How to Increase your Bench Press
If you’re looking for ways to increase your bench press, you’re in good hands. It’s by far the easiest of the big 3 to improve in my opinion.
It’s far less taxing than it’s compound cousins: the squat and the deadlift and you can train it up to 4 times a week without too much trouble.
But you can’t jump in at the deep end. You need to understand how your body works and build it up slowly.
You have to build volume over time. The intensity should increase and your training should become more specific over time. Then as the weights are getting heavier, you drop the total volume.
The Top 10 ways to Increase your Bench Press
1. Micro-load: Increase the amount of weight on the bar each week by a fraction. For commercial gym goers and kilogram, you typically only find 1.25kg plates which isn’t exactly micro loading.
If you have the foresight and / or the wherewithal to buy yourself some 0.5kg plates and carry them with you this strategy is much more effective.
2. Rest: Not just sleeping, but between sets. This study demonstrated the effectiveness of taking 3-5 minutes rest times between heavy sets. It’s tempting to take as little rest time as possible so as to maximise your time in the gym.
From a muscular growth standpoint this can be very effective. But from a strength standpoint this will impact your compound lifts. In my opinion the best way to deal with this is to either:
- Time yourself between sets and force yourself to take extended rest periods
- Utilise giant sets (a la Brian Alsruhe) and work antagonistic muscle groups between sets. For bench pressing I like to do pull-ups or rows inbetween sets, with some core work thrown in for good measure.Then you’ve rested your chest and worked in some core hypertrophy training. A stronger back is always a plus
3. Eating: The bench is the lift most associated with food. The more you eat the more your bench will explode. To gain weight you need to be in a caloric surplus. To lose weight but maintain muscle mass you need to be in a caloric deficit and eat enough protein – 0.8g / g of bodyweight is ample.
The quality of your protein also matters. But if you’re serious about strength you should be eating at high maintenance as a minimum and find a diet / bodyweight that allows for sufficient recovery.
4. Positivity: Get your mind right. Powerlifting is mentally taxing. You need to be in the right mind-space for heavy sets as being under the bar can be nerve-wracking. If you believe you can, you can. Most of the time.
5. Get Tight: Tight lats enables you to express power more efficiently. Tight legs allows you to incorporate leg-drive. Remember, the bench is a full body exercise.Grip Width: Grip width is personal. This study highlights the impact a wide or narrow grip can have on your performance. So you need to get it right!
6. Antagonistic muscle groups: To have a strong bench, you need to have a strong back, shoulders and triceps. Benching isn’t just about chest exercises so make sure you work on your overall shoulder health, back strength and lockout to maximise your bench and minimise the risk of injury:
- Shoulder Health: Warmup your rotator cuffs, add in lateral raises and dumbbell pressing movements to ensure your chest isn’t too overdeveloped when compared to your shoulders
- Back Strength: You need strong lats to help you maintain tightness and lock the weight in to the bench. You equally need a strong lower back to prevent injuries and help you maintain an arch. Weighted pull-ups and row variations will help build an impressive bench (and deadlift)
7. Lockout Power: You need an impressive set of triceps to build a great bench press. The triceps are the three headed muscle on the back of your arm that helps extend your elbow joint.
Skull crushers and close grip bench press are ideal heavy assistance exercises. Cable pull-downs and reverse grip curls are ideal for building size and minimising stress on your CNS.
8. The Valsalva Manoeuvre: Breathing correctly is essential. Take a huge belly breath in, use it to brace and increase your intra-abdominal pressure – this guide to powerlifting belts should help you understand why breathing is so important.
It actually increases the flow of blood from your heart for a few seconds and then increases blood pressure as your vessels constrict, drastically increasing internal pressure and your ability to lift heavily and safely.
9. Frequency and Volume: Frequency is how often you lift. Volume is the total amount of weight lifted. Reps x weight. Accumulating volume is how you grow and the simplest way to bench press more is to increase your volume and frequency.
As bench pressing is much less taxing then squats or deadlifts, anywhere from 2-4 times a week is ideal. Utilise variations like inclines, pauses and single arm presses to bring up your weak points.
10. Lift Heavy: Don’t be afraid to lift heavy. Volume and variations are fantastic, but every so often you need to grind out some heavy reps. Don’t get stuck in a 5(5) rut or else you’ll plateau.
If you bench press three times a week, one day as a 5(5) is great, but try another day as a 3(8) and another as a 4(2). The new stimuli will help drive positive adaptations in your pressing capabilities.
What are the Best Exercises to Increase your Bench Press for Powerlifting?
You’ll need to pick the best bench press accessory exercises for your current strengths, weaknesses and body type.
