Looking to increase your bench press? Whether your goal under the bar is to get bigger or get stronger here are 17 proven ways to see improvement on the bench.
The bench press is one of the pillars of any strength training program. Whatever your goals are in the gym, whether it is based in performance on the field of play or getting big, the bench press is a monster exercise that is about as simple as it gets.
You lay down, load up the bar with a bunch of weight and heave it skywards.
But if it is so simple, why do so many lifters and athletes struggle with it?
Perhaps you are struggling at getting better with your lift, are looking at fixing some of your weaknesses on the bench, or are simply looking for the best way to perform the movement with maximal results.
Whatever the case may be, this guide has got ya covered.
17 proven ways to get more from your bench press, featuring tips from strength coaches and world record holder powerlifters. It’s a little meaty, so if you are pressed for time bookmark it and come back to it later. Regardless, use it as a guide for the times where you are feeling stuck under the bench.
Shall we begin?
1. Get serious about what you want to achieve under the bar.
We all want a bigger bench. We all want to be stronger. We all want undroppable WiFi.
But do we actually bother putting together a plan to make that happen? (Most don’t, in case you were wondering.)
What follows is a wealth of knowledge, tips and cues—but without a realistic overview of where you are at right now, and a concrete goal in place moving forward, it’s just gonna make for some fun scrolling.
So before we get into the meat and potatoes of deconstructing the bench press, start by breaking down yours and by asking yourself:
- What is my goal on the bench?
- What is the weak chain in my lift? The lockout? Exploding upwards? Is my technique questionable?
- How often am I doing bench during my workout routine? How often am I willing to train it moving forward?
- Am I doing supporting exercises (back and shoulders in particular) that warrant decent bench numbers?
- Have I had injuries arise from doing this exercise in the past, and if so, what was the root cause?
- What program have I enjoyed most and stuck to for the longest in the past on the bench?
Some of these questions sound bland, or obvious, but with greater self-awareness comes a much better understanding of how you, in your own little special way, are most likely to be successful.
Now, with answers in hand, we can start to get into the fun stuff and start building you a killer bench…
2. Lay the foundation for a big bench press with a powerful core.
When done properly, the bench press is a full upper body exercise. Your shoulders and back provide a solid foundation for power, your triceps maintain stability and help you lock out, and your core provides the base for all of this to happen.
It’s helpful to view the bench press as a full upper body exercise, and not just something that punishes your chest muscles. With this in mind when you have a powerful core section, you have greater stability in both your hips and shoulders, providing you a strong platform to do the lift.
So knowing this, should you be doing an endless number of crunches?
Planks, the Swiss army knife of core exercises, is great for strengthening not only your core section, but also your shoulders, which play a huge role in bar stability.
3. Breathe like a boss.
Often times the simplest advice is also the most powerful.
I get it–the strain and load you are under is heavy, and as a result your first instinct might be to hold your breath for the first few reps. Or hold your breath altogether as those tough final few reps get underway.
Holding your breath provides intra-abdominal pressure, giving you trunk stability, and it’s likely the reason it’s our default reaction. Between reps pause to take a full breath, and fill up those lungs with that precious oxygen and attain the stability that comes with it.
The heavier you are lifting, the more you are going to want to avoid breathing during the up or down motions of the lift.
As former competitive powerlifter Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength reminds us,
Another tip from the pros?
Breathe from the gut, and not from your shoulders. (Place your hand over your belly button–if it’s moving up and down when you are breathing you are inhaling and exhaling via your belly.)
4. Lift more by visualizing yourself lifting more.
Cell phones have become more common in weight rooms than water bottles.
They power the tunes for our workout, the camera for our shameless gym selfies, and is a powerful distraction between sets and reps when we need to check in with our friends and family.
But, what if there was a way to take the time between your sets and wield it to improve performance?
Does that sound like something you might be interested in?
Research on visualization done with track athletes showed that when they mentally rehearsed how they wanted to perform within 1-2 minutes of sprinting that 87% of them performed better.
