Improving Your Bench Press Lifts
Bench press is a classic exercise for strength, muscle mass, and athletic performance that also tends to be the most-bragged-about lift among fitness freaks. Bench pressing is fun and fundamental!
While the bench should be a piece of your foundation, it should neither be the cornerstone of your whole fitness plan, nor should it be gathering dust.
Be smart about your bench press form and programming and you will be happy with both your physique and performance. Be dumb about benching and you will turn into a knuckle-dragging ape full of muscle imbalances and wrecked shoulders.
Read on for six tips on how to improve your bench press fast. These tips will help you add weight to the bar as well as pack musculature onto your chest and shoulders.
Six Tips on How to Improve Your Bench Press Fast
Bench Press Tip 1: Perfect Your Setup
A shoddy setup for the bench press will sabotage your set faster than you can say “Schwarzenegger”. Let’s get started by going over what you need to get in place for a solid set up.
First, set the bar to an appropriate height; that is, a height that allows you to unrack the bar by merely straightening your slightly bent elbows and moving the bar forward out of the hook. Don’t set it so high that you can’t unrack on your own, or so low that you can’t rerack without significant elbow bending. Some bench racks, sadly, just have one or maybe two awkward settings, so just do the best you can with the bench you have.
Next, before you grasp the bar, position yourself with your forehead under the racked bar, not your mouth and certainly not your neck or chest. That way, when you are in the locked out position at the top of each rep, your elbows and wrists can stack directly over top of your shoulder in a perfect lockout for a tiny rest between reps rather than being skewed forward, increasing your risk of dropping the bar, or backward, clunking into the hooks.
Squeeze your shoulder blades tight behind your rather than letting your midback lay limply on the bench. Your low back will arch slightly (or will arch a lot if you are lifting in certain styles–just don’t go for a huge arch unless you know what you are doing or you will hurt your back). Keep your deep abs contracted inward during your reps no matter how much of an arch you are going for. Prepare to breathe out on the press up and in on the lowering phase.
Bench Press Tip 2: Solidify Your Stance
An often-overlooked component of the setup is the stance. You may be thinking, I’m lying down for bench press…how can my stance possibly be a factor? Well, you can lift significantly more weight more safely to boot by achieving a firm stance on the ground and creating either leg drive or hip drive. That means using your lower body muscles to dig your feet into the floor and create more force through legs and hips which will translate into your core and ultimately your chest and shoulders.
Some people will prefer putting their feet closer to their butt and digging the balls of their feet into the floor to create leg drive. Others prefer taking a more splayed stance with feet directly under the knees to dig in their heels and create more hip drive from the glutes.
Either way, your butt must not lift off the bench as you drive with your lower body, so experiment with light benching in different stances to see where your feet need to go to dig in without your butt lifting, as well as to find which stance makes you happiest and able to lift the most weight with the most facility.
Bench Press Tip 3: Grip the Bar Properly
Your grip is so important that I’ll devote a whole tip to the grip! This is not just a tip on how to bench press more; gripping the bar properly is essential to your life and limb! Bench press is one of the few exercises whose equipment can easily crush your very windpipe if you drop the bar, so get a handle on it. There is a reason they call the thumbless grip favored by some clueless lifters the “suicide grip”.
Instead, grasp the bar a little wider than shoulder width with what’s referred to as the “bulldog grip”. Rest the bar down low at a slight angle running from the middle of your hand on the pinkie side down to the fleshy, meaty part near the web of your thumb. Wrap your fingers and thumbs around the bar and squeeze tight with your hand and forearm muscles. Pretend you are trying to “break the bar”.
If you get the bar in the right position across your hand, the weight of the bar will be borne properly down the long bones of your arms rather than rolling backward. Letting th bar move back onto your hands and fingers places undue compressive stress on your wrist joint as it bends the joint into excessive extension (not a good thing). As you press, never let your grip shift; keep that “bulldog grip” intact and lead with your knuckles up toward the ceiling as if you are throwing a punch.
