If You Want To Improve Your Bench Press And Build A Set Of Pecs To Be Proud Of, You Need To Read This Article
So you want to improve your bench press?
You want to feel bigger, stronger, and strut through the gym with pride. Impressing your friends with a three-figure lift.
But you've hit a brick wall.
When you started, the numbers kept climbing effortlessly. You barely had to try.
Now, it's more challenging. Fighting and grinding for an extra rep is a titanic tussle. Like Hogan vs Andre The Giant, Luke vs Vader, or Balboa vs Drago.
Your dreams of an upper body to be proud of seem a long way off. But fear not, because you can improve your bench press using these 5 simple steps. Apply the information you'll learn in this article and you'll see your bench press sky-rocket.
More importantly, you'll build more muscle. After all, it's more muscle you want, rather than an ego-boost about how much you can bench.
But before you dive into the detail, let me show you the results you could experience IF you choose to follow these 5 simple steps.
And if you'd prefer to listen to the audio version, click the play button below:
The Results Of Proper Bench Press Technique
Technique and execution of any exercise is important.
Good form creates the foundation for future progress, limits the risk of injury, and ensures every ounce of effort is spent building muscle.
And the bench press is no different.
In fact, you could argue form is MORE important for this exercise than many others. Because it's complex and easy to perform incorrectly.
So think of it like 'the squat of the upper body', in terms of its complexity (and also your risk of injury if you get it wrong).
The 5 steps to improve your bench press that you'll discover in this article have delivered real results. For me, and my clients.
For example, here's how my own physique changed in less than a year using the techniques I'll be sharing with you.
Obviously, there's more to this transformation than just bench press technique. Consistent nutrition, a well-thought out training programme, and dogged tenacity were also important components of the process.
And here's a few of my previous clients who added weight to their key lifts while dropping body fat, through my 1-2-1 online coaching programme.
But enough of the topless gratuity, let's talk about how to improve YOUR bench press. Starting with taking several steps back.
Regress Your Bench Press To Progress Your Bench press
To progress, you must regress.
It sounds like a phrase straight out of Yoda's 'Jedi Mastery 101' textbook, but there's logic here.
Your bench press is stuck and not moving forward for a multitude of reasons, so stripping things back to basics and building from the ground up, is the best approach.
And it might hurt your ego. But it's short-term pain.
Remember, laying solid foundations allows you to make huge progress in the future. Trying to build on shaky foundations is a recipe for disaster somewhere down the line.
Focus On Your Set-Up
Setup isn't sexy. To some, it's downright boring. But if you fail to setup for the bench press correctly, you're instantly creating obstacles to improvement.
Scapula retraction used to be something I focused on heavily. However, over time, my views have changed.
The scapula is a flat, triangular(ish) bone in your back. If you struggle to imagine where it is, just think about your shoulder blades. The scapula plays an important role in the movement and manipulation of musculature involved in the execution of correct bench press technique.
Training Scapula Retraction
"What the hell is scapula retraction, and why is it important?"
In the example of the bench press, scapula retraction occurs when the bar descends towards your chest.
These days, I don't focus a great deal on this as your body's natural retraction and protraction, coupled with the correct execution cues, will ensure your bench press is both safe and effective.
You don't necessarily need to can train scapula retraction, specifically, but it may help (particularly if you're new to weight training). Here's an example of an exercise drill, using a cable machine (you could use a resistance band if the lightest weight is too heavy).
Imagine there's a pencil in the middle of your spine. Pull your shoulder blades together, as if you were trying to pinch and hold that pencil in place.
But there's an important second step to the process.
Often, scapula retraction can be accompanied by elevation of your shoulders. This is something to avoid.
To avoid unwanted shoulder elevation, imagine trying to pull each shoulder blade into the opposite pocket of your hip. So, your right shoulder blade would be pulled down, towards your left hip. And vice versa, with your left shoulder blade.
Assessing Range Of Motion
What's one of the first rules of Bench Press Club?
"The bar HAS to touch your chest."
Ever heard that?
Following these arbitrary guidelines may or may not be right for you. It's important to free yourself from these "rules of the gym" that have been engrained in you up to now.