Build up your triceps with skull crushers and close grip bench presses if you struggle with the lockout portion of the lift. Always look to build up chest size with higher rep training too. The larger your chest, the smaller the distance the bar has to travel.
It all makes a difference.
Then having a strong back and shoulders is, like the pictures, absolutely paramount. You should be able to row as much as you bench and your overhead press should be around 60% of your bench.
Don’t let one fall behind the other or you’ll get injured.
As a beginner, you need to establish and improve your GPP (General Physical Preparation). That means you need to improve your overall physical capabilities. Whilst you should definitely focus on your bench press if you’re looking to take powerlifting seriously, you’re only as strong as your weakest muscle group.
So to improve your bench press, you can’t start by bench pressing 4 times a week. You’ll overdevelop your pecs and front delts, your overall body composition will be out of sync and your chest will be far too strong for your shoulders and upper back.
Take it once step at a time. Yes you should bench, but you also need to train your triceps to improve your lockout, whilst also increasing your shoulder size and ability to handle heavier weights.
Then you must have a strong enough upper back to lock into the bench. And be fit enough to recover.
Don’t be a fat bastard.
To start with you need to improve your recovery, create positive muscular adaptations and grow. Because all else being equal, weight moves weight.
It’s a lot easier to bench 140kg at 90kg than at 75. Trust me.
This guide to powerlifting vs bodybuilding should be a good starting point for those undecided about the pros and cons of each.
As an intermediate lifter your specificity typically increases and your training will become more geared towards the core lifts. As a general rule, around 60-80% of your time in the gym should be spent training the core lifts or extremely close variations of them.
To increase your bench press, this means you’d need to improve your pressing strength and the antagonistic muscle groups that go with it:
- Chest pressing strength: Bench press, dumbbell bench press, wide-grip bench press
- Tricep strength: Close grip bench press, skull crushers and tricep pulldowns
- Upper back muscles: Pull-up variations, lat pull-downs, rows
- Shoulders: Lateral raises, shrugs, in front and behind the neck presses
A strong bench presser must have:
- Power off the chest (pressing variations)
- A strong lockout (tricep strength)
- Strong antagonistic muscle groups (upper back and shoulders) for tightness and injury prevention
Without power off the chest, you won’t be able to generate enough velocity to move significant weight at all. A poor lockout means you can’t finish the top of the lift off. Weak antagonistic muscle groups equate too:
- A lack of tightness throughout the lift
- Increased risk of injury
These are all essential components of a strong bench press.
How to Increase your Bench Press for Beginners?
As mentioned above beginners need significant GPP for long-term success in any lifting / sporting career. But this is the easy part:
Beginners improve on a form of linear periodisation. This means that all you need to do is increase weight on the bar by a small amount week by week. Your reps can largely stay the same as your body will become accustomed to the training relatively quickly and there shouldn’t be any danger of overtraining with light weights and low-medium intensity training.
So as a beginner, you want to use lots of bench press variations and train the muscle group frequently. I’d suggest an 8 week program that has you working chest to some degree 3 days per week:
|Incline Dumbbell Bench Press||4||12-15|
|Wide Grip Pull-Ups||4||8-10|
|Incline Bench Press||4||8-10|
|Behind the Neck Press||4||10-12|
|Dumbbell Chest Press||4||10-12|
|Incline Chest Flies||4||12-15|
The goal isn’t specifically to increase power off the chest or improve your lockout, but to get your body accustomed to the movements, grow in size and to improve your antagonistic muscle groups.
As a beginner, your goal is to get moving and take it all in, adding a little weight to the core lift(s) each week until you can do no more. Then taking a deload week and starting again at a higher weight.
Deloading is an essential tool in your arsenal as you get stronger and train harder. You need to know when to rest as more isn’t always better with regards to weightlifting. This guide to overtraining should be your next port of call.
You will be able to run a linear program until you can’t progress further. Then add in some variations and either a form of daily undulating or block periodisation. Or both, that’s the beauty of it.
How to Increase your Bench Press without Benching?
Off-season training typically involves gaining size and improving body composition and overall strength and stability without performing the primary lifts.
To increase your bench press (without benching) you need to improve the following:
1. Pressing Strength: By substituting close variations of the bench press, you can easily improve your pressing strength without benching. Dumbbell variations can help you build single limb / pectoral strength. If you improve your military press strength, the chances are your bench will also improve.
2. Chest strength and or size: Bodyweight exercises such as weighted dips typically have solid carryover to true benching. As do pause variations of the lifts.
But by increasing the muscle size in your chest, you will have greater potential for ATP production and power propensity. Increasing volume of machine (chest) movements, cable flies and lighter dumbbells will mitigate the risk of injury and increase your muscle size in the long-term.
