5 Ways to Improve Your Bench Press
The bench press is a staple exercise in most people’s exercise program. Overall, it is a great movement not only for the upper extremities but can also be a full body workout when done properly. In this article I will discuss 5 ways to improve your bench press.
Disclaimer: this article is for performance purposes only; it will not focus on how to recover from an injury/pain or how to modify your program because of this. If you are experiencing pain or discomfort, it has not gone away on its own, and it is affecting your workout regimen/everyday life it is recommended getting evaluated by a licensed Physical Therapist before trying to implement these five steps.
1. Bench more
The simplest of the recommendations is to simply bench more. A lot of people who go to the gym are only benching 1x a week, and only doing one heavy set. Do not get me wrong, benching 1x a week will help most beginners improve their numbers, however, once you have been lifting for a couple of months, and your numbers are plateauing, my first recommendation would be to simply bench more. You can do this in many ways. You could increase the volume on a given day (more sets at your heavy weight), or the frequency of how many times you bench throughout the week (2x or 3x instead of 1x). When doing this you do not want to dramatically increase your volume, however. Instead, gradually build it up over a couple of weeks to reduce chances of injury.
2. Proper positioning/form
The next recommendation is to make sure you are using proper form while benching. The main reason to make sure you are using proper form is to improve your efficiency during the lift, and in turn make the lift easier.
- Set up
- Chest up (thoracic extension); Tuck your shoulder blades underneath you which will in turn pull your chest up. This will lock your upper back into the bench, creating a “shelf,” and allow you to stay tight throughout the movement. In this position you will also have a slight arch in your spine which is preferred.
- Contract your back, hips, glutes, and legs; On top of locking your upper back into the bench you also want to make sure you are contracting the rest of your muscles to create a firm and stable base. You will also want your legs slightly curled underneath you, with feet flat on the ground, to create even more tension through your body. This will also be further discussed in the next recommendation (leg drive).
- Valsalva; At the top of a rep make sure you take a deep breath and brace your entire core. Imagine you are about to get punched in the gut and you need to tighten your stomach muscles. You will hold your breath and stay tight during the entirety of the rep. You can and should breathe out and reset at the top of each rep, but make sure you do not relax too much and lose your tightness. Breathing pauses for prolonged lifts/moderate to high rep lifts is considered a must.
- The lift
- Correct grip; You may be able to lift heavier with a wider grip, however, this is independent per person. A wider grip will reduce the range of motion and put more stress on the pecs and less on the triceps. A narrow grip will do the opposite of this. Overall, the best grip is whatever is comfortable for you and allows you to lift the most weight.
- Bar path; During the movement you want more of an arc vs a straight-line path. The starting point will be directly over your shoulder joint. The end point will vary depending on your grip (usually below the nipple line). During the descent you want to make sure you are bringing the bar down in a slight arc all the way down until it hits your chest. During the ascent you want to gradually return to the starting point. The reason to do this is to improve the efficiency of your muscles, and to make sure your wrist and elbow joints are stacked, and your shoulders are slightly tucked during the movement.
- Elbows tucked; As mentioned above, you want to make sure you keep your elbows tucked vs letting them flare out during the press. This improves your muscle’s ability to create force (proper activation of your RTC muscles) and can protect the shoulder joint from aches, pains, and possible injury. Theoretically, your shoulder angle (angle of shoulder joint to elbow joint) should be 45 degrees. This helps stack your joints and improve upon your bar path and efficiency of the lift. Again this will very from person to person.
- Control the weight during the descent; Do not let the weight just fall to your chest. Grip the bar really hard and imagine you are trying to bend it in half. Control it down, then explode on the way up while pressing into the ground (further discussed in next recommendation).
3. Leg drive
Leg drive is a part of the recommendation above, however, I chose to make it its own category because it is very important and slightly more nuanced compared to the other cues. So, what is leg drive? To sum it up it is when you use your legs to provide extra force during the lift. It will also help you maintain your upper back position and increase the stability and stiffness of the torso in general, which allows for greater levels of strength/power. To perform the leg drive you will first need to get in the correct position. As mentioned up above you will lock your back into the bench, curl your legs underneath you with feet flat on the ground, and tighten your core, back, hips, glutes, and legs. Finally, to perform the technique you will extend your knees into the ground while pushing the bar off your chest during the concentric (ascent) portion of the lift, making sure you keep your butt on the bench during the movement. Overall, this is definitely easier said than done. It will take practice, but once you learn how to do it it will come naturally.
4. Bench variations
The next recommendation is to include different variations of the bench press into your program. These include changing your grip width, angle of incline/decline, and amounts of repetitions in a given set. Since you will be benching more frequently throughout the week you can do a different variation each day. With any new variation, or when you are lifting near your max weight in general, it is a common rule to have a spotter with you just in case you fail the lift and need help for safety reasons. Furthermore, most gyms require you to place clips on the ends of the barbells to lift. However, if you are alone, I would actually recommend the opposite, so you are able to dump the weight if needed. You can also bench in a squat rack with the safety pins at a level where if you were to fail you’d be able to slide out under the bar and not be pinned by it.
The final recommendation is to include accessories into your program. These are an important part in improving your capacity to lift more. The successful bench press is the culmination of several different muscle groups working in concert. They include tricep, chest, and shoulder muscle groups and focusing on these muscle groups in isolation will improve the bench press performance. I would also recommend implementing a full body regimen to improve your bench as well. Working out your legs will have a huge carry over for the bench press, especially once you learn how to use leg drive efficiently. Addressing these accessory muscles are also associated with reduction in injury rates.
Even with all the recommendations up above you will still need proper programming if you plan on making long term and consistent gains. There are many different programs out there with some being better than others. If you are starting out, I would recommend following a linear progression. This focuses on both volume and intensity. You start off with a weight you can easily do for 5 sets of 5 reps, and then you add 5 lbs to the bar each day you bench until you plateau. On average this usually lasts a couple of months.
After plateauing from the linear progression, you have multiple options for the next program to run. Examples could be a 5-3-1 program or the Bridge program through Barbell Medicine. These provide more variability to your program and are natural progressions after running a linear progression.
Overall, this article is a great starting point. However, if you want more after running the programs up above, or you need more guidance in general, I’d recommend looking into hiring a coach who can help guide you through the process.
About the author
Thank you for reading – if you have any questions, you can email the author at email@example.com
Bailey Lutz is a Doctor of Physical Therapy for the Centers of Advanced Orthopedics in Waldorf, Maryland. He graduated from the University of Delaware, the #1 school in the nation, in 2020. He specializes in the evaluation, movement-based diagnosis, and treatment of both common and complex orthopedic conditions. He has an athletic history in Track and Field where he competed in events from the 400 meters all the way up to the 10,000 meters, and is currently an avid powerlifter.
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