7 Tips for a Bigger Bench

Just my luck. Bench press and squats, the two most popular exercises worldwide, have always been my two weakest lifts, while deadlifts, chin-ups, and hip thrusts come naturally to me. I’ve pulled 620lbs, hip thrusted 815lbs, and done 16 chin-ups (while weighing 230lbs). Even within the presses category, at a bodyweight of 235lbs, I’ve strict military pressed 225lbs for 2, incline pressed 310lbs, and weighted dipped 135lbs for 10, but flat bench has always been my nemesis.

When I first started tinkering around with weights at the age of 12, most of my friends could bench press the bar for 10 reps and max out at around 95lbs. I couldn’t even practice because the bar stapled me to the bench; I couldn’t lift 45lbs for a single rep. My friends were in awe of how weak I was. It was quite embarrassing, to say the least. It took me 7 years of regular bench pressing to finally hit 225lbs (4 plates) – I was 22 years old when this finally happened. And up until last year, 315lbs (6 plates) was still difficult in training.

For purposes of comparison, I’ve trained a couple of high school kids who could bench 405lbs. I’ve always looked at guys in the gym who could bench 365lbs (3 plates and a 25 per side) in admiration. Never did I think I could one day get there. But finally, after almost 26 years of lifting, it looks like I’ll finally achieve that goal of hitting a 365lb bench pretty soon. Yesterday, my bench workout consisted of 315 x 4 reps and 335 lbs for 2 reps – see the video below.

I’ve worked very hard to boost my bench over the past year and have tried some different techniques that I’d like to share with you. This past year, which marks my 25th year of lifting weights, has been my best year for bench gains. Here’s how I did it.

1. Gaining weight

Bench press seems to be highly correlated with bodyweight. The quickest way to boost your bench is to put on 10lbs on your frame. No, you won’t be gaining relative strength, but your 1RM will definitely increase. I’m topping the scales at 245lbs these days, which is 10lbs heavier than I weighed last year. It’s not all muscle, of course, but bench press gains go hand in hand with food intake. And since bodyweight is highly related to bench press strength, it’s the hardest lift to maintain in strength as you diet down. Gaining weight may not be an option for many of you, but sometimes it’s fun to have an “off-season” where you focus on strength instead of physique.

2. Increased training frequency

While I was in Norway last year presenting with my colleague Eric Helms at the AFPT conference, I couldn’t help but notice that he had packed on around 15lbs of muscle and had gotten stronger at all lifts, particularly his bench press (see point #1). When I asked him what he’d been doing differently, he mentioned decreased stress from finishing his master’s thesis, but also increased training frequency. While previously he’d been benching 3 times a week, he’d bumped it up to 5 times per week. I myself have experimented with benching 3 times per week with great success in the past, but I was always overzealous in my training, so I had to abandon it due to nagging injuries. This time around, I decided to hit bench 3 times a week while making necessary adjustments to allow for this increased frequency, which brings me to my next point.

3. Specificity

My past programs have always involved a lot of pressing variety. I love doing incline, overhead pressing, dips, push-ups, dumbbells, and even close grip and floor press. While I believe this is a sound strategy for pure hypertrophy goals, strength goals need to be more targeted. Over the past several months, I’ve barely incorporated any of these variations into my training and have stuck almost exclusively to horizontal barbell bench pressing. Incline and dips and even dumbbell work get me sore in various places, which ends up preventing me from making meaningful strength gains on bench, which is the lift I’m trying to improve. I can include them just fine in my training when I’m not benching 3X/wk, but it’s too much if I do 3-4 sets of bench and then 2-3 sets of dumbbell incline and then try to bench two days later. If you want a big bench, get used to going heavy and doing a lot of singles, doubles, and triples.