Bench Press Tip 4: Work With a (Competent) Spotter
You don’t always need a spotter when benching if you are working with small loads, however, if you are going heavy, having a trusted spotted who knows what they are doing is a beautiful thing. They can help you safely achieve personal records that you could not (read: SHOULD NOT) attempt to hit lifting solo on bench press. Benching solo and getting pinned is a scary feeling (I speak from experience, so don’t be me!).
On the other hand, having a crappy spotter is useless, counterproductive, and can even dangerous if you are in a jam and your spotter is zoned out on their phone or checking out yoga pants down the way instead of doing their job.
Here are the essential pieces of spotting bench press: Make sure you’ve verbally established how many reps are being attempted. Spotter offers a “lift-off” if desired (help with the initial unracking of the bar; this is especially desirable if your bench doesn’t have a setting that is “just right” for your arm length). Spotter watches lifter closely throughout the set, only offering assistance when it is asked for or obviously needed, for example if the lifter is hardcore failing a rep and unable to communicate because they’re straining too hard. Don’t destroy someone’s completion out of that last rep because you grabbed the bar too early. If you step in to assist, grab the bar from above, help the lifter complete the rep and get the bar back in the hooks. If you have a regular lifting buddy, you two will get to know each other’s lifting styles very well, cutting down on miscommunication during spotting.
If you are lifting solo and find yourself in need of a spot, it IS appropriate gym etiquette to ask someone nearby if they can spot you. Ask when they are obviously not otherwise engaged, i.e. not in the middle of a set or getting set up to start a new exercise. Be cautious who you ask, though; there are not-so-hot-spotters out there who think they know exactly what they are doing. Of course, it’s best to approach someone you have seen competently spotting other individuals.
Bench Press Tip 5: Focus on the Negative
This next tip goes hand-in-hand with having a good spotter on deck. If you have a spotter, they can help you accomplish negative reps, in which they are help you with the press up and you complete the controlled lowering phase on your own. Our muscles can handle higher loads during the lowering (AKA eccentric) phase of a lift than they can during the raising (AKA concentric) phase. So negative reps are a neat little trick you can use to introduce overload to your muscles and make faster progress. Expect to be super sore from negatives!
I don’t do a ton of negatives, but do experiment with mixing them into your heavy bench days and they should help you stack poundage onto your bench press as well as ripped musculature onto your chest (once the soreness subsides).
Only try negative reps if you have a spotter you really trust that you know can safely lift the amount of weight you are working with.
Bench Press Tip 6: Do Complementary Exercises
Don’t be one of the people that does nothing but bench press. Your posture and shoulder health will suffer greatly. Instead, make sure you are balancing your bench press work with plenty of pulling exercises such as pull ups and rows. Also, do other forms of pressing such as push ups, dumbbell chest press, and dumbbell shoulder press, and barbell overhead press. Don’t expect to even approach the neighborhood of the weight you can bench on any kind of dumbbell press. The weights moving independently introduces a great deal of instability to the exercise. At appropriate weights, learning to stabilize that non-center-fixed instability is great for you and helps develop motor patterns as well as shoulder stability and flexibility, which translates to better shoulder health and pain-free bench pressing for years to come.
Also add exercises involving the rotator cuff, such as dumbbell, cable, or resistance band external rotation and open-handed side raise. Lots of people start out with a nice strong bench but puny little rotator cuffs and end up setting themselves up for failure and pain down the road if they don’t put in the ongoing work to stabilize that RC. Planks and side planks are also helpful for stabilizing the chest, shoulders, and rotator cuff.
How to Improve Your Bench Press Fast: The Bottom Line
Improving your bench press is all about balance. If you bench too much, you will sabotage your progress by overtraining the chest and ruining your shoulders, while if you bench too little, your muscle strength and mass will not be provided with enough stimulus to provoke change.
Naturally, there are different schools of thought on this point, but I recommend benching heavy no more than once or twice per week and benching even moderate or light weight no more than two to three times per week. No matter what, always take at least one day off in between bench press sessions. If you simply must work those pecs more often, mix in some push ups and light dumbbell presses on non-bench days.
I hope you have fun applying these tips to your lifting sessions and making great progress on your bench press!