Struggling with the Bench Press

Struggling with the Bench Press

I have been inundated with questions about the bench press so here are some tips/tricks that I’ve written over the past decade.

The popularity of the bench press needs no introduction – it’s the Prom King, captain of the football team and is banging the hottest cheerleader. Besides questions on assistance work, the bench press and how to increase it is the top question I get asked. But anytime I give advice to someone they respond with a host of reasons why it won’t work for them. So let’s present some of the best ways to increase your bench press, the excuses and then responses to the excuses.

1. Gain Weight/Put on some muscle – by far the best, most effective and easiest way to increase your bench press. You put on weight and some muscle, you put weight on the bar. Works like a Viagra/Cialis speedball.

  • Excuse:  “I’m already fat and I need to lose weight.”
  • Answer:  If your goal is to lose weight, then you should focus on that. The focus should not be on increasing your bench press. You can’t serve two masters, at least not for very long.  This is how stupid people act; they say one thing and do another.
  • Excuse:  “I can’t gain weight! (insert multitude of excuses here)
  • Answer:  You simply need to eat more or stop doing 10 rounds of burpees supersetted with power cleans for 30 minutes. If you aren’t gaining weight it’s simply because you aren’t willing to do what it takes. Like my coach Dino Babers always said, “Don’t tell me about the pain, just deliver the baby.”

2. Get Stronger Shoulders – this is especially true if you are a raw bench presser and need strength from the bottom. The Press is perfect for strengthening the shoulders.

  • Excuse:  “I can’t do Presses because it hurts my shoulder.”
  • Answer: There are a number solutions to this. First, get your shoulder problems worked out. Second, bomb your shoulders with different raises and make it a priority. Third, if your shoulders can handle lighter Presses, do the Press/lateral/rear lateral giant set I detailed many times. Works perfect.  Also, if you can vote and can't knock out 50 push-ups and 35 dips, let's address the fat elephant in the room (you) and start with some basic body weight strength.

3. Be Patient – besides the Press no exercise takes more time to increase than the Bench Press. This is especially true when you consider this is the exercise that most people have done the longest and most consistent.

  • Excuse:  “It’s been X amount of months and my bench has gone nowhere!”
  • Answer:  You need to learn to program better. You have to learn how to use sub-max training and some heavier singles in your training while still allowing for good and bad days. This is exactly what the 5/3/1 program and Leaders/Anchors are used. Having a simple program that allows you to figure out what really works is essential. Scrapping everything is the worst idea you can do – then you’ll never know which new thing actually works. So have a good “base” program and make sure it is flexible enough to add/subtract things to without losing the identity of the program. I have had a long and difficult relationship with the bench press.  I’ve had to fight for every pound that I’ve gotten. But sub max lifting, with some heavier singles, shoulder work and patience has made all the difference in the world to me. It took me 7 years to increase my bench from 300-400. It took me 4 months to go from 400 to 455. And I owe all of that to eating more, shoulder work and being smarter in my program.

Geared Bench vs. Raw Bench

There are the obvious ones, such as the bar touching lower when wearing a bench shirt (way lower!) and the slower rate of descent with a shirt (unless you believe in the myth of tempo training). There are a few other things that I think people tend to overlook:
  • Raw bench = Upper back; Shirt bench = Lats. Please understand that both the lats and upper back are used in both benches, but because of where the bar starts and is lowered, the lats and upper back are emphasized differently in each lift.
With a shirt bench, the bar begins far out over the chest/stomach area. The lats need to be held very tight to keep the bar path strong and correct. With a raw bench, the bar is lowered much higher, thus the upper back is taking much of the weight. That’s why raw benching is cooler – it gives you a good excuse to do a ton of upper back and trap work.
  • Grip width. In general, benching with a shirt allows a wider grip (legal maximum width) to be used without any danger of injury. When benching sans shirt, the grip should come in to ensure shoulder and pectoral health.
  • Strength curve. When benching with a shirt, you need a VERY strong lockout as the bench shirt changes the strength curve of the lift. With a raw bench, you need to be very strong off the chest and in the middle portion of the lift. Now don’t get me wrong – both lifters need both portions to be strong, but there’s a big difference when the strength curve is changed.

When in doubt, just get really, really strong. It tends to cure most problems in training – and life.

