by Charles Poliquin Iron Magazine
The bench press is an excellent exercise for training the arms, chest, and shoulders for strength and performance. Though it remains beloved by hardcore athletes and novice young lifters alike, the popularity of the bench seems diminished with the rise of CrossFit and metabolic training programs.
Yet, by using these few simple programming tips, a little creativity, and old-fashioned hard work, the bench press becomes an outstanding tool for athletic success. With possibly a larger body of research than any other lift, there’s tons of evidence to show us the best methods for getting strong, developing explosive strength, overcoming plateaus, and building muscle with the bench.
Here are ten of those strategies, with a few practical points thrown in.
#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, such as by lifting as fast as they could, while using a load of 85 percent of the 1RM. After three weeks of just six training sessions, the fast tempo group gained an impressive 10 percent in maximal bench press strength. They also increased the speed with which they could perform the lift by 2.25 percent.
The other group that self-selected lifting speed did not gain strength or modify speed. Researchers credit strength gains to the fact that when the trainees lifted fast, they produced more force, placing greater demand on the muscles and leads to greater recruitment of more motor units, particularly the type 2 fast-twitch fibers.
Practical Tip: 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
Another way to get strong in a short amount of time is by bumping up your volume for a set training phase. The superiority of multi-set training is well established for strength in anyone with a training background.
A classic example is a study that compared the effect of a 10-week training program using either 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, increasing 1 RM by 18.5 kg by three weeks, which was 8 percent more than the 1-set group. In addition, by the end of the study, the 8-set group increased 1RM by 37 kg, compared to the 1-set group that gained 17 kg, and 4-set group that gained 21 kg.
Practical Tip: 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: Use The Incline Bench Press For Athletics & Functional Strength
The incline bench press should be the upper body exercise around which you design your program for athletic performance and “functional” strength.
Consider that 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.
Of course, all variants in body position can contribute to better results due to differences in muscle activation. For example, 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.
And don’t ignore the value of standing overhead presses for maximal strength and muscle gains. It’s a critical lift that loads the spine for bone strength, while developing the deltoids, trapezius, and triceps in a way that transfers to sports like tennis and baseball.
Giving attention to the overhead press can help you prevent shoulder injury because when it’s neglected in favor of all bench press all the time, it results in a shortened subscapularis muscle that causes dysfunction in the shoulder.
Practical Tip: Use the dumbbell overhead press to increase your bench. The optimal strength ratio of the overhead press to the close grip bench is 29 percent. If you can close-grip press 100 kg, you should be able to overhead press a pair of 29 kg dumbbells for 8 reps.
#4: Favor Close-Grip Barbell & Dumbbell Bench to Avoid Stress on the Shoulders
Grip variations affect muscle activity in the bench as follows:
• A wide grip favors recruitment of the pectoralis, whereas a narrower grip increases triceps activity at a small expense to the pec. However the difference in muscle activation is small and researchers suggest that sport or a functional needs analysis 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, and if trained chronically with heavy loads, may cause degeneration, increasing injury risk.
Unless you’re a powerlifter or there’s a specific sports performance benefit to a wider grip, use a shoulder-width grip when training heavy or for power to decrease the stress on the shoulder joint.
Practical Tip: Use a neutral grip dumbbell bench press if you have a history of shoulder injury and want to take stress of 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. Likewise, a log bench press (commonly used to train for strongman) uses a neutral grip if you want to stick with a single straight bar but have shoulder issues.
#5: Train with Free Weights Rather than the Smith to Increase Your Bench
Research shows that barbells and dumbbells are far superior to the Smith machine for increasing strength and size in the chest. For instance, a study that compared muscle activity and 1RMs in different chest press exercises found that the greatest average load was lifted with the standard barbell press (106.4 kg) in trained athletes, followed by the Smith chest press (103.6 kg), and the dumbbell press coming in last (89.5 kg).
Muscle activity showed that the pectoralis, deltoid, and biceps were activated to a much greater degree with the two free weight trials than the Smith machine because you have to control the path of the bar with free weights. Researchers discourage use of the Smith because the unnatural path will put unnecessary stress on the joints, while causing reduced muscle activation.
Practical Tip: 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 big, colorful balls, stick to the stable bench, which will allow you to lift heavier weights and increase force output for optimal performance adaptations. 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.
Practical Tip: To clear up the instability argument, researcher David Behm recently suggested that unstable surfaces can be used in addition to stable training during rehabilitation to exert less, but healthy stress on a injury-susceptible joint. Because unstable training will lead to greater activation in stabilizing muscles (such as in the rectus abdominis in the case of the Swiss ball bench), 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 that promote balance—or training the wrong exercises—is a weakness a lot of us have. If you want a bigger bench, it’s time to get over this aversion. You also need to know which lifts target your weaknesses.
For example, a recent 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 to increase strength in the lower and middle traps is problematic because of the simultaneous impact they have on the upper trap. 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.
Practical Tip: A better exercise than I’s and T’s is the bent-over trap-3 lift that promote balance in the 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, while also maximizing explosive strength because you are lying down while performing it. Sure, technique is paramount, but the bench presents fewer vulnerabilities than a squat or power clean.
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 favoring the Fast Force and Max Strength protocols in a periodized fashion, with a hypertrophy phase thrown in for a few weeks for variety.
Practical Tip: Use tempo to your advantage—you can accomplish the same amount of work with a max strength workout as with a hypertrophy workout, but the effects will be diverse. 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:
• Women either have reduced fatigue or 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. For example, they may be able to do just as many reps with a set weight using half the rest time.
• 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 or near failure cause greater fatigue than those that are completed before exhaustion, requiring rest longer than 3 minutes.
Practical Tip: 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 make gains is with chains and bands. The two implements are not interchangeable and have diverse applications.
Chains will build explosive strength and have the added benefit of oscillating and swinging during 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.
Chains can lead to maximal strength gains because they allow for greater overload in the end range of the lift as well: A study that compared chain and traditional bench press training in female college athletes showed the chain group increased 1RM by 17 percent compared to 11 percent with traditional training.
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.
Note that research suggests that chain and band training causes significant fatigue to the neuromuscular system and is best programmed with low reps. In one study of Division 1 football players, performance was significantly reduced by the third rep.
Practical Tip: Optimal loading with bands or chains 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 the nice superset of an incline press with bands, alternated with wide grip pull-ups. Rest 2 minutes between sets.
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