The bench press is the ultimate exercise for building upper body muscle. Done correctly, it can be a complete upper body workout. Learn how to increase bench press numbers by following this how-to guide.
Proper Bench Press Form
This is common sense, yet so many people do the bench press wrong. I see elbows flaring out, bad grips, and people using the wrong plane of motion. If you want to increase bench press numbers, you need to activate as many muscles as possible. You do this by using the proper bench press form.
- Lay on the bench under the bar.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Pretend like someone has their finger in the middle of your upper back and you’re trying to grab it with your shoulder blades. Your upper back will remain in this position during the entire movement.
- You should only have your upper back, butt, and head on the bench. Your lower back (and entire upper body) should be arched.
- Take a wider than shoulder width grip on the bar.
- Unrack the bar and lower the bar down a to your “chest” couple inches below your nipple line.
- Keep your elbows tucked into your sides. Your upper arms should be perpendicular to the bar – not parallel.
- Once the bar touches your chest you want to change direction and explode upward with as much force as possible.
- Make sure your shoulder blades remain pinched back.
- Drive your feet into the ground and push yourself backwards (the direction of your head). This is an extra driving force of stored energy that will help increase your bench press.
- Press the bar straight up, but imagine that you are pressing back against the force you are providing by your feet and lower body.
- While pressing the bar up, focus on pulling the bar apart with your hands. This outward pull on the bar activates your back muscles – effectively adding in additional muscle groups for the lift.
- Continue pressing the bar, focusing on keeping your shoulder blades pinches back, your elbows to your side, driving your feet back, and spreading the bar with your hands until you are able to lock your elbows.
- Rack your weight.
That might seem like a lot to concentrate on, but I can assure you that bad form is the number one reason people aren’t putting up bigger bench press numbers. It’s also the number one reason people injure themselves. Practice the correct form with less weight until you have it down. It might be difficult at first as your weak spots start to show themselves.
Increase Your Bench Press by Focusing on Your Triceps
Most people view the bench press as a chest movement, and they would be wrong. To all the people who just gasped at that comment, let me explain. Yes, the bench press is great for putting on chest muscle – probably the best exercise there is for that muscle. However, if you want a big bench, that is going to come from having great triceps. If you’re using the proper bench press form, and keeping your elbows tucked, the movement becomes more of a triceps exercise. You need to focus on building solid triceps if you want to increase your bench press.
Here are some great triceps exercises. They are compound movements that will add some size to your arms. The list includes:
- Close Grip Bench Press – the same as a normal bench press, but your hand placement is closer in. I put my index finger just onto the smooth part of the bar.
- Floor Press – you lay on the floor and do a bench press from there. You lower the bar down until your upper arm touches the ground. You won’t be able to lower the bar all the way to your chest. Pause for a second with the weight in the down position, and then explode upwards. This exercise is great if your sticking point is in the middle of your bench press. The floor press breaks the eccentric/concentric movement and forces you to explode the weight upwards instead of relying on the stretch reflex that occurs when you reverse the weight after lowering it.
- Pin Presses – these need to be done in a power rack. You place the safety pins at various heights in your bench press (preferably at sticking points). You lay the bar on the safety pins and press the bar up from there. It’s a predominately concentric movement. I like using pin presses to work on my lockout. If you have a problem with those last few inches, try incorporating some pin presses.
- Suspended Bench Press – these are also done in a power rack and with the addition of stretch bands. Stretch bands are like giant rubber bands that have different tensions. You hang one side of the band on the top of the power rack, and then put the other side around the bar. You’ll need 2 bands (one for each side). Using bands changes the resistance curve so that you are able to use more weight. Doing a suspended bench press means that the weight will be less as you lower it since the band will be stretching and pulling up on the bar.
- Bench Press with Chains or Bands – this uses the same principle as above but instead of hanging the bands from the top of the power rack, you place them at the bottom. By doing this, you change the resistance curve so that the bar is always being pulling down towards your chest. The bar is accelerated downward since the band is stretched out. This makes changing directions at the bottom of the movement more difficult and helps you improve the bottom of the bench. The chains works in a similar way. You hang the chains around the bar. As you lower it, the chains accumulate on the floor making the bar weigh less. As you press the bar upwards, the chains (and thus more weight) come off the ground and onto the bar.
- JM Press – the JM press is a cross between a bench press and a lying triceps extension. Instead of bringing the bar back towards your head, the bar comes down closer to your neck and then it is both pressed and extended back to the start position. This movement is neither a press nor an extension, but is a combination of both. When you find that sweet spot, you’ll know what I mean.
You can do all of these with varying grips (close, normal, and wide). I can guarantee you that these exercises will be what increase your bench press. You don’t need to bench press to increase your bench press.
Work Out Your Back
Believe it or not, the bench press isn’t all chest, triceps, and delts. Your back and lats come into play too. Remember when I said you should be spreading the bar apart with your hands? Well, when you do this, you activate your back muscles. There are several back exercises you could do. Besides the king of building back muscle – the deadlift, you can also do barbell rows with varying grips, and pullups with varying grips. There are plenty more exercises you can do, but the important thing to remember is to not neglect your back. It has more to do with your bench press than you think.
Last but not least, if you want to increase your bench press, you need to lift heavy. There is no way around this. You could do sets of 10 or more, and yes, you will increase your bench, but not in the same way as doing sets of 5, 3 or even singles will. The heavier you lift, the more muscle and motor neurons you activate. Getting stronger is not necessary a function of gaining muscle. It has more to do with training your nervous system to lift heavier and heavier weight. Look no further than Olympic weight lifters who need to stay in a particular weight class. How do you think they continue to increase their bench press, but don’t put on anymore muscle? They do this through training their nervous system so that it becomes more efficient at firing off motor neurons. Lift heavy if you want a bigger bench. Everything else is supplemental.