More Advice for the Bench Press

For most people, myself included, the answer for most lifting and training problems is to do more. While this often works, it’s not always a sure solution. For example, if I’m getting ready to have a big week pressing, I’ll take a week or two OFF from any kind of pressing accessory movements. This allows my chest and shoulders some time to recover and not stress them. This doesn’t mean I don’t press or bench press; it means that my accessory work is usually a lot of lat and upper back work. So with this example in mind, understand that the best solution is not always to do more. It might be best to back off a bit and let your body recover instead. This might mean to lower the training max of your program, or keep the same training max and only do the prescribed reps. But since 1% of you will never do this and will choose the more volume route, here are two suggestions:

• Perform the bench press sets as written, then repeat the first set again (FSL), but go all out on this set, too.

• Perform the bench press sets as written, and repeat the percentages on the way down. For example, on the 3×5 week you would do 65% x5, 75% x5, 85% x5+, 75% x5, and 65% x 5+. I assume most of you are doing chins and pull-ups between all your pressing sets. Be sure to continue to do this with these extra pressing sets to keep everything in balance.

Bench Grip and Width

I made the switch to a closer grip bench press (not necessarily a "close grip bench press") and have had no problems. It’s better to bench a few pounds less over 20 years than bench big once and have the rest of your life limited to dumbbells, machines, or nothing at all. Most people who do wide grip benching and switch to a closer press will have an initial drop off in strength. But over time, you’ll build it back up. And I think this is a small price to pay for a lifetime of healthy bench pressing (and any pressing). There are a select few people who can press wide for a long period of time (without a bench shirt) but these people are a rare breed. It’s best to learn from those that have come before you and have suffered shoulder injuries. And don’t forget, a bad shoulder will limit your squatting, too. Bottom line: stick with the closer grip.

 Board Presses

While pin presses have their place in certain programming instances, the majority of power lifters [not necessarily bodybuilders] have found a bigger carryover to their bench press with the good old-fashioned board press. The pin press is really good at allowing you to lift a tremendous amount of weight — on the pin press. It doesn’t necessarily transfer to the actual full range bench press. So it’s a good ego boost but not much else. Board pressing is a good assistance exercise for longer limbed lifters and shirted benchers. Just be wary that you don’t turn into a good board presser and a shitty bench presser. These people make great gains on partial lifts week after week, month after month, only to try a full range bench press on competition day and fail miserably. This is also seen on box squats and rack pulls. Partial reps can help people, but don’t center your entire program around doing half reps. You’ll only get half results.

Assistance Work for the Bench Press

Let me start off by saying that the two most important things to improve your bench press are: Proper programming and gaining weight/muscle. Although I’m a bit biased when it comes to programming just make sure you have a goal and a well thought out (and well mapped out) plan.

Now with the gaining weight/getting bigger issue — do not tell me about some mythical lifter in an imaginary gym in North Dakota who benches 450 while weighing 135lbs or something ridiculous. Even if this super-stud is anything more than a figment of your imagination, never use the exception to prove the rule.  I can also imagine that the small but painfully vocal segment of 155-pound readers are rolling their sunken eyes because they’re afraid of losing their precious four-packs. To all the calorie-phobes out there, here’s a relevant (I promise) story for you: strength coach Will Heffernan was recently challenged to bench press 180 kilos.  For my fellow Americans, this is close to 400lbs. Six weeks prior, Will had benched 350lbs. During the six weeks leading up to his 400lbs. attempt, Will trained his bench only two to three times, but simply ATE his way to achieve a bigger bench press. Obviously, Will reached his goal (or I’d have been lying about the whole relevant story thing) but he is clearly not alone. If you want to get stronger, especially in the upper body lifts, you’re going to have to gain some weight and gain some muscle.  THIS TAKES TIME.

Remember what your primary goal is. Your goal is that you want to increase your bench press. You can’t then go and put a bunch of limitations on your goal, or you’ll simply end up sabotaging yourself. Psychologically, you’re just making it much easier to not reach your goal and have a great excuse already in place to fall back on. Simply put, you’re afraid of success and want to fail. So if you want to man up and increase your bench, eat more, put some muscle on your bones, be patient and train smart.

