Keys to Maximizing Your Bench Press

by Brandon Lewis, certified exercise physiologist and competitive powerlifter


 

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Keys to Maximizing Your Bench Press

Being a personal trainer while also competing in powerlifting, I often get asked, “How did you get your bench press to where it is?” I usually explain it with a couple of pointers. First though, patience and trusting in the process is key. With most things in life, we tend to become impatient with reaching our goals and lose trust in the process, which also rings true in fitness.

 

Here are the three main pointers I like to share when asked this question:

 

1.               The importance of using the correct form in accordance to your goal.

2.               Why following a balanced program is essential.

3.               Additional complementary exercises I suggest.

The importance of correct form

 

 1.        Correct form is everything. What first needs to be understood is that the form someone would use for a competition lift will be different than the form used if they were bench pressing as part of a usual workout routine. Generally, “benching” is performed with the hands shoulder width apart, feet flat on the floor, back flat, and head back. While lowering the weight, you inhale and then exhale while exerting the force to press the weight back up. The form competitors use varies a bit with the biggest differences typically being the arching of the back, pushing through the ball of the foot as opposed to the foot being flat, and the shoulders tucked in tight. The common denominator that I feel is important to both forms is allowing yourself to take a brief pause to break momentum before the push phase of the exercise. By stopping the momentum, you are then solely relying on the recruited MAJOR muscle groups (Pec major, Deltoids, Triceps for the final lock out) to do the job.

Following a balanced program is essential

 

2.         The second tip I like to explain is that you should follow a balanced regimen that has a system of progression as well as variation. Typically, many people looking to increase their bench press miss this piece. Most lifters often follow a program along the lines of 4x12 for week one, 4x10 for week two, 3x8 for week three, and 3x6 OR 3x4 for their final week. While following a plan like this, lifters typically increase their weight per set in comparison to the prior week due to the decrease in reps. This is a common principal in general strength training: higher weight = less reps and less weight = higher reps as well as sets. One will usually practice a regimen like this before taking a new 1 rep max at the end of week four. This is not necessarily a bad program; however, it bypasses some of the benefits of using percentages to obtain an increase in bench press strength. Here’s an example of a bench press training regimen that uses percentages instead. Below is a plan for week one using a 1 rep max of 225 lbs. on a standard 45 lb bar:

 

Day one

Empty Barbell (45 lb.) - 1x10

35%* (80 lb.) of 1RM** - 1x10

45% (100 lb.) of 1RM - 1x5

55% (125 lb.) of 1RM - 1x3

60% (135 lb.) of 1RM - 1x3

65% (145 lb) 4x AMRAP**

 

Day two

Empty Barbell (45 lb.) - 1x10

35% (80 lb.) of 1RM - 1x10

45% (100 lb.) of 1RM - 1x5

55% (125 lb.) of 1RM - 1x3

60% (135 lb.) of 1RM - 1x3

70% (160 lb.) of 1RM - 4x AMRAP

 

*All percentages are slightly rounded up = 78.25 lbs. = 80 lbs.

**1RM (1 Rep Max), AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible)

 

There are various programs out there with similar concepts of using a given percent of your 1 rep max to help increase your overall bench press strength and there are a few reasons as to why it works. By incorporating a program that uses percentages instead of strictly standard reps/sets, you first give yourself a concrete system of what is expected for that day in each set. These percentages are typically on the mark of what you should be able to do at the given weight instead of going with what one “feels” they can achieve at 10 or 12 reps. This system also allows one to appreciate the process. If you know your percentage of your 1 rep max will increase weekly, you see for yourself how it takes time to achieve your desired goals.

 

With all good things there usually comes a negative and there is a double-sided sword involved with a program like this. A percentage driven bench press plan typically does not account for fatigue, which is the point when one cannot push any further. However, as a lifter becomes familiar with the program, they will learn how to modify the percentages. When adjusting the percentages though, your goal is not to totally recreate the plan but to slightly alter some of the numbers to allow you to get the most out of the workout. A common modification would be to decrease your weight by 5% on the 3rd or 4th set to allow for maximum effort on the final set(s). 

Additional exercises to help increase your bench press

3.        When training towards increasing your bench press strength, much more goes into it than just perfecting your form and following a regimen. Incorporating additional exercises such as the decline bench press and incline dumbbell press will help tremendously as it’s adding variation. For example, by using dumbbells you will recruit some of the stabilizing muscles that are often not targeted during a standard barbell bench press since these are single arm movements. 

 

The muscles you’ll want to target in addition to your pec muscles are the following:

 

   Biceps Brachii - This muscle is located on the opposite of the triceps and is used during bench press to help stabilize the weight during the lowering phase of the exercise.

 

   Latissimus Dorsi - The “Lats” are the largest muscle of the upper body and are located on the sides of your back. This muscle group is essential in helping the shoulders remain stable while lowering and pressing the weight.

 

   Quadriceps – The “tear drop muscle” is the group of muscles located on the front of the leg above the knee. Why are muscles of the legs used for benching one may ask? They actually help serve as a base for the lower body as you are exerting the force to press the weight up. When doing an exercise such as the incline bench press, your quads help you push while keeping your base against the bench to ensure proper form!

Each of these tips are important in increasing strength and making sure your workout sessions are as effective as possible. The biggest tip of them all and often the most difficult, is trusting the process. Getting stronger takes time. Living a healthy lifestyle is about the journey and hitting some of your goals along the way is just the icing on the cake!


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