By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked the question, “How much do you bench?” I would probably be looking into island real estate next to Sir Richard Branson. Whether you pray to the Bench Press Gods pre-workout—or think it’s the most overrated exercise in the gym, you can’t deny the fact that this movement is easily considered a standard expression of vigor across the wellness space. A big bench press is a surefire way to add power, strength, and size to your chest, making the decision to go shirtless on the beach this summer a no-brainer.
So how do you improve your bench? In short: by doing more than bench pressing all the time. Here are 3 tips to help you avoid a plateau in your bench, keep your shoulders healthy, and take your numbers to new heights.
If you want to move bigger weight on the bench, then you need to stop thinking of the movement as strictly a chest/shoulders/triceps exercise and consider the importance of a strong upper back. Your back creates a solid foundation or launching pad from which your bench press will thrive, so if you are lacking in strength or stability in this department, your numbers will suffer as a result. A strong back is essential to maintaining tension throughout the movement, and to keep your shoulders healthy over the long haul. Throwing in pulling exercises such as barbell rows, pull-ups, dumbbell rows, and dumbbell pullovers will help tremendously with building the upper back muscles that are essential for posture, but a fun addition I have added to my training has been upper back isometric exercises. When programming them with my athletes, I have noticed big strength gains in the bench, more stability in the path of the bar, and less problems with shoulders. One exercise I love to perform is the face pull isometric hold.
Perform this movement by hooking a band at upper chest height on a sturdy anchor point. Keep the elbows up (above the shoulders), and as you pull the band toward your face, pull the band apart so that you increase the distance between your hands. While squeezing your shoulder blades together, hold the position at the end of the movement for 3-5 seconds. Perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps. My favorite bands to use are the ones from WOD FItters.
2) Develop Your Triceps
The triceps don’t get enough love and recognition when it comes to the bench press, or any pressing movement for that matter, but they are so integral. If the chest and shoulders are the game openers, the triceps are the closers. They allow you to complete your bench press by locking out your elbows at the top of the movement. In other words, weak triceps are PR nightmares. When it comes to strengthening the triceps I love utilizing weighted variations of of traditional body weight movements such as close grip pushups and dips. One of my favorite weighted vests is the one from RUNmax, which you can get here.
3) Treat It As A Total Body Exercise
I mentioned the importance of paying attention to muscles beyond the holy bench trinity above, but I really can’t stress this enough! When it comes to improving your bench, you need to think of the movement as a total body exercise. More tension present throughout your body leads to less leaks in the energy system which leads to you pressing heavier weight. When benching there should be 5 points of contact. Focus on driving both feet powerfully into the floor, clenching your glutes as hard as you can, squeezing your shoulder blades together, and keeping your head planted on the bench—all while ripping the bar in half. Get tight from the toes all the way through the torso and you will find more mastery over the bar.