by Rob King T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- To build a bigger chest, vary your reps. Five to 15 reps is great for building muscle, while 1-5 reps is generally best for strength.
- For building strength, go wide to minimize the distance the bar travels. For growth, a shoulder-width, medium grip is best.
- For maximal strength you want your whole body to contribute to the lift.
- For lifting maximal weights, longer rest periods (3 to 10 minutes) are better, while shorter (1 to 3 minutes) works better for building muscle.
- Paused reps are part of the sport of powerlifting, but using both paused and non-paused reps can help bodybuilders grow muscle.
The Goal Dictates Everything
What’s your goal when it comes to bench pressing?
Do you want to be a powerlifter or do you want to be a bodybuilder? Your goal will dictate your reps, sets, tempo, load, and much more.
Here are nine ways to tailor your training to match your goals.
1. Is Your Goal Strength or Muscle?
If your goal is to build muscle, standard bench pressing can be a great choice for some, but not for others. There are always exceptions to the rule, but for most people the Olympic bar isn’t a great choice for building big, thick, dense pecs.
Certain pieces of equipment like Hammer Strength machines and lots of dumbbell work and weighted dips will give you better results for building muscle.
This is especially true for long-levered lifters who will have trouble building muscle with a barbell bench press. However, shorter-armed guys will fare better in this regard.
When it comes to building strength and getting a strong bench press, though, the Olympic bar will be the backbone of your strength training workouts.
Take-Home Message: To build more muscle in your chest, use a variety of bar training, dumbbell, machine, and dip work. To build bench press strength, bar training will be the backbone of your workouts.
2. Choose the Right Number of Reps
If your goal is mainly to build a bigger chest, then use a wide variety of reps, anywhere from 1 to 15.
Likewise, there are many rep schemes you can use to constantly keep your workouts interesting and challenging for growth. Three sets of 8, 5 sets of 12, drop sets, and pyramid sets will build your upper body and keeping your training interesting.
An opposite rep range is the key for people who want to get supremely strong on the bench. Most powerlifters will use a rep range of 1-5. Their sets may vary from 1 set to sometimes 10 sets, but you won’t often see powerlifting programs prescribing anything above 5 reps.
Take-Home Message: When it comes to building a bigger chest, vary your reps and exercises. Five to 15 reps are great for hypertrophy. When it comes to strength, 1-5 reps are best and doing 3-5 reps for most of your training will keep you strong and healthy.
3. Choose the Right Weight
For building muscle, the weights don’t much matter. No one gets extra points from the judges on a bodybuilding stage for having a 400-pound bench press.
Some people can build huge upper bodies from lighter weights, higher reps, and time under tension, but when it comes to powerlifting, it’s obviously all about the weights you lift. There’s always a focus on rep ranges, percentages, and programming. The only time a powerlifter will bench light is if the programming calls for it.
How much muscle you have can sometimes benefit you, but I’ve seen people that have very little muscle bench press over 350 pounds in raw competition.
Take-Home Message: When it comes to building muscle, the weight lifted is only one factor of many. For strength, the weight you lift is the biggest factor.
4. Rep Tempo
When it comes to building muscle, it’s important to vary your tempo and focus on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the movement. Controlling the weight and making the weight work the muscle is key for hypertrophy.
4-1-X-1 is a great tempo to spur growth:
4 – Take 4 seconds to lower the bar
1 – Take 1 second to pause at the bottom
X – Lift the bar as explosively as possible
1 – Pause and squeeze the muscle for 1 second before starting the next rep
Using the above tempo, the average set of 10 reps will last about 60 seconds.
Tempo doesn’t play much of a role in powerlifting because bar speed is very important for improving and maintaining strength. Consider too that powerlifters sometimes bench three times a week, so the last thing they want is for their upper body to be sore from slow-tempo training.
Take-Home Message: Rep tempo will play a much bigger role in bodybuilding and hypertrophy training in general. When building muscle is the goal, a controlled negative is a very important factor in building muscle.
5. Grip Width
For muscle growth, a medium grip is generally best. Going too wide can put extra stress on the shoulder joint and going too close makes the bench more triceps dominant. The key is to find the perfect position that feels good for you and that actually works your chest.