You can adapt this to your lifting quite easily: imagine the form you want to hold, the breathing, the grip, right down to the number of reps you want to complete.
Why does it work so well?
Because as research on weight lifters has shown, the brain has a really tough time sorting the difference between imagined and real experiences. When you imagine yourself completing the reps your body simply doesn’t know any wiser.
In other words, put away the cell phone and boost your performance under the bar instead.
5. Bench with speed and power for faster gains.
When you think of exercises like the bench press and the squat, what do you think?
But if you want to develop power under the bar you gotta train with power.
Bro-gym wisdom typically goes as this: lower super slowly, hold, and then push on out of it.
But space science disputes this.
Instead, increase your power output and boost your completed reps by lowering in the span of 1-second, with no hold at the bottom, before exploding upwards.
Bench with controlled power and speed (i.e. don’t be bouncin’ the bar off your chest) and bench improvement will follow swiftly.
6. Push with Maximum velocity.
Did I mention how benching with speed can help increase your bench?
For athletes in particular, who are looking to develop speed and power in the gym for their activities on the court, field, and in the pool, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on velocity in the pushing portion of the movement.
An Italian study split up 20 athletes into two groups and were instructed to perform the bench press as follows:
- Group 1 pushed at max speed.
- Group 2 performed the exercise at what they considered to be a “normal” speed.
Group 1’s bench 1MR shot up 10% after only a three week period of doing the exercise twice a week, while group 2’s max bench improved by a sultry <1%.
Train with velocity, and your strength and power gains (and your 1MR) will shoot through the roof.
7. Lead off with the bench press.
Whether it is because you feel like you haven’t mastered the bench press that you avoid doing it until the end of your workout, or you simply don’t like the exercise, it’s surprising how often athletes and gym goers leave it until much later in their workout.
Not only are you physically fresh at the beginning of the session, but after a good warm-up you should be mentally jacked and ready to unload.
Research has shown that there are significant decreases in the number of reps with each exercise from the beginning of your workout to the end. (Common sense would suggest this as well—the more you work, the more fatigued your muscles become.)
Meaning that you should lead off with the heavy hitter—the bench—and then move on to the flies, tricep extensions, dips, and whatever else you got planned for your session.
To get the most of your time and energy spent on the bench it should be given the priority of leading off your workout when you are freshest.
8. Squeeze the crap out of the bar.
When you get under that bar, it’s time for you to show it who is boss. And how do you do that? By gripping it like it owes you money.
Doing this has a curious mental effect—it establishes dominance and control.
You become master and commander of the bar.
So when you grip it, grip it. It will fire up everything from your hands, forearms, triceps, and everything down to your core.
With that Kung Fu grip you gain stability over the bar while also tensing up the assisting and supporting muscles that will help carry you through the set.
9. Pull the bar out, and hold it for a couple seconds.
Look, I get it—you wanna get the set underway. So you pull the bar off the hooks and immediately drop the bar and off we go.
This might seem trivial, but pulling the bar out from the rack and holding it for a few seconds does a few sneaky things:
- Acclimatizes your mind and body to the weight. This is something I have started doing with all my heavy lifts (squats in particular) because it gives me the confidence that I can bear the weight. Seems trivial or like some New Agey type crap but the simple act of wielding the weight above me reminds me that I am the one in control of the bar.
- Gives you a chance to settle and properly grip the bar. Often times lifters will pull the bar off the rack and essentially let it drop down onto their chest without asserting control and proper grip of the bar. Holding it for a few beats above you lets your grip settle.
- Locks things in. And perhaps more importantly, holding the bar for a couple beats will not only get your traps and elbows firing, but it will sink you into the bench and locks everything in. In other words, it helps settle you into a position where you can unleash some serious power.
10. Build a cleaner and more stable press with a strong back.
Having a thick, powerful back not only looks great when you take your shirt off, but when you have strong lats and upper back you also have a strong foundation for the bench press movement.
It can be easy for lifters to brush past doing work on their upper back and focus solely on getting to their next chest day. But a powerful back goes hand in hand with a powerful bench press. Consider this: when you are at the apex of the movement your lats are fully contracted.
