Build a Bigger Bench Press With These 5 Steps
Let’s face it: bench press has never felt like your thing. It’s always hard, even “light” weights feel impossible, and you don’t seem to progress on it like you do with other lifts. If you really want to hit a new bench PR, you’ll need to attack it from some different angles.
Heather and Katie own Barpath Fitness LLC, an LGBTQ+ friendly online/remote coaching business dedicated to helping people get strong as hell and living pain free. Katie is a bodyweight master with years of practice in calisthenics, gymnastics, olympic lifting, and powerlifting. Heather is a 15-year fitness veteran and competitive powerlifter who has provided continuing education workshops for hundreds of trainers.
Read on to find out Heather and Katie’s secrets for actually getting a new bench press PR.
Your Bench Press Needs Work
Who doesn’t want a strong bench? This compound lift is more complicated than it appears and building strength in your upper body takes effort on many fronts.
Ultimately, the best way to get a stronger bench press is to train bench press, but there are other methods of working your upper body that can grow your capacity for a heavier bench.
Implement these tips to improve your benching.
1. Build A Strong Back
This may seem counterintuitive, but if your back is weak you are not going to have big bench numbers. Your lats have to stabilize your torso on the bench as you lower and press the barbell. Any time there is a lack of stability there is also a lack of strength, period.
Build in row variations to load your lats and mid back. We love barbell rows, Pendlay rows, single arm rowing variations, and some cable rowing variations. Face pulls are another horizontal pull that’s easy to work into your sessions as a finisher.
Get those pull ups in! These are key for building strong lats which means a big bench. If you can’t perform many pull ups with your own bodyweight, practice them without fatiguing your lats too much and then move to lat pulldowns (this trains vertical pulling so it’s a good addition to pull ups) to build in more volume and fatigue.
Check out this blog if you’re working on strict bodyweight pull ups: Get Your First Pull Up With These 5 Progressions
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2. Add in Tempo Work & Pauses
We are always strongest on the eccentric portion (the lowering part) of the lift. Slowing down this part is a great way to overload your muscles and build strength.
We love to program a 3-5 second eccentric for the bench press. If you can master the control in tempo work, you will own the bench press. Once you can “own” the movement, building strength will be a piece of cake.
Another way to add in some tempo work is to try pausing at your chest. This pause will make it so you can’t bounce the bar off your chest during the concentric (pressing) portion of the lift. If you can press the bar off your chest without that bounce, then you know you have the raw strength to move that weight versus relying on momentum.
If you compete or have ever competed in powerlifting, you know about that pause on the chest all too well!
3. Use Smart Bench Press Accessory Training
Tricep Accessory Work
If you struggle with locking the weight out at the top, you should prioritize more triceps accessory work. A great compound movement for triceps is the close grip bench press. Other solid triceps movements are most cable press-down variations, bench or bar dips, and overhead dumbbell triceps extensions.
Pec Accessory Work
If you are weaker right off of the chest, then you’ll want to focus more on pectoral accessory work. Movements that load your chest under a stretch like dumbbell or cable flyes, or dumbbell bench press variations are all solid choices. You could also work on holding the bottom of a ring dip — try accumulating 90 seconds and you’re guaranteed a sore chest in the morning.
Have you ever seen someone grinding on a bench press rep and notice one side coming up first? That person needs some unilateral training in their life. Even if you don’t have a serious discrepancy from one side to the other, you will still benefit from unilateral training. Any pressing movement with a dumbbell or kettlebell utilizing one arm at a time is a solid choice for adding in some unilateral work. Benching is a bilateral movement, so unilateral work should be a top priority.
4. Get Stronger at Push Ups
The push up and its variations will have tremendous carryover to the bench press. It is essentially the closed chain variation of the bench press, but you’re using your own bodyweight for load. This means you’re automatically recruiting more stabilizer muscles, joints, and tendons in the push up versus just the pec, shoulder, and triceps muscles themselves.
Push ups too easy for you? Slow down, bro. Make sure you can actually do a full range of motion push up with no lower back arching or shoulder shrugging before you claim that push ups are simple. If you truly can do 10 solid push up reps in a row, throw a plate on your back.
Another great variation is a decline push up. Set your feet on a bench and grab some parallette bars. This will significantly increase the range of motion (and train shoulder extension, which means better shoulder mobility, which carries over to the bench press — WIN, WIN).
5. Don’t Sleep on Your Overhead Press
The overhead press is one of the best pressing variations to build up your bench press and increase upper body strength. If you want strong shoulders and a stable upper back, (basically everything that makes a strong bench press), you better be including these in your training.
You don’t always have to train the overhead press with the barbell, though. Add in different variations like dumbbell and kettlebell shoulder presses. One of our favorite variations is the Z press. This is where you sit on the floor with no back support and press a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells over your head. Talk about core and upper back strength training!
Check out this blog for some more pressing inspiration: Killer Alternatives For The Barbell Overhead Press
The bench press is a complicated full body compound movement. Even though you’re targeting the chest and triceps, it’s important to train your shoulders, back, and the positioning for this movement in order to bench as efficiently as possible.
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