How To Increase Your Bench Press
by: Carlos Argueta
If you weight lift, it is inevitable you will ask someone, “How much do you bench?” or someone will ask you, “How much do you bench?” There is a chance maybe both will occur. The real question though is why has that become the number one question asked amongst guys who lift weights?
The pectoral muscles aka chest that is well developed and "pops" is a sign of strength and power for a man. After all, look at Arnold Schzwenegger and the chest he built. The bodybuilding world worshipped him and rightfully so. The chest he carried was that of a Gladiator or Greek God. However, Arnold had balance on his body. Everyone seems to care about the bench press but no one cares to ask about squats or deadlifts.
One time I was performing deadlifts at a local gym and once I was done with my set, an average gym member complimented me on my strength. He then proceeded to ask me how much I bench press. I was confused as to how deadlifts correlated to bench press but then I realized he was not asking me how much I actually bench press. He was asking me how strong I was; possibly to compare himself to me.
Luckily, I have been bench pressing for over 14 years and have developed a solid technique. So my answer did not waiver from my usual response to such a question, “My bench press varies on the day. And not everyday is created equal.” I am assuming he wanted a concrete answer of my max bench press or my best set of 2 plates. However, that is not the approach of most serious weight lifters. Similar to school days or work days, there are days in the gym you feel absolutely strong and other days you feel a bit worn out. So, it would be foolish to always pursue a stronger bench press day in and day out and ignore signs your body is giving you. Learning to listen to your body is very important in developing an impressive bench press. Also, developing impeccable form, structured training programs, proper nutrition, and the right mindset are all keys to unlock the potential you have underneath the barbell.
If you have just begun your journey in building your body into whatever picture you have in your mind, I encourage you to take the first step: research. You have a long and never ending road ahead of you and many questions to be answered.
For guys who have some time under their belts of training, here are a few tips I strongly recommend you consider every chest session you design.
Unless you can bench press 315 lbs with the same exact form you can bench press 95 lbs, don’t do it. What will happen as you attempt to bench press heavier and heavier are a few things: 1) your chest muscles will semi disconnect, 2) your assisting and stability muscles like front deltoids and triceps will compensate and finish the movement. Therefore, you will not stimulate the chest to its capacity thus preventing you on getting stronger. Also, a neglected part of the bench press is that the scapulas must remain pinched together, as if you’re standing upright with your shoulder blades pulled back, the entire movement. Think of the bench being hugged by your scapulas. Many guys bench press and when they get the weight to top, they round their shoulders. That means they will develop their body with bad posture and their front deltoids will be over developed and pull their shoulders forward.
The kinetic chain is important in many facets of sports such as: throwing a ball, throwing a punch, swinging a bat and also a strong bench press. What the chain refers to is how we generate power from the ground through the end of the movement by incorporating the posterior and hip muscles. I see guys at the gym that lift their legs off the ground when they are bench pressing. I have never understood why they would want to disconnect a huge aspect of strength. Power is generated through the ground, your calves, your hip muscles, your erector spinae muscles (the muscle that keep your spine in alignment) and ultimately through your bench press.
- We begin with your toes firmly planted in the ground and heels raised off the ground.
- Then we continue through your calves that are contracted as you push through your toes.
- Now your hamstrings and glute muscles are engaged and helping you press.
- Then we get to your lower back that is a bit arched but make sure your glutes do not come off the bench.
- We finish through your retracted shoulder blades that ensure the weight remains on your chest and not as much on your stability muscles.
- Once you get to the top of the movement, do not lock out your elbows as that detail puts an extreme amount of stress on that joint
- Lower the weight slowly, under control and press it up, powerfully.
- Breathe in as the weight is being lowered, and exhale as you press it up
- Tip: I use my exhalation to keep count. So as I press up and breathe out, I am saying one… two… three… etc. every time I exhale.
SETS AND REP SCHEMES
How many sets and reps you perform during your "chest day" is not as important as how you perform each rep in each set. Once you have mastered the basic movement of the bar being raised off your sternum (the bone in the middle of your chest) and back on the rack, then we can focus on the sets and reps. When you initially begin this journey, most concepts in regards to sets and reps will work. Whether you do high intensity sets with minimal reps or large volume training with dozens of reps, your chest muscles will respond to the stimulus. Here are a few things to consider when you’re structuring your training program. One to three reps will develop power, four to six reps will develop strength, and seven to twelve reps will develop muscle. Obviously, everyone’s physiology and genetic potential is different enough that which rep schemes work will vary from person to person, but this is just to keep it simple. One of my original and favorite training principles I would adhere to when I first started to bench press was the pyramid set and rep scheme:
- 1st set, 15 reps with weight you can comfortably handle
- 2nd set, increase weight slightly and perform 12 reps
- 3rd set, increase weight slightly and perform 10 reps
- 4th set, increase weight slightly and perform 8 reps
- 5th set, increase weight slightly and perform 6 reps
- 6th set, maintain the weight and perform 6 reps
- 7th set, drop the weight back to what you performed 8 reps with and perform 8 reps, again
- 8th set, drop the weight and perform 10 reps
- 9th set, drop the weight and perform 12 reps
- 10th and last set, drop the weight and take your muscle to failure and perform 15 reps
- rest 1 minute (or as much time as you feel you need.) in between sets to allow your muscles and lungs to recover for better performance
- total amount of reps: 102
The amount of weight you use and how much weight you increase in each set will depend on how strong you initially are and how strong you are getting every week. The reason I really liked this method is because it allowed me to warm up properly with high reps, master the movement with the amount of reps and sets, and go heavy enough to really stimulate my chest to grow and my bench press amount to increase.