Having a powerful and stable base is a critical part of executing a clean and strong press. Exercises like rows and face pulls, performed with your shoulders straight and upper back firing just like you would be doing while locked in a bench press position will transfer well to the bench.
11. Keep 5 points of contact.
If you hang out inside in a gym for longer than a few minutes you will someone perform an exercise with form that borders on the ludicrous.
(One gentleman that goes at my gym does seated double-time calf extensions in tandem with overhead tricep dumbbell extensions. Seriously. It’s a thing to watch.)
Lauren Noe, training director at EFS Personal Training has a simple cue to help lifters keep their form while on the bench:
Similarly, in those moments when you are straining to bang out those last couple reps it’s important to not begin to wiggle like far too many lifters do when they are straining to complete their set.
Doug Jackson, a strength coach who operates under Personal Fitness Advantage in South Florida, has this reminder for just how important it is to maintain technical integrity and good form when you are hitting the ceiling:
“Athletes need to focus on staying ‘tight’ and keeping their feet on the ground when they are pushing for the last rep or two.
Many lifters start to deteriorate form by shifting through their hips or feet when they are straining for a last rep on the bench. Shifting around increases the risk for injury and also decreases total force production.
So stay ‘tight’ and keep the feet on the ground when you are being challenged on the last rep or two.”
12. Use a spotter.
Okay, this might sound kind of obvious, or like it is Gym 101, but it’s shocking how few people I see at the gym working with a spotter.
I get it—you don’t want to interrupt someone else’s workout to help you with yours, and you’d rather work alone, but if you are serious about improving your bench press at some point you are going to have to push yourself to the point of failure.
Working with a spotter allows you to lift, and more importantly, it allows that little noodle between your ears to think that you are safe.
And why is that important?
Because the truth is, your brain will always hedge what you are doing. What the hell does that mean? It means that it will always hold back if it doesn’t believe there is a 100% chance that you are going to be safe under the bar.
Your brain will always pull up early if it feels that there is a chance you will get hurt.
Having a safety net doesn’t make you a weakling—it opens you up to reach the outer limits of what you are capable of, and it is also just basic S-M-R-T’s. And if you are worried about interrupting someone’s workout, let them know you are more than willing to repay the favor.
13. Get caffeinated to improve performance.
This might not come as a shocker, but caffeine has been shown to improve performance when it comes to high intensity, short term exercise.
Although experience tells us that we usually work out pretty well when we are fired up on coffee, green tea, or any multitude of the ButtBlaster 9000 Pre-Workout Mix’s on the market, research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning broke down exactly what kind of effect it has.
And what say you, science?
Well, the results showed that throwing down some caffeine prior to workout increased not only the amount of repetitions to failure, but also a significantly increased amount of weight compared to the poor non-caffeinated control group.
In addition, participants also felt less fatigued after and their moods were generally more positive.
Like you needed another excuse to pour yourself another cup of coffee…
14. Track your lifting.
This seems like another no-brainer, but it is hilariously depressing how many “serious” lifters cannot tell me how heavy and for how many reps they benched last week.
Sure, we like to think that we have a perfect memory when it comes to our record in the gym, but you aren’t Rainman—it’s impossible to remember weights and reps for every single exercise you do.
Why is tracking your lifting in a workout log important to improving your bench?
- Because it gives you a platform to set weekly and monthly goals for your lifting.
- Because it keeps you focused on the work at hand when in the gym.
- And because tracking your performance in the gym also has the curious effect of showing you with cold, hard numbers when your progress has stalled out and it is time to switch things up. (Bar to dumbbells, for instance.)
As far as cost-to-result ratios go, spending a few minutes a day writing out your workouts can provide hysterical dividends and consistency in the gym.
15. How to save your shoulders while doing bench.
Shoulder injuries suck. And they are far too common.
Almost always awful technique.
Here are three simple fixes for avoiding placing undue stress on your shoulders (this is supposed to be predominantly a chest exercise after all…):
1. Correct your upper arm placement.
One common benching fail is having an incorrect upper arm placement when performing the movement.
