This article is brought to you by ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association)
The muscles of the chest—pectoralis major and minor (pecs)—are the most often trained muscles in the body. Monday is even "unofficial international chest day" at most gyms! The bench press is a standard movement most clients should do to increase full-body strength and balance. As you work with your clients to train the pecs, here are tips to help them specifically improve their bench press.
Bench Press Basics
While the pec major and minor are the prime movers, the triceps brachii, deltoids, and latissimus dorsi (lats) are synergists in the bench press exercise. All these muscles are recruited differently based on the equipment used and the angle at which the press occurs.
The starting point of the bench press has the arms locked out at the top with the triceps, anterior deltoids, and pecs engaged. As the bar lowers to the middle of the chest, the lats and rear deltoids decelerate the bar and control the eccentric movement of the pecs. To begin the concentric push, the triceps help the pecs in contraction with the anterior deltoids being heavily recruited for the top third of the range of motion with the elbow lockout.
The basic flat bench press uses a flat bench and an Olympic barbell. We've explored bench press variations in other blog posts, but for the sake of this one, we'll refer to the flat bench alone.
4 Tips on How to Increase Your Bench Press Strength
Improving bench press strength comes down to first having good technique and form. Without proper form, you cannot build strength. This includes various factors around the setup and execution of the bench press.
On top of this, you must have a good program. The bench press involves many upper body muscles. Training just the chest will not result in a strong bench press. Let’s dig through the best ways to increase your bench press.
Proper Bench Press Form
The most important thing to remember when learning how to increase your bench press is technique. If you don’t understand how to set up and execute the bench press properly you will not see strength gain and muscle growth results. It’s not always about lifting heavier weights, but also about the technique.
Bench press performance is heavily influenced by a few factors like grip width, bench positioning, balance, and more. It’s important that your client achieves the best starting position before doing anything. Before unracking the bar, cue your clients to squeeze their shoulder blades together and push their chest up with a slight arch in their back. Maintain this tight position with feet on the ground.
Once in position, grip the bar and brace your core. Then unrack the weight, bringing it to the top of the chest. Lower it down slowly, touch your chest, and push the bar explosively back up to the top position. Do not bounce the weight off your body. Instead of bringing the bar to your chest, think of it as bringing your chest to the bar. Lastly, keep your feet planted the entire set and maintain a tight grip on the bar with your wrists straight the entire time.
When designing a program to increase your bench press you must focus on progressive overload. This is when you gradually increase the weight, frequency, or number of reps in your routine for each exercise. It’s important to use the appropriate training volume and intensity based on each client individually. Regardless, you must add weight or increase reps each time you bench press.
If the workout includes a barbell bench press for 6-8 reps and you end up getting 8, then you should add weight on the next set. Once you are able to complete 8 reps of that new weight then you add more. Repeating this process during each workout is important. Imagine adding 10lbs to the bar each week. Over a period of time, your bench press strength is going to increase tremendously.
In addition to this, make sure to customize the volume and intensity based on your client's fitness level. For example, if they are a novice client, then you will want to encourage about 10-15 total sets of chest training each week.
If they are advanced, then consider 20-25 sets of chest training each week. Lifting heavy is important, but not all the time. Stay within 6-12 rep ranges using about 65-80% of your one-rep max. Hitting a new PR is great, but it doesn’t mean training for 1 rep all the time.
Not sure if you’re pushing each set hard enough? Ask yourself, “How many more reps could I have completed?” If the answer is more than 1-2 reps, then the weight may be too light.
Accessory Exercise Training
When trying to improve the bench press, a lot of clients will assume that they only need to bench press more. This is not the case, as you can only get so strong bench pressing over and over. Instead, you must do the right accessory exercises. Accessory exercises are exercises that help improve a compound exercise. In this case, a dumbbell chest press would be an accessory exercise for the barbell bench press.
Other exercises that help increase your bench press strength are:
- Flat Bench Chest Flys
- Incline Barbell Press
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Skull Crushers
- Over Triceps Extension
- Shoulder Press
The best accessory exercises will allow you to lift the most weight, but keep in mind you must also strengthen other muscle groups that are used in the bench press. This includes not just the chest, but also the lats, triceps, and shoulders.
The bench press is an upper body strength exercise. To push heavy weight and reach an all time new bench press max, you must include more than one accessory lift throughout your training. A bench press workout might start with the bench press but after that focus on building strength in the chest muscle, triceps and around the shoulder joint. There are also many variations to the bench press if you need to modify for clients.
Nutrition and Stretching
Nutrition and recovery are just as important as the actual training, if not more important. If your clients are not eating adequate protein, carbs, and healthy fats, then they are not fueling their body properly. This is important for pre-workout and post workout. Encourage your clients to eat lean proteins and aim for 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day.
At least 1-3 hours before a workout they should also consume healthy carbohydrates to fuel their upcoming workout. At least 1 gram of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight. As far as daily fat intake, clients should consume 20-35% of their daily calorie intake from fats.
Stretching is also crucial for your clients, especially after a bench press workout. The pecs, lats and arms should all be stretched post workout. Keep in mind part of the recovery process is also taking rest days or having workouts that include lighter training before hitting the weights hard again.
Most Common Bench Pressing Errors to Avoid
We've got the top tips to help you avoid common mistakes so your clients can improve their bench press strength and power through plateaus.