4. Auto regulation

In the past, when I wrote programs, I would try to stick to them to a T. I saw that as a badge of manliness. Even if my shoulders or elbows were hurting, I’d perform the required number of sets and reps to get the job done. For this reason, I couldn’t stick to thrice-weekly benching. This time around, I made intelligent adjustments, which allowed me to keep the goal the goal. If my shoulders were hurting or if my triceps were in pain or if I just felt beat up or worn down in general, I would either skip benching (which I rarely did), perform just one or two heavy work sets, or play around with variety (see point #6). In the past, I employed a DUP approach, where I’d do 4 sets of 6 reps on Monday, 4 sets of 4 reps on Wednesdays, and 4 sets of 2 reps on Fridays, but I quickly learned that I couldn’t handle 4 sets of bench 3 times per week. Moreover, I’ve found that the strict programming isn’t necessary for strength gains as you can gain strength just fine by training by feel and choosing the set and rep schemes on the fly. Some days I’d do 3 sets with 275lbs and note the total reps I accomplished. Some days I’d do a set with 275lbs, a set with 295lbs, and a set of 315lbs for max reps. Some days I’d just do 3 heavy singles. Some days I’d just do 2 working sets. Some days I’d throw in a back-off set at the end and rep out.

5. Prioritization

The lift you perform first in the week and first in the training session will see the most results. I like training full body, and I’ve always prioritized lower body training by squatting, deadlifting, or hip thrusting first in the training session. Benching first in the session made me feel like a bro. However, being a bro is what I needed to take my bench to the next level. Therefore, for the past few months, almost every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday workouts started with the bench press.

6. Appropriate variety

This seemingly conflicts with points #2, but appropriate variety can be helpful. I needed to stop pressing from all the different angles in order to take my horizontal pressing strength to the next level. Specificity is king when striving for strength gains. This means doing the lift exactly how you would in competition with the same grip, effort, loads, tempo, and technique. However, I could not have made the gains I made without intelligent utilization of variety. Throughout the past couple of months, if my shoulders were sore, I would take my grip in a few inches closer on either side, or I’d go a bit lighter and pause extra long at the chest, or I’d go really light (usually 225lbs) and do a 6-second lowering phase (eccentrics are awesome and highly underrated), or I would use chains. I’ve never regularly used chains in my bench press training, but now I’m a huge advocate. Chains are weak point training, acceleration training, and technique training wrapped into one.

Chain Bench: the chains weigh almost 90lbs. There’s probably 30lbs unloaded at the bottom of the lift compared to the top. If I do a triple with 245lbs, it’s actually 305lbs at the bottom and 335lbs at the top of the movement. This builds lockout strength and acceleration out of the hole, but it also improves technique since it naturally lends itself to a more arced bar path.

7. Technique

Most of us lifters learn to bench like bodybuilders with elbows flared and a flat back. This is good for building the pecs, but it leaves room on the table if bench press strength is the primary goal. Some lifters can make the transition to benching with elbows more tucked rather quickly, but for me, the transition has been very gradual and has taken years. It finally feels natural for me to keep my arms at around a 45-degree angle relative to the torso and to lower the bar lower onto the chest. I’ve always wanted to bench with mostly pecs, but now I feel my front delts and triceps taking on a fairly even load. Ironically, I feel that variety has helped my technique just as much as specificity. As I previously mentioned in point #6, chains lend themselves well to lowering the bar lower and creating an arced bar path. Many of my colleagues prefer using the Slingshot, but I’ve tried both and prefer chains. I use 4 chains per side so that the top is approximately 30lbs heavier than the bottom of the lift. Pause reps, close grip bench, and eccentric-accentuated bench have helped as well. Here’s a quick refresher on good bench technique:

Wrapping Up

If you’re looking to boost your bench, give these 7 tips a try and incorporate them into your training. Make sure you tailor everything to you as the individual as your program is different than mine and your needs are unique.

Here is a sample week of my bench press training.

Monday
2-4 sets of 3-5 reps

Wednesday
2-4 sets of 1-5 reps (usually chains, pause, close grip, or eccentric-accentuated)

Friday
2-4 sets of 1-3 reps*

*Every once in a while, I throw in a back-off set for 10-20 reps at the end.