Having your arms at a 90 degree angle from your body seems like the de facto positioning that novice lifters go for when they slide up on the bench.
This position, with elbows flared out, as you will soon see after a few reps, puts an inordinate amount of stress on your shoulder joint.
Aim for your elbows to be pointing out at 45 degrees from your torso.
2. Check your grip (and yo’self).
When you grip the bar it’s natural to slide your fingers into the ring markings. They look like ready-made landing pads for you fingers, so why not wrap around the rings?
When it comes to cranking out a classic, standard bench where you end up putting your hands on the bar depends on how wide your shoulders are, and how long your arms are, and not necessarily where the rings are placed on the bar.
Your grip shouldn’t be so wide that you break 90 degrees halfway down to your chest.
Place your hands just outside shoulder width (as though doing a push up).
3. Pinch your shoulder blades.
Rich O’Neill, a trainer and functional movement specialist based out of North Carolina’s Elite Performance shared with us how you can attain a position where you are less likely to incur impingement in your shoulders while on the bench (impingement is not sweet, in case you were wondering).
All you gotta do is pinch them shoulder blades–
When you pinch your shoulder blades together, you ensure that the anterior capsule of the shoulder (front) is free of any impingements prior to loading it through the pressing range.
Keeping the spine involved as a decelerator in the exercise is vital to maximizing your potential safely. Keeping a tight, organized core and a strong, engaged spine will allow you to overload the shoulders/chest without risking impingement syndrome.
16. Blast the bar up with those leg things of yours.
While the bench press may look like it’s only an upper body exercise, down south there is a lot going on as well.
A painfully common error lifters make is to allow their legs and hips to wiggle around as they push upwards.
By not driving your feet into the ground you are losing out on valuable stability and power that can be used to push and stabilize your lift.
Jordan Syatt, a world record power lifter and strength coach iterates the power behind using your legs as part of your lift:
“Most people think the bench press is a full body exercise but that’s not entirely accurate. Ask any elite powerlifter and they’ll tell you the bench press is a full body movement requiring tremendous contribution from your legs.
They call it ‘leg drive’ and it basically refers to creating a huge amount of tension from your feet all the way through your legs, past your hips, into your torso, and directly into your upper back pressing into the bench.
Leg drive increases what’s known as ‘total body tension’ which transiently increases strength and can dramatically improve your bench press performance.”
17. Do it more often.
If you are serious about improving your bench press you need to start viewing it as a skill, and not just something that you do once in a while in order to thrash your chesticles.
Although the bench press looks simple—bar goes down, bar goes up—it’s very technical movement, and like anything technical or skill-based the more you do it with proper technique the better you will get at it.
Does this mean you should bench until you are crashing into the wall and failing 3-4x per week? Of course not. Lift heavy one day, and then add a session or two where you focus on doing reps and speed under the bar.
Treat the bench as a skill, something you are continually refining and improving, not something you blast out one day a week.
A pretty smart coach once told me, “A rep done at low weight but with perfect technique is not wasted.”
Extend this philosophy to your lifting by slowly adding volume.
The more you do it, the more you can lean on your superior technique, and the more you build those powerful neural patterns that will show up without thought when you start piling on the plates later on.
Hey, you made it all the way to the end!
(Well, almost the end…)
If you read and semi-absorbed most of the content you will be a little better prepared to attack the bench the next time you storm into the gym all hopped up on knowledge, space science and pre-workout.
What parts of this guide will you apply to your workouts and improving your bench press moving forward?
More Stuff Like This:
- 9 Reasons the Dumbbell Bench Press Rocks. Here are some proven reasons that DB bench is as good, if not better than the classic barbell bench.
- 5 Bench Press Mistakes and How to Fix Them. The surest way to improving on the bench is to stop making these all-too-common mistakes. Ignore at your own peril.
- List of Muscles Used in Bench Press. Sure, you know the bench blasts away at your chest, but that’s just the beginning. Here’s what else this awesome exercise targets.