If you want to build serious muscle, then you need your chest to be working on all levels. Here’s how to boost your bench in less time!
See that guy on the bench press all the way in the corner at your gym with three plates on either side, cranking out reps like they’re nothing?
Ever wanted to be that guy?
The good news is that you can. Here’s your guide to getting to that state including a sample workout to use for the best chest workout. Before starting anything else, put a weight on the bar that you can handle for eight reps and have a buddy watch you bench.
Tell him to watch you from a bunch of different angles and tell you what he sees. More often than not, one of two things (or both) may happen. Either one side comes up faster than the other, or it seems that you get stuck in one phase of the lift.
Shoulder integrity (or lack thereof) is usually what causes one side to come up faster than the other. Simply put, your shoulder workouts are imbalanced. Commonly, this is not one shoulder being weaker than the other. No, there are issues with both of your shoulders.
Barring any serious injury that you may or may not know about, there are things you can do to improve the integrity of your shoulders. We’re talking about little things that may seem mundane and unhelpful.
For example, instead of taking a 5 or 10-pound plate and moving your arms in a few circles before jumping into heavy sets of bench, your warm up needs to change. Try doing a few sets of external and internal rotations, then one set of eight reps with about 50% of the weight your working sets will be, then one set of three with about 80% of the weight your working sets will be.
Another easy fix for shoulder integrity is to do five minutes of strict corrective exercise for your shoulders at the end of the workout. A few exercises you should try to use are band pull-aparts, hanging scapular retractions and overhead pull-aparts. You can even do them between your sets as active rest.
Getting Past Sticking Posts In Your Bench Workout
Sticking points, as mentioned above, are common places where lifters get stuck during the concentric (lifting) phase of the bench press. There are three spots that are fairly common. They are on your chest, with your elbows at 90 degrees and the lockout.
During each sticking point, there is one main assistant muscle to the pectoralis major and minor. The first one is your lats. During the second sticking point, the triceps start to engage and at the third sticking point the shoulders are the main assistants to the lockout.
There are exercises that can help you through each sticking point, but they must be done separately to the bench press. Many strength coaches will use them either in place of the bench press or right after. To strengthen your lats, superset a dumbbell bench press with pull-ups. In order to help your shoulders out, dumbbell or barbell floor presses are the best option. When it comes to your shoulders, standard dumbbell flyes or scap push-ups will do the trick.
Fix Your Form
Have you ever watched a powerlifter bench? A lot of people think it’s terrible for your spine to draw your feet all the way backward and get that big arch in your back like a powerlifter.
Not only that, but you’ll also gain mobility benefits in the feet and lower legs from the position.
In addition to the other benefits described, this position actually makes the bench press easier for three reasons: It decreases the distance the bar needs to be pressed (it brings your chest closer to the bar while still maintaining five points of contact with the bench), it allows you to recruit more overall muscle fibers to help you do the lift and it allows you to more easily perform the Valsalva maneuver, should you need it.
The Valsalva Will Help You In Your Bench Workout.
The Valsalva maneuver is a breathing technique to allow you to lift a bit heavier. But, as a word of caution, it causes a short, acute spike in blood pressure, so it is not recommended to be used for more than three reps. Also, the Valsalva maneuver is not recommended for people who have head, eye, or ear issues, like a detached retina or tinnitus.
To perform the Valsalva maneuver, first unrack the bar. Before moving the bar, take a deep breath in. Begin lowering the bar to your chest, holding your breath the entire time. Lightly touch your chest and drive the bar up hard while still holding your breath, and push your belly out, trying to make it look bigger, and brace your core hard. Exhale when the bar reaches the top and repeat.
Lastly, you have this great tight position going into the lift, looking like a powerlifter. But, the one part that most people forget is the shoulder position. Throughout the entirety of the motion, your shoulders must be drawn back and down. To put it more simply, this is exaggerated good posture. This creates a platform for you to push from and also prevents any instability your shoulders might have from affecting the quality of your movement and decreasing the weight you lift over time.
Use Accommodating Resistance
Every gym has a group of hardcore lifters who bring in all sorts of cool stuff to use when doing various exercises. You’ve seen them. They bring stuff like chains, bands, chalk, etc. Accommodating resistance means using something like a chain or a band that increases the difficulty of an exercise as the weight moves farther away from the floor.