6 Comments

  • Solid tips. I just finished running a version of Bulgarian for Powerlifting and was able to add 10 pounds to my bench while dropping my bodyweight about 5 pounds. Doesn’t sound like much but I had been stuck around 260 lbs for years. On the program I was benching 4-6 times a week (point 2 and 3) and worked up to a comfortable max everyday (4).

    I have never had any success benching with my elbows tucked. Perhaps I never practiced it enough but I notice not all powerlifters bench like this. Arguably the best raw bench presser Jennifer Thompson keeps her elbows rather flared. https://barbend.com/jennifer-thompson-bench-press/

    • Yep, I’m quite familiar with Jennifer as I used her to justify why I never tucked much LOL. So I agree and form is necessarily related to things like individual size and attachment points of the involved musculature. Not everyone should tuck. However, I always wanted to feel natural just going to a 45 degree elbow flare relative to the torso, and now I finally do. I don’t externally rotate (elbows in) like some, and I don’t tuck as much as many, but at least I’m not tempted to flare every time I max. Trust me, I realize the difficulty in adding 10 lbs to your bench while dropping 5 lbs after being stuck for years. My bench stalled for like 6 years straight in my late twenties to early thirties. Nice job!

  • Carlos says:

    Bret,

    What do you of this method of progressive overload I just thought of.

    You’d take a certain rep max and you’d work on that weight till you hit your rep max goal.

    For example: Say on the Squat your current 3 rep max is 300 pounds. And you’d like 300 pounds to be your 10 rep max.

    So each training session you’d try to do amrap with the 300 pounds and never change the amount of sets. In this case, let’s say 3.

    First session: 3×3 with 300 pounds.
    Second session 3×5 with 300 pounds.
    Etc.

    Until you hit the 10 rep max. I think what’s cool about it is as you get stronger and your reps increase you shift from mechanical tension over to metabolic stress.

    Since the sets stay the same your volume actually increases as the weights get lighter. What do you think?

    • Carlos says:

      Or, do you think it’d be better to shoot for a total rep range, like 30 reps.

      Get your 3 rm(300) then do as many sets as possible until you hit 30 reps. 10×3.

      Then to progress you’d try to hit those 30 reps in less sets, until you can do 3×10 on your previous 10×3 weight.

      Although, i don’t know if leaving the volume the same would be good. I don’t think it’d will.

      It’d be sort of like reverse periodization where you work with high intensity decent volume then as you get stronger it gets easier.

      Seems bad. Thoughts?

  • Ron says:

    I was particularly interested in this article as I read recently that an EMG study showed that benching was much less chest and much more shoulders and triceps than you’d expect. The author concluded that dumbell presses and flyes were good if you wanted to increase your chest size a bit overrated if strength was your main goal (I’m sort of paraphrasing here and not trying to put any exact words into anybody’s mouth) and this seemed odd to me.

    My bench is right around the 1.5x bodyweight right now and has always been at it’s best when I do dumbell bench presses for my accessory lift. It keeps my shoulders from getting cranky and shifts more of the weight to where I thought it belonged when I barbell press. In the early stages of my lifting, it was the same thing with squats. If I ever hit a plateau, I’d switch to the dreaded lunges and focusing more on my butt would kick me out of it.

    I viewed the interpretation of the EMG results as a sign of a problem and not a hint as to the proper way to train the bench. I was most curious to see if dumbell bench press was a part of workout and sure enough, it’s not.

    Looks like my quest for the truth in this sea of information continues……

  • Danny says:

    Bret, for the sample 3 day benching program you left at the end of the post, 1) what kind of intensity are you using? It seems like It may be appropriate to use the “easy strength” approach, but I’m curious what you use. 2) is bench the only press you use on those days, or did you omit assistance exercises you’d use?
    Thanks.

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