Best Bench Press Accessory Exercises for Powerlifters
The bench press is the king of the nubile lifts. When you first walk through gym doors, and a pungent scent of sweat fills every cavity your face possesses you have only one thing on your mind.
“How much do you bench bro?”
True tests of mettle that arguably require more technical proficiency than their pressing counterpart.
So it’s understandable if begin to think that the bench press isn’t a particularly technical lift. But you couldn’t be more wrong.
It’s an excellent test of upper body strength that requires extreme tension from your lats to the tips of your toes, an exquisitely drafted bar path and perfectly timed leg drive in order to execute ‘the perfect lift.’
Outside of technique, there are 2 primary sections to consider when programming for an elite level bench:
- Power off the Chest
“When thinking about the best bench press accessory exercises for you, you need to understand where you lack and program accordingly.“
If you’re weaker in the upper portion of the lift (the lockout), then you need to work on tricep strength and overloading the muscle with partial variations of the lift.
If the opposite is true and you’re weaker in the initial drive, then working with paused variations of the lift and eliminating your ability to use leg drive will improve your power off the chest.
Lastly, you must work the antagonistic muscle groups to prevent muscular imbalances, shoulder pronation and enough strength to build equivalent tension. For bench press these muscle groups are predominately:
- Upper back (lats)
- Rear delts
Now Read: What Muscles does the Bench Press work?
Can the Bench Press cause Shoulder Pain?
When bench pressing you can often feel shoulder pain or discomfort. Traditionally this is from having an imbalanced shoulder when compared to your chest. Of course this is particularly common in powerlifting and a primary cause of rotator cuff impingements.
By incorporating antagonistic hypertrophy work into your training you can mitigate the injury risk, but these types of injuries and aches can also be common signs of overtraining.
So, get off your phone and train your weak points with these accessories
My Top 6 Bench Press Accessory Exercises
1. Dumbbell Chest Press
Great for: Isolating each side of your chest and improving potential weak points
The dumbbell chest press is far superior to the barbell bench press in terms of actual chest development. The enhanced ROM not only makes it a natural choice for higher-rep hypertrophy gains, but it’s unilateral nature is ideal for bringing up weak points.
The use of individual dumbbells rather than a barbell means the additional core requirements (and unilateral chest development) requires the athlete to use less weight. The ideal accessory exercise should promote muscular development with less weight, as this is less taxing to your body and CNS.
Pro Tip: Using them as a hypertrophy exercise to build chest size will drive marginal gains. As your chest gets larger, the distance the bar needs to travel is decreased. This is for more advanced lifters, but this is the kind of 1% that sets you apart at the top level.
2. Weighted Pull-ups
Great for: Building a strong upper back, improving tension and preventing injury
To ensure long-term success when bench pressing, you must work the antagonistic muscle groups to improve tightness and prevent injury.
The most significant secondary muscle group used when benching is the upper back. Having an equally strong upper back (lats and rear delts primarily) will help increase tension and power off the chest.
In my opinion, pull-ups are the most efficient way to strengthen your upper back. They also have the added advantage of significant core stimulation – excellent for injury prevention and certainly provides carryover into the lockout section of the deadlift.
Pro Tip: Start by building up a strong base with just body weight pull-ups. When you can do 4 sets of 8-10 (wide grip), start adding weights and dropping reps slowly as part of a periodised program.
3. Feet Elevated Bench Press
Great for: Improving upper body strength and power from the chest
When executing a powerlifting style bench press, there’s significant leg drive required in order to achieve your true 1RM. However using leg drive in every variation in your training cycle creates over-reliance and can mask weak points.
By negating your ability to use leg drive, you solely train your upper body. This isolates lat tension, pectoral strength and trains your triceps at the peak of the lift – essential for lockout.
The other benefit I have noticed is regarding reduction in lower back pain. By hyperextending your spine in regulation bench press to achieve proper tension, you place excess stress on your vertebrae. Elevating your feet whilst bench pressing negates this as you can’t extend your spine while doing so. A great way to train around injury.
Consistently performing regulation bench press can place a lot of pressure on your posterior disks as you extend to create tension. This variation negates that option and forces you to work around it.
Pro Tip: Use it as a hypertrophy builder on volume days with reps of 6-10 with c. 75% 1RM. Typically you will work with weights around 15% lighter compared to the leg drive variation, so it’s a perfect accessory exercise.
4. Paused Bench Press
Great for: Improving force production from the chest, comfort under the bar and total body tension
Probably the variation with the greatest specificity for powerlifting, the paused bench press is an essential tool in your arsenal.
Including a pause in any lift forces you to maintain tension and become comfortable under the bar. The primary benefit in my opinion is improving the initial force production from the chest. It’s an exceptional upper body strength builder.
Pro Tip: Use the paused bench as your heavy day variation. For example, I work up to a PR double on my heavy bench day with the paused bench and then perform 3-5 back off doubles deadening on where I am in my programming.
5. Close Grip Bench Press
Great for: Improving your lockout strength as it isolated your triceps
As you narrow your grip when pressing, the muscular emphasis is altered. The two most obvious things this narrower grip does to the bench press is:
- slightly increase the ROM,
- shorten the moment arm against the shoulder joint
By moving your hands closer together, the primary and secondary muscles switch places. In the standard press, your pectorals are the primary muscle group. By closing your grip slightly, the emphasis is placed on your triceps.