For example, with a chained bench press, you might start with the bar on your chest and it will weigh 100 pounds. By the midpoint in your lift it will weigh 115 pounds. Then, at the top, it will weigh 130 pounds. This is because each link of the chain weighs a certain amount, and the weight increases each time another link comes off the ground. Pro tip: If you are already a proficient bencher and you still experience sticking points, this is a great way to get rid of them.
What Are Cluster Sets?
Cluster sets are a great technique for fitting a lot of work into a very short period of time, without completely draining your nervous system or totally exhausting your muscles. It is essentially fitting three bench days into one.
Beginners would be advised to only do this once per week, on their only bench day. Advanced lifters can throw another bench day in, but lay off the volume. If you’re one of these advanced lifters, you maybe want to do only three sets of five, no more, on the second bench day.
A cluster set is essentially a bunch of individual sets rolled into one giant set. Whereas a lifter might do five or six sets of three reps, a lifter doing a cluster will do six sets of three reps repeated three times.
To do a cluster, select a weight that is lighter than what you can handle for three reps. Perform one set of three, rest 12 seconds and do another set. Repeat until you have completed six sets of three, rest two to three minutes, and repeat twice more. Spoiler alert: You will be very sore the first couple of times you do this.
Change The Angle
A wise man once said that if you want to get better at something, it is unwise to do only that thing. The man’s name is Istvan Balyi, and many strength coaches today, especially ones who work with younger athletes, use his model of long-term athletic development.
What can we learn from this?
Many of those athletes become Olympians and they continue to cross train in sports other than the one they compete in. For example, Usain Bolt is an excellent sprinter, but some reports state that he also likes to play tennis in his spare time.
To extrapolate this point to the bench press, I would amend Balyi’s statement to this: If you want to get better at the bench press, it is unwise to only do a flat bench press. Change it up. If you are benching twice a week, then make one day a flat barbell press and one day a dumbbell incline press. Or, do a barbell overhead press on one day and a flat dumbbell press on the other. This will make you strong in all ranges of motion in addition to making you a better bencher.
Pushes vs. Pulls
You bench all the time and nothing happens. It seems nothing changes. This is the classic high school football player problem. You know where they do too much pushing and not enough pulling. Any elite strength coach will tell you that pulling is in fact the more important motion to keeping strong and healthy, even though both forms of movement are important.
A good ratio is that for every rep of a push you do (movements like bench press, overhead press, pushups, triceps pushdowns, etc), you need to do two pulls. They don’t have to be all that heavy, but you need to remember that muscles work together, in what are called antagonistic pairs.
For example, the biceps and triceps work and grow together. They both act on the elbow and have different actions, but they still work in tandem to flex and extend the elbow. By the same principle, the chest and back muscles work and grow together. The moral of the story is that you can bench, but you need to make sure to do your pull-ups and rows too.
So there you have it – that’s how to become the best bencher in your gym. Granted, you will not be able to do this all in one day. That’s just not done. But, it’s much faster than you might think.
This Is Your Bench Workout.
Here’s your sample two-week bench plan. Each bench day should be about two to three days apart. But, as long as you’re not sore, there’s no problem with doing the next bench workout sooner. Add in other exercises for your other body parts, as you normally would train.
Directions: Do the moves in the exact sequence listed. Only stop to rest where it states you should.
Bench Day 1
- Flat barbell press, 5×5
- Band pull-apart, 5×8
Rest: 90 seconds
- Push-up, 3×6
- Pull-up, 3×6
Rest: 60 seconds
- Barbell bent-over row, 3×6
Bench Day 2
- Incline dumbbell press, 4×5
- Overhead pull-apart, 4×8
Rest: 60 seconds
- Pull-up, 3x as many reps as possible
Bench Day 3
- Cluster bench, 3 clusters (6×3)
Rest: 120 seconds
- Weighted chin-up, 6×3
- Cable external rotation, 6×5
Rest: 60 seconds
- 3-point dumbbell row, 3×8 each side
Bench Day 4
- Chained bench press, 3×5
- Inverted row, 3×8
Rest: 90 seconds
- Floor press, 3×8
- Lat pull-down, 3×8
Rest: 90 seconds
- Seated row, 3×6
Improving your bench workout doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t even have to take that long. All it really takes is a plan and the effort. Follow the plan we’ve detailed for you and you’ll find you will improve your bench workout much faster than you thought you could.
– By Michael Schletter, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D