Whether or not the bar should touch your chest in a bench press is driven by your own body mechanics, the mobility of your joints (or Range Of Available Joint Position, ROAJP), and your active range of motion (AROM).
Thankfully, there's a quick and easy way to assess your AROM without getting too technical. In fact, all you need is a broom and something to sit on.
Here's what you need to do.
Sit upright and grab the broom as if it were a barbell. Grip the broom out in front of you, as if you were positioning yourself to bench press (although, remain upright at this time).
Now, bring the broom towards your chest. The distance the broom stops in front your chest is your AROM.
If you can touch your chest, then use this full range when pressing.
If you can't get the bar to touch your chest, respect this range of motion. And don't exceed it when you perform the exercise for real. Because if you do, you are straying into passive range of motion. And doing this with a loaded bar, brings with it a risk of injury.
Upper Arm Path For The Bench Press
The muscle that is the primary mover in the bench press is the pec major. Understanding the basic anatomy of this muscle will help improve your setup, exercise execution, and overall pec development.
This fan shaped muscle originates in predominantly two places. The sternum and the clavicle. And there are two insertion points on the upper arm.
With the bench press exercise, your intention is to bias the fibres of the sternal division of the muscle, ie the ones running horizontally. To do this, align your upper arm with these mid-pec fibres by adjusting elbow position.
So your elbow should be just shy of perpendicular.
A Quick Word On Hand Position
Hand position on the bar is important for hypertrophy, but mainly for avoiding wrist pain, which could accumulate significantly over time with improper technique.
So here's how to get correct hand position on the bar.
First things first, your wrists should be straight, not bent backwards.
At the bottom of the rep, where the bar is closest to your chest, wrists should align directly above, or slightly inside your elbows. Then, with the weight in the pressed position, your wrists should align just outside of your elbows.
Adjust where your hands are on the bar to achieve this motion. This position will differ from person to person, so don't just do what your mate does. Take the time to video and analyse what you're doing. Because getting it right now, will avoid a whole host of corrective work in the months and years to come.
Here's a video to help you bring all these setup tips together.
Regressing your bench press will undoubtedly feel like a backward step. But investment in a solid foundation should make for more linear progress in the future. Practise the basics frequently, and reap the rewards.
Beware Of Using Too Much Weight
Ego. The Achille's Heel of many gym goers.
The desire to lift incrementally heavier and heavier weights often comes at the expense of form, and ultimately, hypertrophy.
With extra weight comes the desire for your body to cheat.
The bench press feels hard, so your natural instinct is to compensate and make it easier. This could come in many forms, such as raising your butt off the bench, bouncing the weight off your chest, or squirming around in the bench so much you're essentially doing a front delt press.
These are aspects of the bench press you need to eradicate. And if that means dropping the weight, then so be it.
You see, building muscle is about creating tension. It's about making the muscle you're trying to train work as hard as possible, throughout each rep and set. If you poop yourself when the set gets hard and your form crumbles to dust, then arguably you missed out on some much needed gains.
So only progress the weight when your technique is solid.
But don't be afraid to shift some goddamn weight either. Form doesn't need to be a perfect 10 in order to lift a little heavier. An 8 or a 9 out of 10, might be good enough. Judge it on how you feel. Ultimately, your aim is to increase weight safely, while still training the pec.
With great weight comes great responsibility. Don't let your form disappear when it starts to get tough.
Use The Right Bench Press Cues
Getting the most out of the bench press isn't about just lifting the bar up. This is external thinking that ignores the fundamentals of building muscle.
With your new found knowledge of the pec, I want you to start thinking internally.
As mentioned previously, building muscle is about creating tension in the muscle(s). To do that, you need to focus on what that muscle is doing within a given exercise, and less on the bar, or other paraphernalia you're using.
And with the right execution cues, you can do exactly that.
Here's 3 simple execution tips that will instantly improve your bench press.
- Think about driving your biceps across your chest, instead of lifting the weight up. Your aim with the bench press is to bring the origin and insertion points of the pec closer together. So think about bringing your upper arm across your body.
- At the bottom of the rep, with the bar closest to your chest, create tension in the pec BEFORE starting the next rep. This ensures you have the right intension and focus during the set. And it also eliminates unwanted momentum.