For powerlifting, the general rule of thumb is to get your hands as wide as possible to minimize the distance the bar has to travel. It’s very simple, the less distance the bar has to travel, the better. If you can use a wide grip with a big arch, then you have very little distance to go.
This is sometimes taken to the extreme. You’ve seen the crazy videos on social media showing people benching a bar about two inches. That, of course, is the product of a hands-wide grip and a big arch.
Take-Home Message: If you’re trying to get strong, go as wide as you can without pain to minimize distance (not always the case, but for most people). When it comes to blasting your chest for growth, a shoulder-width, medium grip is generally best.
6. The Set Up
When it comes to hypertrophy, you don’t need to devote as much focus to using your whole body to press. The goal should be to maximize hitting the muscle.
To do this you want your lower body tight, but not nearly to the extent that you’d have with a powerlifting type bench press.
For the intermediate to experienced lifter who’s trying to focus completely on targeting the upper body and chest, you can also try the “feet up” variation to completely take the legs out of the equation.
Powerlifting is all about lifting as much weight as possible and that involves getting everything you can into your bench press.
For maximal strength you want your legs, glutes, upper back, traps, hips, neck, and essentially everything contributing to your lift. That’s why the set up and proper body positioning is so important.
Take-Home Message: When it comes to bench pressing for powerlifting, big weight starts with the set up and a good set up always makes a good lift. For bodybuilding, it’s all about what position puts the most stress on the pecs.
7. Body Position & Arch
One of the things that most newbies don’t understand about a powerlifting bench press is the arch.
The arch is designed to minimize the distance the bar has to travel. If the bar has only to touch the body and then go back to an arms-locked position, you want to minimize distance.
There are countless videos of people putting their bodies into such an extreme arch that they look like someone from a horror movie walking backwards down the stairs. People exclaim, “That’s not a rep!” over and over.
Well, depending on the rules, it might be a good rep. Some organizations call for the upper back and toes to be touching, while others like IPF call for the head, upper back, glutes, and feet to touch the bench.
So depending on the powerlifting rules, the arch can be beneficial and acceptable.
When it comes to bench pressing for building muscle, the arch is pretty much a big waste of time and defeats the purpose. When building a bigger chest, you want to stretch the chest as much as possible, and a longer range of motion will work in your favor. That’s why many bodybuilders prefer dumbbells.
Take-Home Message: For bodybuilding, the farther the bar travels, the better. For powerlifting, distance is largely the enemy (at least in meets).
8. Rest Between Sets
Generally speaking, a good rest time for size gains is 1-3 minutes between sets to allow sufficient time to recover and still maintain strength while lifting.
When it comes to powerlifting and lifting maximal weights, longer rest periods are better to maintain strength. Resting 3-5 minutes is a minimum between heavy sets, while waiting up to 10 minutes for some of the heaviest lifts is fairly common.
Take-Home Message: Less is more for bodybuilding, while rest is best for powerlifting.
9. To Pause Or Not To Pause
When you ask someone, “How much can ya bench?” you always hear the craziest numbers because most people will use their rib cage to bounce the bar and create a slingshot action.
That’s why there’s such a huge difference between a “gym PR” and a “powerlifting PR.”
A gym bench press is generally considered a touch and go rep. No pause. However, with powerlifting, most rules dictate that the bar has to remain “motionless” before the press command is given. This makes a powerlifting style bench press much harder.
When it comes to a bodybuilding style bench press, there’s no need for commands and most often you won’t see paused reps. However, for maximizing muscle gains, it’s important to use both paused and non-paused reps in your training.
Paused reps allow a controlled stretch of the muscle. The more you can stretch and squeeze a muscle, the better it’ll grow. So adding in some type of paused bench press can be very beneficial for pec size.
However, be careful with how much weight you use with “touch & go” reps because it’s a great way to tear a pec. Always use a weight that’s challenging and comfortable and leave your ego at the door.
Take-Home Message: Paused reps are part of the sport of powerlifting, but using both paused and non-paused reps can help bodybuilders grow muscle.