5 Proven Ways to Boost Your Bench Press with Josh Bryant of Jailhouse Strong
Josh Bryant, owner of the hugely popular Jailhouse Strong programs, is an absolute badass in his own right. He specializes in powerlifting, powerbuilding, and coaching strength athletes to record-setting numbers. In this blog, he outlines the most reliable ways to boost your bench press. His authority on the subject is proof in his book—Bench Press: The Science. Unless the pancake chest is what you’re going for, check that out.
5 Proven Ways to Boost Your Bench Press
World’s Strongest Man Competitors, gym bros, and Chippendales dancers are asked one question when venturing into public—“How much ya bench?”
As a powerlifter, the bench press is one of your competition lifts. If you were an inmate in San Quentin in the 1970s, your bench press strength determined your position in the prison weight pile, and if you got to use the weight pile at all!
The bench press has a very special place in physical culture and for good reason, because when it comes to building upper body size and pushing strength—the bench press is king.
Let’s look at five strategies to increase your bench pressing capacity for a huge chest and bragging rights.
Josh literally wrote the book on developing a BIG bench
1. Prioritize the Movement
Master Blaster bodybuilder, Joe Weider, had the muscle priority principle that says you should train a weak or underdeveloped body part at the beginning of your workout. This way you can take advantage of your caffeine and attack it with the greatest intensity.
We have the movement priority principle! If focusing on your bench press is your goal, start your training session with it. It’s really that simple.
At the beginning of the session, you are freshest and have the most physical/mental energy and focus. This sets the tone. On bench day, start your training session with the bench press.
2. Practice Strength as a Skill
You can’t just flop on the bench like a dead fish and expect to maximize your strength gains. To become a better racquetball player, you gotta practice racquetball. To become a better saxophone player you gotta practice the sax. To become a stronger bench presser, you have to practice bench pressing for strength.
Strength is a skill. You need to develop a consistent, repeatable motor pattern to maximize this skill.
A full technical synopsis is beyond the scope of this article, but studies show it takes 10,000 hours (or reps) to master a motor pattern. Focus on your technique until you can no longer get it wrong.
Do more sets and fewer reps. For example, scrap three sets of 10 reps and do 10 sets of three reps in a cluster set style. This gives you more “first” reps and lets you fine tune your bench press set-up and technique.
3. Check Your Grip Width
From Julius Maddox to TD Davis to Jeremy Hoornstra, the lifters I coach have literally rewritten the bench press history book. Having coached over 20 bench pressers to 600+ raw, most of my lifters do not use the maximal allowable competition bench press grip.
The wider the grip, the less distance you have to push the barbell to complete a bench press. But a narrower grip is generally safer on your shoulders. A narrow grip often feels more natural and allows for better drive off your chest. It also positions your wrists, elbows, and shoulders in a safely stacked line under the barbell for maximum pressing efficiency.
For a long time, lifters have believed that a narrower bench press grip reduced the likelihood of pec tears and shoulder injuries. One study showed that benching with a wide grip caused 1.5 times the amount of shoulder torque compared to using a narrow grip.
Unless you are competing in high-stakes powerlifting competitions, your grip should likely be in the shoulder-width range. (And even if you are, plenty of records have been set with this grip width.)
4. Move With Intention
Bodybuilders execute movements with the intention of isolating a muscle. To maximize strength in the bench press, every muscle is invited to the party—the more, the merrier. Every muscle needs to work together to create a synergistic sum that exceeds the individual parts.
This is done with intentional movement!
Movement intention means when you’re bench pressing for strength, you need to focus on pressing the barbell from point A to point B as explosively as possible with great technique. Remember, the bench press is a full body lift.
With submaximal weights, this is called Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT), a concept brought forth by my personal mentor, the late Dr. Fred Hatfield. The bench press has an ascending strength curve, meaning it has the least mechanical advantage and is most difficult at the bottom of the movement. As the weight ascends away from the chest, it becomes easier to lift. This mechanically-advantaged part is where most lifters ease up and coast the weight to lockout.
This is a great strategy if the goal is to be kind of strong by Planet Fitness pizza night standards. But if you want to say “no” to physical flaccidity, you have to go hard the whole way with CAT. Don’t ease up as you press up, but hit the gas and accelerate through the entire range of motion!
Remember from high school physics: force is mass x acceleration. You are 100 percent responsible for the acceleration variable. Training this way expedites strength gains.
If the weight is heavy, have the intention to move it fast. Even if it moves at a snail’s pace, you’ll still get the explosive strength benefits (via time under tension). If the weight is light, I want you to move it faster than the Mexican Two Step to maximize your strength adaptations. Intention is everything.
Bonus, training for explosive speed makes the weight feel lighter. Need proof? Slowly pick up a 30lb dumbbell off the rack. Then snatch it off. Which feels lighter?
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5. Train Like a Bodybuilder
There is a very strong correlation between muscle size and strength. Muscle hypertrophy is the best way to increase strength potential. If your arms are short, you have a leverage disadvantage in the deadlift and there is nothing you can do about it. Long arms are a bench press disadvantage, but you can actually counter this by adding size to your chest so your range of motion decreases.
Training like a bodybuilder means periods of high volume in the off-season, not only to add mass but to increase your work capacity. This potentiates your ability to add strength in the future. Unlike squats and deadlifts, the bench press greatly benefits from bodybuilding isolation movements, done in a strict mind-muscle connection style.
If you are already dealing with compensatory movement patterns, you will only make them worse by doing the same movements over and over in training. Isolation movements can help fix this while making you stronger and making you look better in your birthday suit.
Knowledge is power, I have helped many lifters go from average to good, then good to great by implementing these five strategies.
Time to shut up and bench!
P.S. Be sure to bookmark this one too: 6 Bench Press Variations for More Mass.