Often referred to as the king of upper body exercises, the bench press is not only the most popular chest building exercise on the planet.
But it’s also the ultimate symbol of power. Just tell someone that you work out and there’s a high probability that the first thing to come out of their mouth is going to be “how much do you bench?”
Doing the bench press and getting maximum benefit from it, however, are two entirely different things. After all, there are an awful lot of bench pressers walking around with puny pecs.
To build your chest and rack up a decent one rep max, you need to have two things down pat: proper exercise form and a quality benching program. This article will provide you with both of them.
First- Get Your Technique Right
Form is king on all exercise, but this is especially the case when it comes it to the bench press. If you don’t establish good form habits from the start, you’re going to be placing your shoulders, wrists and spine in jeopardy when you start piling on the heavy weight.
There are two primary reasons why a person will do this exercise. The first is to build the pectoral muscles and the second is to lift as much weight as possible for powerlifting competition or some other reason. Depending on which camp you fall into your form will be slightly different. That difference will be mainly seen in the amount of arch you have in the lower back.
If you are a powerlifter you will want as much of an arch in the lower back as possible. Bodybuilders, however, are trying to isolate the working muscle group, which in this case is the pec major, and so want to minimize their lower back arch.
Master the Bench Press Basics
Here are the key technique points you need to perfect before starting to advance your poundages:
- Do your benching inside a power rack and make sure that you always put secure collars on the ends of the bar. Make sure that the bar is centrally located on the rack and centrally locate the bench under the middle knurling of the bar.
- Lie on the bench so that your eyes are lined up with the bar. Now grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder width with a low palm position and a wraparound thumb.
- Plant your feet on the floor firmly under your knees.
- Pull your shoulder blades down and back to create a stable base to push from. You should also tighten your core.
- Lift the bar off the rack and bring up over your mid chest.
- Bring the bar down to mid chest and then power it back again. Be sure to squeeze your glutes and push your feet into the floor on the upward push.
You should memorize and follow this checklist every time you start bench pressing. Doing so will allow you to avoid injury and get the most benefit from the bench press.
Bench Press Program #1: 5 x 5 Stronglifts
5 x 5 Stronglifts is a popular training program that is also one of the fastest ways to get strong on the bench press. The program is the picture of simplicity, involving only three exercises. For each of those exercises, you perform 5 sets of 5 reps.
5 x 5 Stronglifts is a 12-week workout program that has been known to ramp up people’s max lifts by 50%. It is the invention of legendary bodybuilder Reg Park, who was the role model of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was built upon by a top weightlifter in the 1970’s named Bill Starr.
While Reg Park had used just three exercises in his 5 x 5 routine – Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift, Starr added two more, the Overhead Press and Power Cleans. Since then it has morphed into the following:
You perform two separate workouts, A and B. The workouts are performed 3 days per week, usually on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The workouts are done simultaneously, so on Monday you do Workout A, on Wednesday you do Workout B and on Friday you do Workout A again.
Here’s what the workouts will look like . . .
Exercise One: Barbell Squat 5 x 5
Exercise Two: Barbell Bench Press 5 x 5
Exercise Three: Barbell Bent-Over Row 5 x 5
Exercise One: Barbell Squat 5 x 5
Exercise Two: Overall Barbell Press 5 x 5
Barbell Deadlift 1 x 5
The key to success on the 5 x 5 Stronglifts program is that every single workout your goal is to add 5 pounds to the bar. On the deadlift, however, in which you perform just one set, you add 10 pounds to the bar every workout.
All 5 of the sets that you do are done with the same weight, so there is no pyramiding of the weight within each workout. You will only increase by five pounds when you can perform sets of five with the previous weight. You should never sacrifice good form in your efforts to get the weight up.
If you find that, after 3 workouts, you are still unable to hit 5 sets of 5 with a certain weight, then you will need to drop the weight by 10% on the next workout. With this program you will rest for longer than normal between sets. In fact, you can give yourself up to 5 minutes, but only if you didn’t get to 5 reps on your previous set. If you did get to five, then rest for 3 minutes before your next set.
You can download a free 5 x 5 Stronglifts app to make it easy to track the program, including your between set rest time.
5 x 5 Stronglifts is a short and simple program and that is a great part of its appeal. Beyond that, however, it is a program that really works if your goal is to get your bench up as fast as possible (along with your other big lifts). It allows you to start with light weight in order to perfect your form and then build up very quickly.
However, if you’re used to longer workouts, the brevity of 5 x 5 Stronglifts will take some getting used to. In addition, it will not provide you with variety of movement that you need for full physical development.(P.S.- don’t forget to work your lower chest for that full muscular look. Check out our lower chest workout here.)