As triceps are an essential muscle to develop in order to improve your press, ensure you don’t overlook this assistance exercise when programming.
Pro Tip: The close grip variation is lauded by Louie Simmons in his Westside Barbell mecca and I typically use it in much the same way as I do the paused bench – as a heavy day variation to improve weak points and save over-fatiguing my CNS. But it’s also an excellent way to stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
6. Skull Crushers
Great for: Improving your lockout strength as it isolates your triceps
A classic bodybuilding exercise that places immense strain on the long, lateral and medial head of the tricep*.
An absolute staple hypertrophy exercise that builds tremendous power, with real carryover to the bench press. Especially the close grip variation.
If you struggle with lockout, then skull crushers should be a ‘must have’ accessory exercise in your bench pressing arsenal.
Pro Tip: Perform the lift with a very slow eccentric (negative) phase and a short and powerful concentric (positive) phase. This will best mimic the bench press and emphasise explosive power production, maximising carryover to the bench.
*As the upper arms are locked in a perpendicular position when performing the lift, the emphasis is primarily placed on the long and lateral heads; the two largest sections of the tricep.
How many reps should I do for Bench Press assistance exercises?
I’d love to give you an absolute answer but there really isn’t one. It entirely depends on the way you setup your bench press programing. You have to understand periodisation in weight training, period.
But this means you need to cram in more volume.
For example, I typically use the above assistance exercises as my primary lift on my heavy day when benching. At the beginning of my bench press programs I like to cram in volume with the main lift and use assistance exercises to improve my weak points.
This allows my programs to go on for longer, meaning more overall volume (under my MRV) is achievable and, more importantly, recoverable.
HOWEVER… I understand this isn’t the answer you’re looking for. But it really is dependent on a number of variables.
For example, if you primary goal is to increase your bench press lockout, then I would utilise a close grip bench variation on a heavier day for 5(3) and include 4-5 sets of 10+ reps of skull crushers. This would increase your muscle size in the long-time and therefore the potential to lift more weight.
With a much stronger lockout because you have focused on your triceps.
But really you’re only going heavy on the main lift(s) themselves and very close variations. Additional lifting should be focused around driving hypertrophy gains.
In this case, higher rep sets (anything up to 15-20) can be used very effectively for building size. Heavy compound lifts are taxing enough and you need all your energy to perform them adequately.
Pushing yourself too hard on the majority of assistance exercises is only going to impact your ability to perform your main lifts properly. And you should be focusing on the main lifts around 50-80% of the time depending on where you are in your programming.
Remember, 4 quality sets of squats will have a much more positive impact than 50 sets of hamstring and quad extensions. Specificity is crucial.
The ideal rep range for lower specificity exercises (just being used to drive hypertrophy) is around 12 – 15 in my opinion.
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How to Program the Bench Press
As a powerlifter, generally speaking you should spend around 50-80% of your time focusing on your core lifts: squat, deadlift and bench press. Outside of those three you should expend the rest of your energy on less taxing accessory movements designed to improve your weak points.
The bench press is the least taxing of the big 3, but in my experience demands the most volume and technical ability to improve. I’ve hit sticking points when benching more frequently than in the squat or the deadlift and most of that I attribute to 2 things:
- Increased technical demands of the bench press
- The synergy between a deadlift and squat
Both lower body dominant movements (depending on how you choose to deadlift and which squat type if preferable for you) that typically improve when the other does. The bench doesn’t have this kind of partnership, so is more demanding and requires more assistance work and secondary muscle training (triceps, shoulders etc).
However the advantage the bench press possesses is it’s much less taxing on your CNS. this means you can train the lift more frequently. As an intermediate powerlifter, I believe the sweet spot is training bench and it’s variations 3 times a week as per the below:
Day 1: Bench Press Hypertrophy
Typically a 4-6(6-8) set(rep) scheme where I use around 75-85% of 1RM
Day 2: Heavy Bench Variation
Usually I work up to a heavy double and then 3 back off doubles. I follow this up with 2 sets of 6-8 bench variation to get some additional volume at the beginning of a meso cycle.
Day 3: Regulation Bench Press Variation
At the minute, I run the pause bench as a 4-6(4) set(rep) scheme to improve my power off the chest and to maintain a level of specificity with regards to competition benching.
If this style of programming interests you, I recommend the following:
Is the Bench Press enough for Chest Development?
No. The bench press primarily works your inner chest muscles. If you adjust your grip then you can manipulate this, but by only bench pressing you will get overdeveloped front delts which will cause your shoulders to appear as if they’ve been dragged forwards.
In order to get a more holistically developed chest, then bodybuilding training may be more your thing. But in order to complement the bench press you need to incorporate exercises that train the outer section of the pectoralis major and the upper chest. Essentially you need a fly variation and an incline variation for a more rounded chest.
Do Powerlifters do Pull-Ups?
Not everyone does. But they should do.
A core facet of bench press development is having a strong upper back. Nothing gets your upper back stronger than a combination of low rep weighted pull-ups and higher-rep hypertrophy driving ones.
Pull-ups have incredibly variety and allow you to train your lats, delts, core, biceps and the entirety of your upper back. They’re absolutely tremendous for bench press stability, deadlift lockout and injury prevention.
This study on demonstrated just how effective pull-ups are as a total upper body exercise, as they:
- Increases upper body pulling strength
- Improves shoulder girdle stability
- Can mitigates long-term injury risk
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