Now as far as assistance lifts are concerned, you have to look at the bench press and see what muscles are involved in making you stronger. Primary muscles would be the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Secondary muscles would be the lats, upper back, and biceps. Now since I’m a big fan of training efficiency, I always try to pick exercises that provide a lot of bang-for-the-buck.

Dips — Weighted and non-weighted. I have a raging man-crush on this exercise and feel like it is one of the better exercises I’ve ever done for my upper body. Also, I get an absolutely obnoxious pump when doing it, so it’s great to use before you go out on Friday night.

Dumbbell Bench Press (and incline/standing) — not much to say about this one except PLEASE use a full range of motion with this. That’s why you’re using dumbbells.

Press — I think this is so important that I use it as a core lift in my own training (and the 5/3/1 program). Strong shoulders are paramount for a strong raw bench press. I always do them standing with NO WIDER than a “thumbs width from smooth” grip.These are done to the front of the face.

Bradford Press — Begin by un-racking a barbell much like you would during a press. Press the barbell so that it’s a couple inches over your head. At this point, lower the barbell behind your head. It should now resemble a behind the neck press. Press back up so that the bar is a couple inches over your head, and bring the bar back to the front military press position. This would constitute one rep. By not locking out the weight, you’re putting the stress on your shoulders and keeping it off your triceps. This is best used for high reps (8-15).

Weighted Pushups — You can do these while using Blast Straps, pushup handles, or just by placing your hands on the ground. Weighted pushups can be done a variety of ways: chains across the back/neck, bands in the hands/across the back, plates loaded on the back, or using a weighted vest (or a combination of the above). One of the more popular variations of the weighted push-up looks something like this:

Perform three pushups with your body weight. Stay in the top push-up up position while your training partner loads two chains (zig-zag) across your shoulders and back. Perform three more pushups, hold the position again and add two more chains. Keep adding pairs of chains until you can’t complete the reps. At this point, have your training partner take off two chains and continue doing three reps until you finish with your body weight.

Now for your upper back and lats, you have to understand the difference between raw benching and shirt benching. When you bench with a bench shirt, the bar is brought out to you farther and the bar touches much lower. When using a shirt you must have strong (and big) lats first, and upper back second. This is because the bar is more “in the lats” than upper back when using equipment. Now with raw benching, you must have a very strong, stable and large upper back. This is because the bar will touch higher and you should be using a narrower grip — you must be “riding” high on your upper back for optimal support and strength. You don’t want to flatten out. While face pulls and rear raises are good exercises, their limited loading potential makes them more akin to rehab and structural integrity. For my sake, please don’t be that guy trying to max out on the face pull or perform rear delt raises with the 80lb bells, complete with super bent arms and huge momentum. Please, just don’t. For benching, I’ve found the rowing variations for building the upper back to be optimal. While I love pull-ups and chin-ups (I always do these, no matter what) it’s rowing for your bench that will make a big difference. The key is to row HIGH to your body, with your elbows slightly out. Don’t row to your stomach. I recommend using the bent over row, dumbbell row, and the T-bar (thong) row.

For biceps — Do barbell curls. Nothing revolutionary here.. To sum up — Get stupid strong up front, and big and stabile in rear.

Stalling on the Bench Press

The first thing I’ll tell you to do is to relax and take a step back. How are your other lifts doing? If your other lifts were going well, then I wouldn’t worry too much about it. 75% of your training is kicking ass; don’t get too caught up in one lift. Everything goes in phases. When my pull is doing well, my press might be suffering. Here are some simple tips:

Back off your training max. I’ve realized that some lifts need to be reset way more than others, even if I can get the requisite reps + a lot more. My deadlift is one of them. Higher reps make my deadlift go up, so I don’t need to train much heavier than 600lbs to pull over 700. IMPERATIVE you begin each PROGRAM with the proper training max.

Make a commitment to getting strong shoulders. In other words, treat your standing press the same as you would any other major lift.

Back off or increase assistance work for your upper body — what and how you change is up to you and what you are currently doing. 

Do some curls (yes, curls) if you’ve never done them before. This is a little secret that few people know about. Use a straight bar. Do 5 sets of 10 reps, once a week.

Last but not least, you’re probably too small. Stop typing. Eat. Train. Get bigger.


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