3. Tricep strength: Close grip bench pressing is an excellent way to train the tricep. As are skull crushers. Both allow heavier overload of the muscle than utilising cable pulldowns, so tend to be more effective.
But adding in lightweight volume with cables after the core lifts will improve your lockout power potential. But you would need to train heavy at some stage to help you express it.
4. Antagonistic muscle groups: Your upper back and shoulders will feel the brunt of it if you only bench. They won’t be strong enough to mitigate injuries and will hold you back.
Shoulder press variations and weighted pull-ups directly influence your bench pressing strength and stability. You need to incorporate lifts like these into your programming, especially when you aren’t benching.
Now Read: Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding
How to Increase your Bench Press without Weights?
Bodyweight exercises like dips, incline press-ups and such can all help improve your bench press. As a beginner lifter, press-ups, dips and pull-ups should form a core part of your exercise regime. They promote core strength, allow you to train with volume almost anywhere and do have some carryover to the bench.
So can you increase your Bench Press with Push-Ups?
Unless you’re a beginner, bodyweight exercises won’t have tremendous carryover, but they’re great for body composition, improving your MRV and overall conditioning.
They promote muscular hypertrophy and can help with your propensity to move more weight, but unless you’re a beginner you won’t see efficient bench press gains from press-ups.
The best way to do so would be to perform slow descent reps, with a 5 second eccentric for as many reps as possible. Adding weight would also increase their effectiveness and certain gyms have dip-style press up equipment that allow you to add weight with a belt.
What are the Best Bench Press Programs?
If you’re between a novice and intermediate lifter who’s trying to increase their overall strength and body composition, the 5 / 3 / 1 Method would be a good starting point. For it to be bench press specific, you’d definitely want to add in additional pressing work on 1 or 2 days.
The Conjugate Method (Westside Barbell) is primarily for geared lifters. If you’re on the juice get behind this program. Louie Simmons is a marmite character, but his use of accommodating resistance will help improve your pressing power production.
Brian Alsruhe’s linear program is a variation on the conjugate method. The use of giant sets allows you to cram volume into a short space of time, so it’s ideal for hobbyists and intermediate lifters with a high MRV.
20 rep training is more geared towards muscle growth and hypertrophy so in the short-term you won’t see strength gains. But longer-term this program is designed to build muscle, size and training capacity.
Kizen Off Season Training is a really useful program you can run outside of competition to increase size and strength potential without rep work near your 1RM>
Can you Increase your Bench Press whilst Losing Weight?
From personal experience, I have found that the bench press is the one most affected by how much you weigh and how much you eat.
Remember, when everything else is equal, smaller people produce less force than larger ones.”
Squat and deadlift maintenance may be taxing whilst in a calorie deficit, but I find that easier to achieve. Low volume, high intensity work tends to be your friend here.
Now Read: How much protein do you need?
Bench pressing is a little trickier. You will struggle with your bench if you’re in a calorie deficit, but there are ways around it.
- Nutrient Timing: If you’re in a calorie deficit, the chances are you’ll have cut down your carbs first. If so, make sure you eat the majority of your carbs around your workout. If you only have 250g of carbohydrates for the day, then eat 100 before your workout and 100 after for maximum energy efficiency.
- Protein: Eating enough protein to mitigate muscle loss is essential in a weight cut. Typically 0.8g / gram of bodyweight is seen as optimal. Spread your consumption out in 25 – 40g chunks throughout the day for optimal usage.
- Satiation: Fats and protein take much longer to digest than carbohydrates. Eating enough fats outside of your workout meals should allow you to remain full and help with the mental exhaustion associated with going on a diet.
What’s the Quickest way to increase your Bench?
The quickest way to increase your bench is to do so more often. As a beginner lifter, you’ll see linear progression. This means you’ll be able to add weight onto the bar week by week.
If you currently bench press once a week, increase it to twice a week. When that fails, increase it to three times a week, slightly dropping the daily volume.
When this fails and linear progression is no longer effective, you’ll no utilise a form of daily undulating or block periodisation.
Daily undulating periodisation requires different training stimuli each day. The varying levels of volume and intensity create new stressors and drive positive adaptations.
Block periodisation focuses on breaking down training periods in 2-4 week mesocycles. These incorporate different intensities and focus on one training aspect. Typically hypertrophy, power or strength.
You can read more about this in this guide to periodisation.
So as an intermediate athlete, the surest way to increase your bench press is still to increase the volume or frequency. But you need to focus it around specific training goals (speed, power, strength or hypertrophy) and either work in weekly undulations or blocks.