- As you lift the bar, forcibly try to bring your hands closer together. By doing this, you actively oppose frictional forces, creating a more intense muscle contraction. The intensity with which you do this should increase as the bar gets further away from your chest. And reduce through the eccentric phase of the rep.
Think internal, not external. Improving your bench press is not about moving the bar through space by any means necessary. Create intent and tension in equal measures.
Choose The Right Accessory Exercises To Improve Your Bench Press
To improve your bench press, you just need to bench more, right?
That's true to a certain extent, but there's more subtleties and nuances than you may realise. The rear delt, serratus anterior, triceps, and front delt are just some of the muscles that play a role in an effective bench press. After all, it's a compound movement, involving multiple muscles.
Therefore, it's important to train those secondary muscles so they can offer maximum support to the lift (without taking over, of course).
This all seems logical. No doubt, you're already training these muscles within your training programmes. But the serratus anterior (often called the boxer's muscle) might have left you scratching your head.
Have you even heard of it?
Serratus anterior is a fan-shaped muscle that assists with movement of the arm forwards and back, as well as creating shoulder stability. Training these muscles to be stronger will potentially improve your bench press by offering more stability and greater force production.
Obviously, bench pressing itself will train this muscle. But basic exercises, such as planks and push ups will also be of benefit.
If improving your bench press is a priority, construct your training programme to include exercises that train the secondary and supporting muscles to be stronger.
Sort Out Your Nutrition, Get A Good Playlist, And Grow Some Balls
Last, but not least comes everything you do outside the gym.
Nutrition, recovery, sleep, or simply an amazing playlist, could all make the difference to your bench press.
Yes, training HAS to be the primary focus. But neglect these things at your peril.
First port of call should be protein. You need adequate and frequent protein feedings in order to get the most out of your efforts in the gym. And here's how to do that.
But It's Not All About Protein
Next, look at the other aspects of your nutrition which may influence your workouts and recovery. These may be highly individual and require experimentation on your part.
Ask yourself these basic questions to help determine what's right for you.
Are your calories at the right level to elicit the best possible performance in the gym? Do you need to consider more calories and/or carbs for heavy training days?
Could you improve sleep duration and quality for better recovery?
Could supplements such as creatine and caffeine assist in your efforts to build more muscle? (Hint...the answer is YES).
These are just a handful of things to consider and are the tip of the iceberg.
Finally, at some point, you'll need to train hard. After all, you can't spend the rest of your life only lifting the bar, because your technique isn't at absolute perfection. You need to strike the balance.
The balls (or ovaries) will have to go to the wall at one point or another. So download your ultimate gym song and crank it up to full volume.
Training is the most important aspect of improving your bench press. But nutrition, recovery, and effort shouldn't be overlooked. Taking your bench press to the next level requires all these components to be in place. Without them, it's like having the most beautiful sports car with no fuel.
The Bottom Line On How To Improve Your Bench Press
Setup. Technique. And Programming are the fundamental aspects of improving your bench press. Spend time working on these foundations and, over time, you'll improve your bench press (and pecs) significantly.
Setup sounds boring, but it works.
Backing off the weight and focusing on execution technique sounds boring, but it works.
Training small muscles you've never heard of that don't involve heavy weights sounds boring, but it works.
And analysing your nutrition, sleep, and recovery sounds boring, but it works.
Ultimately, it's the boring stuff you're not doing right now, that will make all the difference to your bench press. So, get to work. And then start lifting some damn weight.
Need Help Taking Your Nutrition To The Next Level? Here's A Free Online Calculator To Help You Discover How Many Calories You Need To Achieve Your Fitness Goals
If you want to get on the fast track to a leaner, healthier, stronger body, I've got something for you. Simply click the link below and you'll get access to my free online calorie and macro calculator. Designed to take the headache out of knowing how many calories you need to achieve your goals. Plus, you can grab my Lean Life Kickstarter Pack. In it you’ll find a free 4 week beginner’s training programme (complete with exercise videos and a workout tracker), free recipe packs, plus so much more.
So if you want all that, go here.
But for now, all I’ll say is… Keep living the Lean Life and I’ll see you soon.