Proper nutrition is essential for a strong bench press and overall muscle growth to the body. Show me a person who can lift a gazillion pounds but has no muscle development showing and I will show you someone who has bad nutrition. After all, why put all of this hard work in the gym but sacrifice nutrition. Your pre workout meal cannot be underestimated. For the last 10 years, my pre workout meal has not varied much from just simple, instant, microwavable oatmeal. I eat 1 to 3 packets of oatmeal an hour before I train. Oatmeal gives my muscles the fuel I need to sustain long and tough training sessions. Several times I have supplemented my complex carbohydrates so I would have less clean up or if I had nowhere to prepare my meal. 30 minutes later, I drink my pre-workout drink and head to the gym. During my training I sip on an intra workout supplement so I can train harder and longer. Once I am done training I drink a whey isolate protein on my way home. Train hard, replenish well, rest, and repeat. It's that simple leading up to your workouts.
WEIGHT LIFTERS 2-3 YEARS
Now, if you have been training for over a year, results may have slowed down from your first year. In the first year, you may have seen a dramatic increase in your bench press and now suddenly you may have stalled at a particular weight you cannot get passed. It might even seem like the initial goal you set is taking longer than you expected to reach. I encourage you to reevaluate how you are performing the bench press. Is your form impeccable? Are you engaging the kinetic chain? Are you fueling yourself with the proper nutrition? If there is any doubt, go back and master the basic movement. Don’t worry about your strength or the size of your chest. You will eventually have both: an impressive bench and chest development that will garner the question, “How much do you bench?”
So, let’s say you are a master at the bench press and everything we have discussed is in order. Let’s consider some other movements and techniques you can use to build a chest and have an impressive bench press number.
Performing drop sets is a really good way to maximize your chest muscles output of energy. If you design a training program in which you perform 4 sets of 10 but you can really perform 12 reps per set, you have left 8 reps out on the table. With a drop set you take your chest muscles to failure.
- Warm up with an easy set of 15 reps, full range of motion. The bar touches your sternum and is raised up right before you lock out your elbows.
- On the first working set, instead of putting on a 45 lbs plate, put on a 35 lbs plate with a 10 lbs plate and a 5 lbs plate. Total weight: 155 lbs
- Perform 6 reps with the 155 lbs
- Drop the 5 lbs plate and perform 8 reps with 145 lbs on the bar
- Then drop the 10 lbs plate and perform as many as you physically can with the 35 lbs plate
- Perform 4 sets of that, and you will be sore and you will break plateaus.
- These are just simple numbers so you can get the idea. Make the weight relative to your strength.
This is another technique you can incorporate to ensure you get stronger and more chest development. The idea behind this is to combine two movements to confuse your muscles. Your muscles will be very good at adapting to whatever it is you do with them consistently. Adaptation is the destroyer of results. We need to confuse our muscles and give them a reason to develop.
- Combine bench press with push ups
- Combine bench press with bar dips
- Combine bench press with incline push ups
- Combine bench press with bench dips
- Combine bench press with triceps extensions
All of these combinations will cause your chest to become exhausted during the bench press movement and cause your chest to adapt to higher amounts of stimulation. So when you go back to just bench pressing by itself, you will be stronger because your muscles will expect the other stimulus that is no longer there.
By the second year you will probably be hitting the chest muscles from multiple angles such as incline bench press, dumbbell bench press, incline dumbbell bench press, hammer strength machine presses, machine flies, cable flies, and dumbbell flies. Regardless if you are targeting all of these angles and movements, it is not about doing the exercises but how you are doing them. Keep in mind the shoulder blades must be retracted, and your shoulder blades should not round as you finish the movement. Here is an example of to incorporate these movements:
- Bench press (Drop sets)
Warm up set of 15
Drop set of 6 reps, 8 reps, and 10 reps x 3 sets
- Incline bench press
1 warm up set of 15 reps
3 sets of 10 reps
- Hammer strength flat bench press
3 sets of 10 reps
- Hammer strength incline bench press
3 sets of 10 reps
- Machine Pec Dec flies
3 sets of 10 reps
Notice how I only drop set the movement that we are targeting to improve. That is because we have a specific goal, and that is to confidently answer the question, “How much do you bench?” not ‘how much do you hammer strength press’ or ‘how much do you fly?’. We must get better at bench pressing and in order to do that, we must practice bench pressing and use other techniques, such as incline bench press, to enhance that priority. If you want to incorporate super sets rather than drop sets, just substitute the drop sets with a super set combination. Alternate the movements every week or every few weeks. One last thing; the order of the exercises is also something to notate. I perform my priority movement in the beginning of the session, while I am fresh and strong. As the exercises progress, the muscles become fatigued and so I designate machines so I do not sacrifice form. The last exercise on the list is an isolation movement to finish the session. In my first four years, I performed all compound movements first, before isolation movements.
Whether you are in your first year of training or you have been training for ten years, your mindset is vital. How you approach every training session is crucial for improvement. If you do not believe you can get to an impressive bench press number, you never will. Do not doubt the result; fall in love with the process. Be patient, unwavering, and stubborn with the belief that you will get there. The idea behind the question, “How much do you bench?” is simple. How strong are you compared to me? It might also mean you look strong, how can I get there? Regardless of the intention behind the question, understand that everyone started somewhere. Everyone who can bench press an impressive amount, first had to master light weight.
Once you inevitably become the person being asked, “How much do you bench?" remember you were once the person asking that question. Before you get to that level, master the basics and results are inevitable.