1. Poor Body Position
Old school gym lore would have most people believe that arching the back and lifting the hips will help with a bench press. This couldn't be more wrong! Correct bench press form will ensure your client is using the correct muscles to complete the exercise and it helps prevent injury.
Bracing is a vital part of a strong and properly executed bench press.
First, plant the feet firmly on the ground as an anchor. Bend the knees 90 degrees and nothing less to prevent arching in the spine. Next, with glutes on the bench, engage them to extend the hips (without hyperextension caused by arching). Engage the core. Keep the shoulder blades flat on the bench by keeping the shoulders down and packed in the socket and the chest is big. It's a lot to think about, but the body position is the first step before un-racking the weight!
2. Weak Core
Speaking of the core, many clients are not as strong as they could be in this area. Incorporate core exercises daily into your client's routine. You will not only help them improve their bracing posture for a bench press, but a strong core will make nearly EVERY movement we do as human beings easier!
Core is so much more than just the abdominals. The core includes the muscles of the lower and middle back and the obliques as well. Core exercises do not need to cause daily fatigue as this will limit your client's ability to train. Simple elbow planks, push-ups, and dynamic hand planks are great ways to throw in more core work!
3. Poor Breathing Control
Have you ever seen a client turn bright red trying to push through a range of motion? This is poor breathing control! There is a science to breathing that will increase power and strength. Bracing, as discussed earlier, is a major piece of this. Have your client inhale and engage their abdominals and glutes just before beginning the eccentric movement to drop the bar. Coach them to hold the breath as they change directions and begin the concentric movement with the exhale coming just after the "sticking point". This is the point where the triceps become more heavily recruited—at about a 90-degree bend in the elbows.
There is research being done on breathing control and intra-abdominal pressure during lifting. If you'd like to nerd out, check out one of many!
4. Weak Triceps
Circle back to the sticking point of the bench press. During the concentric push as the elbows reach 90-degrees, the triceps should activate to create elbow extension. If your client has weak or underdeveloped triceps, this is often the point when they fail and you must lift the weight for them as a spotter.
In your programming, incorporate exercises like the triceps extension, dips, or the floor press to focus on triceps strength and help them power through this sticking point. You will also want to plan the workout routine to ensure your client is not fatigued or sore in their triceps on the day they are bench pressing. This will surely lead to submaximal lifting strength.
5. Poor Elbow Positioning
Many people hold their elbows at or near shoulder height. This common error recruits the trapezius, overemphasizes the deltoids, and leads to discomfort, arching of the back, and injury.
The positioning of the elbows starts with the grip on the bar. Whether wide grip or close grip, a firm grip is necessary. Ensure your client's wrists are as neutral as possible and knuckles are pointing to the ceiling. The bar rests on the heel of the hand with the thumb wrapped under and the fingers over top. External rotation of the elbows will drop them to 45 degrees from the side of the body and will pull the shoulders down into the socket for stability. This angle will also make it easier to keep the bar at mid-chest. Coach your clients to keep this rotation and position during the entire range of motion for success.
6. Insufficient Pec Activation
If your client is unable to lift the bar and begin the concentric movement at all, they are having a tough time activating their pecs. To focus on this activation, consider adding a series of power chest press sets into their training protocol with either dumbbells or a barbell. This will require lower weight and a faster tempo on the concentric push for 3 to 6 reps at a time and 8 or more sets. Training for power will recruit a different type of muscle fiber- the type II fiber- that the body will recruit when the Type I fibers are not being effective.
Other Considerations for Improving Your Bench Press
Don't let your clients skip the warm-up! Five to 10 minutes of light, low-impact cardio will raise the heart rate, increase blood flow, and lubricate joints. Follow this with a specific dynamic warm-up aimed at warming up the chest, shoulders, and back. All-in-all, they are warming up for 10-20 minutes before the actual workout to be effective and prevent injury!
Make sure clients are training their shoulders and back one or two days a week. As noted earlier, these muscle groups play a significant role in building a stronger bench press. The stronger they are, the stronger the bench press will be.
Carefully watch your client's programming to ensure they are not overtraining. Two days a week is ideal for each muscle group to allow for proper recovery and effective strength gains. Anything more will leave them fatigued and not ready to lift at their best while one day a week will not be enough to see sufficient strength improvements.
Putting It All Together: Sample Bench Press Workout
If other muscles are not strong enough or trained properly, bench press strength will not change. The shoulder muscles, specifically the deltoids and rotator cuff can either promote or limit bench press strength. Always start with the bench press first, to prioritize the lift in your workout. Then incorporate your accessory exercises.
Dynamic Warm-up (30-60 seconds each):
- Arm circles/swings
- Internal/external rotations
- Overhead slams
Bench Press/Chest Workout:
- Barbell Bench Press – 5 sets of 5 reps with 2-4 minutes rest
- Incline Dumbbell Press – 5 sets of 6-8 reps with 2-4 minutes rest
- Close Grip Bench Press – 5 sets of 6-8 reps with 2-4 minutes rest
- Dumbbell Front Raises – 3 sets of 10 reps with 1-2 minutes rest
- Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension – 3 sets of 10 with 1-2 minutes rest
Cooldown Stretch (30-60 seconds each):
- Kneeling chest opener
- Standing wall pec stretch
- Thoracic extension stretch
- Open arm chest stretch
Your clients trust you to design a program that will help them achieve their goals. Using these tips and the knowledge you have as a trainer, you can effectively and safely guide them to a stronger and more efficient bench press.
Read these ISSA articles for more on the bench press: