent 1RM with a 4141 tempo
- Fast Force endurance, 55 percent 1RM with an explosive tempo
- Maximum Strength, 85 percent 1RM with an explosive tempo
- Hypertrophy, 70 percent 1RM with a 2121 tempo
Results showed that the Fast Force and Max Strength protocols were best for producing explosive strength despite the discrepancy in load lifted. The Fast Force protocol had trainees do the greatest amount of work, and elicited a significant lactate build-up in the muscles, making it ideal for fat loss and hypertrophy.
For athletes, researchers prefer the Fast Force and Max Strength protocols in a periodized fashion, with a hypertrophy phase thrown in for a few weeks for variety.
Use tempo to your advantage when mastering the bench press. For muscle building, you simply need a longer training duration to produce greater physiological and metabolic effects rather than more work. For strength, you want to move a lot of weight.
#9: Use Rest Intervals To your Advantage to Gain Strength & Size
Rest periods may be one of the most underutilized program variables, but they have a substantial effect on your results. Research shows the following:
- Trained women tend to recover faster than men from the same relative workout. They appear to need much less rest in between sets to attain a certain volume load.
- Women also recover from a whole workout faster—one study showed women had recovered maximal strength after just 4 hours, whereas it took men 48!
- For men, short rest periods less than 2 minutes have resulted in a slower rate of strength gains compared with longer rest intervals (3 to 4 minutes are ideal).
- Short rest intervals have less of an effect on performance and strength development when agonist/antagonist or upper/lower body exercises are paired. Use circuit training in this fashion if the goal is hypertrophy with a focus on fat loss.
- Sets that are performed to failure cause greater fatigue than those that are completed before exhaustion, requiring longer rest intervals.
Always time rest periods to ensure an exact stimulus to the muscles. Too many people leave rest periods up to “feel,” which often leads to longer and longer intervals as the workout progresses.
#10: Use Chains, Bands & Eccentrics For Advanced Results
One of the best ways to master the bench press is with chains and bands. The two implements are not interchangeable and have diverse applications.
Chains will build explosive strength. They have the added benefit of oscillating and swinging during the bench press to increase the use of the stabilizer muscles.
This pays off: baseball players training with chains had three times less muscular soreness and pain after training with chains than without. More balanced shoulder muscles and greater upper body strength allowed for less shoulder stress in this highly susceptible population.
Bands are most effective for teaching the trainee to accelerate from the start because they allow for faster eccentric velocities. Use bands for advanced athletes who need to train for explosive power.
Chain and band training causes significant fatigue and is best programmed with low reps. Optimal loading should be approximately 40-50 percent of your 1RM in the bench press. Eight to ten sets of 1 to 3 reps works best. Try supersetting an incline press with bands, alternated with wide grip pull-ups. Rest 2 minutes between sets.