A common question rampantly asked by gym goers throughout the world is “How much can you bench?” This basic chest pressing exercise has taken on a life of its own in determining a weekend warrior’s lifting prowess. While I find this benching culture somewhat presumptuous as I feel that squatting, deadlifting, or even overhead pressing, is a better representation of determining one’s overall strength. But the bench press is simply to fun and hardwired into our psyche to ignore, and being one of the better upper body muscle builders we have maybe we shouldn't.
So how can one advance ones numbers in the bench press? That is a question many wonder after their beginner gains begin to stall as they reach a more intermediate lifting status. The bench press is usually the first of the major lifts to stall after you have begun doing them regularly. Your chest, triceps, and delts are smaller muscle groups than a persons legs and posterior chain(Hamstrings, Glutes, Back) and in being smaller muscles also makes them weaker.
Yet it is not impossible to progress the bench press you just need to know how. Let me take you on a journey explaining the ins and outs of the lift and breaking you through your plateau and guide you to a land of bystanders admiring your new-found benching status.
Build that Arch: Proper Benching Form
If you are reading this chances are you have trained with weights before. And if you have trained with weights before you have probably heard from people to never bench press because it will always lead to injury. Yet if you are looking at people benching in most commercial gyms that advice would probably stand true. Majority of the lifting population don’t know how to bench period, but I can’t necessarily blame them because the amount of disinformation and uninformed opinions in the basic gym culture is staggering. Flat back, elbows flared, feet dangling in the air, no wonder people think benching is a dangerous activity that type of form will tear a pec or blow out a rotator cuff.
When learning proper bench press form, people tend to take advice from the people they shouldn’t. Novice or beginner lifters tend to gravitate towards the guys or girls that they see in the magazines or supplement ads when it comes to exercise and movement theory, but they shouldn’t. Bodybuilders and fitness competitors are generally terrible sources of information because most can't comprehend the amounts of performance enhancement drugs used to garner those physiques. If you want to learn how to bench big and avoid injury (as much as possible) why not take advice from the people who actually do that for real competition.
Powerlifters have perfected the art of benching and have the numbers to prove it. But watching a powerlifter bench looks completely alien to the average lifter, do you know why? Because proper benching form is a rare thing to see. We’re accustomed and taught to “bench like a bodybuilder” as I mentioned in the beginning of this section instead of the safer and more productive style of benching done by the sport of powerlifting. We adhere to the notion that benching is just a great way to build a chest instead of a functional determination of upper body strength.
So what does proper bench press technique entail? Let’s take a look at the picture above for some clarification. Benching big is simply an efficient use of leverage, it’s a fact that something can push more resistance when it has a shorter ways to go. The further you need to push the barbell away from your chest the less amount of weight you can use. In powerlifting there is a rule that a competitors' butt cannot leave the bench at any time during the lift, so in compensation they found a way to keep your butt on the bench while lowering range of motion by developing the technique known as a back arch.
This technique does two things in terms of benching more weight more safely. As said earlier the technique lowers the ROM (range of motion) but also puts the body in a safer and more suitable position for pressing a weight off the chest. Body mechanics for optimal benching should have an individual ascending the weight at an angle instead of a vertical plane. pressing at an angle puts the resistance in the right target areas instead of pressing at a 90 degree angle that puts unneeded pressure on the anterior deltoids and pectorals increasing the likelihood of rotator cuff issues or torn pectorals.
Bench Press Form Checklist:
.Feet pushed as far back as possible to develop the arch
.Scapula (Shoulder blades) retracted against the bench throughout the entire lift
.Hands clenched around bar at least shoulder width apart
.Keep wrists and forearms parallel
.Inhale on the eccentric(descent) exhale on the concentric(ascend)
The bench press is the hardest power lift technique to perform and will take time to get it down. Doing this technique will also take flexibility and recommend someone to begin foam rolling and doing some mobility work to get their body up to par as quickly as possible. But after learning to approach the lift with proper form you will find that your numbers should begin to increase as well as lowering the chances of missing time due to an injury that could’ve been avoided.
Bench Multiple Times Per Week
You can never get good at something without doing something a lot and it’s no different with benching. If you listen to reputable and experienced lifters most will recommend that you bench press or do a bench press variation at least twice a week. Saying this, I’m not suggesting that you go full force every time you bench, that will lead to stagnation, burnout, and possible injury. But benching heavy one day, and light the other will not hurt your progress at all. Instead you’re developing stronger motor pathways to the movement developing strength.
Accessory Work: Building Triceps and Rear Delts
After understanding the basics of the lift and movement its time to build around it. Even though benching alone will be adequate for progression in most novice lifters there will come a time that the bench press alone will stall. Now is the time to add what we like to call accessory work. Accessory work's used to strengthen and build the muscles that are not direct target muscles of the lift or for the advanced lifter, finding their weak point in a lift and targeting those muscles that are causing the hindrance.
But for the people reading this article don’t have to worry about the weak part of their lift as your entire body is weak from a lifting perspective. But that doesn’t mean that accessory work is worthless it is still a great way to build your body and increase your bench, but what muscles should I target? Lets take a look at the muscles affected by benching. The bench incorporates the pecs, anterior delts, triceps, rear delts, and the lats. If you are on a proper weight lifting program your chest, delts, and lats should already be hit by basic compound movements like pull ups, and overhead presses. But if they aren’t add those lifts to your program add them to your program immediately. Your chest is already stimulated enough by benching so that leaves two muscles to target; triceps and rear delts.
The triceps and rear delts help during the concentric part of the lift as well as locking out at the top which is the weak point in most people's bench press. Targeting these muscles with direct work will only help becoming a big bencher unless it begins to take time and effort away from your direct bench work. I would suggest hitting the triceps directly twice a week and rear delts once. For triceps I suggest dips, close grip bench press, 3-board press, and rope extensions. For rear delts use rear delt flyes, machine rear delt flyes, and face pulls.
Lift Progressively Heavy
You can’t get a big bench without lifting heavy simple done end of discussion. But that doesn’t mean you should lift stupid, heavy is relative, what is heavy for one person might be light for another. Lifting within your means is of most importance not lifting your ego. If you want to increase your strength lift within 80-95% of your one-rep maximum (1RM) and continue adding weight every workout, we call this progressive overload. For the first year of lifting this will prove completely efficient with the goals you are trying to meet. But eventually this will become too much for your body to handle as you plateau at a weight that is hard to handle. This is entirely normal for a natural lifter and is part of everyone's iron journey.
After plateauing with progressive overload, it is time to being periodizing your workouts. This means that you work with certain percentages of your benching max and base an entire cycle of lifting (generally a month) for a small increase in weight (5-10 lbs). While the progress sounds slow especially after you use to increase 5 lbs every week or two, but if you are consistent you can increase your bench at least 60 lbs in a year. That’s quite a bit for most people and something you are proud of, there’s no quick fixes to benching a lot of weight, (except using anabolic substances) it takes hard work and consistency but if you do that head turning bench press will come.