Bench Press Program #2: 16 Week Progression
The 16-week program is an alternative to 5 x 5 Stronglifts. It can also be performed as a follow on from Stronglifts. However, you should take a couple of weeks break between the two programs. In order to effectively work through the 16-week progression program you need to accurately determine your one rep max.
Here is how to determine your one rep max. The following repetition chart is used by strength experts to allow them to calculate their one rep max without actually performing a single rep, which can be dangerous.
|Reps||One Rep Max %|
So, if you are able to 10 reps on the bench press with 200 pounds, then you know that that is 75% of your one rep max. Some simple math will allow you to work out your max lift . . .
200 divided by .76 = 263 pounds
You have now worked out that 263 pounds is your one rep max on the bench press.
On this program you are bench pressing just once per week. Here is how your progression will unfold . . .
Week 1: 5 x 10 x 60% (5 sets of 10 reps @ 60%)
Week 2: 5 x 8 x 65%
Week 3: 5 x 5 x 70%
Week 4: 5 x 3 x 75%
Week 5: 5 x 10 x 60%
Week 6: 5 x 8 x 70%
Week 7: 5 x 5 x 75%
Week 8: 5 x 3 x 80%
Week 9: 5 x 10 x 60%
Week 10: 4 x 8 x 75%
Week 11: 4 x 5 x 80%
Week 12: 4 x 3 x 85%
Week 13: 5 x 10 x 60%
Week 14: 3 x 8 x 80%
Week 15: 3 x 5 x 85%
Week 16: 3 x 3 x 90%
This program is another excellent way to make rapid progress in upping your weights. Once more, however, it requires that you leave your ego at the gym door. Do not blindly follow the progressions if you are unable to perform the reps with good form. If you are unable to complete the reps, do the same as you would on the Stronglifts 5 x 5 program. That is, drop back the weight by 10 percent and carry on from there.
Bench Press Program #3: Bodybuilding Program
Bench pressing for bodybuilding does not focus on the weight being lifted but rather than on the effect of lifting that weight on the target muscle group. Your goal is to get the pecs to do all the work. This is a big challenge because the natural tendency is for the front delts to take over. That’s why you see so many guys with massive delts and puny pecs.
Your bench press bodybuilding program will use the pre-exhaustion principle in order to maximize pec stimulation and lessen the input of the front delts. Pre-exhaustion involves pairing an isolation move with a compound exercise in a superset in which you perform the isolation exercise first and then directly to the compound exercise without any rest. The idea is to pre-exhaust the target muscle group (pectorals), so that when it comes to the compound exercise (the bench press) that muscle group is the weak link. As a result, you will using your pecs to do the work rather than your front delts or your triceps. (Some people like dips over bench press for chest, but it just doesn’t work the right muscles for building chest strength!)
Chest Flys and Bench Press
You’ll be pairing the bench press with flys. Here’s how to perform the exercise:
Grab a pair of dumbbells and lie on a bench. Start with your arms above your chest with your elbows slightly bent. They will remain locked in that position throughout the entire movement. Now pivot from the shoulder joint as you bring the dumbbells out and down. In the bottom position turn your wrists out to maximize the stretch through your pectorals. Now reverse the movement to bring the dumbbells back together.
Perform 12 reps of flys. As you perform each rep, squeeze the dumbbells as tightly as you can. This will activate your pectoral muscles more strongly as you’re doing the movement.
Now go straight to the bench press. You should have the bar and weight already set up so that there is no downtime between the moves. You have a maximum allowance of around 15 seconds before the pre-exhaustion effect will wear off.
On your first set of benches perform 10 reps. Because your whole goal is to emphasize pec stimulation you do not want to lock out at the tip of the rep as this will take the stress off the working muscle, which is the opposite of what you are after. Also you should bring the bar down to a higher area on the chest than if you are benching for power. The higher the bar comes, the more you will activate the pecs as opposed to the front delts.
You will find that you will have to lower the weight considerably on this program. That’s because you have already pre-exhausted your chest on the first exercise. Don’t worry about that – you will be getting more stimulation for less resistance.
On the second set, perform another 12 reps on flys but then go drop to 10 reps on the bench. Have your training partner slip an extra five pounds on each side of the bar while you are doing your flys. On the third set, again bang out five reps on flys and then drop to eight reps on the bench. You will probably find that you’ll want to keep with the same weight as on your previous set. On the fourth and final set, you’ll go for 12 reps once more on flys and six reps on the bench. Again have your partner throw an extra 2.5 pounds on the bar for this final all-out set. You’ll probably need your partner to spot you on this one. Once you rack that bar, however, your chest will be on fire!